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Rapidograph Pen & Ink Wash Drawing: Historical Illustrations

0:03   Introduction
0:19   Consecration of the Avignon
0:41   Library research
1:50   Sketching from Life
2:10   Reference images

3:14   Thumbnail sketches
4:30   Rapidograph pen
5:06   Ink gradients
6:08   Ink bleeds
6:56   Pencil sketch, artist’s tape

8:13   Pen drawing
9:10   Erasure before wash
11:03   Shadows & lighting
11:53   Subtle gradients
12:28  Conclusion

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Alex Rowe, Illustrator & Children's Book Artist

Alex Rowe
Illustrator & Children’s Book Artist

♪ Alex’s Studio Playlist ♪


Illustrate a historical event using pen and ink wash.

Core Ideas

Tone, line, value, contrast, light, shadow, narrative

Recommended Tutorials


Art Supplies: Watercolor Brushes
Art Supplies: Hot Press Watercolor Paper
Art Supplies: Artist's Tape
Art Supplies: Drawing Board
Art Supplies: Small Plastic Containers
Art Supplies: Tall Plastic Container
Art Supplies: Rapidograph Pen
Art Supplies: Dropper
Art Supplies: Rapidograph Pen Refill
Art Supplies: India Ink
Art Supplies: Plastic Triangle
Art Supplies: Strathmore Softcover Sketchbook


Christina Wu

“Before this tutorial, all my pen and ink drawings were either black or white, where I only used pure India Ink straight from the bottle to color large areas of solid dark color. However, now I have discovered that you could do so much more with India Ink and create a variety of opacity values just by adding water to the ink, similar to watercolor.

My historical illustration is based off of the Salem Witch Trials, and I don’t think I could have portrayed the eerie mood of this event without the use of a variety of gray tones.

As it was my first time using ink wash, I found it difficult to control the opacity levels, as unlike watercolor, in which the medium itself is a solid substance, India Ink is liquid, and when mixed with water still appears the same black color in the palette, so there were a lot more trial and error in my artistic process than I was used to, but the results were definitely worth it!”

Eiligh Orff

“I recently listened to an episode of the podcast Stuff you Missed in History Class, and that’s where I got the inspiration for this illustration. The Straw Hat Riot of 1922 happened when boater hats were supposed to be put away in exchange for warmer wool hats for the winter months. An article had just come out that instead of putting away hats on a certain date, September 15, men should use the weather as an indicator for changing hats.

Inexplicably, the straw hat began breaking out on September 16, when young boys started to steal and smash the hats of men out and about in New York City. To this day, no one know why it became so frenzied. I thought this would be a fun event to do my piece on. I placed the scene in Central Park, because in my head I saw a man going about his business, on a pleasant calm walk in the park when his hat is wrenched from his head and his peaceful afternoon abruptly ruined.

This was a tough piece for me! I haven’t worked with traditional illustration in some months, and I’ve rarely ever worked with water based painting. It took me some time to sketch out the characters. One of the sketches is particularly amusing to me because the boy is much larger than the man and has a frightening look of intensity. I think this was a good learning experience to try and work on light sources, water based painting and being careful because whatever I put down isn’t coming up. And also more dynamic posing, as that’s something I tend to be lazy about improving.”

Sofie Levin

Sofie Levin

“This project was a new experience for me as I used the a water brush for most of the piece. It was a challenge as the pigmentation of the ink would be used quickly and I had to control the amount of water being used with each stroke.

Because it was an ink based project, I wanted to portray an eerie but beautiful scene. The Singapore lantern festival I thought was a perfect fit to what I wanted to express and I created two thumbnails before I dived in.

I have had experience with ink wash and using ink before but using the water brush, it was hard to layer and blend smoothly. I also used the wrong paper and it would absorb the water too quickly, making it warp in areas that I used a lot of water.

I wanted to be more simplistic with my design because most of my ink wash artworks were very detailed and realistic. This project was a great way to ease up on my fine arts skills and allowed me to freely created an iridescent atmosphere with a playful style.  What I learned is that the water brush is a tool I should use more often and always layer with light tones first then go darker.”

Partial Video Transcript
“Everyday, history just always fuels my creativity because for all the work that I make I love to tell stories. Storytelling is really what gets me into art, and history is nothing but stories. What I really love about history are the little stories that are a little weird, and that kind of help you to get you to understand the time and place a little bit more intimately.

For example in this small little ink study, the death toll was so catastrophic that the pope had to consecrate the river in Avignon so that people could be given a Christian burial by being just dumped in. And in this case a lot of the superstitious people believed that a comet, before the played broke out, foretold the whole thing.

I’m taking a trip now in Boston, Massachusetts, and there’s so much history everywhere I go here, so I thought I’d take some time and researched some of the local history. I found a book on the settlement in colonial America and I found a great quote by one of the first writers in American history, actually.

His name is Jared Eliot and he talked about a period when there were so many sheep that they ate all of the natural grass and they just kept multiplying and multiplying, and they solve the problem by bringing in alien strands of grass. He says, ‘Natural stock of grazing animals hath outgrown the meadow.’ I pictured popcorn, popping in a pot, growing, and growing, and growing.

Rather than just Googling ‘Massachusetts history’, I Googled ‘Concord history’, ‘Concord history colonial America’; I had to keep my search as broad as possible and gradually narrow it down.

In any local small town, in any small community, there’s kooky weird history stories everywhere. Google led me to a book that we then went to the library to check out and research some passages of, and that’s what led me to this great story of the massive overpopulation of sheep. I knew we had to take a trip to Drumlin Farm.

There I had a great time, got to see a bunch of little sheep and pet them, and like to do some sketches of them, while as I said, I don’t want these to be textbook historically accurate, I want them to be funny and intimate, but I also want to get things like the architecture, and the costuming, and the clothing as accurate as I can.

There’s a great phrase with character design where your first sketch should always be straight from your imagination, then your second sketch should be fueled by reference photos, by history, and by research, and then your third sketch land somewhere in between.

So while the style of these images is fairly simplistic, the sketches, and history, and the research I do behind them, definitely isn’t. My whole plague series, I naturally couldn’t hop onto a plane and go check out Edinburgh Castle just anytime I wanted to. But for this case, I was in Massachusetts with the opportunity to see cheap, so the question is: Why was it still worth it to go out and sketch them myself?

On Google, you always get the most filtered out images; and it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily ‘bad’ but it keeps you from pointing out the intimate things that you notice. But here, when I was looking at the sheep, like noticing their fluff and how they walk and things like that – like how they have a weirdly flat upper face, and how they have a nice cool little sheep butt that kind of like waddles a little bit when they run around, and the movement of the younger sheep running faster around the older sheep.

So first I did a bunch of thumbnail sketches before I even went to the farm. And for these, I don’t really focus on a lot of the details. I just kind of want to block in the major shapes of what I want the image to look like. It wasn’t until we got to the farm that I started to do sketches of the, let’s call it, the character, the sheep. And I was just drawing all the sheep running around, and kind of trying to get the sense and feel that I wanted my drawing to capture of them.

And it’s funny we’re what I think is like my worst drawing of the sheep – this little one – almost like a jelly bean-ish quality for the body, which kind of fits the humor of my original thumbnail concept. “

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