Inking First vs. Painting First

Inking First vs. Painting First

If you’re an artist who likes to pair ink drawing with watercolour painting, then I’m sure you know the age-old conundrum: Should you ink first, or paint first? In this blog, we’ll take a look at the similarities and differences, and the pros and cons of both methods.

Inking First

Since watercolour is a transparent medium, this makes it very suitable for using over an ink drawing, as the darker ink layer will easily show through the paint.

Of course, you’ll need to use waterproof ink to prevent the ink from bleeding, but otherwise, it’s pretty easy to do! There’s also an automatic guideline of where the paint should go, and allows for very accurate painting, as you can simply paint within the inked lines.

I will say though, that painting over your lines might cause the ink to have a sort of “faded” look, especially if your paints are labelled as “semi-opaque” or “opaque”. Painting a very saturated layer may also make the ink look less dark.

Some people don’t mind this, as this can be easily adjusted using photo-editing software, but if you’re the type who wants to keep their lines pure black (or whatever the original ink colour is), then this method might not be for you

In the close-up image above, you can see where the black lines have faded. They’re not as noticeable from further away, but certain areas (especially where there are thicker lines) will look a little patchy up close.

Tip: Of course, for the best of both worlds, you can always ink, paint, and then ink over the same lines again, but it will take up more time than you may want to spend. Your lines may also not be perfectly aligned unless that’s the look you want to go for.

Painting First

How about painting first? The great thing about it is it feels more freeing, as you can lay your paints and allow them to flow more freely as you’re not pressured to paint within the borders.

You can also get some interesting bleeds if you’re using wet techniques, which also lead to a softer, blurrier feeling. Of course, if you’re not comfortable with painting freehand, then this might be more of a downside, as the ink lines may offer a greater sense of security.

One cool thing you can do with inking afterwards is you can highlight your best bleeds by drawing around them. For example, in my painting, I had some darker and some lighter patches, so I drew around them to turn them into rocks and leaves on the ground.

Some watercolourists take this to the extreme, but that all hinges on being able to intentionally create great bleeds and/or backwashes in the first place! But in any case, your inked lines will be crispier and darker, since they don’t have a layer of paint over them.

Bonus tip: You should wait for your paint to dry completely before inking on top!

One downside may be that it’s much more difficult to “plan out” your painting and drawing with a lot of accuracies beforehand unless you’ve practised before or use a pencil with water-soluble lead to sketch out your lines. It’s not for the faint of heart!


So should you ink first, or paint first? I guess it all depends on whether you prefer a tidier style with the paint staying within the lines, or whether you like a messier, more daring style. To be honest, the not-as-dark ink from painting over your lines is almost negligible, and you can always plan a sketch using watercolour paint if you don’t have a water-soluble pencil.

It also depends on what you’re used to, although it’s good to try out different methods to practice and to expand your skill repertoire! So with that being said, you’re more than welcome to attempt both methods and see which one you like more. And feel free to share your findings with us!

Do you ink first or paint first? Or does it depend on your painting subject? Let us know in the comments below!

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Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 
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I feel more secure with an ink outline first. But, what I do is use a light gray pen to ink in the shapes, then paint, then go over with the darker black ink. I’ve been painting about three years. (I’m 70) Still trying to find my own style. But ink and watercolor is definitely what I love. Your painting is an inspiration.


this ink over watercolor to highlight the bleeds looks cool! I´m going to try that! Thanks for the hint!


Great article which points out the differences in the process. Thank you for taking the time to write it out. I wondered if there was a set way now I have the answer, both ways are acceptable and have their pros and cons.


Hi Nicola, Thank you for sharing your thoughts regarding whether to
paint first or draw in ink first. I would love to do some watercolors with some ink outlines to focus on some features of the painting, so this gives me some direction.

Cynthia Clarke

This was brief and helpful; especially having the painting to use as a reference point for different examples of where to use the ink. It helps to study the picture blown up. I plan to read this again and give both methods a try. Thanks so much for this practical encouragement.


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