Inking — Part 1 of 3

Monday, November 25, 2013

Superior Spider-Man Team-Up #5 Cover. 2013.
Ink(ed by Joe Rivera) on bristol board with digital color, 11 × 17″.

Part 2, Part 3

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of how to ink a page, I want to cover a bit of the why. I'm hardly qualified to give a history lesson on the practice, but I can say with (moderate) confidence that it was always a necessary part of comic book publication. Early printing methods simply weren't capable of reproducing the subtle grays of pencil — but even though technology has improved, the practice remains solidly in place.

inks by Joe Rivera over cyan print

If we think back even further, it becomes apparent that "inking" has existed since the first printed art objects. From woodcuts to engraving, printmaking is a relatively new technology that has only flourished over the last 600 years. The techniques originally created to cope with the limitations of the medium eventually grew into a style unto themselves.

my Dad's inks at full resolution (with George for relative size)

cyan print of my digital "pencils"

So what is that style? It's any distillation of the experience of seeing, rather than a rote copy of nature. It's an approach that isolates what's important about a scene by exploiting the differences between objects. There's a reason that we can watch an animated film — 2D or 3D — and still get caught up in the story. What matters to us is the characters, not their visual proximity to nature. Even the most fully-rendered print by Durer, with it's many subtle values, is a kind of hyper-reality — it's a cartoon in the sense of being a type of exaggeration. That's what inking's all about: selecting what's most important about an illustration and leaving out everything else.

my digital "pencils" at full resolution

The time lapse video at the end of the post is more about the thought process behind inking, rather than the physical act. (I'll cover more of that next time.) In it, I'm digitally inking over a fairly refined sketch (with a Cintiq 13HD in Photoshop). While it won't show you which brush to use on what paper, I hope it can reveal some of the decisions I make when going from a sketch to a finished piece. In most cases, it's all about clarity — making sure that what the viewer sees is what I want them too. You could, of course, be as loose or rough as you like with your inks, but having only two value options can really focus the mind on composition.

digital sketch, color-coded by layer

I made the transition from rendered paintings to line work in 2008, but I like to think that the switch reaped unexpected rewards when I eventually returned to painting. Having fewer value options has a way of imposing good composition practices. You can almost always save a bad composition with fancy lighting (this was actually a game students played at the Brandywine School) but any sketch with a strong start has a much better chance of a strong finish.

digital layouts for editor approval

Just a quick note about this cover: I don't normally pencil digitally, but I was between studios at the time and this method was easier. To be completely honest, we could've used my "pencils" for the final art, but I had my Dad go ahead and ink it because it's a cleaner style (and we like having original art to sell). My total time for the piece was 18 hours (not counting my Dad's inks). Here's the hourly breakdown.

layout: 2.5
digital sketch: 6.5
digital pencils: 6.5
digital colors: 2.5

I plan on writing 2 more posts on the subject, so if you have any questions or topics that you'd like covered for next time, don't hesitate to ask.


  1. I like this. Can't wait to read the next two parts. Still practicing my pencils... actually just "art" in general.

    Watched a few seconds and skipped to a few places here and there in the video and I like that too. Planning on adding commentary? Doesn't have to be the whole video, maybe just here and there.

    Thanks for this!

    1. Thanks! I was about to add commentary last night, but I had visitors (which made recording difficult). Perhaps in the next video, which will be a time lapse of traditional inking.

  2. Thanks for the great article. I was wondering if you have any unique methods or thoughts when it comes to line weights while inking. Personally I have been having a bit of trouble keeping some lines pushed forward and others pushed back. Thanks!

    1. My pleasure! With line weights, my general approach is whatever works. In the simplest terms, I put a thicker weight to objects that are closer, but really, the variation is not great. I'd say to find an artist whose inks are working, and try to mimic it. When I was first finding my style, I copied a lot of Milton Caniff until I was able to incorporate it into my own style.

  3. Hi Paolo,
    thank you to share this article and all the others,
    i follow you from a lot of time and found each post very interesting,
    i'm very excited to wait for the next 2 articles about inking,
    Best Regards from Italy

  4. Hey Paolo,

    It would be extremely helpful if you could tell me what resolution size you use for your covers/pages, what brush and size you generally use for drawing in photoshop?

    Also, thank you so much for maintaining this blog, it's such a great inspiration for me.


    Luke Matviko

    1. Thanks, Luke! I do most of my inking at coloring at 4125 x 6262 pixels, then step down for final output to 2750 x 4175 px (which is printed size @400dpi). As for brushes, I often change the size and style as I work. I can't go into detail here, but I hope to cover it in the next post. Until then, check out my Cintiq tips:

  5. Hey Paolo, I always look to you for inspiration and techniques. Thing is, I am trying my hardest to use traditional brushes when I ink, but I feel like my pencils are just not translating. I want to try your inking technique where you ink digitally, print out, then ink on top. Every time I ink digitally it looks worse off. Are you using a Cintiq in this video? I have a Wacom Bamboo and I'm not sure if that's the problem when it comes to my digitals. Should just save up for a Cintiq? Thanks for your time!

    1. Hi, Phil — Yep, I'm using a Cintiq here. I don't think I could do it otherwise. I used to use a tablet for editing and coloring, but not really drawing. A Cintiq isn't really necessary... just speeds up the process a bit.

      But it won't help you draw any more than a pencil and paper will (and costs way more). I'd say to concentrate on traditional tools before splurging.


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