How many times have we heard someone decry their artistic abilities with the claim, “I can’t even draw a straight line!”? The truth is, nobody can, at least not without some type of physical or mechanical aide. I once had an art teacher that was very clear to point out that the only straight line that can be created naturally is a beam of light. Her intent was to emphasize that we not waste our time or hers by trying to pass off a poorly executed line that was not properly ruled with a straightedge.
Today, creating a straight line is a piece of cake. With the advent of digital programs like Photoshop and Illustrator, making a straight line or the border of any shape is just a matter of a point and a click on your computer.
Making lines before the digital age, however, was a completely different issue and if you were making comics you made a lot of lines. Many of the best comics artists had interns whose sole job was to ink strait lines just because of how tedious it was. Lines form nearly every panel in a comic and most machinery and cityscapes that inhabit those panels require line after line to be precisely inked. That precision required special tools and techniques. Panels of course needed to be first ruled in pencil with a t-square and triangle to make sure that they were perfectly square as described in this earlier post The Process of Penciling: Part 3. If you were lucky enough to have pre-printed blue-line paper you were able to avoid this step and just rule your page with any straightedge.
Over the years a number of tools have been personal choices of many inkers but despite whatever tool was used to apply the ink the artist was sure to have a straightedge that was beveled or elevated to avoid the ink being sucked under the edge via capillary action causing the line to “bleed.” Many rulers have a special raised edge or a strip of cork underneath to keep the edge raised for this purpose. Sometimes pennies were taped to the underside of a straightedge to lift it away from the paper’s surface. This elevation was also necessary when using french curves and circle or oval templates as well.
I have seen inkers draw straight lines with everything from watercolor brushes and lettering nibs to magic markers. Black line tape was even popular for certain tasks. But one of my favorite tools was the now seemingly prehistoric ruling pen.
The ruling pen looked more like an archaic tool off a surgeon’s operating tray with it’s two well-honed blades coming together like a pair of finely pointed tweezers. The distance between the blades was controlled by a simple screw that could be tightened for thinner lines or loosened for wider ones.
Ink was applied simply by dipping the blades into an ink well, cleaning the outside of the blades, and drawing the charged tool along a straightedge or guide. With some practice lines became long and elegant. Extra thick lines could be created by making two parallel lines and filling them in using a brush. Some folks, including myself, liked to charge the pen by dripping ink between the blades using a dropper this eliminated the need to clean the blades. Higgins India Ink always came with its own dropper built into the lid of the bottle.
Ruling pens often came in drafting kits that included a compass that they could be fitted to for making incredible circles of any size and there was a bar attachment also that made it possible to make circles with a diameter of nearly two feet!
Starting and stopping the line without creating a “bead” took great skill, especially when making panel borders. Often it was easier to just over draw the lines so they crossed then go back in with an opaque white paint and clean up the edges making beautiful sharp corners.
Technical pens became a popular replacement for the ruling pen but they were pricy. For each line thickness an artist needed a different size pen and though they could draw for great lengths of time before being refilled they needed extensive cleaning and often clogged just when you needed them the most.
These tech pens were great when using templates, especially for making ovals which were very difficult if not impossible to master with a ruling pen. Many artists liked to ink with the tech pens but the pens had a need to be held at a 90 degree angle to the drawing board which sometimes made them frustrating to use as they would skip and make your hand cramp due to being held in an unnatural position.
Felt or fiber tipped versions of these tech pens, however, seemed to have endured the test of time. The reproductive and archival quality of the black ink in these pens has improved over the years. They are convenient, relatively inexpensive though, again, a new pen is needed for each preferred size. The more flexible tips make them easy to use at any angle and they are as disposable as your average felt tip pen.
In the end, the main objective was always as simple as getting the art in front of the camera. Because of this, many artists used whatever it took to lay down a line that would photograph with no worry about the longevity of the art after it was exposed. Consequently many lines were drawn with commercial felt tip markers that used cheap dyes which eventually expanded, absorbed by the paper, deforming the image of the original over time.
I am guilty myself of enjoying the use of the Pilot Razor Point and will buy them by the box whenever I see them as they are becoming increasingly hard to find. I also always liked to work with the Flair Fine Point for certain applications.
It is easy to look at the use of a felt tip pen with bias until you look at much of the latter work of the great Gil Kane who inked almost everything he did late in his career with a felt tip marker. He reveled in the freedom and convenience those pens provided and it showed in his work which was as vibrant as anything he’d ever created.
Today much of the line art in comics is generated digitally, especially the production work of panel borders and typography. The art of drawing and inking a strait line is no longer a practiced skill but a technical afterthought. Like the aficionados of a fine vellum Bristol paper stock, those of us who are exhilarated by the simple raised texture of a rich black line of india ink cast from the blades of a ruling pen may be a dwindling breed but we will always relish those days when ink stains on our drawing hand typified a proud job well done.
Making comics because I want to.