Ink Drawing Techniques for Plein Air

Ink Drawing Techniques for Plein Air


Try these five pen and ink drawing techniques to make portable, quick-drying drawings on location, even if you only have 20 minutes!

By Debby Cotter Kaspari

Four O’Clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) (Rotring Tikky graphic pen on smooth white bond paper, 6×6); drawn in approximately 35 minutes.

Pen and ink is enjoying a revival these days, and drawing with pens in the field has never been easier. Whether you’re an urban sketcher or a nature artist, ink works well en plein air because it’s portable, quick-drying, and doesn’t require setup and tear-down. There are excellent new tools out there for pen-and-ink artists to explore. If you like playing with positive and negative space, pen and ink might become your favorite medium. Here are five ways to explore this dynamic media in the field.


Pick Your Pens and Papers

Practice these basic line and shading techniques — crosshatching, stippling, dots and dashes —  to add variety and mastery to your pen strokes.

Technical and felt-tip pens, as well as ink brushes, work well for plein air drawing. (Note: Air travel can cause some technical pens to leak, so stow them empty and refill them after you’ve reached your destination.) Rotring Tikky Graphic disposable pens are my favorites for crisp lines and smooth drawing, and they don’t clog or require cleaning. Excellent felt-tip pens are manufactured these days with artists in mind.

Very rough papers can wear out felt tips and clog technical pens, so look for smooth papers with little or no tooth. Stillman & Birn’s Zeta Series and Moleskine sketchbooks work great with pens. If you’re combining watercolor with ink, try working on multimedia papers.


1. Experiment With Line, Shading, and Texture Basics

If you haven’t tried pen and ink drawing techniques, get acquainted with the medium by drawing a page or two featuring variations in line, hatching and stippling. Play with strong contrasts and delicate shadings. Practice building up crosshatched and stippled gradations — techniques that can give volume to shapes or produce handsome backgrounds.

In Lamb’s Ear, above, stippling makes a finer gradation than crosshatching. It also creates a fuzzy texture, especially if the outlines are stippled. Michelangelo Sculptures, above center, took about 90 minutes to draw. Sculptures offer great figure drawing opportunities, but be aware that some museums have “no pen” policies. The jungle scene in Panama is shaded using everything from dots to cross-hatching to solid blacks and parallel lines. The sunny trail in the midground offers the eye a break from the detail.


2. Connect the Dots

Canna Flower (Rotring Tikky Graphic 2.0 technical pen on smooth white paper, 12×9) drawn in approximately one hour.

Ink can’t be erased, which can be a benefit as well as a bane. For that reason, start drawing lightly, making dashes and dots before launching into continuous lines. This gives leeway to change direction or correct errors, and by placing tick marks at major boundary points, you’ve given yourself a subtle road map around your picture.

In Step 1 of Canna Flower, above, dots and dashes tack down the boundaries. They keep options open if I need to change or add elements. I also use them as connection points. A broken outline can also suggest light falling along an edge. Step 2 shows how I keep the shading fairly linear at the start, following the form, and I often outline shadow areas. These interior outlines can function as “turning” shadows on rounded shapes. Finally, in Step 3, I continue the shading with some crosshatching and then add black to the deepest recesses for depth.


3. Draw Just the Outlines

Ink drawing techniques can pack a visual punch so substantial that its lines can outweigh those of a pencil. That power lends itself to a minimalist approach that can still project a sense of space and form. To try this, draw just the outlines of a scene or object, leaving out detail or shading and giving the lines plenty of breathing room. Allow white space for the eye to leap across.

Scrawled outlines suggest texture on mossy branches in Bromeliads in Costa Rica, above left; overlapped leaves create volume as well as a variety of shapes. In Heliconia Patch in Panama, the drawing of heliconia plants becomes an overall decorative pattern that’s still identifiable as tropical habitat.


4. Make Light Look Brighter

The sharp contrast of black alongside white gives the illusion of brightness. Ink amplifies light’s brilliance when you surround it with deep, deep darks. To make the backlit leaves glow in Turk’s Cap, a 20-minute sketch, I blackened around the Turk’s Cap, using a heavy Sharpie. For a more gradated fill around the Four O’Clocks flowers, I crosshatched the background, using a fine-point technical pen.


5. Achieve a Sense of Place

Panamanian Jungle (Rapidograph on white bond paper, 11×8-1⁄2; drawn over a period of three days

Ink drawing techniques on location call for immersion in place, which is the great attaction of working en plein air. The medium requires drawing thoughtfully and leisurely, expanding that immersion. As a bonus, it can produce indelible memories for the artist.

Tropical forests are imposing green walls that are difficult to photograph, draw or paint. After many attempts to draw while in the rain forest, I turned to pen and ink’s dramatic contrast capabilities to sort out the chaos. For Panamanian Jungle, above, I began drawing in the foreground and worked my way back, which enabled foreground elements to overlap the rest of the scene. Darker tree trunks filled in at the back give compositional structure and make the light vegetation pop. Ink’s excellent coverage came into play when I wanted to draw across sections; solidly inked leaves and vines could be added on the fly.

Another favorite memory of place: In 1981, I opened my sketchbook at the edge of the Grand Canyon. After a while, I realized that the rock formations, composed of stacked layers of sediment, could be drawn entirely with horizontal lines. After almost 40 years, I still have vivid memories of this view — not just because I’d drawn it, but because the landscape revealed how it could be expressed through the medium of pen and ink.


About the Artist

DEBBY COTTER KASPARI is an artist, writer and naturalist who sketches and paints birds from life. Her field drawings have been shown in the Museum of American Bird Art, and her paintings have been exhibited in the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum’s “Birds in Art” show. Kaspari created artwork in the Middle East with the conservation organization Artists for Nature, and has collaborated with biologists around the world. Learn more and see more of her work at her website drawingthemotmot.com.

A version of this article first appeared in Artists Magazine.


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