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Inking Tutorial – Secrets to Easy Inking

Inking Tutorial – Secrets to Easy Inking

When I first grabbed a WACOM tablet and started drawing something on my computer, it shocked me how difficult it seemed!!! I tried patiently, but it was like starting to learn how to draw all over again!! I was able to do pretty cool stuff with my pencils and paper, but when I tried to digitalize my work, it was a complete nightmare.

That’s why I would like to share with you what I have learnt so far. First thing you should bear in mind: there are many techniques, you just have to try them out and experiment with them. Take whatever you find useful and build upon that.


This is a tutorial based on Illustrator. I use CS4 but there’s no much difference if you’re using previous versions. Working with vectors has some advantages but some… differences, I’m reluctant to say disadvantages. I would rather say that it’s a different approach to drawing.

The feeling you have when working on Illustrator is that the classic process of drawing and coloring has somehow changed. If you’re used to pixel-based software or old-good paper and pencils style, you will have the feeling that what you do is not drawing but working as an architect: you build up lines, move them around and end up with a statue of mathematical structures.

It has some pros and cons:


– Very easy to do.
– Very clean and modern-looking
– Flexible and re-usable


– Feels somehow unnatural to draw this way.
– Not so easy to manage for entangled designs

STEP 1: Sketching whatever crosses your mind

Sketch something, just shape what you intend to draw. At this point it doesn’t matter if you add much detail to it, we are just starting off. What matters most is to obtain clear and defined lines.

As you can see, there’s a pencil sketched fish with a skirt and what looks like scottish pipes. I was asked to do some scottish fish and this was one of my first approaches. This was not the fish that I ended up doing for the client, but I quite liked how this one turned out as a sketch, so I decided to use it for this tutorial.

STEP 2: Importing your sketch and placing it correctly

Scan your sketch. I use Photoshop to import my image and clean it up a little bit. However, this method doesn’t require a clean draft, we won’t be using the original lines and we will be able to change the shapes when inking. Once imported, save it. Again, it doesn’t matter if it lacks quality, a JPG will do. We are going to use the sketch as a guide and ink over it.

Open Adobe Illustrator and start a new project. Sizes are not important, we are going to work with vectors, so we will be able to re-size our composition when needed, just choose whatever feels comfortable to you.

Select FILE -> PLACE on the Illustrator menu, go find your saved sketch and click “open”.

As you see, you’ve got your sketch placed into your artwork table. You can label this layer as “Draft” or “Sketch”. You can also name it “Julio”, but it won’t be dancing Julio Iglesias’s style, so I would go for “Draft” to define your layer for the sake of universal coherence. Now, create a new layer upon the sketch, and name it “Ink”.

By double-clicking the layer, you access the layer options menu. As you can see, you can select some options there, so you can set it to template mode, which will dim your sketch at 50% of its opacity and consequently the lines won’t mess with your inking work and it will be easier to manage.

STEP 3: Starting the inking process

Now select the pen tool, we will be doing most of the work with it. This will feel like being back at elementary school, connecting dots and creating lines. I won’t be explaining how to use the pen tool right now, I assume you’re going to learn by practicing.

Before you start inking, look at your creation and see how its body can be divided in sections: head, arms, legs, torso. Those sections are also composed by different elements too: the head contains eyes, eyebrows, ears, nose, mouth and hair (basically). In Illustrator we are working with objects, it is pretty much based on geometry, so it is important to start dissecting every composition in its basic elements.

It is good to have in mind how shapes will be aligned when the work is done. For example: if you ink an eye and afterwards you ink the face of your character, Illustrator will place the latter above the eye, so if you color both layers, the eye will be covered by the face color. If you do this, the only thing you have to do is to go to your layer panel and switch both layers’ position. However, you will be doing this automatically with some experience, so don’t worry too much.

According to the previous statement, I would advise to start inking from the background to the frontground elements. Trace the shape of the head, which will be containing other elements within. If you ink some element that should be aligned differently, just play with the layers on your layer panel to place it correctly.

In short: just click a point with the pen tool, click on the nearest point where the line makes a significant change of direction, and drag the line up to the point where it matches your sketch’s shape.

Don’t worry if your lines’ thickness look too similar, we will worry about that later. Now we just want them to be there and conform a good shape.

Notice that I have inked over the skirt, right? Well, that’s because when the skirt will be inked, it will be placed OVER the body, so you won’t see that ending part, you’ll see two lines going under the skirt. The same goes for the left “arm”, the one he’s holding up: you will be doing that one OVER the body, so it doesn’t matter that the line you’ve just inked goes over the arm, you won’t be seeing that afterwards.

If the shapes look good to you, keep on going, you will always have the chance to go back to your anchor points and adjust them.

STEP 4: Creating and replicating structures

Now, one of the greatest features that you will have at your disposal with this method is the replication of objects. You’re working with vectors here, and Illustrator allows you to select an object and “clone” it right away.

When creating a character, there are many objects that are basically the same, human appearance (or human-like appearance in this case) is often symmetric, so you will be drawing many almost-identical objects: two eyebrows for example.

Once you’ve done an eyebrow and you’re satisfied with its shape, click on the object with the selection tool (black arrow), then keep pressed ALT in your keyboard, and simply drag the object and drop it somewhere else. Voilà!! You’ve got two identical eyebrows with one click.

Maybe you’re not too enthusiastic about this, but when you’re working on something more ellaborated, you will realize how extremely useful this function can be. Imagine that you are creating a character with a long coat and many buttons with complicated details on it. You can design one button… and put the same button all over the coat with no effort whatsoever!! Cloning your best creations… Dolly style!!

This is also nice to experiment with shapes. Sometimes you’re not sure about something in particular: you can clone it and try something different. If it works, stick with it. If it doesn’t, your original work has not been touched. Pretty cool, uh?

STEP 5: Coloring your Artwork

We are done inking elements. Now we have a bunch of illustrator objects placed in a way that their shapes create our character, sort of. Don’t be too hard on yourself if it doesn’t look that good yet, there’s a lot of work to do.

At this point, we can add some colors to our objects to give some sense of perspective. This is another great aspect of Illustrator: coloring the different parts of your creations and changing those colors are as easy as clicking on them with your desired colors. You pick a color from your swatch palet and apply to the object. You don’t like it? Just pick another color and apply!!!

These are flat colors at this point. Color is quite important: lights and shadows give depth to your characters. But this tutorial is about inking, so coloring is just to give you an idea of how your inking goes.

STEP 6: Working your lines

I assume you’re done with your basic inking & coloring.

Now you realize the truth: it looks like a 3 year-old draw with pretty clean lines. Well, you’ve just did some clicks over the design, what did you expect? Be glad your lines are so stylized and nice, now it’s time to improve them. Remember: the more you work on your lines, the better they will look.

Now you have to play around with those anchor points, add some extra lines to add the details. Once you’ve inked the whole character, it’s time to give some weight to your lines. By changing the size of your lines you can achieve great visual impact, the character looks more complete.

As you have surely realized by now, your vectors have two different parts: fill and stroke. Strokes are the lines, fill is the color that is contained within your lines.

The easiest way to play with your lines is by altering the size of your strokes depending on the objects. You can select the body with your selection tool and then change the size of your stroke. By doing this you’re giving different dimensions to different body parts, and this improves the whole image.

A different approach to modify your lines without affecting the way the objects are colored is to expand your strokes.

Select a single object with your select tool. Click on the menu OBJECT -> EXPAND -> STROKE.

Now you’ve kept the basic color but your lines are now objects as well. Now you can change the thickness of your lines, they have become objects themselves and their dimensions are changeable by clicking those new anchor points that you have and increase the weight of your lines.

STEP 7: Add details

Finally, it’s time to cover the distance towards perfection. My advice? Give it time. Like anything else in life, you get better by practicing. So, practice, change it, mess around with your lines, change their color, size, thickness, sharpen the edges… whatever works for you and leaves you satisfied.

We have covered the basic inking here, the most easy and straight way of settling your lines to bring your creations to the digital world. I use color to complete the basic structures created and the results are pretty cool.

Any questions? Please, refer to the website of this article to see it with illustrative images: [http://www.danielmesa.com/blog/secrets-to-easy-inking]