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The History of Ink Drawing
A closer look 22 Aug 2023

The History of Ink Drawing

In a world that fixates on NFTs and the newest, most high-tech art mediums, we may often forget one of the earliest and simplest forms of them all. Ink drawing. Artsper is here to remind us of the power of ink drawing. Learn the history behind it, its many forms, tools and uses. From prehistoric drawings to today, the history of ink drawing is just as dynamic and versatile as its many uses. 

Ink drawing has remained a very practical medium for artists since the creation of some of the very first recorded drawings. In very early centuries, some of the oldest recorded images were created in ink on papyrus during antiquity. Ink has enabled humans to record history for centuries now, through images and written words. Its permanence makes it an ideal medium for this, as does the ability of a draftsman to manipulate the ink in many different ways. The color, the saturation, and many more tools can add to its versatility. A draftsman has the ability to be as precise as possible or as loose with their strokes as they wish. Either way, the draftsman’s every movement is reflected immediately and uniquely on the surface below the ink. 


Ink drawing developed extensively in Chinese art during the reign of the Tang Dynasty in 618-906. It continued in the Song Dynasty in 960-1279. Early Chinese artists focused largely on landscapes and less naturalistic representations of their environment. Ink drawing became an ideal way for them to portray this. These draftsmen used thick brushes made of animal hair. In a way, it was more similar to painting as the artists use large washes of ink in their images. 

Landscape in the Style of Fan Kuan, 14th century © LACMA

With varying tones and saturation of the ink, the draftsmen created different hues and lines within their works to represent their subjects. Naturally, the techniques of the Chinese artists coincided with the art of calligraphy. Both images and characters were artistically illustrated onto scrolls of paper or silk, and these early works became a precedent for ink as an artistic medium. 

Centuries later, Renaissance artists explored the opportunities of ink as a medium, but in a very different manner than Asian artists. During the Renaissance, artists turned back towards the very human focus of antiquity, and as a result, insisted on understanding human anatomy. Artists studied anatomy tirelessly in order to create the most naturalistic representation of man in their artwork. Precise ink drawings were the perfect way to apply their studies. The precision of ink and sharp metalpoint or wooden stylus tools was the perfect medium for artists such as Leonardo da Vinci. The master created his Vitruvian Man, 1490 sketch, along with diagrams for potential scientific inventions in this simple and accurate medium.

Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, 1490 © Britannica, ink drawing on paper
Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, 1490 © Wikipedia

Tools and Materials

As technology continued to develop, more tools and different types of ink were created. Early materials for inks included plant dyes, animal skins, lamp oil, smoke, insects, cuttlefish and more. Substances produced from iron and sulfuric acid also became popular materials for ink. Brushes, often made of animal hairs and feathers, come in various shapes and sizes for different effects. Similarly, pen tools come in different forms to create different results.

Ink drawing tools © themet.com
Ink drawing tools © themet.com

Both dip pens and reservoir pens are popular tools for ink drawing, but with very different effects. Dip pens, such as feather or wooden quills, have a very fluid and free-flowing quality. The result is often a very expressive drawing, that is not so exact or accurate. Reservoir pens store ink and release it evenly and consistently. This allows for a more controlled and precise drawing process. With ink, the artist can choose to combine broad strokes and fine lines through the use of many different tools.

Permanent Through Time and Trends

The versatility of ink drawing is clear not only throughout history, but also in contemporary art. The permanence and waterproof quality of ink is ideal for layering on top of or below other mediums such as paints, washes, collages and more. Not only is link used in our everyday lives for things as casual as jotting down notes or mindlessly doodling, but it is also used to create fine art drawings. Although it may not be as technical as an NFT or the popular digital art of today, the value of ink as an art medium is undeniable because of its vast history and the boundless possibilities of its results.

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About Artsper

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