Saturday, October 25, 2014

My Twig and Ink Setup

10/25/14 India ink, twig, Stillman & Birn Alpha
A blog reader recently requested more information about the twigs I’ve been using to sketch with. Then yesterday’s sketch of maple trees at U Village generated more questions and comments than I’ve ever gotten from a sketch posting on Facebook (including a comment from the twig master himself, KK, which thrilled me!). One Facebook commenter even asked if I had really used an actual twig – or if that was the name of some kind of art tool! So I decided it was time to write a post on the subject.

I call this “my” twig and ink setup, but most of it is just what I learned from KK during his two-hour presentation and demo at the Urban Sketching Symposium in August. He talked a little about the types of trees he gets his twigs from, but after several questions from the audience, it became clear that the type of tree the twig came from wasn’t very important, as long as the twig was dry and not freshly broken from that tree. KK gave out samples of Chinese ink and had prepared a pile of sharpened twigs for demo participants to try, but the activity was so popular that he ran out by the time I got up there. DIY girl that I am, I just looked around the park where the demo was taking place and picked up a couple of twigs from the ground. When I asked KK whether they would do, he said they would, but then he broke off the tip of one and said to use the freshly broken end rather than the naturally pointed tip. He recommended that I sharpen the end to a point when I had access to a knife.

My sketching twigs shown next to a Platinum Preppy pen for scale.
I noticed that KK’s own personal set of twigs included a variety of point sizes and widths. Since he prefers to use full-size sheets of watercolor paper as well as long landscape sheets for his paintings, many of his twigs were relatively heavy and thick, making large, bold marks. Since I rarely use paper larger than 9-by-12 inches, I made a mental note to keep my twigs on the small size.

A couple of weeks later at home, I went out to my backyard and picked up several twigs about the length of a pen but thinner. Since they were already on the ground and I knew it hadn’t rained recently, I figured they were sufficiently dry. I used a craft knife to cut the bark away and attempted to shape the ends into something like a chisel edge or an italic pen nib. Never having been very handy with a knife, my results were rudimentary at best. Still, I prefer the ability to vary the line width (apparently my lovely bent-nib Sailor has spoiled me; I can’t ever be happy again with a single-line-width drawing instrument!), so making a flat end intuitively makes sense. (I tried cutting one with more of a pencil point, but that proved to be even more difficult than the chisel edge.)

A small glass jar containing gauze saturated with India ink.
The second critical component in KK’s sketch kit is a small jar of Chinese ink, which he said is water-soluble but dries permanently so that watercolor washes could be applied on top. I wasn’t able to find anything called “Chinese ink” at the art supply stores I looked in, so I tried sumi ink, which I happened to have a huge bottle of and which I assumed to be the Japanese version of Chinese ink (after all, Japanese sumi-e is adapted from traditional Chinese painting techniques). Sumi ink turned out to be less intensely black compared to KK’s ink and seemed to have a thinner consistency. I kept digging through my vast bins of art supplies and pulled out a bottle of India ink most recently used in Steve Reddy’s workshop. Closer to KK’s ink in consistency and intensity as well as being waterproof when dry, India ink is now my ink of choice when twig-sketching.

Other than the magic of watching KK’s sketching demo itself, the single-most-important tip I learned from his presentation was how to set up the ink jar. He places a couple of squares of ordinary medical gauze in the bottom of a small jar and then pours in enough ink to saturate the gauze – but not much more than that. (Later at home, I tried both cotton balls and cosmetic squares, which I happened to have on hand, but neither worked as well as gauze.)

This setup has two benefits: The most important to KK is that the gauze allows only a small amount of ink to transfer to the twig, which gives his sketches the “dry,” highly textured and highly expressive look that he is known for. The second benefit is important to any urban sketcher: If you accidentally tip the jar over, you might spill a drop or two (or not at all), but it won’t be the huge disaster an overturned bottle of ink could be.

Ink bottle attached to a ruler with Velcro. The ruler is attached
to my Stefano sketchbook cover with a binder clip.
My personal modification to KK’s brilliant ink jar setup is that I adhered a small piece of Velcro to the bottom of the jar so that it can be attached directly to my “Stefano” sketchbook cover, just like my watercolor paint box can. It’s a critical modification if you often sketch standing up the way I do, or if you just want a handy place to put your ink.

Simple tools and setup, eh? Well, as I mentioned in my post in which I channeled my inner KK in an attempt to summon the same magical powers he possesses when he wields a twig, I learned that there’s nothing magical about the twig itself – it’s all in the hand holding the twig. So far, my channeling hasn’t resulted in getting that magical hand for myself. But in the few weeks I’ve been twig sketching, I’ve learned a couple of things I’ll pass along here:
  • If you cut the twig end with a flat, italic-like “nib,” you can use the narrow end for fine lines, the flat end for wider lines and turn it within a line stroke to get a calligraphy-like thick-and-thin line. (So far, I’ve only succeeded sporadically, but that’s the theory!)
  • The twig can hold only a very small amount of ink, so you’ll be dipping into the jar constantly.
  • When you first touch the twig “nib” onto the paper after dipping, that’s where the darkest blob of ink will be, so plan accordingly: Use that first stroke to apply the darkest-value areas.
  • After that first blob, the twig will be scratchy and dry, so that’s a good opportunity to hatch in texture and medium-value areas.
  • Forget about “control”; twig sketching is all about letting go. (Ah, such a Zen technique!)
  • Forget about detail; twig sketching is all about large shapes and values. It’s closer to painting than drawing.
Now go channel your own inner KK and give twig sketching a try!


  1. Great information, Tina! After seeing KK sketching on youtube last year I searched for some appropriate twigs. I did find that they were too fresh and just soaked up the ink. So I put them in the oven for a while after I shaped the points. I didn't think about making a chiseled point...I did round ones, so I'll have to make another one. I will have to find where I put them and do some twig sketching.

  2. Wow, thanx so much for responding to my earlier question. This is just the type of thing I was imagining and I am glad to find that my imagination is not total fantasy. Your line up at the end really helps. I'll be trying my own twigs soon. Thanx again for sharing so much information.

  3. Have fun twig sketching, Joan and Surfbunny! :-)

  4. Great post, Tina. K K would be proud of you.


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