Nipping and Dipping

When I began learning to draw, I started with graphite, moved on to charcoal, conte, and then to pen and ink. It seemed a natural progression. Everything, including the conte sticks, involved black and white. I was learning the most basic fundamentals of art: how to use lines to draw shapes, and how to use elementary shading principles to then turn those shapes into three-dimensional objects.

I did fairly well with the graphite, and I loved working with charcoal. Conte was fun, too. But then came pen and ink, and that was where I bowed out. I’d been following a pen and ink course online, but after the first few lessons I decided it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t have enough patience. I worried about not being able to correct mistakes. I just didn’t really understand the entire concept of creating tonal values with ink. I hated to be a “quitter”, but I wasn’t benefiting from the class, and so with a sigh of relief, I dropped out. I had no regrets afterwards, and I knew I’d made the right decision.

Funny thing, though, over the years, I’ve found myself coming back to pen and ink drawing over and over, and surprisingly, I’ve found myself enjoying it — a lot. Of course that’s partly due to Inktober, the annual month-long drawing challenge featuring pen and ink. I’ve completed Inktober twice, and I think that’s when, where, and how I developed my newfound love for ink.

Now, loving ink doesn’t mean I’m good at using it, and goodness knows, dip pens and I did not get along at all back in 2019 when I attempted to use one for a few of my Inktober drawings. Just browse back to October 2019 or do a search for “dip pen” art, and you’ll see the catastrophic results I had. Even though I’d initially planned to use a dip pen for all of my Inktober drawings that year, I became a quitter again, opted for other pens, and as before, I had no regrets about making that decision.

But now, I’m back to dip pens, and while I’m not good with using them, at least I’m making marks on the page and not getting quite as many drips and dribbles! Here’s one of my morning drawing exercises, done with a dip pen and India ink, with black marker then used to create the dark, solid background.

I’ve done better ink shading with ball point pens or “artist pens” — like my Pitt pens — but I was pleased all the same with this because, yes, I used a dip pen to draw and shade the circle.

So, anyway, that’s the dipping part of this post. What about the nipping? No, it didn’t drive me to drink, so I haven’t been nipping at the bottle, but I did give Flower Child a few hits of catnip. I have several catnip plants growing this year, and she does enjoy a nip or two now and then. As I settled down at the table with my ink and nibs, I worried that she might get curious about what I was drawing. She likes to “help out” a lot, you see. I decided to distract her so that she could happily play by herself while I was drawing.

I “nipped” a couple of her favorite toys. I “nipped” her cat-tunnel.

Oh, did she love it! But maybe I nipped it all a bit too much. Instead of a happy, mellowed-out cat contentedly batting a little ball around, I ended up with this maniacal, wide-eyed feline zooming through the house. She was literally climbing the walls — trying to catch a fly — but at least she didn’t get on the table. No ink spilled. No mess made.

This little foray into the world of pen-and-ink was part of my summer “remedial” drawing program. Just as my first lessons went from graphite to charcoal and conte, so, too, does Barrington Barber follow that progression in his 10-week drawing course. And after the charcoal and conte, the next exercises were with pen and ink. Having done a complete about-face over the years, I was excited to get out my ink supplies and have a go at it.

I enjoy sketching with one of my artist pens — or, as often as not, with a simple ball-point. It’s quick. It’s easy. It’s convenient to carry a pen around. I may not always have a pencil in my purse, but you can count on me having an ink pen. It’s become a quick “go-to” when I want to sketch something I see. I typically use a ball-point pen for my nature journal, as well, doing a sketch and then adding color with gansai. I like the look of ink and gansai.

In 2019 while doing my series of Inktober drawings, I also spent time doing ink practice exercises. I became familiar with many different types of pens — but I just couldn’t do the dip pens. Using a dip pen was what Barrington Barber recommended, and I did recently buy a new Speedball set. So that’s what I used this morning, along with a fat Sharpie for large areas — another suggestion by Barber.

Along with the “ball” exercise, today’s assignment went on to include a still life project, something I’ve never attempted before with pen and ink. I didn’t draw from life but chose to work instead from an illustration in the book, and I knew from the start that I’d never come up with anything close to his finished drawing. All the same, I wanted to try it. It’s good to push ourselves a bit now and then.

Instead of my usual “bad drawing, quick sketch” approach, I did take a bit more time with this drawing– which features yet another bowl of apples. I sketched first with graphite as Barber suggests, and I followed his suggestion, too, for making a small drawing. This measures  about 3″ x 4″. Drawing the basic illustration wasn’t too difficult, and it wasn’t too hard to ink over it — even with my dip pen.

The problem was how to create the tonal values. I was lost. Barber’s instructions were: “…build a simple light tone over all the parts that are not highlighted, using vertical lines.”

Seriously? Of course, that was just for starters. Next came his instruction for what he calls “the build-up”. He says, “Put in the slightly darker tone with multiple diagonal lines and then the next darkest with horizontal lines and so on, with lines going in the opposite diagonal to build even denser shadows.” He adds more about using curvy lines and scribbly marks and warns that the process “will all take quite some time.”

At that point I decided to just do my best and not worry about getting results that were anywhere close to his illustration. Not really knowing how to “build a light tone over all the parts”, I simply followed his instructions about using vertical lines. I did what I could, all the while knowing I wasn’t doing it quite right, but all the while not really caring. Hey, I was using a dip pen. I was making a drawing. That was good enough for me.

In the end, it wasn’t pretty, especially the shadows, but again, it was good enough for me.


Now, I spoke of “doing my best”, and in a sense, that’s what I did, although in another sense, no, I didn’t “do my best”. This, you see, is going along with my process of making art easy for myself this summer, my enjoyment of simply doing what I can do naturally, not putting pressure on myself to achieve perfection, not trying too hard. In other words, I did the best I could do without turning this into a stressful project. I shrugged. I said, “I don’t really know how to do this, but here goes.”

And then, because I loved the black-and-white contrast in the first exercise, and because I still had that fat Sharpie close at hand, I went over the background of this drawing. This was “just for fun”.

While none of these ink drawings are much to look at, they’ve been very helpful and even very encouraging for me. As with all the other “bad drawings” I’ve been doing, this quickly-done art says a lot about who I am as an artist. Even from this wonky drawing, I can see that I have a basic understanding of line, shape, and form. I may lack skill, and I definitely still lack patience, but I can make something out of nothing. I can take a pen — even a dip pen — and turn a blank page in my sketchbook into a simple black and white still life with recognizable objects. These drawings say, too, that I’m no longer afraid of making mistakes, that I’m willing to try different things even when I know the results will probably not be good.

I’m learning a lot from my bad drawings this summer. I’m learning that I really am an artist and that art can be fun. I’m learning to approach all my drawing and painting from a new perspective, just doing the best I can with what limited skills I’ve got, and finding a great deal of enjoyment in the process. That’s a truly valuable lesson.

As for Flower Child… she wore herself out and had a good cat nap afterward.



      1. Thanks! I skipped Inktober in 2020 but am thinking about doing in again this year. I completed it in 2019 (doing a series of tree drawings) and I really enjoyed it.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I haven’t tried those yet. I have a couple sets that I really like, and mostly I have fun drawing with a ball point. Practicing with this dip pen has been interesting. A couple years ago all I could do was spill and drip ink when I tried, so I was happy that I was able to make actual marks this time around. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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