Before I describe some of the options available for choosing pen, I want to stress that you can start with any pen, even ordinary ballpoint pen, and get a feel for drawing with pen. Practice is most important and as you improve with practice and get some experience, you will be able to make pen and paper selection that feels right to you. Different people prefer different options based on convenience, drawing style, cost, way a pen writes etc. and experimenting drawing with different pens is part of creative process. That said, don’t let finding your ‘perfect’ drawing pen stand in your way of starting to draw in pen and ink.
Another factor to consider when drawing with pen is the ‘thickness’ of width of line produced by the pen. Different thickness of lines gives different feel to the drawing and as you progress, you can even combine different width’s in the same drawing, but in the beginning, a ‘fine’ width is appropriate. This implies a line around 0.5 mm wide or less.
Following are some of the considerations in choosing a pen.
- Style of Drawing: There is a great variety of ‘style’ in pen and ink drawing ranging from stippling (pointillism) to use of bold brush strokes. Depending on your approach or style of drawing, some pens would be more appropriate than others. If you are attempting to use line width variation in your drawing, then a flexible dip pen (crow quill nib) is more appropriate. For pointillism, this may not be necessary and even distracting.
- Your Drawing Environment: A great thing with pen and ink drawing is that it can be attempted anywhere. If you find yourself drawing in breaks between your ‘other’ work, then you would want something that is very easy to use and doesn’t require any setup and clean up after. In this case, a fountain pen or a gel pen is a good choice where as dip pens are not appropriate.
- Your Drawing Level: Some drawing pens, like a technical pen, require more careful handling due to their very fine tip. Use of Dip pens also has a learning curve. For a beginner, these choices might result in frustration in the beginning and it might be useful to get some experience from more easier options like a gel pen and then attempt others with bit more experience. But again, this is not a requirement.
Following are the broad categories of pens and some quick thoughts on them regarding above considerations. Choices available in a category are described as well.
Categories of Pen for Drawing:
- Pen with nib:
- There are two main types in this category:
- Dip Pens: These are nibs in a holder where the nib is dipped in ink as it is used to draw. Their main attraction is that they can produce line with varying width with change in the pressure that is applied to the nib. In addition, wide variety of ink type can be used with them. This main disadvantage is inconvenience as they need to be continuously dipped in ink and are prone to blotting.
- Fountain Pens: They have a reservoir to hold ink and can be taken anywhere easily. Compared to dip pens, they don’t provide as much flexibility in creating lines with varying width. Also, only ink created specifically for fountain pens can be used with them (these inks don’t dry in the pen and can be cleaned with water). Fountain pens are my favourite and I use them a lot. Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen is a great beginner pen and very reasonably priced at around $25. I would absolutely recommend this pen if you are looking to try a fountain pen.
- Pen with Tips/ Fine Liners:
- These ‘tip’ pens, or ‘markers’ as they are also called, have a long very thin cylindrical tube with a fibre tip as their ‘nib’. Most of them are sold as disposable, non refillable pens. Their main attraction is convenience and low initial cost. They need to be held slightly vertical for their ‘tip’ to properly come in contact with the paper. They can be found in variety of ‘tip’ widths and cost under $4. ‘Pigma Micron’ is a very well known brand in this category but many other choices are available as well. These are great starter pens for beginners and very convenient for drawing on the go.
- Pens with Ballpoints:
These are now ubiquitous everywhere and essentially they have a very small metal ball at their tip that rolls when in contact with paper to release ink. There are 2 main options to consider:
Gel Pens: ‘Gel’ ink is high quality ink and gel pens using gel ink leave a nice black line. A Good quality gel pen is very similar to a good fine liner and even better in many ways as they don’t run dry with dwindling ink supply. They again come in many widths down to Extra fine point. Gel pens from Pilot (G2 and G3 lines) are a great choice. Gel pens from Uni-ball are also great.
Ordinary Ball pens: There are the cheap ball point pens you will often come across. I don’t recommend using them as their ink is not dark enough and line quality is not consistent. When using pen for drawing, you want a nice dark line that is consistent, i.e. doesn’t break in between. With these cheap pens, this is often the case which ruins the drawing experience. With a dollar or so extra, you can get a good quality gel pen instead and I would strongly advice for that option.
There are also ‘Technical Pens’ which use a different mechanism for releasing ink but require good experience with pen usage and significant maintenance in terms of proper cleanup after every use. Their main advantage is thin consistent line that is desired by some artists.
Pen vs Pencil for Drawing:
I would recommend not using a pencil for pen and ink style drawing. The main difference between them is that in a pen and ink drawing, ‘pen line’ is the main element that is used to create texture and provide tone, where as in mediums like pencil and pastels, the broad tip is used to lay tone and the focus is not on individual line. This means that the line in pen and ink drawing needs to be strong and bold to be able to provide tone and texture and this is usually not the case with pencils other than very soft leads. Further, the permanence of pen lines promotes good observation skills as they can’t be erased and it promotes an ‘improvisational’ learning where undesired pen lines tend to become part of creative and learning process and can be observed in the final drawing and indeed becomes part of it. Capability to erase pencil promotes ‘draw-erase-draw’ cycle which frustrates many beginners. Though it may seem counter intuitive, permanence of pen lines tend to make drawing with pen more fun and less frustrating for the beginners.
Pens usually come in Extra Fine (EF), Fine, Medium and Broad nibs. As the name implies, Extra fine nib line is very thin and this allows for very detailed drawings. Fine nib lines are slightly thicker with medium being more so. Keep in mind that these designations are not standard and pens from different manufacturers might have different line width even with same designation.
Following is my suggestion for beginners starting on their pen and ink drawing adventure:
- Start with a good quality gel pen or fine liner. For gel pens, 0.4 mm point is a great choice for beginners. Fine tip fine liners (0.3mm width) are great as well. These pens from well know brands like Pilot, Sakura, Uni-ball, Staedtler etc. are all of good quality to begin with. Don’t go for too fine tip as that starts to dig into the paper and is not recommended for beginners.
- Once you get some experience drawing with ‘tip’ pens, try a fountain pen. A metal nib of fountain pen has a very different feel than a fibre tip of fine liners or a roller ball of gel pens. Metal nib gives great ‘feedback’ and lines of small variable width can be put down by using different pressure on the nib. Many people exclusively stick with a metal nib once they experience it. Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen in fine tip is a great starter fountain pen. Feel free to reach out to me for more suggestions on fountain pens if you want to go further on this journey.
- For most people, above two are sufficient for their drawing adventures and this might be the case with you as well. But if you do want to try other options, do feel free to reach out to me.
Paper for Pen and Ink Drawing:
A simple rule for paper when doing pen and ink drawing is to avoid textured paper, like cold press watercolour paper. Textured paper has surface irregularities and they tend to prevent pen movement, especially when using fine tip/nib. Bristol/Smooth paper is best choice for pen and ink drawing. Another consideration is to avoid paper that will flare pen lines, usually the case with liquid ink like in a fountain pen. Also use paper of sufficient thickness so that it will not blot, i.e. show ink spot on the other side. One of my favourite choice is ‘Mixed Media’ paper. This is smooth enough and of sufficient thickness to give a very pleasing drawing experience.
Most of the drawing books mention the mediums that it is suitable for. Choose ones that are suitable for wet or multi media uses. That said, when using a gel pen, even thin paper for dry media is suitable as gel ink is thicker and isn’t absorbed in the paper as much as like a fountain pen ink. Even ordinary printing paper that is ubiquitous is good for drawing with pen and ink. Again experiment with different papers to see what you prefer and enjoy the process of experimentation and creative journey.