Every once in a while I get asked about how I do my pictures. I use pen, ink and watercolor (sometimes with a little collage thrown in), which is a very traditional technique for children’s books, and is widely used even in our digital age. I spent a long time trying to figure things out, learning a little bit here and a little there. Hopefully this can be a guide for anyone trying to pick it up, so they won’t have to muddle through like I did.
Pen and ink has been used with watercolor for a long long time. Durer was known to use it in the 16th century in studies like the one below.
Some of the earliest picture books used this technique, such as Beatrix Potter’s “Peter Rabbit”.
The materials are very basic, and (relatively) cheap. For the drawing, technically you can use any pen that creates a permanent drawing. However, to get that classic pen line, you need to use a traditional pen nib and inkwell. Here’s a picture of mine, which clearly need a good wash.
Pen nibs are tricky for people at first, but they’re worth the effort. And as I’ll show below, they give a variety of lines that no other pen can do.
There are a million different types of nibs. The difference between them is that some give thicker or thinner lines. Also, some are very flexibility and give a lot of line widths, while others are very stiff and give a simpler line.
Nibs are cheap, so you should buy a few and try them out. After a while, you’ll see which one works best for you.
Of course, that being said, I have my favorite. I HIGHLY recommend the Japanese “G” Pen. It’s strong and durable, and gives a beautiful line. (Other brands like Hunt break or wear out quickly. The G pen lasts months or years.) You can buy the nibs here.
When you get a nib, you’ll need a holder too. Most of these will fit any type of nib, but you should double check that your pen and nib will go together.
After that, you’ll need ink. Again, anything works as long as it’s permanent. For ink, this means “waterproof”. (Not WATER RESISTANT!). There is nothing worse than doing a nice pen drawing and watching the ink smear when you add watercolor to it. My personal choice is Dr. Martin’s Bombay Black India Ink. It’s thick, pure black, and extremely waterproof, and comes in multiple colors. You can find it here.
Watercolor is too big of a topic for this blog post. But just for the record, I use Windsor and Newton tube paints and #5 and #7 Series 7 sable brushes. I use 140 lb. cold press watercolor paper from Arches. It’s pricy, but very helpful. The cold press is textured and gives the pen line some character, and it soaks up water beautifully.
OK, so here we go! I start with a sketch of the picture. It can be rough, but the lines should be dark to show up on the light box.
Before I start inking, I warm up with a few different lines. These are also good exercises when you’re just beginning. The harder you press with the nib, the thicker the line. And you just need to dip the pen slightly into the inkwell. Eventually, this becomes second nature, and you know instantly when you need more ink.
The light box is a wonderful invention. You can also use transfer paper to get your drawing on the watercolor paper, but I think the light box is way easier. Just turn on the box and tape your drawing underneath the watercolor paper, and you’re all set to start inking.
Remember this is NOT just tracing! You need to add character and life to the drawing through the line. To watch a movie tirade about this issue, click here.
The pen technique is up to you. The options are almost limitless. I generally use a lot of thick-to-thin lines, plus some crosshatching. But you should experiment to see what types of lines you like best.
Here’s what the finished ink drawing looks like.
OK, now that that’s done, it’s time to watercolor. There are a ton of fun things to do with watercolor, including washes, glazing, dry brush, wet-in-wet. The best tutorials I’ve seen are in Claudia Nice’s book. Watercolor is tricky at first, but don’t get frustrated! Once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. And best of all, it’s super-quick.
I dropped in some basic colors to get to this version. One thing to remember is that you don’t need a lot of watercolor paints to create a lot of colors. In this picture I used just three paints – a red, blue, and yellow. When you’re learning, it’s good to start with fewer paints (or maybe even just one!) to get the hang of mixing paint and using water.
Just for fun, I added the background in wet-in-wet. That means that you put in one color, then add the next color before the first one dries. This can be scary, since you can’t control things entirely. But the effect can be spontaneous and exciting.
…And there’s the final! Ta-da!
One thing to remember is that the pen drawing should compliment the watercolor and vice versa. Generally, this means that if you have a complicated pen drawing, your watercolor work should be simpler. Conversely, if your watercolor is very detailed, you shouldn’t overdue the pen work. However, you have to find the right balance for yourself. It’s all to taste.
There are thousands of children book illustrators who use this technique, but here are examples from a few of the masters.
Maurice Sendak was know for his detailed cross-hatching. Notice how flat and simple his watercolors are to compensate.
On the other hand, Peter Reynolds uses a relatively simple line, and lets his watercolor be more expressive and free.
And finally, Mercer Mayer (my personal favorite) combines the two, with a delightfully scratchy line plus exquisite watercolors.
There you are. I hope this was helpful. Remember to have fun with it!
If you’re curious, there are more examples of my work here.