Pen and Ink Illustration: an Introduction

We can trace pen-and-ink illustration’s roots back to the very earliest illuminated manuscripts.

An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which text is supplemented by additional decoration. The earliest known examples come from the Byzantine Empire, from 400 to 600 CE.


Illuminated manuscript

But regardless of the antiquity of the medium, pen and ink are used all the time by contemporary illustrators, with a spectrum of different results.


Yuko Shimizu Work Process Shot

Illustration and the Art of Printing

Illustration’s development has paralleled the art of printing and reproduction, with very specific moments in history periodically reinventing our medium. We can boil these moments down to a few landmark inventions:

  • the printing press
  • color lithography
  • photography
  • digital printing
  • digital media

Arguably, the invention of the printing press is still the most important thing that has occurred in the history of our art form.


When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, developing a movable type system in Europe between the years of 1440 and 1450, he completely revolutionized the world of human communication. He also initiated the marriage between illustration and publishing that still exists today.


Just as type could be reproduced for print, so could images. The invention of illustrating by means of cut woodblock followed closely the invention of moveable types for printing.


Early Chinese woodblock print

It’s important to note that Chinese were the first by far to use woodblock printing, with the earliest known work dating back to before 220 CE. However, in Western illustration the first woodblocks date from the beginning of the 15th century and the invention of Gutenberg’s press.

Gutenberg added illustrations—usually woodcuts—to his printed books. Very soon after that, books with woodcut illustrations became commonly available.

These illustrations were limited to black ink on white paper, forcing illustrators to render subject matter and to represent dimensionality using only lines, leading to the development of hatching in the pages shown here.


Illustrations by Erhard Ratdolt, 1488, in a book written by Persian astrologer Albumasar

1 thought on “Pen and Ink Illustration: an Introduction

  1. Illuminated manuscripts is text combined with images. The most important invention has been the printing press which was created by johannes gutenberg, which had impacted communication in the world. The chinese were also the first group of people to use woodblock printing.

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