For the Love of Little Dots
How to stipple, and why to love it. Originally published in Woodworks E-zine.
I love stippling. I am passionate about stippling. I have a nearly absurd obsession with dots. And like a proper disciple to my dot religion, I have to spread the love. Here are some tricks and tips for getting the most out of a trip to the altar of stippling.

What is Stippling?

Not to be confused with 'pointillism,' stippling is the art of using lots and lots of little black dots to imply shading. (Pointillism is the action of putting colored dots close together to imply mixed colors.) And no, it doesn't count as stippling if you use a Photoshop filter.


As with any inking, use only waterproof, permanent ink and good weight, acid-free paper. Not only will this allow you to come back later and use watercolor or other paint over top, it will keep your piece from fading or shifting in tone, and prevent unhappy accidents with spilled water.

I have found the most success with Micron Pigma pens on a smooth bristol. This paper is heavy enough to take a bit of a beating, without so much texture that your pen can take a nose-dive into a crease and leave a streak. The pens come in a range of sizes between 005 and 08 mm. They are felt-tipped, with very precise tips that require very little pressure to leave a good dot. The tips will split, after some wear. If you start getting a faint double-dot, or your lines start looking like doubles, it's time for a new pen.

A close up of stippling done with 005 micron pigma pens:

Getting started

First, pencil in the areas that you want to stipple. I usually only put in an outline of the area, but if I know I want a gradient, I'll scribble in a little bit of the darker areas, or mark the lightest and darkest areas in some way. I might even go nuts and shade the whole thing with graphite, but that can be a waste of time since I'll be erasing all the pencilwork eventually. In the following example, I drew the complete rings of water with pencil, but only dotted the important parts, erasing all of the pencil when I was done.

Once you know which areas you want to stipple in, lay out the mid-tones. Remember to leave white and light areas free of dots. I have a very light touch with my pens, just barely hitting the surface of the paper with each dot. The first stages can be quite random, just throw out some dots until you have a sort of a gray look to the area in question. As you get dense dots, you will want to be more careful, aiming for the space between dots so that you have an even grade and don't have any clusters of dots too close together. A full range of tones can be achieved:

Step back often, shake out your hand, and reposition your wrist. If you lean heavily on your drawing hand, you will find that your stippling area is restricted and you may tend to clump dots where it is easy to reach.

Circular motions can be easier to keep even-looking, but play around and see what feels comfortable for you. If I'm getting bored with just putting in dots, I might do a few spiral patterns, or squares, or anything, just to fill in the spaces. If you aren't careful, though, these will show up in your finished work because as you dot in a line, your dots will approach ovaloid and be spaced too close together. Things like skies and water lend themselves to organic swirly patterns to save you from getting to bored:

When Stippling is most Effective

Stippling is best used when cross-hatching might be too strong or directional, or
a block of black might be overwhelming to a design. It is also excellent for smooth, gradated shading in ink, and can mimic graphite shading very well.

The craters of a moon are a good example of something that cross-hatching can be too strong for, but stippling renders ideally. Draw in your circles with pencil, then add dots all around them in a crescent form:

It is excellent choice for drawing lines that you wish to be indistinct; like cloud lines, mist, or half-hidden things. It is particularly excellent for patterns on wings and mermaid fins and on clothing:

It is wonderful for implying muted transparency and clothing folds that trail off. You can also use it to mimic sparkles, glowing, and magic effects:

Stippling is also an excellent texture for fairy wings (and more magic effects!):

It's a wonderful, non-invasive way to put in a background that doesn't overwhelm your foreground subject but adds that perfect finishing touch.

Stippling takes a great deal of patience and some planning. It might drive you... or anyone who has to listen to your 'dot dot dot' noises... crazy. It can also be very therapeutic, it is relatively forgiving, and there is nothing quite like the soft, gradient finish.

...Dots! Can I get a halleluiah?

All art by Ellen Million and Meredith Dillman, used with permission.

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