The pen stands as one of humanity’s oldest tools for visual communication. Writing and drawing share a deeply intertwined history, with the Greek word γραφή [graphḗ] being the root of numerous terms cherished by artists. This word has given rise to concepts such as graphic art and design, photography, calligraphy, and even the Greek word for painting – ζωγραφική, a fusion of words signifying life and writing.
Throughout the Middle Ages, activities such as writing, illumination, and painting were largely confined to the clergy. The practices of writing and illumination predominantly transpired on parchment, a material that remained costly to this day. As a result, the craftsmanship and skills related to visual communication remained largely inaccessible to the broader public.
The situation changed during the 15th century, with the affordability and widespread availability of paper in Europe, when the pen emerged as an indispensable tool for all literate individuals. It was employed to swiftly record notes, perform calculations, compile shopping lists, engage in written correspondence, sign documents, and more.
This transformation naturally extended to the artistic realm, where a notable portion of artists, often equipped with rudimentary calligraphy skills from an early age, adeptly exploited the pen’s nimbleness. They utilized it not only to study nature and ancient art with finesse but also to intricately flesh out and evolve their nascent visual ideas and concepts.
Drawing with ink
How You Should Practice Drawing with a Pen. Chapter XIIIThe craftsman’s handbook by Cennini, Cennino, active 15th century; translated by Thompson, Daniel Varney, 1902- ed
When you have put in a year, more or less, at this exercise, according to what liking or enjoyment you have taken, you may sometimes just draw on paper with a pen. Have it cut fine; and then draw nicely and work up your lights, half lights, and darks gradually, going back to them many times with the pen. And if you want your drawings to come out a little more seductive, put some little washes on them, as I told you before, with a blunt minever (weasel) brush. Do you realize what will happen to you if you practice drawing with a pen? -That it will make you expert, skillful, and capable of much drawing out of our own head.
In the subsequent quote, Benvenuto Cellini delineates two prevalent methods of working with ink:
- Modeling the volumes through hatching: This technique involves creating depth and contrast by applying a series of closely spaced nearly parallel lines or strokes. By varying the density and direction of these lines, artists can simulate three-dimensional forms and achieve tonal effects, where light and shadow interact to evoke a sense of depth.
- Making pen outlines and shading with delicate transparent washes of liquefied ink: In this approach, artists first establish the outlines of their subjects using a pen. Subsequently, they add shading by applying layers of diluted ink, creating subtle gradations of tone. The transparency of the ink washes allows for nuanced variations in value, contributing to a sense of depth and dimension within the artwork.
Drawing is done with charcoal and with white lead, otherwise with the pen stylus, intersecting the one line over the other; and where one wants to make dark one superimposes more lines, and where less dark with less lines; so that one gets to leave the paper blank for lights. Which way of drawing is most difficult, and there are very few who have drawn well with pen.
And this way of drawing has been the cause of making engravings with the bulino on copper, as can be seen today in so many prints that go around the world; among which the best made that have ever been seen, that is, the best engraved, were those of Alberto Duro [Albrecht Dürer] of Germany.
Otherwise you draw having made the surroundings [outlines] with the said pen, then you take the brushes like the painters, making the ink white [transparent] with water, and little by little growing the color, to such that in the depths, that is, in the darkest parts, you use the pure ink itself. This is yet a beautiful way of drawing.
Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), I trattati dell’ oreficeria e della scultura di Benvenuto Cellini
Undoubtedly, a myriad of variations stemmed from these two techniques, often combined with other media or techniques. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci employed a distinctive approach, commencing his studies with silverpoint or charcoal. In these initial sketches, he created intricate drawings characterized by an array of intertwining lines. Subsequently, he defined the forms by reinforcing the drawing with pen and ink. This intricate layering process allowed him to achieve both refinement and structural definition within his works.
Modeling with pen (hatching)
Modeling the volumes through hatching involves creating depth and contrast by applying a series of closely spaced nearly parallel lines or strokes.
By varying the density and direction of these lines, artists can simulate three-dimensional forms and achieve tonal effects, where light and shadow interact to evoke a sense of depth.
Modeling with brush (with ink washes)
Making pen outlines and shading with delicate transparent washes of liquefied ink: In this approach, artists first establish the outlines of their subjects using a pen. Subsequently, they add shading by applying layers of diluted ink, creating subtle gradations of tone. The transparency of the ink washes allows for nuanced variations in value, contributing to a sense of depth and dimension within the artwork.
Giovanni Battista Armenini (Italian, 1530 – 1609) describes this process with great precision:
Thus, in drawing with wash, one must follow the same way, except that once the contours are finished, hatchings are not used to make the shadows. One takes undiluted ink and clear water, and with these two extremes, at least two mixtures are made, one lighter than the other. It is the custom of Roman draftsmen to put these mixtures into seashells.
Then one takes two little brushes of miniver, fastened and fitted together and tightly driven into a small handle. With one brush, one forms light shadows, and with the other, dipped immediately thereafter into the water and with the excess water removed, one easily blends the shadow and makes it diminish gradually. The same is done with the second shadow, and then the third. But it is necessary to do this before the other shadows are at all dry, for if they become dry it is much more difficult to blend them with good results; and in this way, every wash is blended very well.
Experienced masters, though, can do this with a single brush, fresh ink, and clear water. This paper should be thick, firm, and well primed, otherwise the shadows will be absorbed and stains will appear, and the drawing will be blemished. This method is more like painting and is used by experienced masters since they can quickly and almost effortlessly express their entire concept in a strokeOn the true precepts of the art of painting by Armenini, Giovanni Battista, 1533?-1609
There are thousands of pen and ink drawings, from widely celebrated giants of the Renaissance to less known but not less excellent artists. Just a few examples of pen and ink drawings for your inspiration:
Just as in pen and inkMichelangelo Buonarroti, Sonnet XVI
there is a high, low, and medium style,
and in marble are images rich and vile,
according to the art with which we fashion it,
so, my dear lord, in your heart,
along with pride, are perhaps some humble thoughts:
but I draw thence only what is proper for myself
in accordance with what my features show.
Who sows sighs, tears and lamentations
(dew from heaven on earth, pure and simple,
converts itself differently to varied seeds)
will reap and gather tears and sorrow;
he who gazes upon exalted beauty with such pain
will have doubtful hopes and bitter, certain sorrows.
Translation from Italian to English by Carl Johengen