My Pen-and-ink technique

With the publication of the revised edition of Hawks in Flight, I wanted to post a little bit about my drawing technique with pen and ink.

Gray Hawk, drawn for the revised edition of Hawks in Flight. The pale color of this species requires a lighter touch, with sparse fine lines, and in pen-and-ink there is little room for error. If you put on too much ink there is no way to take it back.
African Elephant, my first paid job as an artist, drawn for a travel brochure in about 1978.

I’ve always enjoyed black-and-white drawing. I remember being in third grade and spending hours looking at Earl Poole’s ink drawings in James Bond’s “Birds of the West Indies”. A few years later I was enthralled by the simplicity and grace of George Sutton’s drawings in “Fundamentals of Ornithology”.

Ink was my favorite “formal” medium from my childhood through my late-20s when I started doing a lot more painting. My first paid job as an artist was doing drawings for travel brochures, like the elephant shown above (drawn from photographs when I was about 17) and all of my early published art was pen-and-ink drawings.

I was drawing with a pencil almost every day in the field, and cross-hatching was a major part of my pencil shading technique, so the transition from pencil to ink was very easy for me. By the time I started the drawings for Hawks in Flight (when I was about 24) I had a well-developed style.

The materials I use now are the same ones I used in the 1970s: a bottle of India Ink, a crow-quill pen nib in a handle, and a watercolor brush for painting ink in large areas, and I work on smooth white paper.

I only use one pen size, either 0 or 00, making very fine lines. I can vary the thickness of the lines slightly by putting more pressure on the pen, and I use the brush when I want to fill in large areas of black, but otherwise I just build up darker colors by adding more cross-hatching.

Every drawing begins with a very simple pencil outline. The first lines with a pen simply trace the outlines, then I start adding “structural” lines that will define the contours of the bird – feather shafts are a major defining feature of the contours. Next I’ll work on some of the darkest areas, adding ink with a brush or adding multiple layers of cross-hatching to build up a darker color.

In a color painting I generally work across the entire painting at once, adding a layer to all parts of the bird. But in pen-and-ink I find that it’s easier to add layers in one small area and complete one section, like a wing, then move on and start another section.

In the final stage I sit back to look for rough edges or distracting dots of white in areas that are supposed to be dark, and once those are filled in (try to resist the temptation to keep adding more ink) it is finished.

Below are some close-ups of drawings from Hawks in Flight, where you can get a better sense of the actual process.

Just starting a drawing of Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk for Hawks in Flight, beginning with a simple pencil outline and adding ink lines to form the “framework”. It’s very important for all of the lines to follow the contours of the feathers, and I use this stage to set up the form of the bird. pen-and-ink on paper © David Sibley
A finished drawing of Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk (similar but not the same drawing shown above). Once the form is created in the early stages, it is simply a matter of adding cross-hatching to create darker areas and shading. pen-and-ink on paper © David Sibley
Detail of the body of the immature Common Black-Hawk, showing the combination of brushed areas (thick black streaks) and cross-hatching with the pen to develop shading. pen-and-ink on paper © David Sibley

6 thoughts on “My Pen-and-ink technique”

  1. I use a similar technique when I paint. I work exclusively on photoshop using the paint part of he software. I also have done some needlework and use the same techniques to get the structure of the subject. The thread catches the light and different angles, and is very effective. Always nice to see other artists at work

  2. As someone who struggles to draw a stickman, I’ve sometimes wondered how the apparently effortless drawn illustrations in bird books were achieved. I found this very informative. All the best from Rollin Harbour

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