Saturday, March 12, 2011

Exploring Pens

Swainson’s Thrush -- India ink with a dip pen on Strathmore High surface drawing paper.

For those of you who come here for a peek into nature, I hope you won’t be disappointed that I am going to write about art materials. To be honest it just seems to rain or promise to rain here -- day after day. We have not been getting out as much as usual. Meanwhile I have had time to gather together my information on pens, fountain pens and ink; especially as it relates to field sketching. I know some of my artist friends will be interested. This post will be on pens. Fountain pens and ink come later.

But first I’ll mention that prior to blogging virtually all my published black and white work was drawn at home using India Ink and good paper. A good nib and dipping into a bottle of India ink still gives me the most control over my line and is archival—but it isn’t a handy sketching medium.

In my mind field sketching pens should have the following qualities:

1. Variety of line
2. Dry quickly so if I have started with light pencil lines I can erase them, or come back with a wet wash
3. Draw quickly so I can sketch rapidly when needed
4. Not break the bank
5. Be reasonably archival just in case I draw something I really like

Aspen scarred by black bears in Yellowstone -- field sketch in journal with ball point pen.

It sounds simple enough, but it isn’t all that easy to meet all those requirements. One of the simplest choices is a good old ball point pen. For a long time it was my favorite tool. … but how archival? Ball point pens usually don’t bother to let artists know how good they are. ....Closeup

Uniball pens are wonderful is that they have liquid ink and I can sketch very rapidly with them, but the line is just a little heavy for my taste.

Another bear scarred aspen in Yellowstone -- field sketch in journal. I can’t remember for sure, but looking at the original I’m quite sure I used at least two sizes of Pigma Micron pens.

Pigma Micron pens are almost the answer. They come in a variety of widths, are developed for art, but are just a little dry , i.e. ‘slow’. I can’t sketch as quickly as I would like and they get expensive.


For a brief period I was delighted with the Pilot G-2 - .38 pen. So fluid and a nice fine line. Almost too good to be true.

Fortunately a little voice niggled at me wondering how good is the Pilot G-2 pen?
My simple archival test is to put a sample on the sunny window sill of the bedroom that faces south. Two months of summer sun and I have a pretty good idea if the ink / paint I’m using is lightfast. It a pretty crude test compared to proper testing, but look at the results.

I wrote six samples on index paper. About two months later the results were shocking. Three faded so much I can barely read the original writing. I’ll never buy another G-2 pen. Testing one ball point pen really doesn’t tell me what other brands will do, but I’ll know to be very wary. Any of these inks will probably last forever inside a journal, but not if I happen to want to frame the art.

It has only been about a year and a half ago that I discovered a world of fellow artists on the internet. I soon realized some were sketching with a fountain pen, especially Cathy Johnson. That sounded intriguing. More about fountain pens and ink in the next post.


  1. I know what you mean about the constant rain her. glub glub. But I am interested in knowing more about what you do use in your work so this is very helpful. I Love your work. It's really detailed & illustrative. Is that a word? :))

  2. This was a wonderful article Elva and great little study. I usually use the Micron pens. Now I'm looking forward to the next one on fountain pens.

  3. Thanks for the interesting post. How long do these micron pens last? Can you give an estimate? I tried Staedtler ink pens and was totally disappointed: The nib is very sensitive and the pen does not last very long. After 5-6 pages finito.Also the line is "dead".
    At present I use a Pentel K227, but never tested the light fastness as I use it only in sketchbooks. The black is deeply saturated from first to very last stroke.

  4. beautiful sketch
    i love the essentiality of black and white

  5. Dear Elva,
    Wonderful post and amazingly beautiful pen work!! Pen&ink is just for you, Elva! Occasionally, I use it, but come back to watercolor. I want to see you in person and ask how to use a pen&ink:). Book in, please.
    Cheers, Sadami

  6. HiPapierflieger .... how long does a Micron pen last? I probably could have drawn the thrush at the begining of the post with a new pen ... possibly two thrushes. They never last as long as I want and slowly die. The point holds up quite well.

  7. Thank you Elva for sharing all this precious information. I'm always on the look-out for the perfect pen, but I'm too absent-minded to remember which was the best of the lot! What about being waterproof as a requirement- Is that what you mean by not breaking the bank? Or do you like pens that bleed so you can use them for shadings? Beautiful sketches as always.

  8. This was a good test. I use micron a lot but if I am just doodling I use a Pilot Precise V5 exxtra fine point. I bet it has the same ink as the G2. I will be careful. I realllly like your ink illustrations. Something to aspire to.

  9. Hi Concetta,

    By 'not breaking the bank' I meant I don't want the pen to be so expensive that I hate to use it.

    As for 'waterproof', I like working both with waterproof pens and ones that bleed. Finding good ones that bleed is much harder than finding waterproof ones. There is a time and place for each kind.

  10. I love your blog! I gave it the Stylish Blog Award. Check it out:

  11. You might try a Uni-Ball Gel Retractable pen in a .38 by Sanford Brands (item number 69034). It comes in several colors, but I have never tested the colorfast properties. They also produce one in a .18, in about a dozen colors, but I find that a bit too fine. Thank you so much for taking the time to share the results of your research.