Pens Are For Drawing

In the hands of an artist, any pen can be a drawing instrument. Artists have used pens in some form or another since prehistory. From wooden sticks used for drawing on cave walls, to the sophisticated reed pens used in Ancient Egypt and Classical China, to European feather quills, artists have put their thoughts, visions, and feelings on paper. No matter whether it’s a vintage fountain pen, a souvenir ballpoint, or a sharpened stick– if it makes a mark with ink, you can draw and sketch with it. But no matter what kind it is, the following questions always apply:

Line Quality: Will it produce the style, width, variation, and continuous length of mark desired?

Ink Properties: Can it use ink with the color range, darkness, fluidity, lightfastness, and volume needed?

Care and Maintenance: How much (if any) cleaning, refilling, and parts replacement are you interested in doing?

Overall Design: Are the style, shape, and combination of materials correct for the comfort, function, and appearance you want?

Image: Vincent van Gogh, “Vincent's Bedroom in Arles” pen and ink, 1888

What all pens had in common until fairly recently was that they couldn’t carry their own ink supply; they were dipped into an external inkwell. Even after fountain pens and ballpoints were introduced, dip pens remained popular among cartoonists, comic book illustrators, engineers, and architects, well into the 20th century, and some artists still favor this classic, traditional instrument.

With inexpensive, replaceable nibs and the ability to use genuine India ink, dip pens offered affordability and function that remained unmatched for decades. Nibs and holders are still available in styles for everything from fine detailed drawing to calligraphy. Crowquill nibs make lines finer than a hair, and broad calligraphy and cartooning points can create broad, bold outlines or fill large areas with dense ink. Artists new to dip pens can use plain water and a sheet of chipboard to refine skills without consuming supplies.

Image (left): Kolo Moser, ”Vignettes” India ink, 1898

If using a steel nib seems daunting, there’s a surprising alternative that’s as beautiful as it is functional. Glass pens made in the Venetian tradition make writing and drawing with a dip pen almost as easy as a ballpoint pen. Glass pens use practically any type of ink, with fluted or spiraled tips that gradually feed a generous supply of ink onto paper, and since there’s no split nib, you can use your natural hand movement without adopting any special strokes. Cleaning and maintenance is as easy as rinse-and-wipe, and there’s nothing quite like a glass pen to add a touch of classic elegance to your desk.

Refillable Technical Pen

For all their advantages in line quality and versatility, dip pens aren’t portable, and continuous lines are limited to what the nib can hold in a single fill. That changed for writers with the introduction of the fountain pen and ballpoint, but artists working in India ink had to wait until the introduction of technical pens in the 1950s to finally use India ink without an inkwell. Technical pens made it possible to create continuous, genuine India ink lines of regular width without having to maintain careful control of a nib to avoid drips or spatters. Tech pens were designed with engineering and architectural drawing in mind, but fine artists and illustrators quickly adopted them.

Technical Pen Cleaning Kit

Technical pens require regular cleaning and maintenance, however. They should be rinsed periodically with cool water– never hot– and a cleaning solution propelled with a specially designed syringe.

Sakura Pigma Micron Pens

In 1982, life got a lot easier for those who love technical pens, but don’t enjoy the maintenance, when Sakura introduced the Micron Pigment Liner. These fiber-tipped technical pen alternatives deliver precise line widths in a full color palette of specially filtered, micro-pigment inks that offer much better lightfastness than dye-based inks. Some, like Faber-Castell Pitt pens, even use real India ink.

Tom's Studio Fountain Pens

Fountain pens, originally introduced for writing, offer artists a uniquely expressive, elegant option for drawing, ranging from disposable to investment-quality instruments. Fountain pen nibs, modeled after the split nib of a dip pen, are sensitive to the pressure of the hand, with an internal reservoir for continuous ink feed. This combination allows long, continuous lines of varied width, perfect for sketching. Lack of lightfastness was a drawback of early fountain pen ink, but that has changed with the introduction of micro-particle pigments which can flow through the delicate feed mechanism of a fountain pen without clogging.

Lamy Fountain Pen Converter

With a minimal care routine, maintaining a fountain pen is easy, and finding ink is never a problem when a piston converter can use any fountain-safe product sold in an inkwell.

Making art with a pen doesn’t require sophisticated or expensive instruments, however. Sometimes even the most affordable, common disposable pens are capable of producing expressive and descriptive results. Almost every artist has sketched with a ballpoint or rollerball pen, and some even use these as a primary medium.

Image (left): Jonathan Hirschfeld, “Last Judgment” 2020, ballpoint pen and oil on canvas. Shared under CC 4.0 license

Rollerballs produce dark, continuous lines, similar to fountain pens, but with a more uniform and regular quality, using intense gel ink, with many lightfast colors available. Ballpoint pens use a viscous paste ink which doesn’t flow, bleed, or run. Ballpoint pens can be used to create delicate shading and half-tones, with techniques similar to pencil. Ballpoint ink is typically not very lightfast, however, so it works best for sketchbooks and other applications where artwork is not exposed to light for very long.

Pen and ink captures the artist’s immediate intention, maybe more than any other medium. High contrast, indelible ink records the cascade of decisions that makes up each contour and outline. By considering the attributes that best match your artistic style and method, it’s easy to select a pen that lets you describe and express your vision, by putting ink to paper!

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