How to ink watercolor

So you want to know how to ink watercolor? It’s actually a very simple three step process. First you draw it in pencil. Then you ink it. Then you erase the pencil after the ink dries.

That’s all there is to it. But, let’s not end this article just yet. You probably need a lot more detail than that.

Drawing your piece

There are two types of artists who use watercolor. Some of us just paint. I’m not that type.

I’m the type that has to ink watercolor. The drawing is the most important and the most difficult part of the entire process for me.

That’s because I do pinup art. You pretty much have to draw a reference for it to be any good.

That said, you could keep the drawing in pencil. Or you can ink your painting.

Dryad at Night, not painted yet
“Dryad at Night”, inked but not painted yet. I prefer ink to pencil as I love the look afterwards

I’ve done both, and every single painting you see in my Opium Tales store is inked. To my eyes, it looks way better.

But let’s go back to drawing the piece. Some folks use high tech or expensive pencils. I just use plain America’s Pencil HB 2 pencils. They’re good pencils. Then I put those erasers you get in a ten-pack to put over the eraser it comes with. I swear, I probably do just as much erasing as I do drawing.

I strongly suggest you try different kinds of pencils. Try the high tech ones and try the simple ones. There is no right answer here. You need to find the tool you’re most comfortable with. Once you find that tool, you’ll more than likely use the same tool for years.

Inking the piece

Now the fun part. If you mess up the inking, you’ll need to use a little bit of watercolor ground to fix it.

Inking is the scariest part for me. Drawing is easy. You can always erase. Once you ink, it’s permanent.

The kind of ink to ink watercolor? Good question.

Once again, try different tools until you find the one you like. Now this is very, very important. You need to buy a permanent ink that is waterproof. If you don’t, it will smear all over your painting once you add water. I’ve made this mistake once and I’ll never, ever make it again.

tools to ink watercolor
Some tools I use to ink watercolor

Ink brushes

I have one ink brush and I never use it. It’s simply too thick for me.

If you’re doing something with super fine detail, you can’t use an ink brush. However if you’re doing something a little bit more abstract, ink brushes look cool!

I actually love how ink brushes work. But since I’m doing pinup art, I have no place for it. It depends on what you’re doing though. You may love it.

Ink pens

This is what I use. Once again, it needs to be waterproof.

I swear by Sakura Micron pens. I think they’re dang good pens for watercolor and gouache.

Personally, I’m using the 005 because I need very fine lines. You may not need something that fine. Buy a few of these pens and see which ones you like the best.

Note that you need to wait until the ink is completely dry before going to the next step.

Hot tip - Store your pens upside down.  They'll last longer that way.

Testing the ink first

Sakura Micron pens won’t run. But, one thing I learned the hard way, not everyone who works at the art store knows everything. I had one employee suggest a “great pen for watercolor” and when I actually started watercoloring, it ran all over the place and completely ruined the painting.

If you’re not sure, test it on your test notebook. You do have one of those, right?

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, they’re these little watercolor notebooks. Strathmore and Moleskin both make decent ones.

Strathmore watercolor notebook example
Two example pages of my Strathmore watercolor notebook

I don’t use them for anything other than testing and making notes. You can clearly see that I write in the thing just as much as I actually paint in it. It’s for experimenting only.

Erasing the pencil

two succubi
Notice all that pencil. All that pencil needs to be erased or else it may show up in the final painting

Finally, you erase the pencil, leaving behind only the ink. All the shading, depth, shadowing, etc, you do with the watercolors. You won’t need to see any of the pencils.

For this, I either use the eraser I put on the pencil or a gum eraser. Either are fine.

Using this succubus painting as an example how to ink watercolor
“She comes in peace”, inked but not painted yet

Watercolor is transparent so if you leave behind any pencil, there’s a good chance it will show. Some of the pencil gets wiped away in the water. Some of it does not. So if you don’t want it showing, it’s in your best interest to not skip this step.

Make sure you’re not leaving any eraser residue behind. Wipe that off well, and you’re now free to paint!

How much ink to use

I’ve been asked how much do you ink and how much do you just paint?

Well, that’s up to you. For some paintings, I like to do more ink than others.

For the girls, I ink the outlines and let the watercolors (and gouache if applicable) do the rest.

But it really depends on the painting and how much detail you want to give it with it. Keep in mind, you do want to keep some of the magic for the watercolors. Totally up to you.

Categorized as Watercolor

By Roman

Pinup Artist. Composer. Writer.


  1. I like to use ink but with the lines slightly smudged with water, to give shade and shadow. I can draw a straight line in ink but not in pencil?
    Loved this.

    1. Hi Ann,
      It’s best to let the ink dry completely. Even the inks made specifically for this purpose will smudge a little bit with water if they’re not completely dry.

      Try inking, then waiting an hour, then doing your watercolors. If you live in a moist climate, you may have to wait longer than an hour.


      1. You are the best. You make things less complicated and a lot great points I needed to know. Thank you Maria Barrow

  2. Well written easy to follow and understand thank you. I’m a novice in regards to watercolour only been trying for three weeks but have produced some not bad pieces when I came across the ink and watercolours was very interested after reading your tutorial will definitely be giving it a go. Many thanks.Jan

  3. Thank you and God bless you
    I am just a beginner and not really a painter but with instructions like so clear I might be able to do one.

  4. i must be holding the micro pens wrong because after several uses they stop working, they are too expensive for this to happen

  5. Hello , i agree with every thing you say , i use watercolour and ink for my work but not in the same way. The drawing is the most important to start i then leave the crayon and watercolour over. When all is dry i then ink. I do this because the ink then for me puts the watercolour to advantage and is very strong because the water does not soften the ink effect. Try it and see.

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