Cover blog imagine for three pen and ink exercises that help improve technique

No undo. Are you nervous?

Assert your pen and ink skills by practicing these three simple exercises.

Drawing traditionally with pen and ink…

There’s no back button so what about mistakes?

I’ve taken my share of pen and ink tutorials in the past where in an attempt to ease my apprehension instructors insisted that “happy accidents” were part of the process, an easy fix.

Is that so? How often have you successfully saved your project by adding marks or whiteout? Others might not spot your mess-ups but you can. You know.

Committing ink to paper can be nerve-racking for beginners. It was for me when I started, especially drawing with a dip pen or with a brush. Even with the inking experience I’ve gained I still get anxious moments.

What helped build confidence in my strokes was to practice the basics. A lot.

How to improve pen & ink technique

In this article we’ll look at the three key exercises that leveled up my skills, using fundamental stroke techniques essential for pen and ink line drawings.

Cover image of three exercise for improving pen and ink technique

Purpose of the exercises for pen and ink

To get the most from your practice sessions, it’s important to know what the exercises do and why. Through a better understanding of the art fundamentals particular to pen and ink, you will gain more power over your own learning. Not only will you build skills to create more fulfilling line drawings, you will also:

  • acquire the knowledge to critique your own work in a productive way;  
  • be able to gauge your progress against commonly established standards; and
  • know which terminology to use to customize your searches when looking for learning resources specific to your needs.

Pen and ink fundamentals

Fundamentals are the basic principles of art.

Tool handling and mark-making techniques become extra important for pen and ink because the artwork is made of lines. Marks and lines are used to create an image that visually communicates a story, a message, a scene, an emotion, or a moment in time.

Values chart for pen and ink and brass snake holder for dip pens

Have you ever heard the expression “this piece reads well” from an instructor or a pro inker? It means that the line work is effective in creating the illusion of:

  1. Depth
  2. Form
  3. Shape
  4. Texture
  5. Space
  6. Dimension

Coppertist.wu brass snake pen holder

And bonus points if the artwork also tells a story and provokes an emotional response.

A solid concept with careful composition of the elements is the first step. Though it is through the use of light and dark tones, grading the tones and shadows by use of contrast and effective shading techniques that the effects are accomplished with marks.

Wondering what pens to use? Visit my Tools page to see mine.

The top 10 art fundamentals for pen and ink are:

  1. Lines, strokes, and brushwork
  2. Shape (contour, outline)
  3. Value (tone, contrast, lighting, shading, edging…)
  4. Form (volume)
  5. Textures (organic, material, elements…)
  6. Perspective (depth, position)
  7. Composition
  8. Proportions (dimension, space)
  9. Anatomy (human, animal, structural…) 
  10. Visual storytelling

Check out my Pinterest Board for more pen and ink fundamentals and ideas for exercises on values, shading, patterns, textures, and more.

Fundamentals of pen and ink last

If you are already grounded in a knowledge of drawing, then it’s just a matter of handling pen and ink tools such as:

Variety of pens for pen & ink drawing
  • technical pens
  • dip pens
  • fountain pens
  • brushes
  • brush pens
  • fine point ruling pens
  • markers
  • ballpoint pens
  • etc.

Marks and lines are used to create an image that visually communicates a story, a message, a scene, an emotion, or a moment in time.

Being able to consistently draw straight and curved lines is a great starting point.

Let’s put this into practice.

Exercise 01 – Tone

The first exercise is a values chart. You’ve likely seen or done one of these value-scale charts before. Values charts are useful because they are a straightforward representation of tone in their full spectrum from white to black.

For most line drawings, tone – also known as shading is achieved by making marks. Once you’ve created a values chart that you are happy with, you can use it:

  • as a reference to gauge your range of “greys” when you are creating a piece
  • as a record of your progress – you can compare previous charts against today’s and so forth
Pen and ink exercise consisting of gradual tones

You can create a scale of 0 to 5 from white to black.

I start with thin spaced-out lines, aiming for even spacing between each mark. Then I reduce the spacing between the lines while gradually thickening the weight of the lines. Bringing the lines closer together until we have 100% solid black.

You can increase the weight of the line by:

  • using a thicker-weight pen
  • adding pressure on the pen

The objective of the exercise is to aim for a smooth gradation. This is what creates tonal value.

Repeat the same process with slightly longer lines, incorporating some broken lines for the lighter tones. Using longer lines serves to test hand control.

Switch tools. Try various sizes of dip pens, brushes, or markers.

You can see that my strokes are far from perfect, simply aiming for improvement each time.

Values exercise for pen and ink with basic hatching

Next, is ‘up and down’ cross-hatching. It looks like little squares. Again, shrinking the spacing and spreading the thickness to build tone. I like to practice making strokes freehand, however, there’s nothing wrong with using a ruler as a guideline if you prefer. Keep in mind that the sooner you can draw straight lines freehand, the quicker to mastery.

To change the direction of the lines, some artists will modify the direction of their strokes by changing the trajectory of their hand movements. I prefer to rotate the paper rather than my movement. This way I can create marks in the angle I’m most comfortable in, which is to pull the pen towards me.

In some instances, like for faster, more dynamic lines, I’ll push the strokes with speed, away from the body.  

Watch the companion video.

Exercise 02 – Form

For this practice, the same principles of mark-making apply except now our strokes follow a form. The objective of this exercise is to create the illusion of volume using different mark-making techniques on shapes:

  • squares
  • cylinders
  • circles
  • ovals

A shape is flat. A form is a shape with volume. The contour is the outline that defines it.

Shape Vs Form

The most common mark-making techniques are:

  • hatching
  • cross-hatching
  • curved cross-hatching
  • cross contour hatching
  • stippling
  • scribbling
  • irregular lines
Fundamentals of pen and ink exercise creating textures

Again, practice fading these marks from light to dark or black to white depending on the direction of the light source.

Exercise 03 – Texture

Now we’re ready to advance to level three: creating tone and volume on shapes with textures.

To personalize this practice, start by making a list or table. In one column write down subjects that you currently enjoy or would like to draw. In the second column, describe the textures that apply to each of those subjects.

SubjectsTextures and patterns
Humans/charactershair, skin, skeletons, muscles, clothing, armour
Landscapesgrass, rocks, flowers, trees, lakes, waves
Atmospheric/weatherflames, clouds, wind, sunrays, rain, snow
Animalfur, scales, horns, claws, feathers
Urbanwood paneling, bricks, glass windows, drapery

I’m most inspired when drawing birds, characters, and nature. For this exercise, if we take a bird as the subject then the main texture categories would be:

  • feathers
  • scales for the talons
  • shiny smooth for the beak and claws

And from that list, I customize my textures’ chart to be as specific as possible for my project.

Fundamentals of pen and ink chart of textures for drawing a bird

🎨 Visit my FAQ page to see the full list of tools, materials, and supplies I use in my studio.

How often and how long?

By consistently practicing the above three basic exercises, I have progressively built confidence in my strokes. Gone is that fear of the “no undo” commitment to laying ink to paper.

The key is consistency. I do a complete values chart at least once monthly. And before beginning a new project, I will first warm up for 15-20 minutes by doing line work and textures on shapes before inking my final drawing.

Best of luck with your practice. I wish you all the best in your art journey.

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