Monday, July 14, 2014

Accordion-Playing Elf: Grisaille Technique with Ink
Song for the Lovers (detail). Pen and ink and ink washes.

The Past
Stretching back before art school, I've been in love with the British master illustrators; Arthur Rackham, the Robinson brothers, and Edmund Dulac to name a few of the big guns. Back in the day, illustration in general was sadly but decidedly unwelcome in the college art departments in which I kept landing. It's hard to believe, but only a few decades ago information about illustrator's techniques was difficult to come by.

Luckily, as a youth, I stumbled across some old books which variously described
Rackham's technique. One flatly stated that Rackham used a strong wash of burnt umber over his pen drawings, before adding thin color washes.
In the book, Arthur Rackham, by Fred Gettings, Rackham's technique is explained thusly:
"[Rackham] might give a light wash of colour [brown, bistre, or sepia] to the whole of his drawing area, according to some authorities to pull the colours together. According to others, however, the aim of this wash was to add an 'antique' or 'olde-worlde' effect to the plate."

And I've tried these and other descriptions (with minor variations) over the years; choosing raw umber or sepia over burnt umber--which is too grainy for me. (I'd bet Rackham did not use it either.)
The Present
In early June, the opportunity to teach a character design workshop arose.
 At one point in the workshop, my demo sequence included this fellow, penciled in and outlined with India ink. (I was reading Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx at the time.) This is as far as I got that day, but I liked him!

Then, in late June I read a James Gurney post about a grisaille ink technique.
It featured an Albert Dorne illustration done in colored inks over grey tonal ink washes. Much intrigued, I decided to try it out, using sepia ink (a warm, dark brown) instead of black for the washes.
My materials did a proper job of posing for the photograph. 
(Unfortunately, the black and brown ink-bottles missed this photo-op, so a complete written list follows)
Waterproof Inks: India ink, plus sepia ink and five transparent colored inks
Ink pens with a variety of nib sizes
Inexpensive acrylic brushes
White acrylic gouache (for the bright highlights and stars)
Disposable palette
300 lb. cold press watercolor paper
Beer tankard (for later)
I chose to mix up my sepia inks in four separate pots, doing many value charts and corrections along the way. To achieve those values, I added water to the sepia ink until I got the values (plus the white of the paper) correct--with even "jumps" between each value. The five value-circles just above the yellow-handled pen represent the final values ("black", dark, middle, light, and white (the paper) in the little pots ("black" being actually the very dark pure sepia). The sepia ink is then watered down in steps for the rest of the values.
I jumped right in, immediately making the mistake of going a bit dark on some of the values. Fortunately, not being too retentive, I carried on. It started out as an experiment after all.
Continued to add and deepen the values.
Here, the detail of his head reveals that wonderfully toothsome texture of the watercolor paper.
Here a nearly finished underpainting.
Halfway into the color overlays. I eventually cooled the shadows and the sky.

I found of course that the sepia values, being ink, did not budge when over-layered with color, and that was nice. The warmth of the sepia harmonized the colors and gave a pleasant, aged look to this piece.
A detail of the elf's nearly completed face, with gouache highlights and stars. A few touch ups remain, but first:

Some advantages of using permanent, transparent inks vs watercolor
Allow a complete and tonal underpainting
Don't lift when over-layered, and muddiness is mitigated
Are not grainy
Are vivid, thus the brown values of the underpainting seem less somber
Are acrylic-based and thus probably less fugitive (prone to fading) than some watercolors

Some advantages of using watercolor vs transparent inks
Allows changes
Allows lifting and lightening of values
Has a varied and agreeable graininess (which I missed in the inks)
Has a beauty all it's own; a softness, a naturalness, an atmospheric feeling that can't be achieved in any other medium (How's that for an editorial?)
And the finished piece. 
I like this little elf, and best of all, learned quite a lot while working on him. 
Re-reading James Gurney's post today (and the comments below his post), I discovered even more, and will definitely add this technique to my repertoire.

Hope this was an interesting and helpful post. Questions or comments are always 
welcome--feel free to email as well.

Thanks for reading!



  1. Very informative! I have had trouble finding a waterproof india ink - those that I have found bleed into a wash applied over them or to their edge, even after a day of drying time (which time can be very hard to find!!) Also, what brand of sepia ink are you using? Couldn't decipher from the photos and I'd like to give this a try in the very near future. (great final, by the way, enjoying the expressive qualities of the medium as they enhance the character!)

    1. Thanks AHA--I sincerely appreciate the compliments and am glad you found the post informative. It amazes me as well, that many India inks labeled "waterproof" are truly not waterproof. I switched to Daler Rowney FW brand inks (they are acrylic-based) years ago and have found them satisfactory. Still, I do often "set" the ink with a long, strong blast of heat from a hair-dryer before painting. That seems to mostly do the trick.

    2. Just got a rush cover assignment and decided to give the grisaille ink you demonstrated a try - which is why I needed the ink make. I took the photo from your blog with me to the supply shop to match the brand, hoping they would have what I needed. They did not have the right kind of blue or magenta-ish red, so I switched to acrylic for the overlay and it worked out beautifully. Nice unifying warmth under everything. I am most pleased with the result, which is going to the client in the morning. Thanks again!

    3. As to waterproof qualities... W&N peat brown used to be fine, but seems they've reduced or omitted the shellac in it, and overlaying with watercolour now makes it run no matter how long it's had to dry. I may experiment with adding shellac to the ink, since it has a lovely transparent quality, but for now I used the FW, and laid the ink mostly over the ink and acrylic washes, to be sure it would not run.

    4. I am very glad to hear that your switch worked and that the illustration came out well, AHA--hope to see it sometime! And I must apologize--I gave only the brand of the glass bottles. Sorry to be such a dope. The taller bottles are Koh-I-Noor Trans-Mix Media, Brilliant Ink, made by Chartpak I guess (as the bottle has on it). I use the cyan, magenta, and yellow in that brand and got them from Dick Blick.

    5. 'll make a note of the Koh-I-Noor, Tom, and will see if my local supplier carries it when next I am in the shop. Will post the image closer to publication date.

  2. Great post! Thanks for all the information on technique and tools. I can see myself trying this sometime! Your illustration turned out great!

    1. Thanks, Laurie. You will like it--it was fun and I'm finding it a quick and useful method.


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