India Ink and Colored Pencils for Dark Backgrounds

India Ink and Colored Pencils for Dark Backgrounds

Dark backgrounds are great for putting emphasis on light-colored, brightly lighted subjects. You can draw dark backgrounds with colored pencil, but in this post, I want to show you  how to speed up the process with India ink and colored pencils.

A Few Notes on India Ink

India ink (also known as Chinese ink) was once widely used for writing (think old-fashioned fountain or quill pens,) and printing.  Its most common modern uses are for medical purposes, and drawing. It’s especially popular for inking in comic books and comic strips. I’ve used it to ink in line drawings after transferring them to canvas for oil painting.

India ink is available in black and a rainbow of colors, and is usually fairly translucent in nature. It’s naturally waterproof once dry, so you can add layer after layer for different affects.

When buying India ink, make sure to check the label. Binding agents can be added to the basic ink to make it non-waterproof. For the purposes I’m about to describe, you will probably want waterproof ink (though non-waterproof will also work.)

I use Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bombay inks. They’re lightfast (they won’t fade,) are permanent, totally waterproof, and can be used on a wide variety of surfaces. They are available in an astonishing 24 different colors including white.

Ink is available at Dick Blick and other online art suppliers, but they’re also available in many retail outlets such as Hobby Lobby. Hobby Lobby has a couple of sets of inks in 12 colors. A great way to get started with ink.

TIP: If you buy at Hobby Lobby, make sure to print out their coupon and get 40% off the most expensive item you buy in the store. I don’t know if the coupon applies with online purchases.

India Ink and Colored Pencils for Dark Backgrounds

Here’s how I use India ink and colored pencils to make a dark background.

NOTE: You can use just India ink if you prefer. Mix colors by layering for the best dark values.

Begin by “painting” India ink over the background.

India ink is a water-based product, so it needs to be the first thing you put on paper.

It’s also translucent, so be prepared to use several layers.

You can use either a calligraphy pen or brush to apply the ink. I use brushes because that’s what I have, but I have used drawing pens in the past and some of the nibs would be good for this use. Especially if you need to draw around complex edges.

The brush I used was small sable round, but any type or size of brush can be used. If you’re not sure what to use, do a test sample on scrap paper.

This is the first layer of ink. You can see where my brush strokes overlapped. India ink dries quite fast, especially on absorbent papers, so blending is difficult, resulting in lots of visible brush strokes.

I’m using brown India Ink on Stonehenge paper. I got the broken color at the bottom of the tree by stroking a nearly dry brush sideways across the paper. You can get the same result by pulling wet ink across the paper from more saturated areas.

Keep layering India ink until you get the look you want.

After each layer, I let the paper dry. That usually took no more than five or ten minutes. Then I added another layer.

Here’s my drawing after two layers of ink.

India Ink and Colored Pencils - Step 2

Even though the background is darker, you can still see brush marks from the first layer. Make use of those marks to give your background a little variety if you’re planning to leave the ink layers showing.

If you’re going to cover them with colored pencils, it doesn’t matter what the ink layers look like.

For the following image, I did three more layers of India ink, working from the top down. It is quite a bit darker, but brush strokes are still visible.

India Ink and Colored Pencils - Step 3

If you’re serious about using India ink with colored pencil, get several colors, including black. It would be much easier to get a nice dark background by layering two or more colors, one over another, rather than multiple layers of the same color, as I’m doing.

You also create the opportunity for the lights and darks in each layer to interact layer to layer, providing interesting, random variations in color and value. You can’t plan those sorts of things!

Finish the background with colored pencils.

Once you’ve gone as far as you want to go with India ink, let it dry thoroughly, then start drawing. You don’t need to prep the surface in any way, although you can give the drawing a coat of workable fixative if you wish. The ink will not have filled up the tooth of the paper, so colored pencil can be layered right over the ink.

Consider how the color of the ink will influence the colored pencil, though, because it will have an effect.

I wanted a dark, almost black blue for this drawing, so I chose Indigo Blue. Dark browns and dark blues combine very well to create an even darker, near-black color, so I used a color of pencil that would combine well with brown ink. I layered Indigo Blue on the right side of the drawing, and you can it’s darker than the left side.

But the brown ink does still show through the blue, and will continue to do so unless I burnish the paper (which I don’t intend to do.) The brown under drawing gives the blue a warmth it wouldn’t otherwise have.

I also layered Indigo Blue with lighter pressure closer to the tree, where I want to create the glow of Christmas lights I hope to draw.

I finished up by burnishing with Indigo Blue, then Dark Green, and finally Indigo Blue again.

The result is a deep, rich blue-black around the edges that “brightens” into a warm glow around the tree.

That’s How I Use India Ink and Colored Pencils for Dark Backgrounds

One of the things I like about India ink is that it’s brush-able. As an oil painter, I love brush work. While India ink doesn’t get as dark as quickly as I might like, I do like the results of a little dry-brushing, such as I did on the tree itself.

It is also quick and fairly easy.

So if all you need is a way to fill in the paper tooth quickly, India ink and colored pencils might be for you.

Want to Learn More About Mixed Media with Colored Pencil?

If you’re interested in mixed-media colored pencil work, you don’t want to miss this two-part EmptyEasel series. The series describes how I used India ink with colored pencil.

The project is a small drawing of a quarter horse in a vignette portrait style. The support is vellum finish Rising Stonehenge 250 GSM paper in white and I started with an under drawing using brown India ink.

Each article includes step-by-step illustrations and descriptions.

Drawing with Colored Pencil over India Ink

Drawing with Colored Pencil over India Ink, Part 2


  1. Stephanie Reitmajer

    Hi Carrie,

    I never thought of combining India ink and colored pencil until this post. Thank you. A question: what type of paper would be receptive to this process? I would be inclined to try hot press watercolor paper, but would others work too? Or better?

    1. Stephanie,

      Watercolor paper of any type is ideal for this method if it’s heavy enough (140lb or more.) The rougher the surface, the more opportunity for interesting textures with the ink and pencils, but a smoother texture is better if you need to draw detail. I used a rough paper for this piece, and used Stonehenge Aqua for the next one. The Stonehenge was 140lb cold press. Although it’s a watercolor paper, it looks and feels a lot like regular Stonehenge, which makes it ideal for wet media and colored pencil.

      If you use only one or two layers of ink and tape the paper to a rigid support first, regular Stonehenge is also capable of handling wet media. So is Bristol if it’s heavy enough. In both cases, use moisture sparingly and make sure to let the paper dry thoroughly before adding another layer of wet media.

      You might also experiment with your favorite drawing paper. We don’t often think of them as being compatible with wet media, but some of them can handle small amounts of it.


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