Pretty In Ink: An Overview of Pen and Ink Illustration

Pen and ink illustration is a deceptively difficult medium to define. On the one hand, it seems obvious: artwork, rendered with pen and paper. But there’s so much more to it than that.

Dogwood pen and ink illustration

Dogwood via Bluprint instructor Shadra Strickland

Here’s an overview of pen and ink illustrations, meant to educate and inspire your creative flow.

Pen and ink is an amazingly versatile medium that can be used to create illustrations of all sorts. From delicately rendered cross-hatched pieces to bold, thick-lined cartoons, pen and ink can be combined with watercolor to create ambient worlds or colored digitally to create pieces with popping color.

Eloise-themed cupcake illustration tells a story

Illustration via CakeSpy

A pen and ink illustration, as the name implies, is a piece that is primarily created using an ink pen and drawing paper. However, this is an overly simplified way of describing a very huge sector of art.

Just to clear something up: An illustration is not just a pretty drawing. It’s a method of illustrating an idea in image form. This is a uniquely conceptual type of art that straddles the line between fine art and graphic art. Pen and ink is a versatile combination of media that is well suited to expressing ideas in illustrated form.

What goes into a pen and ink illustration?

If illustrating is telling a story, then how do you translate the thought into pen and ink images? The short answer is, grab a pen and paper and draw something. But to delve into it in slightly more detail, here are some of the key components:


Sketch coming to life with pen and ink

Illustration via CakeSpy

We can call this part “learn the rules before you break them.” Learning the proper techniques for creating pen and ink illustrations, such as creating a sketches or creating character studies, can add to the overall effect of your artwork. For more information on some of the “rules” of illustration, check out this post on the essential techniques for painted illustrations.


Birds rendered in delicate lines

Illustration via Margie Moore illustration

For such a simple pairing of media, pen and ink can be applied in a staggering number of ways, from delicate cross-hatched pieces which look most beautiful when displayed in person to simple line-driven drawings which are intended for scanning. Working in a style that feels authentic to you will create a sense of storytelling.


Pen and ink on paper

Illustration via CakeSpy

Further versatility comes from the variety of pens and papers with which you can create pen and ink illustrations. Using a quill pen on a cream-colored drawing paper can have a distinctly different effect from using a felt tip pen on a lightly textured illustration board.

Media, paired with style and technique, add up to a wide-reaching method of working in pen and ink. What this means is that artwork is varies from the below pictured painterly piece, which is composed of pen and ink and watercolor…

Raccoon baking a cake, rendered in pen and ink and watercolor

Illustration via Margie Moore illustration

to the next image, a bold pen and ink piece scanned and colored digitally.

A digitally colored pen and ink illustration

Illustration via CakeSpy

Both are still very much pen and ink illustrations.

Advantages of pen and ink illustration

  • The required equipment is minimal and affordable.
  • It’s a portable method of doing artwork. The supplies travel well (no toting around a huge easel and suitcase full of paint).
  • This method of creating artwork will improve your overall artistic skills, as the line quality, shapes, shading and composition are valuable skills no matter the medium.
  • Pen and ink illustrations reproduce easily and well.
  • This method makes for great mixed media: pen and ink works beautifully with a variety of other media, such as watercolor, acrylic, colored pencil or even digital media.

Further exploration

Unicorn dream image in pen and ink

Illustration via CakeSpy

Interested in delving further into the fantastic world of pen and ink illustration? For a detailed exploration of various pen and ink techniques, check out this post. You can find more tricks for streamlining your illustration process with this post on 7 awesome pen and ink drawing tips.

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