Fascinating but dreaded, the inking phase of the lettering process is much more than just cherry on cake: it’s how you end hours and hours of hard work finding the perfect lines by sealing them forever and giving them their final aspect. Pretty intimidating, right?
Indeed, the art of drawing beautiful, smooth and clear lines with ink is daunting. It requires a lot of practice of course, but you also need to be aware of a handful of rules that will make you ten times better at it as soon as you apply them.
Let’s be clear right away: unless you’re already a master at it, you won’t do good inking if you’re not in a peaceful and quiet environment. Take it from someone who does lettering on her commute and tried inking there once or twice (and failed miserably). Precise inking requires you to be focused, relaxed and that nobody disturbs you.
What you want to avoid at all costs is to be interrupted. Once you’re focused, you need to keep going until you’re done. Put your phone on airplane mode, put your computer on screen-saver mode, ask the people who live with you not to disturb you for at least an hour. It’s even better if you have a room where you can isolate yourself, but you need to make sure that nobody will knock on the door.
Deactivate your doorbell if you can. I know it sounds a bit radical but you never know if someone will come up unannounced. The sudden ring of a doorbell will inevitably startle you if you’re deeply focused. It would be a shame to ruin a perfect inking. If you’re expecting someone or waiting for a delivery, postpone your inking session. The important thing is that you need to be in a quiet environment, with no disturbance and no distractions. It’s getting harder and harder not to be sollicited by anything for a long period of time nowadays, so you need to prepare yourself a little.
Put yourself at ease: sit somewhere comfortable, and lean on something hard and steady. It can be a desk or a thick book with a smooth surface sitting on your lap, as long as you feel good. Note that you’ll probably be sitting there for an hour or more, so try not to bend your back too much.
Inking is everything but a race. It’s no problem if you need several days. You’d rather take a break and go back later than finish it at all costs and rush the end. See it as the analogic vectorization: the more time you take the better. Get up between hours, stretch, have a glass of water, and come back. Let it rest for a day if you want. Being focused and meticulous is the only obligation you have, so do what works to make it happen.
A steady hand is comfortably sitting on the page. If you’re afraid you might make the ink smudge, put blotting paper under your hand and move it as you draw. Don’t put your fingers too close to the nib or your pen, or you’ll limit your movements. You usually want to leave 1 or 2 cm between your fingers and the nib to keep a good level of flexibility while you draw.
I strongly encourage you to draw lines in one take as much as possible. It might not be possible all the time when the line is too long, but try to do it whenever you can. It will make your inking more fluid, and train your hand. Inking isn’t the same as sketching: you’re not trying to find the right line, you’re supposed to have found it already. Inking is final, it should be clear and fluid.
If you’re right in the middle of a line and you feel like your hand is about to fail, go « inside » the shape and stop there. You’ll be able to cover it later when you fill your letters, and this way you won’t mess up the outline by stopping right on it.
The most common mistake people do when they ink is holding their breath. Don’t. I know you’re scared to move but holding your breath raises your blood pressure and makes your heart race when you breathe out, which inevitably makes your hands shake. If you want to keep your hand steady, you should breathe deeply to regulate your blood flow and lower your heartbeat. Same goes with blood sugar: if you draw on an empty stomach, you’ll run the risk of shaking while you draw.
There’s golden rule when you ink letters: pull curves, push straights.
Sean McCabe explains it perfectly on his blog and in his lettering course Learn Lettering, your wrist naturally curves when it bends inwards. This is why it will feel very natural to pull curves, and on the contrary, you will fail if you try to pull a straight line.
Don’t hesitate to turn your piece of paper if you need to. Try not to draw lines that are too far from your reach, bring them closer to you. Inking requires that you feel comfortable, and it will be easier to rotate the paper than twisting your arm to draw a tough line. It’s important that you don’t force on your hand, or you will shake.
When you arrive at an angle, don’t stop and change direction. Instead, go a little further, start the new line a little inside an cross lines. I gave the exact same advice in my video tutorial Vectorizing Hand Lettering: Handling Angles: an angle is much more natural if you make shapes overlap each other than if you create the « break » yourself.
It’s much easier to fill a lettering when the outline is done, but be careful not to rush it as well. I sometimes use a brush pen to fill letters faster, but be aware it will show if the ink isn’t the same.
My personal choice are Sakura Microns: I usually use a 01 or an 02 for outline and an 08 for filling. I must say, after months of using them, that they’re absolutely perfect for inking lettering. and you should buy them if you don’t have inking pens yet.