Man swimming with knife and fork trying to catch a fish

Drawing techniques in ink and watercolor

Text and illustrations by Frits Ahlefeldt

Black ink has a definitive and exact feel to it,. Like it really wants to define things. Very often used in both storytelling and in technical drawings It can be used in various ways, both depending on the tools used ( pens, brushes etc. ) and in how and if colors are added to the final drawing. I most often use ink for cartoons, for drawing up philosophy and for stories to be published in Newspapers and magazines. But I also use it for reportage sketching, live brainstorms and quick logbook notes

Ink in cartoons and stories

Drawing of a man with three eyes reading the odd news
You become what you learn

Ink illustrations are the most used expression in graphic novels, storytelling and cartoons, it is easy to read, even in dim light and it is fast and more easy to show face expressions, body movements, speed lines and other things that help tell the story clearly. If used alone the feel get even more graphical and the black and white expression can be used to limit the amount of information to a very strong black and white world, where shadows, lines, patterns and other  non-color related expressions tell the whole story. Some cartoons are made in both colored and black/white version and it shows that the color can often be left out without any lack of meaning. Actually some stories works best in black and white. Others best in color, depending on what the idea, message and feel of the story is

Pens or brushwork

Nietzsche clinging onto a horse running ink illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt
Nietzsche did his best to capture the wildest thoughts he could

Cartoons are often made with pens, this gives an exact with of the illustration lines ( often different pens are combined for different width of line) and it makes a few things much easier, like the master cartoonist sketching up in pencil and assistants ink-drawing the story and coloring it, while the master cartoonist, moves on to the next new drawings. But a few legendary cartoonists, like Bill Watterson, ( Calvin and Hobbes) works alone, and do all the work only with brushes. These are much more dynamic with the width and line ever-changing in with, structure, edges and looks.

Technical drawings

Drawing of water running through a time watch mill
Rivers are often connected with the passing and mechanical wheels of time

Way back in the days I worked as an architect I used to do a lot of technical design and architectural drawings with ink pens. Drawing designs, sections, floor plans and other technical  visualizations. It is another of the ways ink can be used to create exact lines, that can be used to define everything from gigantic cruise ships to design of the delicate mechanics of Swiss watches

Manuals, diagrams, flowcharts, statistics and scenarios

Drawing of a group of people and users working on screens to construct a trail network
Flow of how a community based trail network can be made and facilitated using digital tools

Another way ink drawings are often used is to show how things can be put together, evolve or flow. There are graphic designers specialized in these fields. Only doing visualizations of how things work. This field is often called information design and used to be done mostly in hand, using ink and watercolor. Today the majority of information visualizations are done with digital drawing tools that can give an even more smooth, easy to read look.

Drawing together with people – live drawing and graphic facilitation

Live drawings from Frits Ahlefeldt
Some of the drawings from the expert workshop about how to build better schools

A special way to use ink drawings are live, together with people, or at conference, doing a visual resume or drawing on a gigantic wall of paper. It is a way of using ink drawings that has been growing in popularity for around the last twenty years.

There are a few different ways to do this, but the idea is that the participants after the day will get a drawn resume of all that happened, was developed and agreed about during the day. Like a landscape of understanding, often showing the path of progress as a road, both through the day and – especially at strategy workshops the direction the group should pursue in the future, where they come from and what challenges ( gaps, monsters, competitors ) they will meet along the adventure.

Reportage drawings

Reportage drawing from a pirate like cafe'
Reportage drawing from a place where it would not be wise to take a camera out

Ink is also great when doing live drawings from events, theater plays, courtrooms, street life and other real life situations. the robust, waterproof tools lines of ink can capture action, despair, dreams, relationships and the feel of a place or scene, in unique ways that neither photos or other techniques can’t. More when journalists and others draw up stories instead of filming or photographing them they do not disturb or interrupt the event. in the same way. In a strange way, drawing up a situation is less intrusive than photographing it. It is one of the reasons people can be admitted to draw in a courtroom, but not to take photographs in it.

Even more, when drawing at a place people will often come over, and start to tell stories, relate and also give information or experiences, that would not otherwise be an option. ( like inviting you in to see the building you are drawing and telling you the story about it – can be really fun. )

Logbook and diary notes

Just as the rain started we walked into a small fishing village where the old inn, was open, we were the only guests there and the owner told us stories about the place

Ink is great to do notes and sketches in for a diary, logbook or travel journal. It is a very quick and personal way to remember places and situations and you can twist them for a more personal feel. It is authentic in a special way and has a value that will last for many years. I still have notes from hikes I did more than twenty years ago, and the drawings are as fresh and clear as if I did them yesterday. Great to remember things, not only things that could as well be captured by a camera, but also the things that is harder, like the drawing of how you felt like a fish out of water, or how the atmosphere is on a bridge, a warm summer night

Ink and color illustrations  – all in all

Drawing of people walking along different stories, drawing by Frits Ahlefeldt
Story-lines unfolding – illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt

Drawing in ink is one of the oldest and most robust way of graphic storytelling, it has been with us an eternity and is still today a simple, global language all can relate too. When combined with watercolors the expression change a bit, but still it can tell stories as nothing else, even and maybe even more so in a digital context. Compared to photos ink drawings are more personal, if you drank too much coffee, or was very tired, all will show in the lines, as will any mistake and correction you had to make. With ink there are no room for regrets – every correction can be seen ( at least in the originals ) and the papers are easy to keep and the artworks can last for thousand of years, if well protected.

Ink and Watercolor techniques are one of the visual tools and techniques I describe: See some of my descriptions of the other visual techniques I use here:

Watercolor techniques

Pencil techniques

About Frits Ahlefeldt

Founder of Hiking.org - Researching, writing & sketching up thoughts, understandings and ideas for a sustainable future, connecting thrive, trails, places and technology

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