Ink is a very versatile medium and has been used for thousands of years. It can be used in many ways, including with a brush. However, the traditional method of application, as well as the most useful, is the pen

John Minton, Thames Bridges, pen and Indian ink, 71⁄2x11in (19x28cm).
Thames Bridges, by John Minton (above) is a fine example of what can be created with a pen and some Indian ink. This picture was commissioned by the BBC and for the Radio Times in December 1956.
It’s an excellent example of what can be achieved by simply sitting down and drawing what is there, but developing it to suit the shape and size of the picture format. Here the artist has described accurately the details between the bridges and the barges in the foreground


Egyptians used pens made from reeds and the Romans made pen nibs from bronze. Quills were very popular and in use from the middle-ages to the 19th century. The first metal pens were made around the end of the 18th century, and pens with steel nibs were being made in Birmingham by the mid-nineteenth century. The traditional nib and holder, now called a dipping pen, has for years been the standard drawing and writing tool for ink. There is also a useful brass addition that slips on to the nib, which acts as a reservoir for holding the ink. There are many types of nib. The finest are used for mapping pens, there are broad ones for calligraphy and even a five-line nib for writing music, which could be handy for quickly drawing grass in the foreground. Other pens include the Graphos, and others like it, which have a small tube and needle and can give very fine lines and have interchangeable nibs and a reservoir. The conventional fountain pen is still popular.

Tom Robb, Wine and Fruit, pen and ink, 10x9in (25.5x23cm).

There is no need to make sophisticated drawings when trying to represent a subject in pen and ink. Here some fruit and wine are described simply and straightforwardly in straight lines, using only a fountain pen. Tone was built up by multicrosshatching where necessary to give almost a solid black. Drawing in this way relieves you of any anxiety about what shape to draw a line: all lines are straight, their purpose simply to build up the required image until the necessary tone and shape is achieved


There were and still are many different types of ink. Indian ink is still the most popular for drawing, but care must be taken in using it because if used in a fountain pen it can clog the nib severely, as can other waterproof drawing inks, whatever the colour. If a fountain pen does become clogged, it can be cleaned by flushing it with a weak solution of washing-up liquid. In severe cases it can be left to soak overnight, with good results. Coloured inks also have their followers – they can be used like watercolour, thinned out to make delicate washes, as well as for drawing with pens.
Inks generally fall into two categories: completely waterproof and nonwaterproof. The waterproof one can, when dry, be painted over with watercolour without being disturbed. The most popular of non-waterpoof types are the blue and black inks that are specially made for fountain pens. They are easy to use and will not clog pens, but of course if washed over with watercolour they will run and bleed. You can also make any kind of ink simply by mixing a strong solution of watercolour. There is also sepia, which at one time was a very popular ink for drawing. It is still available today and gives a warm friendly line, which is much less harsh than a solid black. Inks vary in their properties. Some are very slow drying and some are waterproof, and there are now some acrylic-based inks that provide new opportunities for experiment. Spirit-based felt pens offer endless possibilities for artistic pursuit. Indian ink should not be used in fountain pens and each type of ink works better on some papers than on others.

Tom Robb, Tree Study, pen and ink, 15x11in (38x28cm).

What could be more enjoyable than sitting and looking at a tree, and trying to record some of its complexity in a sketchbook with a pen and ink? This drawing embodies the use of Indian ink straight from the bottle, as well as some well-watered ink to give a very light washlike line – the black ink superimposed over the lighter drawing


So pen and ink experimentation and venture is needed to achieve an understanding and to take advantage of this humble drawing tool. Try drawing on a wet or damp sheet of paper to produce wet and wet effects. Draw with nonwaterproof inks and, when dry, add water with brush or sponge for unusual results.

Tom Robb, Small Town, fountain pen, 8x9in (20.5x23cm).
In this sketch, little attempt has been made to make a detailed study of the buildings. The purpose of the sketch was to gather the basic information about the shapes of trees and buildings, a general feel for the place and the effects of light and shade on the village.