One of the tools we get asked about the most is non-photo blue pencil.
I pencil in non-photo blue for most of our comic book pages, unless I can’t get a hold of it. Changes in the graphic design industry have made it more difficult to acquire, especially as mechanical pencil leads. I’ve recently found a new source and switched back to using it. More on that later.
What is it?
Non-photo blue refers to a shade of pale cyan that doesn’t show up in pure black and white reproduction. When I was young and dinosaurs roamed the earth, we used it for such things as notations on layouts we were photographing using a process camera to create negatives for printing plates. (I know that sentence made no sense to most of you. Things were different in the olden days.) Nowadays, if a plate is used at all, you’re going direct to plate and don’t make pencil notes. This, however, does not mean that non-photo blue pencil is obsolete.
Non-photo blue is still useful for illustration purposes, even if you’re scanning to a digital file. (I have seen in books on digital comics that it doesn’t work for computer scanning, they are wrong.) The important caveat is that it has to be high contrast black-and-white scanning.
How it works
In high contrast processes, non-photo blue effectively registers as white/invisible instead of black. High contrast is the important bit here. That means processes that do not use shades of gray or color, which excludes standard continuous tone black-and-white photography as well as grayscale or color scanning modes.
Why it’s useful
Used properly, it allows you to create your artwork in pencil, ink it without erasing, and scan it for reproduction without your pencil lines showing. This can save you a lot of extra labor.
I have also found that it improves my inking. Because I don’t need to erase, less damage is done to the paper, and my lines are cleaner as a result. I also find that I have a better perception of the black values in my art. Graphite can trick the eye, and after cleanup I find myself needing to go over areas that I skipped or handled too lightly.
How to use non-photo blue
Using non-photo blue is fairly simple. Acquire the pencil. Draw with it. Ink your drawing and scan it in using the settings I will explain later in this article.
The trick, of course, is acquiring the pencil. There are three main types of non-photo blue pencils produced- woodcase pencils, drafting mechanical pencils, and fine point mechanical pencils.
These are similar to standard colored pencils, but they usually have a harder lead.
Sometimes they can be waxy, and that causes problems with some inks. Your best bet with these is to use standard India ink. My preferred ink is Koh-I-Noor Ultradraw or Universal for dip pens, and Faber-Castell Pitt for tech pens. These have never given me trouble.
Non-photo blue lead exists for both the clutch type drafting pencils with thicker 2 mm lead, and the fine point mechanical pencils commonly used in schools.
The thicker 2 mm lead is a bit easier to acquire. You can normally find this through drafting supply houses. These leads are shown in the picture below on the bottom.
I prefer to use fine point mechanical pencils when possible. Unfortunately, I have had trouble acquiring non-photo blue lead for the last several years, due to the declining demand in the U.S. market. (There is a Pentel blue lead marketed in the U.S., but it’s navy blue and gives poor results.)
Recently I’ve been able to acquire a stockpile of lead from Japan through Jetpens.com. The brands I’ve found so far are pictured right in the top row.
The Pentel Multi 8 leads are 2 mm leads. I break these into small pieces to use in my compass.
The Pilot Color Eno leads are 0.7 mm. These are somewhat soft and break easily.
Pilot Color Eno NEOX is identical in color and size to the Color Eno, but is slightly harder and far more durable.
The Uniball leads are .5 mm, and slightly grayer than the Pilot. The lead quality is very similar to the Pilot.
All of the fine point leads are listed as “soft blue” at retailers.
Scanning Non-Photo Blue Correctly
In order to scan your inked artwork properly, and drop out the non-photo blue lines, you need to be scanning at a high contrast black-and-white setting. The terminology varies between scanner drivers, but is normally something like bitmap, line art, black and white or high contrast. If the results give you anything but black and white pixels, the setting is incorrect. Grayscale will not work, some lines may drop out but most will be visible. Obviously color will pick up the blue lines.
Note: scanning in high contrast black and white also allows you to scan at a very high resolution (without ridiculous file size) which is ideal for line art. I would suggest 600 to 1200 dpi as ideal. If need be, you can reduce later, which allows you to produce very clean and smooth line art.
- If you can’t get high contrast black-and-white out of your scanner:
- Check with the manufacturer. I have heard of some drivers that don’t include this option. In some cases though, you might need an update or they’re using peculiar terminology. It may also be buried in settings that they hide from novice users.
- If you have no luck with the previous option, most image editors have ways of selecting and removing specific colors. For this you want the image to be as clean as possible, so that there are less stray lines to deal with. There are a multitude of different ways to do it depending on which program you use and how well you know the various parts of the program. If requested, I can make a tutorial on how to do this in Photoshop.
- If you are certain that you are scanning in high contrast black-and-white, and some lines still appear:
- Your pencil may have dug into the paper. In that case you may actually be picking up the shadow of the indentation, not the line itself. Try erasing with a gentle method such as a kneaded or electric eraser. You can also try smoothing the paper from the back with a burnishing tool of some sort. Try to draw more lightly in the future, or switch to heavier paper.
- If you layer the pencil enough, you can darken the color to the point where it does begin to show. This can be remedied by picking up some of the lead with a kneaded eraser. You can also adjust the contrast settings on some scanners, which will allow you to drop out a wider range of tones.
- Non-photo blue is not lightfast.
- Do not leave it in direct sunlight, unless you want the lines to disappear. I have seen significant fading in as little as 2 days. Flip the paper over if you need to leave it out, or cover it with opaque material.
Where to buy
Non-photo blue woodcase pencils are available or can be ordered at most art supply stores. 2 mm drafting leads can be bought or ordered at drafting stores.
I buy my fine point leads at Jetpens.com. They have been very good about keeping them in stock and ship quickly.
I have occasionally seen them at Amazon.com as well, through alternate sellers. I’ve never ordered from them, so I have no idea about the reliability of the sources.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments.