Thursday, December 8, 2011

Christmas Came Early: My New Fountain Pen

First drawing with my new pen … a tree swallow peering out of its nest cavity in a willow snag. All the drawings except my pouch are drawn with my new pen.

When Dale and I were first engaged I was encouraged to pick out my china pattern and my silver pattern. It seemed a little odd for a girl who had grown up in central Wisconsin in a house without plumbing or central heating. I dutifully picked a silver pattern, and my wonderful grandmother gave me four place settings. Someone else gave me one iced tea spoon.

As for china, I didn’t bother. I think I had a better grasp on reality as to who I was and who my friends were than did my mother and grandmother. But a little of their proper Bostonian background slipped in. I bought one bone china tea cup and saucer. Seven dollars in 1964! I knew Dale wasn’t going to sip tea with his little pinkie in the air so I didn’t buy two. I didn’t realize the razzing he was going to get from his buddies. They thought a $7 teacup ought to be a ticket to visit the queen, or at least make its own tea.

I just bought another, wildly extravagant item, this time with his knowledge and this time with a valid justification, I hope. Just a few days ago my worth-its-weight-in-gold pen arrived. Well that might be an exaggeration but I felt as though I was spending that kind of money.

I’ve spent many years carefully drawing with a bottle of India ink and a dip-nib (you dip the pen point in the ink). I almost always used a very flexible Gillott 290 nib or a fine and flexible point from Hunt. I was spoiled! A flexible point gives life to the line.

But sketching with a bottle of open ink doesn’t lend itself to sketching on my lap, standing, or in the car. For that I used a variety of pens: ballpoints, Uniballs, Sakura Pigma Microns – all throw away pens and none with a flexible point although I could switch pens to get a heavier line. I thought a stiff pen is just the price I’d have to pay for sketching in the field; and I thought fountain pens were something that went out with crank telephones.
About two years ago I discovered art on the internet -- blogs, forums, Flickr. I’m seldom around other artists, so this was a big eye opener for me. Some were sketching with fountain pens, especially Cathy Johnson. I also learned that even though a good fountain pen costs way more than a throw away, it can pay for itself. Ink is relatively cheap. An inexpensive pen plus a bottle of ink can pay for a pocket full of throw away pens.

I trotted down to Staples and bought an inexpensive fountain pen. I loved how smoothly the ink flowed. That translates to ‘how rapidly I could sketch with it;’ but their pen had a fat line, too clunky for me. When I finally got to the big city, I dared to buy a better pen with a finer point. I was hooked.

Life isn’t as simple as I want it to be. I promptly lost the pen from Staples – no big loss. But I miss-placed the much better pen for longer than I care to admit. Over my lifetime I’ve left a trail of lost throw-away pens. Could I be retrained? By now I wanted two good pens, one for permanent ink and one for ink that bleeds. I kept thinking about the joy of sketching with a fine and flexible point. I found my miss-placed pen under the couch cushions and bought a second, good pen, from Richard Binder. I now had two decent pens, one for each ink; but I wasn’t ready to pay for the real treasure, the fine and flexible. I promised myself if I could go a full year without losing a fountain pen, I might dare to take the plunge. The clock started ticking on July 27, 2010.

Meanwhile I made a little pen pouch. My pens are to stay in or near the pouch … and when we are out of the house, the pouch hangs around my neck or on a knob in the car. The pen pouch has another very good reason to be: we often change altitude by 3000 or 4000 feet in a day. I’ve had problems with Uniballs leaking when we gain altitude and I suspect it is a lot to ask of a fountain pen.

July 27, 2011 finally arrived, but I still felt a guilty about spending so much money. Now comes the funny part. About that time our bathroom faucet decided to leak and Dale couldn’t fix it. Lowe’s wanted something like $75 to install a new one I wriggled and squirmed and convinced myself I was up to the job. I announced to Dale I’d fix it and use the money towards the pen of my dreams. I was excited! BUT he realized the other faucet was starting to show the same symptoms as the first, and that cabinet is a real bear to wriggle around in. I threw in the towel and had Lowe’s come. This is where I start smiling. By now Dale realized this pen is no bone china tea cup. He encouraged me to go for it. It isn’t that we can’t afford it, we just like to spend money wisely.

It was time. I ordered a pen from Richard Binder at, a Pelikan pen with a Pelikan xxxf nib, customized for full flex -- a lot more expensive than one bone china tea cup.
My new pen is here. I’m in heaven. It takes a light touch, but feels so alive! I can draw skinny line; or with just a little bit more pressure, press to a nice broad line. Richard warns his customers not to push the nib too far, but after my years using flexible dip nibs I’m not worried about that. It does lay down more ink so I have a longer drying time before I can erase or add a wash.

I do hope my inner nurturing device will apply to my new pen. I only lost a daughter once. Well once she really disappeared and got whisked away by mall security and once she hid in tall cloths racks for just long enough to give me a panic. It didn’t help that I had twins running in two directions at once. When it was really critical I never lost track of them. Dale was on a soils survey in Alaska. We stayed in a little cabin, miles for any road, for two weeks. Long, fall grasses filled the opening near camp. I harnessed the little imps while I washed diapers in the nearby stream. I tell myself if I could keep track of them, I can keep track on my new pen.

Hmmmm … I kept track of our twins, but my wedding ring lies in the bottom of the little stream where I washed diapers.


  1. Elva, that is a lovely story. It is true; some expenses can be justified if they are attainable of give so much pleasure. Remember all that second glow we get when seeing your work. If that is factored into the true value of the pen it is well worth the money. Thank you!

  2. Wonderful stories! I couldn't find the pen you describe in Eugene and decided before I invest to try a cheap pen. It is ok, but learning curve is part of frustration and pen most other times as you'd expect. And that Pelikan is going on my wish list!

  3. I do love your story telling. It gave me a chuckle.. Wonder if anyone ever found your ring. I think your work deserves the expensive pen. You are as good as your equipment. Altho you are pretty darn good with just throw away pens. Isn't the internet fantastic for us in small towns?

  4. What a delightful I need a new pen. Lol
    Losing your ring like that, what a hoot.
    You are the best story teller and artist!!!!!

  5. Ah - what priceless tales you weave and your sketches are terrific. I miss not having stopped by your blog recently. I'm delighted to have found your post today. Loved hearing about your magical pen. Enjoy it! You will make more magic with it.

  6. Wonderful blog post. You had me hooked right to the end. I love the idea of fountain pens, and I'm so glad that you are in love!

  7. Ah, color me green with envy—that is truly a treasure! Would love to have a pen so responsive, but can't justify the expense as I don't do enough pen and ink work to make it worth while.

    Enjoy, Elva, and please share so I can drool all over the screen!

  8. And shouldn't you have order for each kind of ink???!!!

  9. I'm tickled you all are enjoying my pen saga! ... and yes, Laure, I do think about two, but I'd go into a ten year depression if I lost both at once.

    The pen does have one issue: it likes to 'feather' on most paper. That is because the ink feeds so quickly. I may have to try more inks ... or stay on good paper.

  10. LOL, go for it, Elva, we only live once!! I've been having a challenge with some of my pens and inks feathering and I find that good paper isn't always the answer. For that matter, I haven't found an answer!

  11. Ha! I think all your readers know that you may have gotten the pen, but we are the ones who benefit from your early-Christmas gift!