Sketching with Iron Gall Ink and Watercolor

Long before we had metal dip pens, artists drew with reed pens and with quills cut from the pinion feathers of a swan, turkey, or goose.  If you look at the ink sketches of artists such as Rembrandt or DaVinci, you will see some very common characteristics.  The ink lines vary in width – narrow, wide.  Often the ink is brown, and so those not in the know think that brown ink was a thing way back when.  In reality, it is the degradation of iron gall ink (aka oak gall ink) through time.  When initially laid down, it was black.  With time, it turns brown, and with a lot of time and depending on its degree of acidity, the iron gall ink can destroy the paper and drawing.

Over the past week, I have been playing with iron gall ink and a quill pen I cut from a turkey feather.  I have some homemade iron gall ink nearly done – come Thursday, it will be ostensibly ready to use.  Today, because I am finally at a point where I have time to play, I drew with iron gall ink and my quill, and then applied watercolors.  The ink took its sweet time drying, and I didn’t blow dry it, but let it air dry or blotted it to see what would happen.  As it is a damp day, it took awhile.  Anyway, the following three pictures were first done with the ink, dried, and then painted in with watercolor.  If you look at the pen strokes, you will see variations.  I’ve never drawn with a quill before, so it was a new experience, one quite different than with a dip pen or fountain pen.

Kumquats – Ink
Kumquats – Ink and Watercolor

The kumquats were the very first drawings I did with the quill and ink.  I had to really think about textures.  You see, when you use iron gall ink, it begins as a light grey, but as it is exposed to the air, it becomes darker and darker until it is black.  This made values a challenge!

Bamboo Forest – Ink
Bamboo Forest – Ink and Watercolor

Here, the ink in the picture was not quite dry, and some bled into the watercolors as I lay them down.

Market Melons – Ink
Market Melons – Ink and Watercolor

For the melons, the ink was taking forever to dry!  I decided to see what would happen if I blotted the ink.  The result was smudges, which you can see throughout the picture.

Fruit – Watercolor
Fruit – Watercolor and Ink

This final set was done with a sketchy watercolor.  No thought was really given to composition or to color as I wanted to use the ink to express outlines, shapes, and shadows.

Altogether, this was a lot of fun, and for me there is a potential I hadn’t really thought about in getting a sense of history by using historical tools – quills, iron gall ink – that were once the best technology had to offer.  I wonder what Rembrandt and DaVinci would think about paints in a tube, rather than the task of purchasing, grinding, and creating their own paints . . . perhaps they made their own quills and inks, too.

2 thoughts on “Sketching with Iron Gall Ink and Watercolor”

    1. Thanks, Sharon! Using a quill is so very different than using a modern nib or dip pen. Quite an experience, especially as the iron gall ink starts out light and then oxidizes and darkens. It makes shading a bit of a challenge.

      Liked by 1 person

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