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Using Watercolor With Pen And Ink Sketching Techniques To Create Beautiful Artwork

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One of the most rewarding hobbies ever - Pen & Ink sketching. Well, it started as a hobby, but by the time I had finished my first few drawings, I was hooked. Not only that, but after I offered to teach a few friends the technique, it quickly became my second "job".

Creating beautiful, frame-able art is not as difficult as many think. Having taught pen & ink sketching and watercolor techniques for many years has shown me that any student, given the right tools and instruction, can create beautiful pictures that will truly astonish them.

Creating the pen & ink base for the final artwork takes some time and concentration, but the right tools make the end results so much better.

Road to the Sea by Elle Fredine

Road to the Sea by Elle Fredine

Start With the Right Paper

I usually start with watercolor paper. Any good quality 300lb. cold press sheet will do. Arches makes a decent product, but even a leaf from a relatively inexpensive pad of watercolor paper will be of sufficient quality to begin with.

Hot press has a very slick surface. The cold press paper has a great "tooth" and "grabs" the pen nib. This quality adds an interesting texture to the finished picture.

Graphite paper and tracing paper are also required. I have adopted the tracing and transfer technique used by most tole painting instructors. This method of tracing the basic outline onto plain paper and then transferring the image to the watercolor sheet using the graphite paper saves the student both time and effort. Rather than have the student try to reproduce the image free-hand, the student has the option of choosing from many basic "patterns", while the instructor is able to concentrate on teaching painting, and pen & ink techniques, rather than laboring over getting the basic image down correctly.

It never ceases to amaze my classes how different each finished work will be even though each student start with the same "set of bones" as the underpinning for their work.

Several Types of Paper

Arches Watercolor Paper

Arches Watercolor Paper

Pads Of Paper

Pads Of Paper

Less Expensive, But Good Quality

Less Expensive, But Good Quality

Pens and Techniques

Good pens are an absolute must, but here again, expense need not be the issue. I have had students obtain equally good results with drafting pens, non-refillable sketch pens, and a simple crow quill dip-pen. The dip pens can be difficult to control because of their tendency to blot, but they can't be beaten for the beautifully fine lines they produce.

The only caveat, of course, is that waterproof ink is used. The inexpensive, non-refillable pens I use and recommend to my students are located in the scrap-booking section of most craft stores, and contain waterproof ink.

Also, check the bottled ink products that are available to ensure the bottled ink is waterproof. It would be a shame to lose all those hours of work, should your ink run when you apply the watercolor.



  1. Trace the original sketch as you would for a tole-painting subject. Once you have completed the tracing, compare it to the original, and make any adjustments
  2. Transfer the image to the watercolor paper using a medium to medium-soft graphite pencil. Too hard a pencil may puncture or tear the tracing paper. Check the transferred image is complete - no missing lines or areas.
  3. Once the image has been transferred, the careful work begins of building up the composition. A large image can take many hours to complete, and is usually accomplished over several classes.
  4. Use a gentle, almost flicking stroke that releases the pressure of the nib towards the end of the stroke. This gives a feathered look to each stroke. If you try to maintain an even pressure through to the end of the stroke, it will result in a heavy, solid line with little lightness or texture.
  5. Build the image up in layers, holding the pen almost straight up and down, rather than in a writing position. This will give more even weight or pressure to the pen strokes, and turning the nib decreases uneven wear.
  6. Build up the image in successive layers of strokes to achieve the final gradation from light to dark.
  7. Once the pen & ink drawing is completed, let it dry completely. If the sketch is completely dry, there is less chance the ink will run, and often, if the watercolor washes are kept light, there is no problem with the ink running, but better safe than sorry.

I offer each student the option of adding watercolor, or retaining the drawing in its original black and white. Often, students will complete two sketches during class, one to keep in black and white, and one to use as a base for the watercolor.

Tips and Tricks

  1. One of the tricks I teach my students is too try to hold the pen almost straight up and down, and turn the nib often, using short strokes, and a gentle flicking motion.
  2. It's easy to get focused on a particular area, for example, the eyes. We think that because they are dark in the finished drawing, we need to concentrate on them. I encourage my students to work on the whole drawing at once, rather than concentrate on one area. The image should be built up in layers. More layers = darker parts in the image. Otherwise, you may end up with certain areas far too dark for the overall picture.
  3. The students always have the completed sketch to refer to, but each element is covered separately. We will often use another scrap piece of watercolor paper to practice each element on before attempting it on the working drawing.
  4. One common mistake is to try and achieve a dark area by pressing too hard or concentrating on that area. The best result is always obtained by building up the dark areas with layers of texture, rather than heavier strokes. This will also prevent an area from looking overworked or having too much contrast.
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Paints and Brushes

Any student quality watercolors can be used, from simple and inexpensive pan sets, to the vastly more expensive tubes. The quality of the color and the mediums is far superior in the tubes, but some of the colors in the more expensive pan sets are quite "yummy" and make mixing colors unecessary - a plus for some beginners.

Good quality brushes can range from a few dollars per brush to over fifty or sixty dollars for a single brush. I encourage my students to buy the best brushes they can for the amount they are willing to spend.

Any decent brush will carry the water and pigment to the paper. The added cost comes from durability, better materials, and brand names. It is easy to be swept in in our enthusiasm for a new hobby, or to believe you must buy a particular brand to achieve good results. That simply is not true.

To illustrate that point, I often bring a package of brushes to class and give one to each student to use. At the end of the class I ask how they liked the brush. They are always surprised to find out the whole package cost 97 cents.

While I do not recommend using cheap equipment on a regular basis, you have to balance the cost of any tool against what you will use it for, and how much use you will get out of it. I have a set of Kolinsky Red Sables that I dearly love, but they require special care. I use them often, but you will never catch me dipping one of them into the masking medium!

I remember being quite annoyed at one drawing prof who would never suggest which brush to use for any given task except to use a large, flat brush for washes. Aside from that, he would only ever say we must pick the tool that makes the mark we wish to make - frustrating words for a beginner to hear.

His point, of course, was that we experiment with various sizes and shapes of brushes to find out what kinds of marks and brush strokes we could make with them. We dutifully experimented with every tool we could lay hands on.

I am sure that nowadays, with the interest in painting and painting classes, there must be a special brush for almost any brush stroke you could ever dream of making.

For the class I taught, though, the only brushes required were a 1/2 inch flat for small area washes, and two or three fine tipped round brushes for adding detail tints in very confined areas.

Each Brush has a Different Purpose

Each Brush has a Different Purpose

Each brush can make a wide variety of marks...

Each brush can make a wide variety of marks...

Basic Watercolor Set

Basic Watercolor Set

Set With Cakes and Tubes of Color

Set With Cakes and Tubes of Color

The Final Steps

Once the inking of the drawing is complete, we are ready to add the final touches - the watercolor washes that would bring the finished sketch to life.

You Will Need:

  1. Your finished, completely dry sketch
  2. Q-tips
  3. Paper towel
  4. A container of clean water for painting
  5. A second container of water for rinsing our brush between colors
  6. A plain white china plate or water color palette


  1. Dip your brush in the watercolor paint and mix the desired shade for the sky, grass, or whichever area you are starting with.
  2. Add the wash to your sketch, building up the color a layer at a time, using the original picture as a guide.
  3. You may need to let the sketch dry between layers of wash so the paper doesn't become overworked and start to break down. You can also use a hair dryer to speed things along, but take care the concentrated heat can cause your paper to curl irretrievably.

The trick is to always have a Q-tip or paper towel ready to lift out a wash that is too saturated, or intense. As the weight of any area depends more on the darkness or intensity of the pen work, it is only necessary to add bare tints of color to bring out the best in the drawing. Sometimes several layers of tinting are required to achieve the desired tone, but generally a light hand is needed to keep from overpowering the sketch.

The lighthouse, shown below, is one such hand-tinted Pen & Ink drawing.

Road to The Sea, Tinted Version

Road to The Sea, Tinted Version

A few more of my Pen & Ink sketches

Guardian Angel

Guardian Angel

Winter Visitor

Winter Visitor

Tyger, tyger, burning bright...

Tyger, tyger, burning bright...

Vase of Sunflowers

Vase of Sunflowers



RedElf (author) from Canada on March 25, 2018:

Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting - always lovely to meet another art lover.

monicaray143 on March 23, 2018:

I am Art Lover. Thanks for sharing such a nice and Helpful article

RedElf (author) from Canada on February 22, 2014:

I have always loved pen and ink work, and watercolors, so this seemed a good way to combine the two.

Nicole Quaste from Philadelphia, PA on January 08, 2014:

This is SO helpful, especially the materials tips. I have always been into just sketching, but I am trying to branch out, and I am very new to this, so I will be saving this hub for future reference. Thank you so much! :)

RedElf (author) from Canada on June 20, 2013:

Always great fun (and great learning) to use new/different techniques. Glad you stopped by to read and stayed to comment, Daffodil Sky

Helen Lush from Cardiff, Wales, UK on April 17, 2013:

A really good comprehensive hub! It's interesting to read about other artist's techniques - I most often use watercolour with pencil. Voted up, interesting and following!

RedElf (author) from Canada on July 28, 2012:

There are many different techniques, albertboudin - hope you have fun trying out these ones!

albertboudin from China on May 28, 2012:

Thank you for sharing, this is really helpful. I had also learned some watercolor, seems a little bit different from what you said, will try your ways, anyway, thank you.

RedElf (author) from Canada on May 21, 2012:

carlarmes, I loved pen and ink from the first time I gave it a try. Thanks so much!

carlarmes from Bournemouth, England on May 21, 2012:

Pen and ink is one of my favorite art media. Like your pictures by the way, very nice.

RedElf (author) from Canada on May 13, 2012:

That's marvelous - I hope you have continued with your art.

kwrichards on May 04, 2012:

When I was in school, I won a city wide art contest for a picture I had done.It was done in pastels of wild ducks in flight I recived the first prize of twenty five dollars and a blue ribbon.

RedElf (author) from Canada on April 05, 2012:

Thanks so much, awordlover. I love pen and ink because it's such a forgiving medium - almost anyone can produce beautiful work with a little effort.

awordlover on April 05, 2012:

Beautiful pen and ink sketches! Great links to other hubs. I'm bookmarking and following you so I can come back and read more. TYVM

RedElf (author) from Canada on October 16, 2011:

You're such a talented artist, Wayne, I am sure you'll have no trouble at all achieving something wonderful. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Wayne Tully from Hull City United Kingdom on October 16, 2011:

Pen and ink is such a great medium and adding watercolors was always something that I was afraid to do as I might have messed it up, but with a bit of planning and being careful with the paint it seems together with your advice and my basic drawing skills I can get some great results out of this technique.

Cheers now!

RedElf (author) from Canada on September 20, 2011:

I couldn't think of any better advice to give than what you have just stated, MW. It's such great fun to see someone relax, and start to enjoy creating art!

MobyWho from Burlington VT on September 17, 2011:

Great Hub! Always happy to see someone take their first stroke. Art is all subjective - there's no such thing as a bad piece of work. I used to teach k-3 boys; lots of fun, especially when they'd let their imaginations go wild. Later, I taught novice "golden agers" - so scared, until I told them it wasn't life-threatening. Let yourself go; edit later (sparingly).

RedElf (author) from Canada on June 11, 2011:

Thanks so much for stopping by to comment, mchawkins53

Moniqua from Southern Maryland on June 10, 2011:

Very nice post! :)

RedElf (author) from Canada on June 01, 2011:

Ayaan, so pleased you were able to pick up the technique so quickly :D

Ayaan on May 31, 2011:

Really Easy to follow

thanks I have completely learnt the ink painting technique thanks

RedElf (author) from Canada on March 20, 2011:

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, toknowinfo! I am so glad this article encouraged you to explore your creativity!

toknowinfo on March 19, 2011:

This is a beautiful hub and you are inspiring me to tap into the artist side of me. Your artistic talent makes it look so easy. Thanks for the great explanations and well set up article. I will try it for the fun of it. Rated up and useful.

RedElf (author) from Canada on March 19, 2011:

Thanks so much for stopping by to read and comment, chrystolite - I am so pleased you liked the article.

Emma from Houston TX on March 19, 2011:

Fantastic work.Keep it up.Am so much in love with this piece of article because it is quite creative,so natural and brainy piece of work.

RedElf (author) from Canada on January 19, 2011:

Thanks so much - nice to meet you, vahix! Good luck - love to see it sometime.

vahix from USA on January 19, 2011:

Great Hub! Look forward to my first attempt at pen/ink/watercolor.

RedElf (author) from Canada on December 08, 2010:

You are most welcome, KLiechester - so glad you enjoyed the hub.

KLeichester on December 07, 2010:

You caught my fancy. Thanks for posting this!

RedElf (author) from Canada on November 09, 2010:

deezin, the size of the brush totally depends on the size of the sketch I'm working on. Generally I use a 1" to 2" flat brush for large areas of washes, and a #1 round with a fine point for the detail work.

deezin on November 09, 2010:

You are wonderful. What brand of brush and what size do you use for the sketches...before you get into detail?

RedElf (author) from Canada on August 22, 2010:

That's wonderful, Char M!~ So glad your creative juices flowing again ;) !

Char M from Pacific Coast on August 21, 2010:

I loved reading this. Getting me inspired to return to my artsy side, mostly with my grand daughter, but it's fun.

RedElf (author) from Canada on August 18, 2010:

Thanks, MarianG - Watercolors are a wonderfully expressive medium ;)

MarianG on August 18, 2010:

Very inspirational!

RedElf (author) from Canada on June 16, 2010:

Thanks, myawn. you are most kind to say so.

myawn from Florida on June 16, 2010:

Your artwork is so nice you are so talented Thanks for this hub. I do some sketching but not as talented as you are.

RedElf (author) from Canada on June 15, 2010:

Thanks, MCWebster, and nice to meet you. I hope you share your results with us!

MCWebster on June 15, 2010:

What beautiful work. I love sketching with pen and ink, but never considered adding watercolor for some reason. I am itching to try it out!

Wonderful hub. Thank you for sharing.

RedElf (author) from Canada on May 29, 2010:

Thanks so much, wrenfrost56. I really enjoyed making the sketches, so I'm glad you enjoyed reading the article.

wrenfrost56 from U.K. on May 29, 2010:

Brilliant hub RedElf, very helpful piece and beautiful picture's. :)

RedElf (author) from Canada on January 25, 2010:

Thanks so much! I really enjoy sketching, and need to make more time for it ;)

nadiaazhar from kuwait on January 24, 2010:

another informative hub.i really like your work,it's beautiful.

RedElf (author) from Canada on January 09, 2010:

Thanks so much, RT! I hope you do go back to it - it's such a wonderfully fulfilling creative outlet. Most welcome!

RTalloni on January 09, 2010:

This is great information and your work is beautiful. I hope to benefit from your tips when I can get back to artwork. Thank you!

RedElf (author) from Canada on November 24, 2009:

Thanks so much for your comments, nikki1. I have included them below without your link ;)

nikki1 says:

54 minutes ago

excellent art. Very informative

RedElf (author) from Canada on November 23, 2009:

Thanks so much, Mike. I really appreciate your valuation of my hub. You certainly are most welcome!

Mike Lickteig from Lawrence KS USA on November 23, 2009:

You're clearly quite skilled and you express yourself very concisely, making your instruction outstanding. I enjoy pen and ink but struggle with watercolor, so adding paint to fine lines or washes is still on my wish list. This was a terrific post, thanks for sharing!

RedElf (author) from Canada on September 25, 2009:

Thanks, KevCC - nice to meet you. ME too, but I am finally smartening up and taking a page from Leonardo's book and it works for painting, sketching AND writing- I try now to always have at least one unfinished thing - one still on the go. And now I never finish everything without starting at least one new project.

KevCC on September 25, 2009:

Great hub, good basic information. I used to enjoy pen and ink work, alas the older I get the more terrifying a blank sheet of paper seems to be.

RedElf (author) from Canada on September 24, 2009:

Thank you so much, Kartika. I am so pleased you enjoyed my art work.

kartika damon from Fairfield, Iowa on September 24, 2009:

Really a great hub! Lots of detailed explanation and great images! Thanks, Kartika

RedElf (author) from Canada on July 14, 2009:

Thanks so much C.S. I am so happy to meet you. I look forward to reading your hubs as well.

C.S.Alexis from NW Indiana on July 13, 2009:


This hub is put together wonderfully. It is informative and inviting. Thumbs up to you and a fan from now on I will be. Thanks for the fine share.

RedElf (author) from Canada on July 03, 2009:

Thanks so much, Skinyou. I shall indeed...and the whole point is to enjoy what you are doing, yes?

Skinyou from Pacific Northwest on July 03, 2009:

Very well done...If you get a chance to look at my site, please do so.....I do it for the fun.Like I say in my articles, I should practice or train more on things but I just don't. One of my flaws.....Your stuff is very good.

RedElf (author) from Canada on July 02, 2009:

Always lovely to have you stop by, Enelle. I have seen some of your beautiful watercolors and your own sketches, so your words mean a lot - thanks so very much.

jill - I do hope you will take up your art again. We all make choices and have some made for us. My parents wanted me to be a teacher, and I finally am - just not how they expected. It's a much better life (artist) to pursue in retirement, I think - fewer family and financial pressures, lol. Thanks so much - glad you enjoyed the hub.

jill of alltrades from Philippines on July 02, 2009:

Wow, these are beautiful! When I was younger I used to dream of becoming an artist, a painter. However, my parents discouraged me from taking the artist life. Now that I have retired, I am pursuing this dream but this time in photography.

Anyway, your hub has shown me what I should have learned if went into that direction of art. It makes me want to take up sketching and painting again.

Thank you very much.

Enelle Lamb from Canada's 'California' on July 02, 2009:

Amazing artwork! You are indeed a woman of many talents...will be back to read more!

RedElf (author) from Canada on July 02, 2009:

Nice to meet you, Watch Tower. Love your avatar (id picture) it is quite beautiful - perhaps all the more because you created it yourself. I  love "messing about" with computer imaging as well, but you look to be rather beyond me there, lol. I look forward to reading your hubs.

Watch Tower from New Zealand on July 02, 2009:

this is a most excellent hub. I use to draw and paint in acrylics  All the time, and stopped when I moved into an apartment, as there wasn't really the room. So I took to making  digital composite images, scanned in from my own drawings or made up of  photos,. Some of which I have used as illustrations for my poems. I started a new piece of acyclic on a largeish stretch canvas. Your tips here have, been great and I intend to put them to good use, as I am self taught. My id picture is all digital, made up of layers, image effects. all the curved pieces of it started off as stright lines, and no I cnan't draw a sstright line most of the time to safe my life

RedElf (author) from Canada on July 02, 2009:

Thanks, naz, lovely of you to say so. *raises glass in return, tipping hat with modest but sincere smile*  Mercifully, I don't have to draw many straight lines either, though, lol.

Hi, Gypsy. I sure hope so! It is so relaxing and rewarding.

Yes, Reena. He needs to reconnect with that part of himself - if not now, perhaps soon. Hope this will encourage him.

Thanks, emo. Glad you enjoyed the art and the hub. Actually, it's surprising how artistic we all are given the right encouragement and instruction.

Betsy, you hit that smack on the head (note to emo healer, lol). Patience and practice!

MIJ, you start with a small, simple project, like a card with a single image on it. Transfer the image (you pick one from a book that you like), and start sketching. Go gently and build up the dark parts gradually - and don't think watercolors are beyond you! Just get an inexpensive pan set and a cheap kids' coloring book and start playing. The paper will wrinkle a bit but that's OK. DON'T stay inside the lines - see what you can do! Have fun. You can always pick up a beginners' how-to, but get one that has pictures you like, lol - and again have some fun.

Thanks so much, Hawkesdream. Always a pleasure when you stop by. I guess some teachers never stop teaching, so I am glad to hear you found the info easy to follow.

Hey, ethel. That's my job, LOL! Glad you found it easy to follow. All it take is time and practice...

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on July 02, 2009:

You make it sound sooo easy

Al Hawkes from Cornwall on July 02, 2009:

Amazing hub, plenty of information so anyone can start.

My Inner Jew on July 02, 2009:

They are amazing and beauitful! I love art and love painting! I want to learn how to do pen and ink and water colors...both way beyond my skill level

Betsy Baywatch on July 01, 2009:

Wonderful hub RedElf! I totally agree, drawing is a skill to be learnt, once you are taught the right techniques, just add a little patience and the rest is easy:)

Sioux Ramos from South Carolina on July 01, 2009:

Beautiful art, and great instruction....alas I don't have an artistic bone in my body.

Reena Daruwalla from INDIA on July 01, 2009:

Can't draw to save my life, but I should get my husband started on this again.

Gypsy Willow from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand on July 01, 2009:

Great hub, should get a few people started!

nazishnasim on July 01, 2009:

These are absolutely amazing Elf! When I was a child (well, tis still the case) I couldn't draw a straight line even with a scale *sighs*. Have always admired art and drawings *drinks to yours*

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