Pen and Ink – An Early History

Inktober is in the air! My supplies are on the table, my excitement level is mounting, and I’m counting down the days until the event begins. I would never have thought I would love ink and Inktober so much, but I am truly looking forward to it this year.

Of course, that’s partly because I’m far more prepared than in past years. Not only do I have my pens, inks, and sketchpads laid out, I also have a plan in mind. I know what I’ll be drawing each day. I’ve also been practicing, and while dip pens are out of the question right now, I’m growing more comfortable with my Pitt Artist pens and my Sharpies.

Before Inktober gets underway, I’m going to share a little history about inking. Each day between now and then, I’ll be writing a bit about ink, about artists, about different things it might be helpful to know.

So, let’s start with a quick look at the early history of pen and ink drawings.

BriseisInk has long been used in fine art drawings, going back to ancient civilizations. One of the earliest images still extant is that of The Abduction of Briseis, an ink drawing done on papyrus. The drawing is from Greece, but we don’t know who the artist was.

Briseis was a virgin priestess of Apollo. She was given to Achilles, abducted by Agamemnon, and finally returned to Achilles.

fan-kuan_travelers-among-mountains-and-streamsIt was the Chinese, however, who truly developed ink art, beginning with the Tang Dynasty (618-906) and continuing through the Song Dynasty (960-1279). One of the most famous artists from the latter era was Fan Kuan. His landscape, Travelers Among the Mountains and Streams, is considered one of the finest examples of Chinese art in history. It’s a large-scale work, over 6 foot high.

Rather than following in the footsteps of earlier artists, Fan Kuan believed that nature should be his teacher. He went to Cuihua Mountain and secluded himself there, so that he could observe the atmosphere, weather, and seasonal changes of the scenery. He became one with the mountain.

Ink drawing was also a part of Japanese culture, especially during the Muromachi period (1338-1573). Pen and ink have long been the primary medium for Asian art and calligraphy not only in China and Japan, but in Korea, as well.

I’m only now beginning my personal study of Chinese brush art, and I’m fascinated by all that I’m learning. Traditional sumi-e is generally done with an animal hair brush that’s dipped in black ink. Artists today have added colored inks to sumi-e, but originally paintings were done only with black ink mixed with water to create varying shades of gray.

Outline drawings were called pai-miao; when ink was applied in splashes, it was known as p’o-mo’. Traditional Asian brush art is usually done on thin paper or on silk. Paintings can also be done on lacquerware, or directly on walls. The completed artwork was often mounted on scrolls, which could be hung on walls, or rolled up.

Calligraphy is closely associated with Asian culture and ink. It is defined as the art of stylized writing. The poem, below, is an example.


Calligraphy was also important in Islamic art, since the religion forbids the representation of living beings. A similar tradition existed among Aramaic and Hebrew scholars.

Hebrew Calligraphy Art
Hebrew Calligraphy


Pen and ink artwork also developed in Western drawings, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and illuminated manuscripts from early centuries. These illustrations included figures of animals and humans, decorative scroll work, and ornate calligraphy.

An Illustration from the Lindisfarne Gospels

I marvel when I see exquisite works like these. It amazes me to think that such magnificently-detailed art can be created with pens and inks.

My pen and ink drawings for Inktober will be simple ones. I know my limitations. All the same, it’s impossible to look at the beautiful ink drawings artists have created throughout history and not come away inspired.

My hope is that you’ve found a bit of inspiration here, too.







    1. For me, planning in advance has really given me more confidence. I have everything ready, and I’ve gotten into the habit of drawing every morning after breakfast. I made it through the month last year, and I intend to do it again this year. Good luck to you!


    1. The more I learn, the more I’m starting to love ink! That really surprises me. I was so afraid of ink when I started, and I absolutely HATED using it for drawing. That was mostly because I had no idea what to do, I’m now realizing. I’m practicing a lot, so my skill is improving, and that makes it so much more fun. 🙂


  1. Nice work. Good history. I’m impressed that you’re so ready for Inktober. I can’t think what to draw for any of the cue words. But I have put them in my diary and I’ve been practicing doing an ink drawing every day, with some ideas and techniques emerging. So! Bring it on!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve been practicing every morning, and I’m learning a lot. Putting together a list of what I’ll be drawing each day has helped my mindset, I think. I haven’t picked specific reference photos for each day (something I need) but that will be part of the fun!


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