Heather Souliere makes exciting urban sketches with just black ink! In her FREE Live Demo, she shows us how to paint a cabin scene with dynamic ranges of light and shadow, with just three pre-mixed values of diluted ink.

Step 1: Defining the Picture Plane

Heather starts by using a ruler to make a bounding box for the picture plane ("picture plane" is the professional term for the space on the paper that the picture occupies). She made a 3 x 3" square, and I thought that was a good idea, so I did too.

Step 2: Sketching

Take a felt tip fineliner of your choice and trace the bounding box. By inking a thicker line around the bounding box before doing anything else, you are making it easier to stay inside the lines with your pencil sketch.

For the pencil sketch, focus only on the big shapes. We'll define the image as we go. Now, all you need to worry about are the proportions and locations of everything.

Sketch with a light hand because you want this to be easy to erase later. If a hard lead helps you keep the lines light, do that, whereas if you're like me and hard leads make you want to press too hard, use a softer lead and hold it lightly.

Step 3: Inking

Take your fineliner from earlier and ink along the sketch, remembering to give more definition to the shapes as you go. Think of the sketch as a guide rather than something to precisely trace.

Remember that instead of defining individual leaf shapes, it's best to think of foliage in terms of jagged shapes and tiny holes for the light to come through. The more irregular the line, the more realistic the foliage will be.

Sharp corners are encouraged; they will look round and fluffy from a distance. Feel free to practice these shapes in the margin until you are happy.

When you are finished inking, the scene will look something like the image below. Heather gives excellent advice when she says to add the suggestion of details without filling in every last detail. Our brains don't actually process visuals on the micro-level unless we're deliberately focusing on the micro-level.

Step 4: The First Wash

Time to use the most diluted ink wash to add some shading. It takes only a few drops of ink in your cup of water to dilute it to this degree. Test on scrap paper to ensure that you didn't mix it too dark.

Use whatever brush you feel comfortable with, and focus on from which direction the light is coming. Heather is using this step to refine the shapes further. Use your brush to shape more foliage, and you'll see the trees begin to come to life as their three-dimensional surface gains realistic texture.

Step 5: The Next Wash

Darken the darkest areas with a less diluted wash. As you can see, my picture gets a little choppy here because I didn't dilute my wash as much as I thought I had in some places, while it was almost black in other areas, and I had to correct it before it dried with a paper towel.

When ink is still wet, you can somewhat lift it with a paper towel, but once it's dried, it cannot be reactivated. Be mindful that while ink behaves similarly to watercolour, it is far more permanent.

Step 6: Deepening the Shadows

This step may intimidate you because once you add an intensely dark wash of ink, there's not much you can do to reverse it if you don't like it. Don't be scared! Heather says that she embraces the little mistakes and has never scrapped one of these greyscale ink sketches.

Don't discard your picture if a result is a bit bolder than you expected. Take deep breaths and consider which drawing areas may be in darker shadows than your brain realizes.

Step 8: Finishing Up

Heather's ink dilutions were slightly different from mine, so when I copied her brushstrokes, I realized that my piece was becoming very dark indeed in some places where she was gradually building up the shadow. I had to stop before she did to preserve some semblance of realism!

My result for this demo wasn't perfect, but that helped me further understand the lesson Heather teaches about sketchbooks. If you ever see someone's sketchbook that looks perfect, remember that they chose to use that sketchbook for finished pieces.

Their actual sketchbook will be full of little messes and experiments because messes and experiments are how we grow. Even at the professional level, that is how we grow! Keep devoted sketchbooks for learning projects, and don't pressure yourself!

If you're as excited about Heather's techniques as I am, head on over to her Mini-Workshop! Happy sketching! 

Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator and graphic novelist based in Minnesota. She specializes in all things cozy and calm, but adds humor where she can. When she isn’t drawing, she enjoys playing musical instruments, but you’re more likely to see her staring at some silly tree or something. 


  • Maria Elvira Campos said:

    Your job is beautfullllllll!!! 🌷

    September 13, 2021

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