This week: What is this thing, and what do I do with it?

Comic Tools reader Stephen emailed me saying that his girlfriend has bought him a ruling pen (good girlfriend), and he was wondering what it was and what do you do with it.

A ruling pen is a very old-fashioned precision drafting tool. It it one of the tools that allowed illustrators and letterers to create the kind of super-precise drawings that people now use illustrator to create. Think stuff like the Sears and Robuck catalogue.

A ruling pen is basically a two-pronged fork of metal with a screw that allows you to bend the points closer together or farther apart.

To use the pen you dip it into ink about half an inch deep and then lift it out,

Which will leave you with a very sizable bead if ink in between the prongs. The ink is held between the prongs by surface tension, and as long as you don't sharply hit the ruling pen it will stay there. Being able to hold so much ink at once means you can draw an insane amount of lines before you need to dip the ruling pen again.

After you've dipped the ruling pen, you need to wipe the ink off the outsides of the pen's forks, or else it will crust on or smear where it's not wanted. I like using a folded up paper towel. You must be careful NOT to allow the ink inside the pen to touch the paper towel or it will suck up your entire load of ink.

Ruling pens aren't generally used as a freehand drawing tool- they excel at precise ruling of straight lines and curves. Whether you're using a ruler or a French curve or a triangle, you need something that has a beveled or elevated edge. If your ruler lies flat on the page then the ink will get sucked right under the ruler and spread. An elevated edge insures this won't happen. I have two elevated rulers, one with cork backing and one with foam rubber. I prefer the foam rubber because it has some traction and stays put even on an inclined drafting table.

If your tool isn't beveled or elevated, you can tape pennies onto the bottom to raise it up.

To use the pen with a ruler or French curve, simply adjust the pen to the line width you want and draw against the edge of the ruler.

Ruling pens will draw for a crazy amount of time with thin lines, but as you can see in the picture below (click to enlarge), the thicker you go the faster you use up ink. However, you can get around this problem (and draw a razor-straight line of any, literally ANY width) just by drawing two parallel straight thin lines and then filling in between them with a brush, or even digitally later.

Old drafting tool sets also come with ruling pen attachments for their compasses, allowing you to ink the circles you've drawn with a totally even, uniform line. (which again, can be literally ANY width at all, by making two small lines and filling between them)

As you can see below, my ruling pen attachment has an adjustable joint to keep the ruling pen straight up and down with the paper, ensuring both prongs are always touching the page.

Next week: Tiny metal ball

Sorry everyone, I got so caught up cooking last night that I totally forgot it was posting day. I'll have an entry up tonight.
Reader question:

B2-kun asks:

For the other Pitt pen nib sizes, my problem is that I tend to wear them down and damage them before I can use up the original ink load. Has anybody verified if the brush nib flipping trick also works with the Big Pitt brush pens yet?

B2-kun's question refers to how on Pitt pens you can pull out the fiber tip nib, turn it around, and shove it back in, and voila'!, you have a brand new tip.

I don't know the answer because I hate Pitt pens like poison myself, though not as much as I hate microns. Any Pitt pen folks who can help him out?
Reader Tip

Comic Tools reader Hugo Sleestak writes:

Several years ago, a group of editorial cartoonists I was associated with introduced me to Pitt brush markers. Now, brush markers will never replace real brushes for me, but they're convenient and portable, so they have their value. ANYWAY, eventually my batch dried up, as markers will do.

I hate waste (plus, I'm CHEAP), so I thought I'd "recycle" these markers by refilling them. I busted the cap off of the back of the barrel and poured in a small amount of Rapidograph technical pen ink very slowly. Voila! The marker was as good as new! You can refill them like this repeatedly. I've been doing this with some markers for five years or more. The foam "brush" part mushes down after awhile as it wears out, but they still work for broad strokes or for black fills.

Thanks again for the cool blog.

And thank YOU, Hugo!

This Week: Refining

One of my favorite things about the internet is all the in-process artwork cartoonists and comics fans are always posting.

Being a good artist is all about self-editing. On their first crack at a page, a good artist will have a lot of great ideas, a lot of ideas that could be better, and a lot of crappy ideas. Most of the crappy ideas get thrown out while still inside their head, but most times the first draft of a page ends up being a few good spots in the drawing held together with a whole lot of meh drawing. Passable, serviceable, not-terrible enough to warrant any strong response drawing.

As an artist it's incredibly morale-lifting to know that your heroes make as much mediocre art as you do. But they refine their art as they go, strengthening good ideas into great ones, making the drawing stronger, until the whole page is vital and satisfying. The only way to learn this is to do it yourself and to look at how others do it.

Here's the first sketch Brian Lee O'Malley did for Scott Pilgrim 5:

As you can see, it's a perfectly serviceable image. Nothing is wonky or horrible or notably badly drawn. But it just doesn't have KICK. It's alright, and the fact that it's alright and not awesome means it's as failed a drawing as an actually bad drawing, from the standpoint of an artist who gives a shit. Which Brian does, so he did another:

KABLAM! Better use of hand gesture. Better expression. More interesting neck/collar bone area and better sense of space within the hood. Hood has more weight and gravity, and the fold lines at the bottom of the hood are less symmetrical. The negative space between her arms and body is way more interesting, clarifying the anatomy and activating the pose. The bag strap is drawn with more care and the addition of the zipper adds some nice small shapes and lines to contrast the large shapes around it. Overall the inking is more confident. Seeing this drawing allows you to see what was wrong with the previous version, if you're not yet acclimated to accepting nothing but the best. You can go back and forth between these and learn how to refine your art. (And this one didn't even make the cut for the final cover, either!)

No one I know posts more of this sort of thing than Craig Thompson, and his examples are particularly helpful because of how drastic the changes can be from his initial concept to what he goes with in the end. I've saved the images from the following 2 posts to my computer in a special folder named "comic help", and I look at them often:

Making Blankets better

Making Habibi better

You should also check out this really interesting post Craig just made about a method he uses when he's really stumped on how to compose a page. It's not too far from a strategy I use sometimes:

Craig gets un-stuck

The nice thing about black and white drawings is they're very editable at every stage. You can erase and re-draw pencils. You can white-out over ink or patch over panels. You can use photoshop to correct or even draw on scans.

And thank goodness. Here are two test pages of mine that still didn't come out very well, in the end. I was drawing a lot of the things in them for the first time, and I was drawing stiffly and uncomfortably. I made and then changed a lot of decisions mid-stream. I should have just re-drawn them, ideally, but I didn't have the time. I'm posting these so you can see just how drastically you can change a drawing in large and small ways as you work on it. White out is your friend.

Page 1

Page 2

By the way, I never knew how to make animated GIFs till tonight. If you'd like to know how to make them, I found this helpful tutorial.

Finally tonight, reader B2-kun posted a neat trick on his blog for using the caps of certain pens as a pencil-stub holder, to get more use out of your stubby, unholdable pencils.

This Week: How to get the perfect white-out consistency

If you're not very familliar with art materials you might be thinking to yourself " 'White-out?' Doesn't he mean 'Wite-out?' "

Wite out is the horrible, foul smelling goop made by Bic for making small corrections to typing and letters. It's not archival, isn't terribly opaque, bleeds and isn't easy to draw over.

WHITE-out is another word we cartoonists use for what is really a specialized guache for correcting ink drawings. It's super-opaque, has very high quality pigment, is archival, and when applied at the right thickness can be drawn over almost (though not quite) as well as paper.

There's really only two kinds worth buying, Deleter, which I use, and looks like this:
And Pro white, which looks like this:
A third alternative would be a tube of good guache.

The problem with white-out is that it dries out over time, even with the lid kept on. It will eventually harden into a solid cake (which can be re-constituted- NEVER NEVER NEVER throw out dried out white-out.), but more likely you'll have problems something like this: (click to enlarge)
There's two ways around this. One method a lot of people use is summed up by this quote from a DRAWN! blog comment thread on the subject:

Regarding the lid to the jar of Pro White! lid? what lid? Don’t even bother putting the lid back on. I haven’t seen my lid for years! you don’t need it. Use a spray bottle to wet the top when you want to start melting it down for your purposes. You have more control over it that way.

This works okay, but what I love about buying a new jar of white-out is that I'm able to stick my brush in and use it right out of the jar, and I want to be able to do that forever, not have to keep mixing and mixing. And I finally found a way to do that about a year back:

I keep a thin layer of water constantly in my white-out bottle. I DO NOT MIX IT IN. I simply let is sit on the surface.
The effect is quite interesting: When I tried it I was sure it would just soak in, leaving me with a jar of thinner white-out. But it didn't- It forms this fairly complex little multi-layer whiteout ecosystem, like a little atmosphere/ocean/seabed type thing.
Layer 1 is the surface of the water, which is actually opaque white, but I'm drawing it as if it were translucent.

Layer 2 is the murky white water itself.

Later 3 is the damp sea bed, so to speak. There is a thin layer that soaks ion the water and gets wet, but the soaking remains confined to just this thin, wispy layer.

Layer 4 is the constant, perfect layer of ready-to-use thickness white-out this method creates.

Layer 5 is the white-out underneath, which is either just right also or slightly too thick, depending on what you started with when you added the water.

To use the white-out, tilt the bottle.
The water will run off immediately, but the too-thin layer 3 will remain and run down more slowly, taking 3-10 seconds to follow.
The great thing about this method is no holes in the whiteout. The water layer smooths everything back flat as it sits. And the 4th layer is just right, thin enough that you can apply three or four coats before it starts to glop up, but opaque enough that one brush stroke is all you need for totally opaque coverage.

There is one other crucial detail- if you don't want to keep having your water layer evaporate and need replacing, you need the styrofoam seal that comes inside the cap:
It has a nasty habit of falling out, but that's easily fixed by gluing or taping it into the cap. This makes the bottle watertight as it was before you opened it, and hold in all that moisture.

Next week: Refining
Readers come through again
So awhile back Comic Tools reader and skilled brush-fu practitioner Sarah Musi (The link is to her blog, which has her art and which you should go see) said in the comments that she had bought a bunch of Rosemary & Co. brushes, and I asked her if she'd mind reviewing them, as she'd bought several kinds I've never tried before and a few that I had. Well, on top of being a good artist she's also got impeccable timing, because she sent me her reviews right after I announced my sick leave this week. Here's what she sent me:

Review of Rosemary & Co.'s Kolinsky Sable Rounds, Rigger and Extended Point Brushes

Hi everyone. Since Matt is sick this week, this is probably an appropriate time to jump in and fill some space here on Comic Tools.

I recently completed a comic book with an obscene amount of dry-brushing and by the end, I had pretty much killed all my favorite Princeton watercolor brushes. Needing to replace them, I decided to take Matt's advice and order some (actually, twelve) from Rosemary & Co. and he asked me to do a review. I just finished inking the t-shirt design below where I used a few of the more standard brushes that most comic illustrators prefer so that gave me a chance to get acquainted with them enough to write this. I apologize in advance for the blotchiness of these iPhone photos.
Some of the brushes I bought:
1) {S2230} Golden Synthetic Spikey Comber 3/4" (for lots of tiny parallel lines made easy)
2) {S46} Sable Extended Point 12 (essentially a kolinsky rigger embedded in a red sable round)
3) {S43} Squirrel Tinter 1/4" (for dry stippling)
4) {S33} Kolinsky Comber 1/8" (for feathers, grass and hair)
5) {S55} Kolinsky 1/4"
6) {S44} Kolinsky Rigger 2
7) {S33} Kolinsky Round 3
8) {S33} Kolinsky Round 2
9) {S323} Kolinsky Round 2

This was the first bit of work I did using Rosemary & Co. kolinsky sable brushes. Size 0 round for smaller animals, 2 round for text and larger animals and a 2 rigger for everything else. Medium: Speedball India ink and Bombay red India ink on 11"x14" Bristol vellum.

Kolinsky Round

First off, I LOVE these rounds. I bought several from Series 22, 33 and 323. They not only hold a ton of ink without dumping it out the second you touch it to the paper but they also make effortless buttery-smooth lines. I was particularly impressed by how well the rounds kept their point, even when gunked up. For those of you who love that chunky Craig Thompson skidding dry-brush effect, just try using one of these with some old goopy ink; I promise, you will be very pleased with the result.

Note about the size 0: I typically use a 2 or 3 round for most comic work because they are great for making both thin and fat lines but 0 rounds are very often too small. However, out of curiosity, I bought the Series 22 Round 0 and after working with it for several hours found that, contrary to my expectations, it actually suited my needs quite well. In some cases, it was able to accomplish the same effect as the size 2 and 3 brushes I had been using before but was far better for getting into tight spaces.

Kolinsky Rigger

Riggers were originally intended for painting the rigging on ships (thus the name) and therefore are fantastic for long straight lines or smooth curves. All you have to do is tip it slightly to the side and apply a bit of pressure. This lays the ends of the hairs down against the paper and allows the tip to maintain contact even if your hand isn't doing a very good job of making the line. My hand isn't always the steadiest at 2:00AM (when most artists do their best work), so I use riggers about half of the time.

This particular rigger (Series 44, Size 2), although wonderful to paint with, was quite different from what I expected. You have to be careful about not overloading this brush with too much ink. I've grown accustomed to riggers of the same size producing a moderate to thin line but this brush produced a medium to very thick line, especially when initially set down on paper with so much available ink. If I wanted a thin line, I had to be very careful in order to get it right, starting by scraping it against the side of the ink jar about three or four times to get most of the ink out of the belly.

In addition, it had a bit of a unruly point that was difficult to control at anything below an 80 degree angle to the paper when it was not in motion. I myself, like many other brush inkers who came from the drawing world, paint with my hand rested on the paper, so the brush is usually tipped somewhere between 30 and 80 degrees but very rarely above that, unless I'm choking up on the ferrule to do detail work. Therefore, the point tended to get away from me quite a bit on this particular rigger when I was working on short lines or spots.

Sable Extended Point

I was SO excited when I found this brush (Series 46, Size 12); it was the first one I tried out of the twelve brushes I bought. As I mentioned before, I use riggers quite a bit. The downside of most riggers is that they don't hold much ink, especially if they are a synthetic. You are always having to pick it up from the line, get more ink and then carefully find the line again and try to keep the stroke going like nothing ever happened. So what you have a brush that's made for making long lines which can't actually hold enough ink to finish those lines.

Rosemary's newly-conceived 12 Extended Point brush combines the great ink-holding capability of a size 12 round and the stability of a rigger (I would estimate about a size 2).

The one drawback to this brush is that it has trouble with thicker inks. I use Speedball India Ink and it tends to get more dense over time from being open during inking. This wouldn't typically pose a problem with a normal round or rigger, but with the Extended Point, the thicker ink gets stuck up in the belly and the rigger dries up and begins to deflect to the side where the round hairs end. That said, this brush may require some practice, even with thinner ink.

To Summarize...

Overall, I was very pleased with Rosemary's kolinsky brushes. Having spent only a few days working with them, I can already tell that they are finely crafted, very long-wearing and have a much better ink reservoir than the other high-quality brushes I have been using. Their only "fault", stemming mainly from my artistic preferences combined with my own probable in-expertise, is that they aren't quite as good at making super-fine lines. But there are other brushes in the world to fill that requirement, so I am satisfied.

Despite her location in the UK, Rosemary's prices are significantly below what you would spend in an art store for a brush of half the quality. She takes PayPal, shipping was super quick (within a week of payment) and the brushes were received, well-packed in pristine condition along with a nice catalogue containing actual-size pictures of all the other brushes she makes.

If you are looking for some great brushes, I absolutely recommend giving Rosemary & Co. your business.


Comic Tools reader and storyboard artist Mark Kennedy sent me a link to his terrific blog where he analyzes comics pages, illustrations, paintings, photographs and film stills to show what makes them work, with special attention paid to composition, drama, and the posing of figures. I'm already learning from it, and I'll probably start linking to individual posts of his pretty commonly. Everyone should subscribe to his wonderful blog.

Mark also linked me to this, a blog which posts a lesson from the Famous Artist's Cartoon Course every month. (I've linked directly to the Famous...Course tag rather than the blog's main page, for your convenience. But you should also putter around.) At the bottom of each post, there is a link where the entire lesson can be downloaded in PDF format. When I was young I paid (by which I mean my mother paid) hundreds of dollars for a poor-man's version of such a course, and here it is free. Totally insane.

Sarah and Mark are hereby awarded Comic Tools Reader gold-stars, which smell like grapes when you scratch them and say "Grape Job" on them. Holy cow, you guys, thank you so, SO much.

Next week on Comic Tools: How to get the Perfect White Out Consistency.

P.S.: Sorry about the weird formatting in this post, I've spent half an hour trying to fix it and I can't make it work. It doesn't help that the preview field is totally inaccurate to what I see on screen.

Sick Week
I was going to put the entry together tonight, but I've been sick with coxsackie virus, and I had to go out to do some errands earlier, and it totally destroyed me for the rest of the night. We'll see if maybe I'll be better tomorrow, if not I'll check you back next week.

(Sick bird image from Comic Tools reader Rivkah)