Choosing a Pen for Writing (and Sketching) in Your Visual Journal

December 16, 2009

In this post I take a look at the pens I use and which papers I use them on, and why.

My December 9 post busting the notion that watercolor paper is only for painting made me realize I hadn't dealt specifically with an important part of the “writing-sketching-paper” equation that often gets overlooked, or not talked about: pen preference and pen type.

There’s no visual for today’s post because I don’t want to play favorites to any of the many pens I use. A look at past posts, or a click on the “pens” category will take you to illustrated posts. What I want to do today, without the influence of an image, is mention which pens I use and why I use them.

You don’t need fancy tools for visual journaling. You need a pen and paper. (Some of you may work with a pencil and that's OK too!) But your hand should like the feel of that pen on that paper if you are to be encouraged to continue. Often, people with no experience of pens and paper beyond office supplies (and office supplies have much to recommend them, don’t get me wrong) become frustrated when they don’t get the results they hoped they would.

There is frustration from lack of skill, and that can be worked on with practice. But there is frustration that comes out of combining the “wrong” materials. That second frustration you can learn to recognize and move past, to tools more suited to your needs—if you start thinking about how you work. A little bit of self examination as you work would include:

1. Determining if you have a heavy or light hand (how hard to you press into the paper).

2. Discovering if you enjoy drag on the pen (which would tell you that a more textured paper would be suitable for you).

3. Exploring whether you prefer a smooth line (you’ll need a plate, hot press, or smooth surfaced paper).

All of these aspects of pen meeting paper, and a hundred thousand nuances such as the moisture in the air and in your paper, will influence your selection. I've put go together a couple of choices paired with papers I like to use to get you thinking, experimenting, and enjoying writing (and sketching) on that lovely art paper—because if it doesn’t feel good doing it you will probably stop.

When you look over this list remember that inks may be waterproof and still bleed on a particular paper. This relates to the sizing on the paper. Some sizing will float the ink on the surface longer, maybe just long enough so that it is still not dry when you come back with a watercolor wash. Or humidity in the air may retard the ink drying. In your own experiments you will find which papers work for you and your working method, and how much bleeding, if any, you can live with. The inks below that I use have been found by me to live up to their waterproof status when I list them as such—though each one has bled upon occasion based on a given paper. This is never enough for me to give up on these work horses.

Staedtler Pigment Liner
These pens, available in several tip sizes, are like technical pens with felt tips. Hold the pen vertically and you'll get a uniform line if you're ruling lines. Advantages: travels well, doesn’t leak, is waterproof immediately so you can wash watercolors over your sketch, doesn’t smell, and unlike technical pens is less fussy in the ink flow department. They are reasonably priced and long lasting (both in ink and tip strength). They are available in sets and in many locations (like Wet Paint locally for me) in open stock. (Some people use Microns for the same purposes, but I find the ink in Microns has a chemical smell that gives me a headache.)

I find that by varying the angle at which I hold the pen I can get light and dark strokes from the same tip. (Since this is my favorite pen I couldn't resist linking one sample sketch of a Gyrfalcon with Staedtler Pigment Liner.) I also find that I can switch tips to get an even greater variety of line if needed (though I typically work with only one pen during a sketch). I have friends who do outlines with one thickness of pen and details with a finer nib—all to great effect. My point here is that these are very adaptable depending on the style you wish to cultivate.

I will work with these pens on just about any paper that I have found suitable for binding into books. Depending on the surface sizing of a given paper and the stiffness of the finish of a given paper, the results with this pen will differ. I do not, for instance like to use these pens on cold press watercolor paper. I find the skipping across the texture annoys me. I love the way these pens skip over the less pronounced texture of Nideggen, however, or Arches Text Wove. I don’t have to work hard with the pen or press hard on those textured papers like I do on cold press watercolor paper.

On softer papers I find this a still usable pen, but less enjoyable. It really varies from paper to paper. On Magnani Annigoni Designo I tend only to use the thicker nibs. Sheets of this paper have a softer texture than the padded version I used for my Weirdo Journal, and so they need a stiffer pen tip (for the way I work). In the Weirdo Journal, because the paper was more compressed from the padding process, I found that I could work with the SPL just fine. It’s something that is really dependent on how I feel on a given day.

While I have used SPLs on several journal pages in books made with Strathmore Aquarius II, I also find this a softer paper, and in general often select a stiffer pen.

On the odd and freaky chance that someone from Staedtler might see this blog post because it floats up on a Google search, I would just like to say that the Staedtler Pigment Liner CALLIGRAPHY 01 pen you used to make was the BEST pen in the world for sketching and WRITING. The fine tip with that small amount of chisel is available nowhere else. Those of us who used it loved it. Please consider bringing it back!

Nexus Pen
This rollerball pen comes in a variety of colors from vivid to traditional sketching colors. They are filled with a waterproof, pigmented India ink. They are available in sets, but I prefer to buy them open stock as there are only a few colors I enjoy using regularly: magenta (which is called something else and I can’t find one at present), Payne’s Gray, Graphite Gray, Black, Sepia. Sometimes I find it fun to pick a vibrant color like red, orange, or bright blue for sketching. It shakes things up a bit in my mind while I work.

I find these pens to be reasonably priced and long lasting, with one tiny flaw. Upon occasion they will start to bubble at the tip. If you see this happen when you take off the lid, use the pen and then toss it (don’t even put it back in your bag or pocket—where it can leak!). There is no rhyme or reason I have discovered for this behavior. I have traveled on planes with these pens with no special carrying considerations and no after effects. But once one starts to bubble it’s over. I have had this happen to a new pen and to an old pen as well. I have used hundreds of these now and will not give them up for this small flaw. The cost of the few I have had to toss over the years, spread out over the total cost, seems a small price to pay for so much sketching enjoyment.

I find this pen indispensable on hard-surfaced papers that resist softer tips, and I find it useful for “digging” into softer papers. So I would use it on both a Magnani Annigoni Designo (full sheets; a softer paper) and a heavily sized watercolor paper. I also find it particularly useful on Strathmore Aquarius II, as it bites down into this slightly softer paper, with very little hand pressure. I find that because I can get a good line with little pressure this is a comfortable pen for writing with on a wide range of art papers with very little hand fatigue.

Again, by varying the angle I hold the pen at, as well  as the pressure I use, I manage a lot of “texture” from this pen. It is particularly useful for sketching or writing on top of gouache backgrounds.

If your budget can stand it this pen is the perfect complement to Twin Rocker's Simon's Green.

Dip Pens
I use a variety of Japanese nibs with a nib holder. I can’t read Japanese so all I can do is recommend you call or stop by a store that sells these and check them out. I use Ziller Acrylic ink with dip pens. I particularly like the brown, violet, and of course, glossy black. Ziller soot black is excellent too, but I love the texture the glossy black gives to the line work. With these inks I can start applying paint immediately without worry of any bleeding.

I find dip pens are most useful on smoother papers or papers with heavy sizing. Papers with a rougher texture and softer papers tend to catch the nib and make sketching and writing on those papers with a dip pen more difficult. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it or won’t enjoy it, it just won’t be simple!

Writing with a dip pen requires that you change your direction of attack when forming letters. There are countless calligraphy books which can instruct you about this. You can also write in your usual fashion (and here I’m assuming your usual fashion is something based on the traditional penmanship classes taught in grade school in the U.S., so if you’re coming from a different background your “usual fashion” may not be similar to mine) if you don’t mind the scratchiness and the possibility of ruining the nib. I enjoy the rough quality and spatters that may result and gladly sacrifice a nib to my enjoyment. You can see examples of this in my 2009 Fake Journal on my blog devoted to International Fake Journal Month.

Faber-Castell Pitt Artist’s Brush Pen
This is actually one pen of a whole line. There are also pens with normal writing tips that I know several people enjoy using. I only use the brush pens in this line. Many traditional sketching colors as well as vivid colors are available. I enjoy working with the various blacks, blues, and grays. These are waterproof. The brush tip is a solid felt tip which because of its construction allows you to make thin and thick lines. This is great when you are writing calligraphically, or simply in your own hand. I’ve written about these pens on my blog before. They are also useful for writing over Caran d’Ache Neo Color II backgrounds.

Pentel Pocket Brush Pen
This is a pen that I have written about a great deal on my blog—one of my favorite pens and great for writing with, as well as sketching. The writing can be as tight or loose as you want to go, depending on how you like to play with this synthetic hair tip. The possibilities are endless. And if you are sketching, the ink is waterproof and you can add your watercolor washes over your ink lines immediately.

This pen is a bit of an investment ($15 to $18), but don’t be deterred. It is refillable and even with heavy duty use it will last for years. I get 2 to 3 years out of a tip before it gets downgraded to “use only when I want a heavy line” and sits at the desk and not in my pack for travel. That’s pretty good wear. I keep extras around simply because I’m worried about loss—I want to have one within reach.

I will use this pen on paper of any texture and sizing. It has a different feel on slick, smooth graph paper, than it does on cold press watercolor—that’s part of its charm.

See my post comparing the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen with the Pentel Color Brush.

Pentel Color Brush Pen
This is another pen I have written about in the link under Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. It also has a synthetic hair tip so expressive strokes are very easily achieved, including dry-brush effects. The advantage to this pen is that it comes in a variety of colors—great for making headings and titles in your journal. Also it works well on most papers, only your desire for drag versus a smooth line will dictate your choice paper here. The disadvantage is that the “ink” used is not lightfast and not waterproof (though this last characteristic can also be fun).

If you enjoy writing with color I would suggest instead that you purchase a Niji waterbrush and use it in conjunction with artist quality watercolors to create your brush script writing. But I do feel I have to mention this pen here because it is mighty fun to use.

Fountain Pens
This is a huge topic, in fact I think there must be hundreds of blogs devoted to fountain pens so I can’t hope to cover the topic here. So much in the selection of a proper fountain pen depends on your own hand and the balance of the tool in your hand. I’ve used fountain pens for writing my entire life (when I was a child in Australia it was required—no ballpoint pens allowed). My father would bring home fountain pens for us as gifts. He had a stylish fountain pen stand on the desk in his home study as well as on his office desk. He has a bold writing style and favors a thicker nib. The ink flows onto the page announcing the letters and strokes. These are missives from a decisive mind, a captain of commerce.

For me a thin line which enables me to write somewhat microscopically, has always been favored. I liked to write three lines of text within one ruled line, using every inch of paper because I had (and still do have) a lot to say. I am also fond of the expressive line, so a responsive tip is essential to me.

Your own choice may lie somewhere in between those two extremes. The only way you can discover it is to visit pen stores where they have samples out, filled with water, which they let you write with on “water” paper which will show your line as you move across it. Notice not only the feel of the nib (its spring and bounce or lack of either) but also the balance of the pen in your hand. Is it too small to rest comfortably in your grip? Too long—extending past your hand and creating imbalance? Writing for any amount of time with a pen balanced poorly for your hand will only fatigue your hand and cause you to write less. The exact opposite of our goal.

The ink you put in your fountain pen will also impact your writing experience. Noodler's makes an “eel” ink that literally seems to glide out of the pen. Sadly that ink has a smell I can’t tolerate or I would use it all the time. Noodler's does, however, have a large range of fountain pen suitable inks that, when used on paper made from cellulose fibers, is waterproof. It’s you’re best bet for using your fountain pen for writing and sketching with a range of colored inks.

Artist Ken Avidor uses a Rotring Sketch Pen fitted with a converter (so he doesn't have to use pre-filled cartridges) filled with Pen & Ink No-Shellac India Ink for Fountain Pens. He doesn't use watercolor washes in his journal (he adds color with colored pencil) but I have used this ink and it will hold up to watercolor washes. It's a rich dark black that holds a crisp line.

For people interested in trying out a fountain pen to see how they like it without spending a lot of money I can recommend the Pilot Varsity fountain pen which is essentially a pen for school children. It is not refillable so the fact that there will be wear on the cheap nib is of little importance. Every Pilot Varsity I’ve used (and I like to have one around all the time) has worked smoothly and well for writing and even sketching. The ink is not waterproof, however.  (I only use the black ink pen.)

Another inexpensive fountain pen you could start with is the “Preppy”
fountain pen which I believe is also aimed at school children. This pen is refillable. The ink is not waterproof.  (I believe it comes in colors several colors of ink but only use the black
ink pen.) For an inexpensive pen I think the nib is actually not too bad—a little bit rough.

The “G School” pen is yet another inexpensive fountain pen for Japanese school children that has made its way to the U.S. It has the advantage of refillable cartridges and comes with brown ink. (I think there may be a black ink version as well.) This ink is also not waterproof. To me the nib on this pen is scratchier and therefore less fun as a sketching and writing implement.

I find that hot press watercolor papers with light to moderate amounts of sizing only, or softer but smoother papers are the best for me when I’m writing with a fountain pen. I will use one with slightly textured papers like Nideggen or Arches Text Wove with equal enjoyment. Some fountain pens I have also work well on Strathmore Aquarius II which has a very moderate cold press texture. Rives BFK and other similar printmaking papers (including new printmaking papers from Canson and Magnani) take fountain pen writing (and sketching) very nicely. The new Folio I find too stiff for all my fountain pens, whereas the old Folio, no longer made, was a delight to write on with fountain pen, dip pen, heck, any pen, don’t get me started.

Office Supply Pens
Don’t overlook the myriad options waiting for you in the aisles of the office supply store. Here you’ll find old fashioned biros and newfangled gel pens that may be just the pen you’re seeking. The advantage to all of these pens is low cost compared to pens you’ll find in an art supply store. The drawback to many of these pens is that they may contain fugitive inks or dyes. The ink may not be lightfast or acid free. For some options this information will be clearly labeled. On other pens you’ll have to do some research and testing.

I recommend that for every pen you bring home from the office supply store you do a lightfast test. Take a piece of paper and make two columns of marks, both clearly labeled as to which pen is making the marks if you’re testing more than one pen. Keep the output of one pen across from its pair in each column. Then tear the sheet in half and tape one half in a window that gets a lot of sun. Put the other half sheet in an envelope and file cabinet. Depending on the climate you live in, and how much sun you get, check your window sheet in 2 to 4 months by comparing it to your “protected” sheet. Depending on the amount of fading visible you may elect to discontinue use of that pen for archival reasons.

There’s nothing wrong with using non-archival materials for your journal—for writing or sketching. But if these issues matter to you, check them out before you adopt a pen that doesn’t meet your criteria.

I have friends who regularly use Uniball Vision pens for sketching and writing in their journals. Their work doesn’t seem to have faded over the years, they are comfortable working with that pen, they never worry about losing that pen in the wilderness (or city), and happily spread watercolor washes over their line work with no bleeding. I’ve used some of these pens myself and find their fine point rollerball tips are great for work on soft paper I want to dig into, or on hard surfaced papers that are impervious to everything else.

Marty Harris, a Twin Cities designer and illustrator loves (and I mean LOVES) the Pilot Better Retractable Pen. (He gave me a medium when I bumped into him at the State Fair this year and I have to admit it is a fun pen to use for both writing and sketching.) He has the skill to make these pens do many extraordinary things in his sketches, and he still has a writing pen!

Some colored ink pens on my desk read “Zebra Sarasa.” I don’t know which is the company name or the pen line, but this retractable rollerball with gel ink is what I use when writing marginal notes in books I own (yes, I’m one of those people). I have also sketched with these pens and written with them in my journal. When I need a hard tip they come in handy.

The talented James Jean, whose work you may have seen in Danny Gregory’s "An Illustrated Life” (and about whom I’ll have more to say in another post) uses an S. K. B. SB-1000 0.5 ballpoint pen for his sketching and the microscopic writing you can see in his journals. Many of his sketchbooks are Moleskines so from that we can deduce he loves the way the pen interacts with that paper. Having a pen like this won’t spew Jeanean drawings onto your page (now wouldn’t that be a pen!) but it might be a good place to start if you are struggling with finding pens that are comfortable for you when working in a Moleskine. (It has been ages since I worked in a Moleskine—a previous life time—but I have friends who do and they use all manner of pens to complete their work. Just be aware that there are options out there for you based on the paper you like to work on.)

Final Recommendations
I hope you will see, from the discussion of pens and paper above, that you will have many options available to you to get the line quality you want for sketching and the ease of writing, on the paper you want to use. Painting on any paper and then writing over the paint will also change how an individual pen works depending on the paint you use. Acrylic paints of any thickness will create a "plastic" surface that will repel the best efforts of most pens except the dreaded SHARPIE (which I don’t use because the smell literally knocks me out). Fluid acrylics used in a light wash, however, will provide a welcome surface for most pen work, and for some papers it will alter the sizing of the paper enough that you will actually enjoy working on the paper even more.

I recommend that you gather a couple pens and set yourself the task of writing and drawing with them exclusively for several weeks at a time—one pen should always be a “comfort” pen that you can return to if you’re having a bad day with the new pen. If you keep switching from pen to pen to pen you’ll never find out what a given pen can do on your favorite paper(s). You’ll dismiss perfectly wonderful tools without a proper breaking in period. After several weeks of daily drawing with a pen it will be time to try another for an equal length of time. But before you move on, take a moment to write in your journal all the wonderful and negative things about that pen on that paper. Write and write and write. The notes will help you remember the working attributes of a given pen on a given paper when you start narrowing down your final selection. But also write, because you’re also trying to find a good writing pen.

Note: All of the pens discussed in this post, with the exception of the office supply pens, were purchased by me at Wet Paint, in St. Paul, Minnesota. I find that this independent art supply store is extremely responsive to the requests and needs of pen and ink artists. It helps that several are on staff there. If you don't live in the Twin Cities a Google search will land you sources for these tools, or you could simply do mail order through Wet Paint.

  1. Reply

    The James Jean SKB SB-1000 is a very tough pen to find. I have a contact to buy them in the USA if anyone is interested. You have to buy them a dozen at a time. But they’re cheap… about a buck each. I don’t have the contact in front of me but if you’ll contact me I can forward the info.

  2. Reply

    You can buy the SB-1000’s online in the U.S.

    They also show up on Amazon once in awhile.

    • Roz
    • January 25, 2010

    Seric, thank you that’s good to know.

  3. Reply

    Thx for sharing your thoughts. It was most interesting to me.

    With a little effort, it is now possible to refill the Pilot Varsity fountain pen pen with your favourite ink in less than a minutem, once u have the tools 🙂

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