High Key Values in Ink Drawings

November 11, 2011

“High Key” is a term used to describe the brightness of a color. For example, in the grayscale image above, 10 to 7 would be high and 3 to 0 would be low. As demonstrated in my previous post, the range of values an artist can create using a cross-hatched technique is limited to only 4 or 5 levels between white and black. Also, most types of ink cannot reach a very dark black or whatever color is being used. Many brands of black India ink are not able to pass a level 1 value using the above scale, without making several passes, which shortens the value range even more. I’m not saying that’s a problem, in fact, it often makes for a fantastically dramatic image, but it’s a limitation an artist needs to understand.

I’ve made several posts in the past on the beauty of engraved prints, and in this example you can see the value range that can happen when the work is made by an artist like Auguste-Hilaire Leveille. A compressed digital file doesn’t do it justice. A pen line is much larger than the needle scratch of an engraving tool, so to achieve the same tone with a pen nib, the drawing would need to be several times larger. An 8×10 inch engraving would have to become 3 or 4 feet tall in order for the thinnest lines to keep the same value and proportion of thickness as seen in an engraving.

This value range is not impossible to achieve with pen and ink, but it is challenging. In my recent drawing of Shakespeare the head is approximately 4 inches tall, which gives me plenty of room to create a whole range of values with a quill point. It is also possible to create high value shades with a pen at a small size if you increase the space between the lines. This gives a more pronounced appearance of texture, as seen in this detail of a drawing by Jardine Walter. In the case of print reduction, as most ink drawings are intended, the space between the lines is less pronounced.

In this detail on the left of an illustration by the great Virgil Finlay you can see how he managed to control the lighter values by using a stippled dot technique. Search the internet on artist Franklin Booth to see more such examples.

Another method involves scratching the ink away, which can be done with a sharp needle to leave behind a very thin line. There are clay coated scratchboard surfaces on the market, such as those made by Ampersand or the Essdee scraperboard. The drawing of mine on the right of my friend Lydia was made on Ampersand’s Scratchbord where I scratched away the lines of her blouse. Also please look at my previous post on how to make your own scratchboard. You can also scrape ink away on a monotype plate and make small copies that way.

In the case of high key values, most inkers use an approach that eliminates that highest value range altogether. The result is a drawing that looks something like an overexposed photograph, or as if the scene were lit with floodlights, high in contrast. I could have scratched out Lydia’s skin tones in the drawing above, for example, but I wanted to emphasize her glowing skin, as I also did in this recent drawing of the resting biker.

There are many situations, however, when blowing out these details is a shame. Not every scene, for example, needs to be pitch black or flooded with light. Unfortunately, I believe many artists turn away from carefully drawing values with ink by looking at the daunting task of all those lines they have to draw. There’s no room for laziness here.


  1. Thank you for this post. I will be searching for your references and trying the scratchboard again. I remember using them back in the stone ages when I was taking art classes.

  2. Thank you David for your posts. This was greatly helpful as usual.

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