Digital Inking — Perspectives of a Colourist and Publisher

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Digital Inking is One of the Most Overlooked Skills an Artist Brings to the Table

Digital Inking

Digital inking.

The process of going over the lines of an original pencil illustration with dark ink in order to sharpen definition, add depth to shadows, and generally clear and clean-up the image.

For some reason, “digital inking” are dirty words to many artists — some sort of “cheat” or evil entity that is undermining the way “true” artists conduct their work. Digital inking removes the “hands on” approach to art — the intimacy of physical contact with one’s work and replacing it with the cold distance of working on a computer. For others, digital inking is another skill that takes too much time or they consider themselves too old to learn it.

As someone who often finds himself wearing the shoes of an art director (AD) and colourist, do you know what I think of digital inking?

Digital inking is not only preferred to hand inking because of the superior quality of the results, but a requirement for a modern, professional workflow. As printing technology continues to become more powerful and precise with increasingly more of the process becoming digital in nature, the flaws and imperfections that can remain in artwork become more common and more obvious in the final publication. Many such results can be attributed to inking art by hand.

(And, to be clear, many of the issues I’ll be discussing when comparing digital inking to hand inking resolve themselves if someone inking by hand also colours their own work. I’m largely discussing issues when the artist is commissioned to turn in an inked, black and white work. Also, the issues don’t come up if a hand inking artist takes the extra time to clean up and tweak their work afterwards, but it is my experience this is not often the case.)

The Role and Responsibilities of the Art Director

Before we proceed with discussing digital inking versus hand inking, I’ll add the caveat that ultimate responsibility for any art imperfections that show up in the final product rests on the shoulders of the AD. It is part of their job to look over the final work — to scrutinize it closely — for any problems and, if necessary, either send it back to the artist to get fixed or to have it replaced. That said, it takes a surprising amount of time and work to do this, so every little bit that can be done in the artist’s hands to make this easier is going to be a selling point that artist brings to the table.

I know when I first made the move into publishing that I had no experience as an AD (or, later, as a colourist.) I didn’t know what to look for, and I didn’t know what could go wrong because of my ignorance. I thought getting artwork for my projects would be nothing more than finding artists, telling them what I wanted, looking at a rough copy, getting a final inked version, paying the artist, and then publication. It never occurred to me  that there might be a difference in the quality of work that would be turned in based on whether the art used hand or digital inking.

At first, I didn’t know what to look for so I even missed the signs of something amiss in the final product. Sometimes, it would take days or even weeks for me to look at the final product often enough to notice something was wrong with some of the inked pieces I put into my work. Why would I be looking for any such thing, after all? Were these artists not professionals who knew their craft and had already done work for other companies? As an AD, couldn’t I rely upon them to know what to do based on their awareness of what the art was going to be used for?

I quickly learned the answer was, an unfortunate number of times, an embarrassing “no.”

So, What’s Wrong with Inking by Hand?

Digital Inking Comparison 3In the beginning of my work as an AD and small press publisher, I had not yet learned anything about digital colouring, so I was publishing work using black and white line art or I was paying the artists to colour the art themselves. My first indication something was not quite right with the hand inked line art I was working with should have been the odd, purplish shades the art was delivered in.

Why wasn’t it a solid black?

When I zoomed in, I also noticed that I could see the strokes left over from the process of hand inking. A quick search on Google showed I could fix this by adjusting the levels, however, so I thought nothing of it. I had no idea that these hallmarks of hand inking were signs of bigger problems. I had no idea that proper digital inking would have resolved them.

To the right I have provided a sample of some artwork I commissioned years ago, when Misfit Studios was still somewhat new. Notice the purplish tinge to this hand inked art (it is more noticeable in the higher resolution version.) Also, in the close up, you can see the inking strokes, smudges, and dots — “artifacts” from the hand drawing that should have been removed, and from the hand inking process.

(It must be noted that I continued working with this particular artist for years afterwards. In that time, I improved my skills as an AD and publisher with experience just as he honed his artistic talents. We both learned how to watch for these sorts of issues from our respective perspectives and roles.)

Looking at such hand inked images on a screen, it is possible to miss these problems (and I did), but they are as clear in print as though someone shined a spotlight on them. A printer makes no distinction between what parts of an image you want to see and which are considered artifacts you don’t want printed. All it knows is the data that comprises an image and how to interpret it to its output. That means every errant dot, every stroke of ink, and every smudge shows up, and you may not notice even once you proof the print copy because you may not know enough to look closely for such problems.

But your customers sure will take note, or you’ll find them yourself eventually. And that’s when you, as the AD and/or publisher, feel embarrassed for letting such inking errors get by you. This is when you begin to realize the appeal of digital inking.

Making things Easier for the Colourist

Aside from how hand inking can produce undesirable results, digital inking also (in my humble opinion) makes things easier on your colourist. My method of digital coloring is to put the inked image on a top layer in Photoshop, set the layer’s blend mode to multiply, and do all the colouring underneath, on lower layers. This method will get rid of some of the lighter smudges that hand inking leaves, but not all of them. Also, it does nothing for the darker spots or the inking strokes that are evident in the larger inked areas.

This is the stage when I normally notice problems with hand inking and, by that time, I could have paid for the art weeks or even months ago if I was accumulating the art progressively so that I wouldn’t get hit with a big bill all at once. At that point, it’s too late to send the art back to the artist so they can clean it up. It’s now in the hands of the colourist (or someone else) to clean up the artifacts and peculiarities left by hand inking. In my case, it’s up to me to fix it (as it should be, as I missed the problems and approved the art in the first place.)

Let’s look at a piece of art of a mi go I commissioned to see how this all plays out.

Digital Inking Comparison 1

On the left is the original artwork I approved, and on the right is the piece after I cleaned it up because there was no digital inking. At a distance, there doesn’t seem to be much wrong with the image on the left other than the pencil lines near the image border, which would be easy enough to remove, right? But if you look closer, you’ll also see dots here and there. Worse yet, this is the version the artist was supposed to have cleaned up — I’d already sent it back to him because there was massive smudging and dots all over the place, so I figured that would be enough to get the job done properly.

I was wrong.

When I went back to the piece a week or so later to begin colouring it, I noticed there were all manner of smudges, dots, inking strokes, and pencil lines still on the piece because no digital inking and clean up was involved. Have a look for yourself close up.

Digital Inking Comparison 2

Again, on the left we see the original work and on the right my cleaned up version. Note the massive difference when you zoom in to the sort of perspective a colourist must use in order to do their part of the work. All those smudges, pencil lines, and wayward dots that come from hand inking (but not a proper digital inking job) look even worse when you splash some colour behind them. Some of the greys that aren’t washed out by the multiply setting may appear as white or light grey halos around the artifacts. This meant I added about four more days to my production schedule because I needed to spend a few hours a day cleaning up the image so that it could be coloured.

(Clean lines are also especially important for my projects because I include a printer friendly, black and white version of my digital products with the colour version.)

Here is the final piece, after I spent several days cleaning it up. It took me about one-third of the time to colour it as it did to clean it up.

Mi Go Coloured

Digital Inking comes with a Learning Curve

A big advantage of digital inking is that, when done properly, digital inking involves adding the “ink” on a layer above that where the original scanned art is stored. This allows the artist to hide the original art once the digital inking is complete, ensuring no smudges, pencil lines, or other problems that arise when ink is applied directly to the original art and then scanned in. Properly cleaning up hand inking involves using Photoshop or a similar program to manually remove these artifacts — adjusting the levels is not a good substitution (but more on this later) — whereas properly cleaning up a digital inking job means clicking a button.

Not everyone can learn digital inking, however (and some don’t want to.) Proper digital inking is a skill in its own right, and not one that necessarily comes from otherwise being skilled as an artist, digital or otherwise. There isn’t even just one way to go about digital inking.

Some artists prefer digital inking in Photoshop and similar programs, using a mouse or stylus pen to go over their pencil work by hand. Other artists prefer working with Illustrator or the like to ink using vector. Yet others combine both methods. Either technique has its own advantages and peculiarities that can both help or hinder someone in the process of learning digital inking.

Of course, there are also artists who are incredibly skilled but don’t do any digital work at all. They are entirely “old school,” doing all their work by hand and only getting the computer involved when the time comes to scan in their work. Many such professional artists are older and don’t have the basic computer skills needed to learn digital inking techniques, or are simply so set in their ways after many years or working as they do that they simply do not want to learn something new. They know what works for them and they want to keep it that way.

Just as with any other artistic skill, learning the art of digital inking takes time and practice, and that is time and practice many artists do not want to take away from what they are already doing.

 Adjusting Levels is NOT the same as Digital Inking

There is a way to “cheat” when digital inking — you can take hand inked artwork and adjust its levels in Photoshop or the like. Sometimes this works, but most often it doesn’t — not entirely. You’ll usually get left with a subpar result.

Although adjusting the shadows, midtones, and highlights can get rid of much of the remaining pencil lines and smudges because they appear as various shades of grey rather than a stark black, this doesn’t get rid of dots of ink or pencil artifacts that are too dark for this technique to work. Also, if you zoom in close enough to view a piece of line art’s edges and lines once this technique has been used, you’ll see they are block and pixelated. This happens with bitmap images because they use various shades of grey to simulate curves and bends in the line. You’ll only ever notice this if you zoom in close enough, though, and the printer will output these shades as crisp, sharp lines of black.

Adjusting the levels instead of digital inking properly, however, gets rid of these greys the same way as it does those of the remaining pencil lines. This transforms the grey pixels into black or white pixels, depending upon how you adjusted the levels. This gets rid of the image’s varying shades of grey and illusion of sharp, crisp lines for the printer to output, replacing them with choppy, block edges that will likely appear rough, blurry, and distorted when printed.

Okay, but Why Does any of This Matter?

As a small press publisher, I wear many hats. When I am putting a project together for Misfit Studios, my role-playing game company, I usually take on the following roles:

  • Project management
  • Writing
  • Proofing
  • Art direction (AD)
  • Colouring
  • Graphic design
  • Proofing
  • Layout / Production (digital and print)
  • Website work (uploading the products to storefronts and adding relevant materials to the main website)
  • Marketing and promotions

That’s a lot of stuff for one person to do! As a small press publisher, though, it’s necessary to keep costs down

Now here is a list of what most of my projects outsource

  • Black and white line artwork

As you can see, most of the time I hire outside talent to do one thing: provide me with one or more pieces of line art that I will then colour, if required by the project. So, should I not then expect it to be done to a standard that allows the resulting artwork to be integrated properly into all  the other roles I have to provide? When digital inking is used, this is the usual outcome, but hand inking almost always results in adding another role to my repertoire:

  • Guy who cleans up improperly inked art

Looking at these lists and how the responsibilities of a job are necessarily portioned out, does anyone think I’m being difficult by saying I shouldn’t be expected to take on yet another role when part of the one thing I hire someone else to do includes providing clean art in the first place? Yes, it’s my responsibility as AD to check the art, but considering everything else on my plate, sometimes things slip through the cracks. Were you to poll a group of other small press publishers, I think you’ll find I’m hardly alone in this regard.

This is why I now insist on working with artists who utilize digital inking (or who are skilled enough with hand inking that I cannot tell the difference.) The decision to require digital inking is not a matter of personal preference, but an actual cost saving measure. It loses me money to work with artists who are still hand inking.

Take my example of the mi go art, shown above. Because I had to put in a lot of additional work to clean up the art, even after I had told the artist to fix the issues that would not have been on my radar had digital inking been employed, I have not yet taken a second chance on this artist. It isn’t worth my added time and effort to give them a second chance to learn the digital inking skills needed to produce the sort of output my product require — the sort of output digital inking possesses. Although the artist was skilled and I was otherwise very happy with the illustration, I can’t again afford to spend my own time (which means time I’m not otherwise using to make money) fixing up their art.

Considering I was looking for an artist to work with on a regular basis, the lack of digital inking skills cost this particular talent an on-going revenue stream.

So, speaking as someone who works as both a colourist and small press publisher, the value of digital inking skills cannot be stressed enough. No matter how skilled an artist one may otherwise be, to my mind, not enough artists consider digital inking skills worth stressing, but they really should. Honestly, I’m not an ink snob (did I just make that up?) — it’s just that I’ve seen what can a lack of digital inking can cost a project, and I know I cannot afford it.


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