Writer. Creator. Large mammal.

The Inking Rant

Storytelling Lecture Series, Part 20

And now, some points about inking. Inking is a complex discipline. It requires the following: 

1) Control of the tools, that is, being able to make the pen or brush make exactly the mark on the paper that you want it to every time—nothing accidental. 

Vince Colletta could make a perfect circle freehand, with a brush, exactly even line weight all the way around. Best hands in the business, or at least tied for same. I’ll tell you about Russ Heath sometime.

2) Mastering technique. You need to know what to do with the tools to make hair look like hair, glass look like glass, sand look like sand, etc. If you tried to develop your own techniques for every occasion, it would take you decades. Better to learn from your favorite inkers. Check, for instance, how John Romita, Sr. does highlights on hair. Take a look at how Dick Giordano renders metal. See how Klaus Janson does glass and reflective surfaces. Take a look at how Wally Wood did everything. Learn from the best. It’s not cheating—it’s building upon the visual language comics artists have been developing for more than a century. 

You can develop your own techniques as you go along after you learn the existing ones. For instance, Klaus was a Giordano student. Giordano rendered glass with a wavy line technique—pretty much a cartoon glyph. Klaus took a good look at windows (and Gil Kane’s pencils) and came up with a more realistic technique that featured the reflection of the wall around the window, which is generally what you see if the light is coming from an angle. Very cool. 

Effective technique communicates, and that’s what it’s all about. 

3) Creating the illusion of depth. Depth is the key to clarity. Inkers control black, white and gray, that is, the extremes of VALUE, lightness and darkness, and to some extent, gray, the middle ground. Value—lightness and darkness—is THE most effective tool for creating the illusion of depth.

Let me say that again. THE most effective weapon for creating the illusion of depth on the flat surface of the paper is value. Generally, a progression of values. 

The basic “atmospheric” progression of values is from dark to light. Dark values on things close are very dark. The mountains in the distance gray out and almost blend into the sky. 

Yes, yes, the colors are brighter and more intense up close, the color contrasts are clearer, but remember, we’re talking inking here. Black, white, gray. We’ll get to color later.

So dark, lighter, lightest, natural “atmospheric perspective” is a commonly seen value progression. 

But, you don’t have to look around too far in nature to find others. Light to dark—the sun shining where we are, clouds over the hills in the distance, the mountains far away are almost silhouetted. Dark-light-darker—a dark room, a lit hallway and an even darker room across the hall. Light-dark-lighter. You figure it out. Every combination, every progression you can imagine. Doesn’t have to be three planes, foreground, middle ground and background. Could be as many as you want. 

The important thing is to separate planes—even if the planes are only feet apart, you have to create progression/separation. Check out Woody’s work, and Eisner’s and Kubert’s. 

Also, get to the Met, to the Dutch Masters room and check out the Dutch Masters. The Dutch were fascinated by light and its effects in the 1600’s. That’s when van Leeuwenhoek made great advancements developing the microscope.   

Look at the Dutch Masters’ paintings. Find the work on line if you can’t get to the Met. Miles of depth in those landscapes. A lit plane, a shadowed plane, another lit but lighter plane, cloud-shrouded mountains in the distance, lit sky. You can see for miles and miles. 

Notice the fact that it was almost a requirement for every painting of an interior to have reflective, transparent, translucent, matte and semi-gloss objects. 

They used value to separate planes and create depth. Why? Because it works. Because that’s how it occurs in nature. Because that’s how YOU do it every minute of every day. 

You have to be a picture maker. You can’t ink a panel a piece at a time. First, you’ve got to study the pencils and PLAN how you’re going to use value to ORGANIZE the illustration to make it read, make it have the illusion of depth. 

Other useful weapons at the inker’s command in that endeavor are line weight, levels of detail/rendering (i.e., an object at twenty yards has less detail than an object close up) and contrast. You can make progressions of high contrast to medium contrast to low contrast. Or any permutation of such. Get it? No rules. Make it work. Separate planes, create depth or you’re making Rorschach tests. 

Value is by far your most powerful tool.

I tried to explain this to inker Dan Green way back when. He was inking the X-Men. He didn’t get it. One day he brought one of his paintings into the office. Who knew he painted? Five miles of depth in that sucker. I said, “Dan! Like this, but with ink!” He said, “Oh, that’s what you mean.” And ever thereafter, while I was at Marvel, he did it brilliantly. He’s a tremendous talent, a great inker, a great artist.

Someday, I will find the guy who invented the expression “spotting blacks,” and kill him with my shoe. Spotting blacks—scattering black areas around the panel stupidly? WHAT?

There are people who should know better who advocate making an “interesting pattern,” an “abstract design” with the placement of black areas in the panel. They are insane. 

Even the great John Buscema, in How to draw Comics the Marvel Way says that crap!

John seldom inked, but when he did, he never sabotaged his art by destroying the depth by “spotting blacks.” He knew better. He was a great artist. If he had lived during the Renaissance, he’d have given Michaelangelo a run for his money. Yes, I’m serious.

So why did he say it? John wasn’t a writer. He wasn’t good at explaining what he did so brilliantly and naturally. He had to write something, and that was a thing you were supposed to say. He was trying to fill space.

Don’t spot blacks. Make depth.

4) An inker needs to be able to draw well to properly interpret the meaning of the pencils. He or she has to know the convex and concave parts of the body as well as the penciler does, and convey the right information. An inker should use reference. Get it right. Even with tight pencils, there is always room for interpretation. Get it right.  

Learn to draw better, and you’ll be improving your inking skills automatically. This is the advice I gave Miller, Lapham and many others, and they turned out okay.

Pencilers and inkers—use a ruler. Use templates. Never freehand any man-made or machined object. Do not cheat. Do not fake it. Get it right. Yes, it will take much more time—for a while—until you polish up the skills. But, better one good page than ten bad ones.


Storytelling Lecture, Strange Tales Part 8


Color Theory


  1. Sam Grainger was a pretty good inker, as I recall. I'd have dig out some of his books and have a look to give you a more thorough assessment.

  2. Anonymous

    How do you like Sam Grainger's inks?

  3. I got that image from a site that represented it as Raymond's work. I should have looked more cloesly. Thanks.

  4. Oh, and by the way, I think the beautiful inking on the Frazetta "Squeeze Play" story is by Frank himself from what I've read.

    The splash page of the two figures in the ship in the foreground (the one before Toth) is not Raymond but the late, great, underrated Roy Krenkel. (At least it looks like his stuff, and I can make out "R.G.K." in the top right corner.)

    For those of your fans who don't know, he was one of Frazetta's mentors as well as one of the EC greats; he also painted several of the Ace ERB paperback covers.

    You can send my No-Prize to Bob Almond so they can auction it off for the Inkwell Awards! 🙂


  5. Thanks for taking the time to respond, Jim.

    You say tomato, I say Tow-Mater. As long as the story is told effectively and efficiently, we can call it whatever we want.

    I could go on about VC but this isn't the place. He's controversial so disagreement abounds. He excelled on the romance genre and I enjoyed his work there much, much more than on Kirby.

    I would like to suggest and recommend the recent book, Vince Colletta: The Thin Black Line, from TwoMorrows for any of his fans.

    Mike Pascale

  6. Ray

    I read a very clear, cogent post on this subject a year or so ago that defines the roll of an inker. Here's the link http://www.marklipka.com/inkerdo.htm to the article called "What Does An Inker Do?"

  7. 1) I didn't think the names mattered. It's the technique. For the record, from top to bottom, the illos are by Kubert, Williamson, Frazetta,
    Willaimson, Raymond, Toth, Toth, Foster, Foster, Heath and Foster.

    At Marvel, once in a while, when a book crossed my desk that was either a good example or a bad example of inking, I would occasionally bury the splash page in the middle somewhere, show the book to an assistant or even an editor sometimes — a person who had not worked on that book — and ask them what they thought of the inking. It was a test to see whether they were paying attention to anything I was telling them.

    It was amazing how many of them hemmed and hawed as they quickly flipped through the pages searching for the splash page — and the credits — so they could see, by the name, whether it was inked by someone they were SUPPOSED to like or not.

    2) I agree.

    3) You can call it "spotting blacks" if you like. I think that's a misleading term. Organize. Use value to create the illusion of depth. Of course storytelling is job one, and depth is the key to clarity. I get uncomfortable when people talk about "moving the eye around the page." Same thing, it's misleading. The last thing I want is for an inker to be working out "directionals" when he or she ought to be making each panel a picture that delivers its content effectively.

    ASIDE: Once in a while, there will come along a panel in which the storytelling point to be made is that the content is NOT clear. Guess what, inkers, if the story calls for obfuscation, go for it. Otherwise, depth and clarity, please. Serve the story.

    4) I'd love, just once for someone to give evidence that Vince erased a figure or a background out of laziness or any ill intent.. I acknowledge the possibility that he did cut a corner once in a while, since he was often called upon by production manager John Veerporten to deliver "ink on the pages" in three days because the penciler was so late and the writer made the book even later.

    Vince worked for Veerporten, not the penciler. Vince said, "Yes, sir," and did as ordered. He never, ever failed to deliver as promised. And, if you think some of those jobs weren't great, I challenge you to come up with anyone that could have done half as well in the same amount of time. Three days. Literally.

    That said, I, personally know of no such instance of corner-cutting.

    Once a penciler complained bitterly to me that Vince had erased a nightstand beside a bed. I got out the pencil xeroxes. In one panel, the penciler had drawn a nightstand on either side of the bed. In another he had drawn just one, on one side of the bed. Since the job was late as hell, thanks to the penciler, Vince chose to erase one nightstand in the first panel rather than take the time to draw in a second one in the other panel.

    Personally, I liked Ayers, Woody, Giacoia and Vinnie best over Kirby — in no particular order.

  8. Mike P said…
    Great article and explanation, Jim. Thanks on behalf of "real" inkers everywhere and those who appreciate them. Great inking can be like oenomel for the visuals.

    Few quick points:
    1) Why no credits for the pics you showed? Only a few are signed/labelled. They must be someone's hard work. Or are we invited to guess for a prize? 🙂

    2) Much of what you describe (and display with the pics chosen) doesn't exist these days. Today, many inkers, at least for the big two, have become little more than "outliners" for the heavily rendered Photoshop coloring/digital painting that permeates superhero comics. (Sad in my opinion.) How much actual rendering and value do you see now? Even line weights aren't as varied as they once were. Worse, many pencillers now are required to "ink with a pencil" as the pencils are simply darkened and colored over, avoiding the ink stage entirely.

    That's a shame as many of today's inkers are not able to use their considerable skills, talents and abilities. More good inking seems to exist in the alternative publishers' wares.

    3) I've always had a completely different definition of "spotting blacks" and think it's a valuable skill. The term (to me) refers to the *placement* of heavier black areas (value, in your discussion) to help aid the reader's eye in moving around the page in the *desired manner." I think as an editor you would agree that storytelling is Job One in comics, and the art must first serve that purpose before aesthetics. (Two great examples are Neal Adams and Steranko, who could have the funkiest layouts and still make 'em readable; and the skill in spotting blacks–value–helped.)

    4) No offense to Vinnie fans, but Joe Sinnott and Mike Royer were better on Kirby. And they didn't have to erase figures and backgrounds either. 😉

    Seriously, thanks again for your article.


  9. Derrick, check out this piece by JRJR & Williamson, first time I've seen it http://bit.ly/kt5z4s

  10. Jim,

    Thanks for the response, that really cleared things up. Any drawing ability I have (which admittedly isn't much) started from reading How To Draw the Marvel Way when I was eight.

    In regards to your comment about John Buscema's hands, I've heard the same comments about Billy Joel's hands. Hard to believe such beautiful piano music could come from those plump mitts.

  11. Bosch, I have to say that my favorite inker on John Romita Jr. AND John Buscema happens to be the same master artist: Al Williamson. If I die a TWENTIETH as good an artist, I'll die ahead of the curve.

    Mr. Shooter, thanks for both the great and informative blog, but the awe inspiring examples for wannabes like me to learn from.

  12. Dear Matt,

    Pencils vary from "breakdowns," which are pretty much just the outlines of things, to extremely tightly rendered "full pencils." Breakdowns are inked by a "finisher," who adds the rendering, detail, texture, etc. Full pencils are inked, presumably faithfully, by an inker, who theoretically is following through on the penciler's indications. Finishing pays more than inking. Different pencil artists do different degrees of completion — some leave a lot to the finisher or inker, some don't.
    Or, at least that's the way it used to be. Fewer breakdowns, now, I think, and more people inking their own stuff.

    John Buscema generally did breakdowns. Gene Colan did full pencils. Gil Kane did full pencils that were almost as sparse as John Buscema's breakdowns, but nobody cared because they were so good and the intent was clear even if they weren't rendered in detail. Curt Swan's pencils were tight and bulletproof.

    The trick was to match an inker/finisher with the penciler/breakdown artist. You had to put good finishers who could draw well on Buscema's stuff. Though the foundation he laid down was genius, impeccable, you needed a guy like Frank Giacoia or Dan Adkins or Joe Sinnott who could pick up the ball and run with it. Few besides Tom Palmer could handle the side-of-the-pencil halftones Colan used. Put Gil with Wally Wood or Rudy Nebres or Klaus Janson and the results were brilliant. Curt's stuff was probably less challenging, because he was tight, right and thorough, but George Klein over his stuff was wonderful. And Vince Colletta over Kirby was a great match. Did you know that Colletta won Marvel's FOOM Fan Award as "Best Inker" a number of times? Those old Thor comics were terrific.

    And, yes, John was "spotting words."

    John was terrific. Maybe the best artist ever in the biz, or certainly among the top guys. Big, beefy hands. Not what you'd expect of a guy who had such delicate, perfect control and touch. He always used to joke, "If I had it to do over again, I would have become a butcher. People always have to eat." Right. What a loss that would have been. I miss him. The world is far poorer for his absence.

  13. Sadly, the Dark Horse books don't have inking like you describe. They either look like they were inked with a sharpie or the look like they are sketch art darkened with Photoshop. I liked Josh Adams' rant on inking. He said (I paraphrase) that most modern inkers add nothing to the pencils. Unfortunately, they don't. I'm an EC fan. My jaw has dropped looking at some of the Wally Wood panels in the originals. EC got it right and factored the low paper quality into the mix perfectly. Don't waste your time looking at the reprints though. Nothing compares to an original. At the first convention I attended, I was watching George Perez do a convention sketch. I didn't even know who he was. He was drawing Wolverine and explaining to the people watching that you have to space the hairs just right or it won't look right when it's reduced and printed. Artists and inkers need to know exactly what a reduced piece will look like printed and that takes experience. Kim DeMulder told me how Dick Giordano taught him to ink smoke using his thumbprint. If it works,. by all means do it and don't try to reinvent the wheel from scratch.

    If you are drawing Dilbert cartoons, the above techniques matter far less. If you are drawing normal comics such as those DC and Marvel produce, I think the techniques outlined above are required to produce professional work. There are a wide range of styles between cartoon art and professional comic books. The middle ground is taboo. It just looks like you aren't good enough to be working in the comics industry.

  14. "Creating the illusion of depth. Depth is the key to clarity."

    We are so struggling with that!

    Our most current issue, however, is coming together nicely with many tips taken right from these posts. Thanks again.

  15. Great post Jim. Even after reading comics for 20 years I'm just beginning to get the discerning eye for inkers.
    One inker I've come to love is tom Palmer. I first noticed him on John Buscema's 80's run of the Avengers. He added a tremendous polish to John's amazing pencils. I latter noticed him on Colan's work. Wonderful!
    Dan Adkins is another inker I've loved on Gulacy's Master of Kung Fu. No one brought out the precision of Gulacy like Adkins.
    Ayers is my favorite inker on kirby's FF. He softened Kirby's hard edge in a wonderful way.
    And Frazetta is just incomparable! He has a touch that is free and precise at the same time. There's no one else like him! Here is a link to a Frazetta original art page of Thunda- http://www.aagal.com/cochran/thundamonsterspg06.jpg
    But these are just a few of the inkers I've grown to appreciate. I still have much to learn about the art.

  16. You hit the nail on the head with this one. Thanks!

  17. I'm still unsure of where the penciller's job ends and the inker's begins. I've seen pencils where there's lots of shading (which I thought was the inker's job) and where reflective surfaces are rendered (another job I thought was the inker's). Is the relationship mostly informal and varying between the artists or is there a standard (as in, this is what you, the inker, are paid for and this is what you, the penciller, are paid for).

    "He had to write something, and that was a thing you were supposed to say. He was trying to fill space."
    So you're saying he was spotting words?

  18. To help become more conscious about exactly why you do what you do is what I appreciate about posts like this.

    On Dan Green, I don't think anyone inked John Romita Jr. better.

    And on John Buscema, his work Never looked better than when he inked it himself. I suppose that ought to be the case with all artists, but it clearly isn't. His brush line was as beautiful as his anatomy.

  19. Dear Jim,

    What do you think is the biggest misconception about inking? I would suggest that it's the false equation of inking with tracing. If inking were merely tracing, inkers wouldn't have to know how to draw. But has there ever been an inker who couldn't draw?

    Your objection to making an "interesting pattern" out of black areas may also apply to making interesting patterns out of panel shapes or even story elements. These are all creators' attempts to please themselves. "Wow, look at how clever I am!" I think, "Nah, how much better would this be if you focused on telling a story instead?"

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