Drawing With Brush and Ink


 by Russell Stutler 
I have always known that brush and ink is superior to any other sketching tool I have. Nothing can compare with those wet ink lines coming from a brush.

No pencil underdrawings are needed with this style of sketching. You'll notice many of the lines are not even connected. They don't need to be connected with this style. Ink and brush has changed my style, and I am able to draw faster with more expressive lines. And the results are surprisingly accurate compared with my other sketch tools. I don't know why, but brush and ink seems to have made me a better artist.

Hokusai used to call himself "Gakyo Jin" which means person who is crazy about drawing. Like every other artist in Japan at the time he drew with brush and sumi ink. I think the thrill of brush and ink drawing contributes to this excitement for drawing. I know it does for me. I'm amazed at what comes out of the tip of my brush!

The figure on the left is a sleeping sumo wrestler or rikishi in Japanese (I live in Tokyo). I am usually able to sketch people without being noticed by the subject but I realized another rikishi was standing nearby, watching my every move. The drawing of the girl in the center was done most recently, and was done with a bamboo brush full charged with sumi ink from my yatate for bold expressive lines. It makes a world of difference. The drawing below that of the guy with long hair and glasses was also done with a fully charged brush.

I use either a brush pen or a yatate that contains a bamboo brush and sumi. Brush and ink has the potential to do things no other tool can do. Brushes can go from a very fat line to a hairline. Literally a hairline because the very tip on a decent drawing brush is ONE HAIR! So the lines themselves can come alive.

Hokusai stated that his goal was to produce art where every dot and stroke was alive by the time he was one hundred and ten years old (he lived to be eighty nine). This emphasis on the beauty of line was foremost in the minds of Japanese artists back when the brush was the only drawing tool around.

Outside of traditional Sumi paintings, I see very little line variation these days when most ink sketches are done with "Micron" type pens or technical pens, and the emphasis is on the over all effect rather than the individual strokes. I'm not criticizing these tools or this style -- I enjoy using them myself sometimes. It's just too bad we don't see more of the old "organic" style where the individual strokes have width variation.

In the west, just about the only place you can find contemporary drawings rendered with ink and brush is in comic books. There's a lot of great expressive line variation in comic art. (For those interested in learning this style, I've added a great book on comic book inking to my recommended book list).

Flexible nib dip pens and some fountain pens can also get great expressive strokes. The only drawback is that they leave a bead of ink sitting on the surface of the paper that takes longer to dry, and can actually start to feather and bleed on some papers. Also, you are pretty much limited to getting thick lines on down strokes only. These are minor liabilities, and I love to draw with a flexible pen almost as much as a brush.

Interestingly, despite the rich Japanese history of brush drawing and writing, Japanese manga are usually drawn with dip pens instead of brushes, reflecting the influence of western artists who came to Japan and drew comics by pen for local magazines in the 19th century.

Of course, one reason you don't see more brush and ink drawing in the west is that it is far more difficult to master. The main problem is there is no tactile feedback as there is with a pencil or pen. If you take your eyes off the paper to look at the subject, there is a good chance your brush will go down or up, making either a fat line or no line at all.

Most books that touch on brush drawing -- or comic book inking -- tell you to support your drawing hand on one finger (they differ as to which finger it should be). This will allow you to control the thickness of the line.

Supporting your hand on the index finger gives you the most accurate line, but it's hard to get line variation (try it, and you'll see what I'm talking about). Supporting your hand on the little finger gives the most expression but least control.

I support my hand on both the ring finger and little finger, curving them in, and resting the hand lightly on the finger nails or first joint or somewhere near there. When I need tight control such as a straight line, then I switch to the middle finger.

Many Sumi-e artists actually float their hand in the air with no support at all and have great success.

Try to keep the brush perpendicular or nearly perpendicular to the paper to have the most freedom to draw in any direction.

The best way to get the hang of it is to force yourself to draw only with a brush or brush pen for several months (try writing with it, too). You'll turn out lots of disappointing stuff but you'll start to improve. It may take a couple of years before the brush consistently does what you want it to, but I think it's worth the struggle (just don't show anyone your "struggle" drawings!)

I have a favorite yatate as well as Kuretake brush pens. In the brush pens I use Platinum carbon ink cartridges, or an ink converter filled with Platinum carbon ink.

Recently I've been using a second brush pen with an ink converter filled with Private Reserve Gray Flannel ink. It's perfect for quick shading in gray tones. I used it in two of the sketches in this section.

The two sketches of standing women were done at the same subway platform on different Sunday mornings. The sketch of the girl in the hat was done while riding the subway. In all three cases I had only a minute or so to finish the sketch before the train arrived or stopped. Pencil under-drawings would have been impossible.

This article was taken from two artices which appear in the Sketchbook of Russell Stutler which were combined and edited.