How I transformed my pen and ink skills
– from sporadic results to seeing consistent progress in less than a year.
Ten tips to improve pen and ink drawing skills
In this article, we will cover:
I. Learn from the masters
A master artist is someone who is considered to have reached a high level in their art practice. A master study is to observe and reproduce their work in order to learn from their decisions.
Learn from the mistakes and successes of others who are ahead in their art journey.
At first, I found it more inspiring to study artists with esthetics that I wished to emulate in my own work. After a time, I broadened the spectrum of whom to study because I found beneficial nuggets learning from styles different from mine.
The artists you choose to study can range from legends of the past or ink heroes of today.
Below are my current top picks for pen and ink masters to study:
Bernie Wrightson, Franklin Booth, Kentaro Miura, Gustave Doré, Virgil Finlay, Mœbius, Arthur Adams, Joseph Clement Coll, Albrecht Dürer, Charles D. Gibson, Mike Mignola, Grzegorz Rosiński, Will Eisner, Takehiko Inoue, Aaron Horkey, Karl Kopinski, Katsuya Terada, Maurits C. Escher, Barry W. Smith, Sergio Toppi, Shin-ichi Sakamoto, Phillip Harris, Luke Eidenschink and so many more.
📚 Want to know more about Master Studies for pen and ink? Read that article NOW.
II. Prioritize the fundamentals
Pro illustrators and social media creators alike will give similar advice for growing our art skills, which is to prioritize the fundamentals. They say to invest the majority of efforts in practicing the basics before technique.
As soon as I stopped obsessing about “finding my art style” and shifted my energy to improving the fundamentals, my drawing skills progressed. As predicted, a style emerged on its own.
📚 Want practice exercises for pen and ink fundamentals? Read that article NOW.
III. Have a learning plan
To develop my knowledge of the fundamentals, I wondered what courses to take. At first, I took online tutorials that were either related to pen and ink or seemed exciting to me. Progress was sporadic.
It wasn’t until I had a learning plan that things began to change.
Steps to building a learning plan:
- Determine your desired outcomes (goals)
- Assess your current skills & knowledge (critique)
- Establish steps to bridge those gaps (learning activities)
- For example, let’s assess my first raven drawing.
📚 Want to learn more about how to create your own learning plan? Read that article NOW.
Without even needing to compare my artwork to a particular master’s work, we can see the shape of my first raven is flat and the linework is tentative, lacking volume. From that quick self-assessment, I had enough information to build a rough learning plan.
This plan had three steps:
- Cater my learning resources to shape & form
- Practice with targeted exercises
- Apply new knowledge to a pen and ink project
IV. Track your progress
For skills and knowledge development to be consistent, we need a reliable way to track our progress.
What worked well for me:
|Write down the date (day, month, year) on doodles, sketches, drawings, and final artwork||To keep a chronological record, and for factual analysis – were there periods with more/less growth and why? Was growth steady, exponential, or up/down?|
|Limiting subjects to practice at a time – for example, if I practice rendering feathers only over the span of 2-6 weeks||To compare “apples to apples” with one subject|
|Using a timer when I draw||To compare “apples to apples” under similar constraints (compare a 30-minute sketch against another 30-minute sketch)|
|Inviting critique from peers and mentors||Others might see things that you do not and provide insights from a different perspective|
🎨 Visit my FAQ page to see the full list of tools, materials, and supplies I use in my studio.
V. Targeted exercises
My desired outcome, my end goal, was to improve my old raven line drawing.
Earlier, we established that:
- I needed lessons/resources;
- the lessons were to focus on the fundamentals, particularly shape, and form; and
- a reliable way to track my progress would be built-in to my process.
With the end goal in mind, it becomes easier to know which exercises to practice.
For my raven, I practiced:
|Area for improvement||Key fundamental||Target exercise|
|Buildings||Perspective, structure||Horizon lines, vanishing points|
|Characters||Anatomy, proportions||Figure drawing poses, gestures|
I attribute 60% of my linework improvements to being consistent with warmup exercises. This begins with an actual physical warmup of fingers, wrists, shoulders, neck, and eyeballs. Then I follow up with a series of basic exercises such as:
- Spheres, cylinders, boxes
- Straight and curved hatches
- Quick sketches (1 min, 3mins, 5 mins, 10 mins)
- Boxes in space
- Gesture drawings, timed poses
- Shading techniques
VII. Tools and setup
Do you know how to hold your tools to avoid repetitive-use injuries? What about setting up your workspace to reduce fatigue?
As a beginner, I was fond of what is called the tripod grip. The tripod grip builds tension in the hand. It was also limiting the range of movement required to progress with my drawing skills.
After observing pros in action, such as Master Kim Jung Gi, I gradually switched my hold.
I loosened the grip and moved my hand about halfway up the pen. This freed me to access my shoulder and arm for drawing instead of being restricted to my wrist and fingers. There are situations, such as for drawing small details, where the tripod hold remains appropriate. But I no longer experience hand and wrist pain.
The angle of your drawing board can affect your well-being and motivation to practice.
🎨 Feel like shopping for art supplies? Visit my Tools page to see what I use in my studio.
I vary my stance from sit-to-stand throughout the day. I paired my stand-up desk with a tabletop adjustable easel. The easel adjusts from a flat to a mostly vertical angle. This puts my body in a more upright position, less prone to slouching and craning my neck over the drawing board. I placed my table as close to the window as possible to get the most out of natural light. An anti-fatigue floor mat and a swing arm magnifying lamp also made a difference in both comfort and efficiency.
Speaking of efficiency … being efficient as an artist is not an aptitude reserved only for those working in a high-paced industry. Anyone who aims to maximize their time and energy towards an activity that they value can be empowered by being more efficient.
Once you have: (1) clear goals, (2) a learning plan, (3) targeted exercises, (4) means to track your progress, (5) a warmup routine, plus (6) a productive workspace – then incorporating a workflow to sustain your forward momentum is simple to carry out.
A workflow is a sequential process or an effective routine that keeps you organized so that you can focus more on your art and less on disruptive tasks.
Here are four great resources from other artists (linked to their YouTube videos):
How An Artist Avoids Procrastination by Dan Beardshaw
How I Schedule My week As A Small Creative Business by Mimimoo Illustration
Ali Abdaal talks about how he uses Notion, a productivity App, in his Creative Workflow.
‘The Power of Habit’ is a life-altering book if you’ve not read it, WISDOM FOR LIFE made this animated summary.
And once you have a workflow, it gets easier to be consistent.
I committed to drawing 5-6 days a week and I’ve been able to stick to it since October of 2021.
There are days when I only have 15 minutes. I make the most of those minutes by being prepared. No time is wasted searching for ideas of what to draw.
I maintain folders and favourite sites with:
- mood boards
- Pinterest boards
For more drawing prompt ideas, I participate in art challenges.
X. Art challenges
Art challenges are a fantastic, simple way to be part of a like-minded community and for staying accountable. It was thanks to participating in the daily challenge of Inktober in the month of October that I developed habits for staying more consistent.
There is no shortage of art challenges for every day or month of the year to intrigue any genre, plus all of the challenges can be executed with pen and ink (yay!).
Those are the 10 Tips that helped accelerate my pen and ink drawing skills.
I’d love to read your comments and which of the tips you have or will try.