23 Feb 2016

Upon accepting the position of Inkwell ambassador as reported last month Rich Buckler graciously offered the non-profit organization to share this new, fascinating material on his thoughts on the art form of inking and his career experiences with it. Rich is an accomplished teacher on sequential art storytelling and master of many of the necessary skills involved in comic book production including INKING.  He has had several comic How-To books published in ’80s-’90s on these crafts.

Thanks, Rich!



Inking As Drawing…

©2015 Rich Buckler

Most comic book art is a collaboration of a pencil artist and an ink artist. Two artists who produce, in separate stages, the finished art that (after being lettered and colored) goes to the printer. So really, every printed page has actually been drawn twice.

Most comics fans do not have a good understanding of that creative process and what that involves. Misunderstanding what an inker does can can cause all sorts of distorted ideas. Comic book pencillers have all sorts of ideas about inking. Some think inkers are only tracers (which is not accurate) or, at best they are a necessary evil (which is very inaccurate). Sometimes the inker gets too much credit for the look of the final art–sometimes, not enough.

I see the penciller/inker collaboration as a team effort. Inkers are artists. And every team effort of pencillers and inkers on a comic book is almost always a compromise.

There are no “super inkers” who make every penciller look great no matter whose art they ink (I wish there were!). That is just a gross exaggeration. Some combinations do work better than others. Generally inkers do a judicious amount of embellishing and make “improvements”–but not all of them do this. And nobody is perfect.
So let’s take a look at what inkers do.

The inker is responsible for the final look of the art–to make it as sharp and attractive for reproduction as possible. In that sense, they do correct things as they work. For example, a stray line, a missed detail, or some appropriate added black areas here and there–things like that. Pencillers who ink their own work do this too.

Nobody even attempts to duplicate exactly all of the subtleties and nuances of the pencil work. That is not only not desirable, it is practically impossible. What the inker is expected to do is faithfully render the drawings effectively in ink. He/she is expected to know good draftsmanship but not expected to redraw what has already been drawn.

Which is not to say that that doesn’t involve drawing; of course it does! So, ideally, every professional inker should have a good grasp of the basics of drawing. Why is that essential? When the inker comes on board everything has already been drawn, right?

Well, consider this: A good professional inker will never merely trace pencil lines with a pen and brush. That’s not inking; it’s just tracing. Trust me, that approach is amateurish and only produces mediocre results. A really substandard inker (one who is not competent or whose drawing skills are not up to professional standards, that is) may get work, but not for long–and certainly not on a regular basis! Okay, in the comics a few bad inking jobs may happen. (And it’s a wonder that there are not more!) But that almost never occurs on a top book. And I don’t know of a single instance where a totally inept artist was ever afforded the opportunity to make a career out of it.

A skillful inker’s job is to give artistic expression to something that is already there–but at the same time, as an artist superimposing his own stylized version of things onto that. Yes, some are “heavy-handed”, some are a bit overly neat and precise, some are loose and “organic”, etc. It takes all kinds!

Now, occasionally there may be minor corrections or refinements that are done in the inking stage. And some of these get done later in the production stage when it is called for. However, what the ink artist is not there to do is to alter the dynamics of the figures or the action. He shouldn’t have to significantly “fix up” anything. Nor is it desirable for the inker to depart dramatically from what the pencil artist intended. Still, this will always vary from inker to inker.

So how important is the ink stage? Well, the very best inkers can make a mediocre penciller look competent, a good penciller look great, and a brilliant penciller look like the genius that he is–and we all wish that would happen a lot more, right? I can’t speak for all professionals, of course, but it is pretty much a given that nobody involved in the production of a comic book is an intentional slacker or is goofing off or faking it. You can’t fake being a professional. Well, actually you can–but certainly not for very long!

Ask any artist in comics what it’s like to draw comics for a living. They’ll always tell you how easy it is, right? Um, nope. Not if they’re honest about it. It’s long hours and hard work. When the work is handed in to the publisher, an artist could die of old age waiting for a compliment. That goes double for inkers! The truth is, even with the so-called superstars, those artists who make a career of it are overworked, under-appreciated and underpaid. That’s how it really is.

More About What An Inker Does…

I also ink my own work. Most pencillers do not. And I think that many pencil artists in the comics business tend to be too tough on inkers and often judge them too harshly. Pencillers should at least try to do what inkers do–and maybe then they would lighten up a bit! What learning how to ink taught me was a greater understanding and appreciation of artists like Dick Giordano and Frank Giacoia and Vince Colletta. Knowing these artists personally also gave me a valuable “insider” view of how each of them worked.

I’m self-taught as an artist, and as such I had to suss out a lot of what was needed on my own. Still I had much to learn, and those three very accomplished professionals above taught me firsthand a great deal about the craft of inking. With every pencil job I did, I learned something new. By observing and studying what various inkers did over my pencil work, I saw a lot of areas where I could improve my drawing and make my next pencil assignment look even better.

Inking Is Drawing–And Thinking!…

As I mentioned earlier, Inking is actually drawing in ink. Well, think about it for a moment–for a penciller that is initially a very scary prospect. It means working in a permanent medium, and–no way around it!–having to nail every detail of what has been depicted in the pencil original—with no mistakes! When I first tackled the job of inking my own work, that part of it was very intimidating.

Yes, minor mistakes can always be corrected with “white-out.” That’s your “safety net.” While that can be helpful, it’s not a panacea. The last thing you want is a lot of ink corrections showing up on the page because you “dropped the ball” too many times–even if you’re inking over your own pencil work. And if you’re inking another artist’s work (which I have done quite a few times in my career) chances are you know the guy and will see him again. So you don’t, of course, want to tick off the penciller!

So, How Do They Do It..?

Inkers do not think like pencil artists. They don’t have to. It’s a whole other mindset really. The ink artist doesn’t have to be concerned about the minutia of layout and storytelling or anything about how a comics page is conceptualized. That’s the penciller’s domain. By the time the inker comes on there aren’t any real drawing problems left to solve. Or rather, there shouldn’t be!

So if the pencil artist was really thorough, he has taken care of business and has done all of the tough drawing work. Taking into account different styles and pencil techniques, the ideal pencil page for an inker to work on is one where everything on the page has been clearly delineated and is relatively easy to follow. That doesn’t mean the inker just dips his brush in ink, cancels his brain and just lets his hand fly and do the thinking for him! It’s hard work that requires a lot of solid drawing knowledge and intense concentration.

Since literally all of the pencil art will be erased at a later stage, what has been rendered in ink should be at least as good as what was “underneath” it–and hopefully even better! To accomplish that requires a vast amount of skill and–yes–a whole lot of thinking! We’re talking hundreds, even thousands, of decisions that occur during the work process–all of this being accomplished with verve, a steady hand and unwavering confidence.

Ever notice this? The pencil artists always seem to get the most attention. Okay, maybe that’s with good reason in a lot of instances, and that’s how it’s always been. But you want to know what I think? Just to be able to ink consistently well and fast is probably one of the most valued and underrated skills any artist can possess. And those artists who specialize as inkers and consistently achieve excellence are a veritable treasure!

Some Work Methods…

Frank Giacoia and Mike Esposito showed me how to work very methodically. We got to talk shop quite a bit. I would hang out in Marvel’s bullpen from time to time, and they gave me a lot of tips and shared many bona fide tricks of the trade. A lot of planning is involved, so it is always preferable to be highly organized and work in a methodical way. Let’s get into that.

With both Frank and Mike, we’re talking an enormous amount of experience and know-how. As an inking team they rendered many of the covers I drew for Marvel’s British reprints. When these two artists worked together, you could hardly tell that the finished product was the work of two inkers!

I always admired Frank Giacoia’s expressive brush work and his bold yet lyrical rendering on figures. I could just imagine that, to Frank, it was like music– where he was the virtuoso composer who surely understood there are no “bad” notes, only wrong ones and right ones. Frank once pointed out to me that when you do it right–inking, that is–“It will always look like you did more than you did. But it’s actually less work than you thought it would be.” To that he slyly added, “There is a trick to it, though. You have to really know what you’re doing!”

That was a bit of Frank’s spry sense of humor. But he was right.

There really are no shortcuts to the craft of inking. That’s what I found out and that’s what he was getting at. As I like to say, you can’t get there before you get there! Here is more or less how Frank and Mike’s work process went (according to how it was related to me):

The inking process is broken down into careful steps and stages–in other words, the inker takes things one step at a time and is always being mindful to never get ahead of himself. The very first and crucial step is to “outline” the figures and objects. This “outlining” would be very basic ink line work that is just enough to define forms. This first step would lay the ink foundation–everything afterward would be built on that.
All of the finesse and brushwork and detailing would then be done in later steps (what Frank would call “the fun stuff”). You could look at it as a sort of “flesh” that would go over that “skeleton” (outlining). And that’s not just with the figure work–everything gets this systematic and orderly treatment.

Now if you’re not an artist, you might assume the inker would render the first panel on the page to a finish and then move on to the next panel, right? That seems to make sense, right? I know that’s what I thought way back when I was still in the amateur stages. But that’s not at all the case. The professional way to do it is to work the whole page–to move around, all the while carefully pacing yourself without spending too much time on any one area at first. Just sort of “feeling things out”. Thinking and feeling, thinking and feeling–letting things develop a little at a time. Also it would not be unusual to have three or four pages going more or less at the same time with the inker (or in this case, inkers) bouncing back and forth as the “muse” dictates.

Okay, so much for the technical stuff.

Did I mention that working while in a relaxed state is essential? That is particularly applicable to comics artists since they work under lots of pressure. An artist will never get good results if he gets all cramped up and tense. Let that happen and you just end up struggling to draw anything, whether it’s in pencil or ink–and that is something a professional will never do!

Drawing Is Organized Thought…

I remember an anecdote Mike Esposito once related to me about his experiences back in the heyday of the (Ross) Andru and Esposito team. (I just have to mention here that Ross has always been one of my favorites. Conceptually he was always spot on, and he was never afraid to take chances to expand on the medium.) The following sounds like it might be true even though I knew Mike was often prone to exaggeration just to make a point.

According to Mike, Ross’s pencil work was “quite the opposite of minimalism”. He told me that conceptually it was all there on the page, but in terms of pencil lines there was so much of it! I never actually saw the art Mike was using as an example, but he said that Ross would draw with so many sets of lines that the pages almost seemed to vibrate. To ink it, Mike said that he had to just pick out one set of lines and wing it. Obviously he didn’t mean that literally, but you get the idea.

I’m going to point out something now that may be viewed as somewhat of an anomaly. Nevertheless, it is true. Every comics artist knows (or should know if they don’t) that it’s not about the lines. The lines are what you use to get you there! It’s not about straight or crooked or beautiful or how many lines you use or how few. Concept comes first, before the hand of the artist starts to move. An amateur will scribble away–but an accomplished professional artist conceptualizes first. And the very best inkers in the comics industry do this too.

On another level it’s all energy. My guess is that those “vibrating” Ross Andru lines Mike referred to were the energy and vitality of Ross’s organized thought!

Some Reminiscing On My Very Early Work…

Back in the early 1970s when I first broke into comics, I knew fairly well how to ink my own work already. It didn’t come easy, though. When I first began to learn how to ink (and this was long before I even had anything printed), I had many wrong ideas. I can tell you from experience that at the beginning, in my first few efforts, I was totally lost.

It’s a good thing I took up my inking studies early in my youth! As with any discipline, once you get down the basics, the learning curve starts to work in your favor. We learn by doing–and experience is the real teacher! In my very earliest attempts at inking, I remember that I was lucky if I could ink straight lines on anything (with or without a straight edge) without the ink leaking and bleeding and making an ugly mess.

Oh, yeah–one more thing I should mention…

Remember what I said earlier, that every single comic book cover and story page that you have ever seen has actually been drawn twice? After reading all of the above and keeping that in mind, the next time you pick up a comic book to read and to admire the art, you should be able to appreciate it at least twice as much!