Traditional Inking VS Digital: Which is Superior

Inktober Feature: Is Traditional Inking Dead? pt 1

Inktober Feature: Is Traditional Inking Dead? pt 1

Needy Animator’s Notes:

With the coming of Inktober, a tradition where artist gather online to post one inked image a day for the whole of October, we are releasing a 3 part article focused on Inking.  The other day I read through an artist friend’s facebook post to find a very interesting post on how another artist commented that those that were inking digitally was “missing out” on the whole learning process only traditional inking could provide. This is particularly interesting as there has always been a divide not only in this issue but with the rise of technology between those that embrace the digital process and others that are more purist with the belief that traditional methods without CTRL+X means the restriction will force you to really master your skills. Is it really one or the other? A medium versus its own development and transformation over time?

Personally I am not a purist nor do I have an opinion on which is better but I do want to address how new technological advances such as a particular dynamic fluid painting app EXPRESII that has the ability to imitate fluid and paint flow, whether it be in the way ink is blended together or how you can twist your tablet around and have the paint flow down the screen to close the gap of what is part of the argument for the use of traditional equipment. (Full disclosure: I asked Nelson Chu, the creator of EXPRESII for some app sponsorship discount codes for our ASIFA SOUTH Animation Conference and Festival last month as I was intrigued by the creations my friend Angela Wong was  posting on her page made with EXPRESII and at the SIGGRAPH Mobile Appy Hour.  With this, I have asked Angela, artist and animator/ co-founder of Rooftop Animation who was also featured with Nelson Chu, the creator of the EXPRESII app on the latest Surface Pro ad to do a 3 part article on not just this phenomenon and question of how the realities of media have merged but also on the traditional history of Ink as a feature precursor to honor Inktober.

Angela demoing Expresii on the Microsoft Surface

The first part Ink and Media Art delves into the interesting exploration and musing of the history of ink. Part two talks about what is new and happening with these method of digital inking and a more detailed demo of EXPRESII, and the last is the synergy between art and technology and how artists might approach the concept in different light to create new work through synergy.

‘Ink & Media art’

By Angela Wong

Edited by the Needy Animator

The History Of Ink

In order to have a discussion about digital ink animation, we cannot begin without talking about traditional ink animation first. After all, it’s been treated as almost like a genre. While I am one of those who think animation is not a genre but a medium, I’ve never heard of a type of animation where the technical aspect is more emphasized upon than ink animation. It’s almost as if the animation being “ink”, instead of the story, is all the reason you should watch it.


Image result for where is mama chinese animation

“Where is Mama?” 小蝌蚪找妈妈 produced by Shanghai Animation Film Studio by Te Wei (1960)

Notable works are “Where is Mama”, “The Deer’s Bell”, “Feeling from Mountain and Water”, and “The Cowboy’s Flute” produced by the once very influential Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Technology widens the possibility for art, yet when it comes to the art of films, the concept of the technique being more important than the story is indeed a dangerous one especially for the creators themselves who would then become replaceable. Creativity and innovation should reach a balance. After hearing multiple senior filmmakers and animators’ recollection of tradition ink animation the “genre”, and also doing a bit of research on the internet, I speculate the motivation behind the “ink” being so emphasized a cultural and sentimental one, which is that it once represented “Chinese animation” and gained a spotlight on the international stage yet failed to continue its glory.

The desire to have an influence, a contribution, and ultimately a voice in the world wide animation market dominated by America, Europe, and Japan is totally understandable. It’s not hard to realize a tendency of today’s Chinese animations in which the heritage is almost always present. We often joke about how the Chinese animation (and film) industry is never tired of telling yet another story of the monkey king Sun Wukong every year. “Ink” does the same magic of screaming “Chinese” in a work. I can’t think of any other technique that is more closely tied to a culture, because while a technique usually originates from a country, it’s shared among and celebrated by creators around the world.

Compared to watercolor and oil painting animations, ink animation is typically more directly influenced by its painting counterpart. That is to say, the role of ink is more than being just a medium or an aesthetic but a tribute to the tradition as well. However, let’s first demystify the notion of “ink” here. Generally speaking, ink or ink wash painting is a kind of East Asian brush painting originated from China. We can think of it as “eastern watercolor” in contrast to western watercolor.


Whether the tools or the principles come first in ink painting is a chicken-and-egg debate, but it’s undoubtedly that we can’t talk about one without talking about the other. The “eastern” ink brush, that is the pointy one which could load water and ink between its very fine hair of animals, contributes to the expressiveness of strokes. The shape, wetness and dryness, spontaneousness of every stroke is delicately controlled by the artist’s hand which holds the brush pen. It is not unlike Chinese calligraphy in which any standard stroke, e.g. 一,  丿, 、, 乛, 乚, etc., is a product of a set of rules like the direction, pressure, speed, and path of mark making. Yet that is only one stroke, when all the strokes are combined by a set of principles concerning the space and composition, it becomes an art form worths a lifetime of practices. Meanwhile, the dispersion effect is the direct result of diluted ink interacting with this highly absorbent Xuan paper.

Logically I went back to study traditional ink animations from the 60s. One animation bit that struck me the most is the small part of a bird in “The Cowboy’s Flute”. It was well-animated and the bird feels very much alive. Studying it carefully I realized how its form is as expressive and abstract as birds typically depicted in ink painting yet the paintings are kept consistent across the frames. Basically, traditional ink animation is a highly calculated spontaneousness – you need to understand in what exact way you’ve performed a spontaneous drawing in the last frame to produce an exact drawing but slightly progressed in motion in the next frame. So are they really spontaneous?


The Cowboy’s Flute produced by Shanghai Animation Film Studio by Te Wei (1963)

So back to the cultural significance of ink animation. The exact way of how traditional ink animations were made remains quite a mystery today, not that no one’s ever written or spoken about it, it’s just I’ve heard of multiple very different versions. I believe in the version a senpai who talked to one of the animators from the Shanghai studio told me. Last I heard, that animator was over 80 and out of respect to him I was asked to remain hush-hush about the process. I can only guess the story is true yet if it is, it was a tremendous amount of labor work. No wonder people seem so proud to be represented by such a “genre” because it is a miracle that it even happened.

However to revive for the sake of reviving should never be the real intention behind creation. There are much to learn from the traditional art and philosophy, yet to truly learn them is to live out the good lessons in our lives. Since our lives must have changed so much compared to that of people in the past, the traditions are bound to transform. Ink painting is transformed from paper to digital because our lives are more than ever in history dependent on computers. It is a way to let the tradition live on and even grow. Similarly with ink animation, we can’t just make a digital version of “Where is Mama?” unless it is intended to cure insomnia most effectively, because it would be considered too boring in today’s fast-pacing world saturated with entertainments.


Next week we will discuss the changing landscape and merging of tech and traditional along with more in depth usage of EXPRESII paint app itself. Also get a 15% discount on EXPRESII for a short period of time at (Originally retails for 69- now at 58.65)  HURRY NOW! THIS DEAL ENDS OCT 5TH PST TIME!

*Video links in this article are for reference purposes only and do not in any way belong to me but to their respective owners. They are used for educational purpose of showcasing examples in clips only. Squirrel animation by Angela Wong. Clips of EXPRESII used with permission from Nelson Chu.

To the Artists out there:

Do you think traditional inking is the only way to go or with the rise of technology, are less and less people included to use traditional medium? Comment with your thoughts below as we would love to know what you think or answer our poll on our facebook page.

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