Shading Quick-Sketches Quickly

Many sketchers enjoy doing quick-sketches as they can be done while waiting in line, sitting in a doctor’s reception room, or in any food court.  You can do them while driving down the highway, though it’s best to have someone else driving.  I fill several sketchbooks a year with these kinds of sketches, each taking 1-3 minutes.

But one thing these simple line drawings lack is any sense of tonal variation – unless you add it.  As a couple people have asked about how I do it I thought I’d talk about my process, though I’m a rank amateur at quick-sketching.  The same technique can be used to color more complete drawings as well.

The most common form of shading quick sketches is to use an ink that isn’t waterproof.  Most fountain pen inks are not so you have a wide range of colors, brands, and pens to choose from.  I believe Goulet Pens say they stock 600 inks, and most of them are water-soluble.


Done in Strathmore “toned gray” sketchbook, using J.Herbin 1670 ink. Click to enlarge.

If you carry a waterbrush (with clear water), shading with water-soluble ink  is easy.  You simply run the pen along one side of the line, pulling color from the line and into a shape to indicate shading.

While this is, by far, the easiest approach there are a couple of potential drawbacks.  First, drawing ink away from the lines diminishs the lines and possibly makes them fuzzy.  This can be good or bad, of course.  The other limitation is that your shading is the same color as the lines.  Again, sometimes good, sometimes bad.

 Shading brushes

Stillman & Birn Alpha, Noodler's Lex Gray and brown & black waterbrushes

Stillman & Birn Alpha, Noodler’s Lex Gray and brown & black waterbrushes. Click to enlarge.

For nearly a year, now, in addition to a clear-water waterbrush I’ve carried a waterbrush where I’ve added a few drops of Noodler’s Lexington Gray and another with a few drops of Noodler’s Polar Brown.  This gives me the flexibility to use both a brown and a gray to shade my drawings and I can do it in seconds.  I keep the shade from the waterbrush very light so that I can apply multiple coats and obtain a range of colors.  I think the very dilute solution helps keep the brushes flowing properly.  I use a waterproof ink (Noodler’s Lexington Gray) for the linework so that it’s unaffected by the shading.

Stillman & Birn Alpha 4x6. Pilot Prera & gray waterbrush. Click to enlarge

Stillman & Birn Alpha 4×6. Pilot Prera & gray waterbrush. Click to enlarge

If you enjoy quick-sketching, give this approach a try.  Easy to carry, easy to apply when there’s no time for a full watercolor treatment.

Some quickies at the coffee shop.  Click to enlarge.

Some quickies at the coffee shop. Click to enlarge.

Using both color sometimes enhances the scene.  Click to enlarge.

Using both color sometimes enhances the scene. Click to enlarge.


4 thoughts on “Shading Quick-Sketches Quickly

    • Good luck in your new sketching endeavour. There is nothing better. Enjoy the process of sketching and don’t worry too much about the end product.

      Cheers — Larry

  1. Have used the non-waterproof ink method a lot but your second method of adding a few drops of ink to the water sounds interesting. I’m going to take an extra water-brush and try it. Thanks.

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