Pen Drawing Techniques

In this post, I will describe pen drawing techniques in depth. Before we get into drawing techniques in detail, I want to clarify the difference between a ‘mark’ and a ‘technique’. A pen ‘mark’ or stroke is the individual specific visual representation that is used, like a line. A pen drawing ‘technique’ is manner of use of that visual representation to achieve a specific purpose, like putting down tone. Different pen drawing techniques can be used with same mark to different end and also some marks are amenable to be used with only specific drawing techniques. By the end of this tutorial, my hope is that you will have core understanding of different pen drawing techniques and be able to use that effectively in your pen and ink drawing efforts.

Traditionally, main pen drawing techniques are those associated with the use of line. These techniques (hatching, contour lines, cross hatching) are first 3 discussed in detail below. Next we look at use of tapered dark to texture. There are many other variety of ‘marks’ (and associated techniques) that are used in drawing pen and ink landscapes which are covered in a separate post.


A core aspect of drawing is laying down ‘tone’. ‘Tone’ essentially refers to level of light or dark and a drawing is nothing but different tones laid in a manner that indicates a certain object or image to our mind. Being able to lay a certain ‘tone’ is thus fundamental to drawing. In some mediums like pencil or pastels, a broad chisel tip along with pressure applied is used to control and lay down uniform tone. Not so with pen as we only have a nib to work with. In the case of pen, the volume of ‘mark’ is used to control the tone that is perceived. ‘Parallel Lines’ are widely used to lay down tone in drawing with pen, but as we will see later, it can be done with many other marks.

This process of drawing parallel lines next to each other to lay down tone is called ‘hatching’. Following is how hatching is used to lay down initial tone when drawing a stone wall.

Parallel lines are used to lay down tone in this drawing

By changing the thickness and how close lines are to each other, we can change the level of ‘dark’ vs ‘white’ in an area of paper and hence the ‘tone’.

Additional lines or line thickness is used to adjust tone in hatching

The lines also need to be ‘more or less’ equidistant apart. Other wise the feeling of uniformity in tone is lost.

But there is a more fundamental question of what determines the level of ‘tone’ to use in an area.

What determines level of tone to use:

As we discussed above, ‘hatching’ is a technique to add ‘tone’ to an area of drawing. The level of tone to add depends on following 2 factors:

  1. Natural or Base tone of an Object/Colour:
  2. Level of Light falling on an area:

In pen drawing when colour is not used, a tone need to be assumed for every object and colour in the drawing. This is similar to how we see a tone in a black and white photograph. Some objects like a stone are usually darker and are given a darker tone in the drawing. Bright Sun light Sky would have lighter tone than a night Sky. Similarly, yellow colour is perceived to be ‘lighter’ than deep blue colour.

I might decide that stone has more nature ‘base’ tone than what I have indicated above. In this case, I can use additional set of lines to give it more ‘base’ tone as done below.

Add more hatching lines to increase level of tone

In addition, if an object has curved surface, then the part of its surface that is receiving more light is brighter and this is indicated by use of less tone compared to surface that is away from light and receiving less light and hence darker. For a darker surface, more ‘stroke’ is used to indicate more tone and hence darker appearance.

In summary, natural state and level of light falling on the surface of an object determines the level of tone to use. We start by giving base tone and then add more tone to darker areas based on level of light they are receiving.

Tonal Variation:

In drawing, it is seldom the case that light is uniformly assumed to be falling on whole surface of an object with same tone throughout. This will make that drawing very boring indeed. Instead, an assumption is made regarding direction of light and tone is assigned to different surfaces of an object based on how much light they are receiving. This different levels of tone on an object is referred to as ‘tonal variations’.

With hatching, additional lines are used to create tonal variations.

For landscapes, Sun is often assumed to be the light source from above. In this case, the stones in the drawing above will have following tonal variations.

  • Top most part of stones is assumed to be receiving most light and is brightest lit. It  is almost left white to indicate that.
  • Bottom part of stone will receive the least light and will be darkest
  • Middle 1/3 will receive middle volume of light and will be in middle tone

Based on above assumptions, additional set of hatching lines are used to add more tone to bottom 1/3 to give it darkest tone below.

The stone surface now has a ‘tonal variation’ with 3 tones (lightest, middle and darkest). These tones were achieved using additional layers of parallel lines. Notice also how the stone surface in above drawing has perception of form or volume due to change in its tone across its surface.

Such ‘3 tone’ tonal variation is sufficient in most drawings, but it is a matter of personal preference. For more detailed drawings, more tone change might be employed to give it more realistic feel. Below I have added another layer of lines at the very bottom to make this ‘4 tone’ tonal variation.


Notion of Suggestion:

It is important to understand that in drawing, the aim is to ‘suggest‘ certain aspect of form and volume of depicted objects through depicted tonal variations. In reality, the tonal variations that we perceive might not be so dramatic as often depicted in pen drawings (like in the stone wall above) and in fact tone change in reality is continuous. For some drawing mediums like pencils and pastels, very subtle tonal variations are achievable through change in pressure applied. But when drawing with pen using lines, the aim is usually not to achieve a ‘realistic’ drawing through subtle tonal change as ‘hatching’ is not the right technique and pen not the right medium for that. Instead, the aim in pen drawing is to ‘suggest’ the form through a limited set of tonal variations. This also brings out the unique feel in pen drawings that attracts people to this medium. For subtle tonal gradations like in hyper realistic pen drawings, other marks and techniques like stippling (using dots) is often used.

Using Other Marks for Laying down Tones:

Various other marks can be used to lay down tone with process being the same (use less volume for light tone, more volume for darker tone) as with parallel lines. These are sometimes called different techniques and given different names, like use of term ‘stippling’ when using ‘dots’ as marks. The considerations of tonal variations that was discussed above apply to them as well. Following is an example of use of dots to texture a stone wall. This is further discussed later.

Stippling with Dots for laying down tone

Click here for suggestions on learning to get better with hatching.

Contour Lines:

In hatching as discussed above, straight parallel lines are used. Next step is to use the curvature of lines to indicate the curvature of an object. This is a very unique technique that is only possible when lines are used and distinguishes pen drawing from other drawing mediums.

Study the lines used on rose petals below. Notice how the lines are along the expected contour of the petals and this brings out the feel of the contour of the petal. The lines are not truly parallel but follow the contour of the object’s surface. This gives to our mind the indication of contour of petals.

drawing of rose
Use of Contour Lines on Petals

Following is use of parallel hatching lines on a similar rose. Notice that parallel lines doesn’t follow the contour of the petals and are thus not bringing out the contour of the petals.

Use of parallel lines (hatching) on rose petals

The key to keep in mind is that if the underlying surface that you are texturing has a more complex curved form, then use contour lines to bring out the curvature of the surface.

As discussed with hatching before, additional set of lines can be used to adjust the tone to bring out the interplay of light and shadow. For the rose petals, additional layer of contour lines are used to add tone to indicate area in shadow.

drawing of rose
Using multiple layers of contour lines

To summarise, if the surface has curved form, then primary set of contour lines brings out the curvature of the surface and additional set of contour lines can be used to indicate play of light.

Hatching vs. Contour Lines

We saw before that tonal variation with hatching can be used to indicate curvature and form of an object as we did with stone wall above. This then raises the question of when to use hatching vs contour lines to indicate form. The answer to this depends on complexity of curvature of the surface and your comfort with drawing contour lines. If you are comfortable drawing contour lines and the surface has complexity of form that will benefit from contour lines, then it is good to use contour lines.

Following shows similar rose drawing with hatching vs contour lines. The form and feel of petals is more evident with contour lines.

Human forms with curved surfaces benefit from use of contour lines as well. In the drawing below, contour lines are used to bring out the form of fingers and hands. Click on the image to see details.

In some cases, contour lines can be used to indicate direction of flow or movement. This is especially the case when drawing water as in the case of drawing of waterfall below.


Click here to practice drawing contour lines.


In the stone drawing above, multiple layers of hatching lines in the same direction were used to create tonal variation. When multiple layers of lines are used in different directions, it is called cross hatching.

In the following another stone wall drawing, second tone is added by using lines in a different direction and this is called cross-hatching

Cross-hatching is used to add second layer of tone

Multiple layers in different directions in this manner can be used to create additional tonal variations

Additional Cross-hatching to create more tonal variation

Multi Layer Hatching vs Cross-Hatching:

We saw before that multiple layers of lines in the same direction (hatching) can be used to create tonal variation. As we just saw that parallel lines in different directions (cross-hatching) can be used for this purpose as well. This raises the question of which technique to use when.

The answer at a high level is that it is a matter of personal preference and drawing style. Some people like the clean appearance of cross hatching as when drawing lines in same direction, they can sometimes merge and create a darker spot. Also multiple layers in same direction can only be used for limited tonal variations before starting to interfere with each other. With cross-hatching, many different directions of lines can be used to create a greater tonal variation with clean appearance.

Following simple mug sketch shows comparison of different techniques.


Tone vs Texture:

It is important to understand the difference between ‘tone’ and ‘texture’ as they are often used interchangeably but refer to quite different aspects of drawing. Tone, as we have discussed before, is the level of ‘light’ or ‘dark’ with more stroke used to give more tone. Texture on the other hand is ‘feel’ of surface that we intend to bring out. Sometimes same stroke is used to give both tone and texture but it is also possible to use one stroke to give tone and then use a different stroke to give texture.

Parallel lines using techniques discussed above by themselves often don’t bring out the texture that might be needed if the surface has especially rough texture and in this case additional stroke is used to provide texture. For e.g, in the simple drawing of mug above,a smooth surface for mug is assumed and hence no additional stroke is used. To indicate slight cracks in the mug, tapered dark stroke discussed next is used in addition as shown below.

Water Lily

In the flower drawing above, slight oval dots are used to provide texture for flower in addition to contour lines on the petals. Additional marks to use to provide texture is dictated by the nature of texture desired and comes with practice.

In some cases same mark can be used to provide both tone and texture. This is the case with use of stippling on stone wall seen earlier.

Tapered Dark:

This is not usually included as a ‘technique’ but I find that it is used in many instances, especially in landscape drawing. This technique is simply creating and using following dark shapes, either as stand alone or by darkening a line.

In a landscapes, the edges of objects are usually darkened in this manner to give them depth. Following shows how when edges of stone in the stone wall are darkened in this manner, they acquire depth.

Edges are darkened in irregular dark tapered manner to give it depth

These tapered dark shapes can be used in the body to give feel of imperfections as well. Following shows stone wall when such imperfections have been added.

Tapered darks are added as imperfections

The ‘technique‘ behind these tapered dark shapes lies in using them in an irregular manner to create a pleasing distribution of tone using such shapes. Following old root is textured using such shapes of different sizes. Click on it to see it drawn step by step.

Learn to Drawn an Old Root
An Old Root

Following trunk is also textured using just such shapes.

pen ink drawing of trunk

Techniques with other ‘Marks’:

In first 3 techniques (hatching, contour lines, cross-hatching) focus was on using a ‘line’ mark in different ways to provide tone variations. In the last technique above, tapered dark shapes were used to texture. There are many other ‘marks’ that can be used in addition to provide different feel for texturing. What is the ‘technique’ behind these ‘marks’?

The answer is that ‘technique’ or manner of usage of a ‘mark’ is often dependent on the context of use of that mark. Same mark can be used for providing different textures for different objects and different techniques will then be applicable with the same mark to provide different texture. As an example, following ‘slightly wavy’ mark can be used to texture trunk, water and even Sky using different techniques.

Same stroke is used to texture trunk, water and sky using different techniques

I further discuss different ‘marks’ or strokes and associated techniques for drawing pen and landscapes here.

Do I need to be able to draw Parallel lines to draw with Pen?

Before I finish this post, I want to address one question I get asked often. As we discussed earlier, using lines to provide tone variation is a fundamental technique in pen and ink drawing but being able to put down such parallel lines comes with lot of practice. Many people perceive this to be too difficult to learn and never attempt drawing with pen in the assumption that they can’t do pen drawing without being able to draw parallel lines. I want to make it very clear that at least for landscape drawing, many great landscapes can be drawn without using a single straight line. As is often said, in nature there are no straight lines and texturing of nature can be accomplished using other strokes like wiggles, open loops etc. These strokes can be easily done by any body and used to put together very pleasing landscapes. I discuss these strokes in more detail here.

That said, for other subjects like still life, human forms etc, being able to do contour lines is very important. So while you can start and enjoy drawing pen and ink landscapes, it would be useful for you to practice and add the above discussed techniques associated with parallel lines to your ‘tool kit’. Process to develop this ability is further discussed here.

This bring me to the end of this post. You can further read about overview of other strokes for draw pen and ink landscapes here or go on to pen and ink drawing tutorials where these strokes and technique associated with their usage is discussed in detail in the context of drawing different elements of nature.

Happy Drawing,





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