Project Friday: Getting Used to the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen—Part 1 of a 5 (at least) Part Series

April 13, 2012

See the post for full details.


Above: A Pentel Pocket Brush Pen sketch in my 9 x 12 inch Fabriano Venezia journal with light washes of Schmincke and M. Graham gouache added. This woman was on a TV show I was watching and her wrinkled face, Kabuki pale, but painted, gave the impression of an angry, bitter soul, and I couldn't take my eyes off her. My likeness is probably one she wouldn't recognize, but it was fun to carve it out with the PPBP. Notice the dark strokes near the ear and chin. And see the lids of the eyes.

Way back in 2009 I received a note from a reader who wanted tips on getting used to the brush pen. I wrote a note back and thought to myself that I should write a post just about using the brush pen.

Over the intervening time and over 1,200 posts I have written MANY times about using the Pentel Pocket Brush pen and other brush pens, or about simply working with a brush and paint. But I thought it was time to take some of my thoughts about the brush pen and encourage people to use it—as a Project Friday exercise, all weekend long.

Why use it exclusively for 60 some hours? Because if you have to focus all your attention for line making into one tool you are going to try and try again, and you are going to receive IMMEDIATE feedback about what does or doesn't work for you with that tool. 

If you look for instance at the sketch I made of Adam Goldberg (posted on June 25, 2009) you'll see that I'm experimenting with the PPBP to try out blotches for Goldberg's 5 o'clock shadow. When I make marks like this I'm just trying to see what I can do with the pen. I'll decide later if something works and I can use a particular technique again. This is how you build a vocabulary of approaches with any tool that you decide to use.

I use the PPBP (and any brush pen for that matter) because I enjoy the flexibility of the tip. With the PPBP in particular I enjoy the ability to bounce up and down on that tip—using it lightly as I make a very thin line, and then pressing down to make a bolder stroke. The action of moving my hand up and down against some invisible force "caused" by the "actual" line I'm trying to create, is delightful for me. It doesn't matter if I get it right because I can have another go at it. 

Many people I know who start using a brush pen are uncomfortable with this very aspect of the brush tip. So I encourage them to do a lot of little tests that "mean nothing" to them before they embark on an actual drawing. You can do a series of lines and blots and hatching. You can fill up a page with marks. This may look random, but it isn't. What you are doing as you make these different marks is registering in your hand and your mind how it feels to make that particular mark. How much pressure did you use, how did you drag or float the tip on the paper. You are constantly having a dialog with your dominant hand—so that you can dance with the pen, but be the one leading. (And I want to make very clear that I do not for a moment believe I have attained this yet. Sometimes I'm merely able to hum and stutter, and not totally fall over myself. But I do enjoy getting up and trying again.)

One thing I found out immediately when I started working with the PPBP was that I actually had to slow myself down a bit. Since I draw in ink without drawing in pencil first, any line I put down is going to stay there and be seen. Lines from the PPBP are more "determined" than anything I might do with a Staedtler Pigment Liner or a dip pen, so slowing down a bit in how I work was useful.

I think my comfort level with the PPBP was vastly improved by focusing on drawing things I really loved and am comfortable drawing: birds, and of course Gert. (That link will take you to series of drawings I did with the PPBP but the lines aren't visible much because of the use of gouache—another reason I love the PPBP: you can paint over it.)

When I was getting used to using a brush pen in my regular journal work (as opposed to one of my Staedtler Pigment Liners or a dip pen) I started using the Pentel Color Brush. It's watersoluble (and sadly not archival) and I could wash away the lines for gradations of tone. 

You can read my review of both the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen and the Pentel Color Brush, with details of what each is great at doing, here.

In this image you can see how I how I am washing the lines away with the color I added.

To see how I used the color brush when I was speed drawing with friends follow this link. Again, I was just pushing through, using it because it forces you to make decisions you can't take back and you have to deal with the consequences of those decisions.

When I got the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen I was first annoyed that the ink didn't dissolve with water, but now I never use the Pentel Color Brush except if I am at life drawing warming up! (Remember even the black Pentel Color Brush isn't lightfast; another reason not to use it!)

So I think getting comfortable with a brush pen is in large part just a matter of using it a lot.

Take the brush pen out with you this weekend, everywhere you go, even when you are at home sketching. Make a plan to go some place you routinely go and sketch successfully. For me that would be the Bell Museum or the Como Zoo.

Leave all your art materials at home, except your Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. Take it out of your pocket and have at it without judgment as you go along, except for the judgment of "oops, I need to put the line differently here" or "next time I will try thinner lines in my shading and no crosshatching." By the end of the day you'll start to have a bit of facility with it and a sense of what it can do for your drawing style.

You will also find that there are matters of adjustment of scale that you will deal with. If I want to really fill up a large page spread I'll get out the PPBP and use its great bold line to full effect and quickly complete a full page spread. If I only have a small area of the page, or a small page to work on, I'm going to have to adjust my working method with the pen. I'll probably be dancing on the tip more when working on a small page.

If scale issues are really tripping you up I recommend that you get a large-paged journal or sketchbook to use for your weekend of PPBP experiments. You can still work small and fill a spread with dozens of small sketches, but if you have to go large you have the acreage to do so.

NOTE: Preview of things to come—I'm going to do two other Project Fridays in April that are devoted to this topic of working with the brush pen. (And there will be two other brush pen Project Fridays in May for a total of 5—or more if I get excited.) So while you are selecting a journal or sketchbook to work in this weekend for your first foray, why don't you keep that in mind. Maybe you want to get a special journal so that work from all five Project Friday experiments are in the same journal? If you do, I recommend that you purchase a 9 x 12 inch Fabriano Venezia journal, because man-o-man using the PPBP on those pages is fantastic. And you can do all the things I'm going to suggest you do on that paper. (Of course you can do them on other papers too, but I know you can have fun on that paper. [I'm not financially connected to them in any way.])

Something else to keep in mind—for me I think working with the brush pen is more about EDITING OUT than working with the dip pen is. When I work with the dip pen or the Staedtler Pigment Liner I'm making light lines and multiple lines and there's a level of texture to the final image that seems different mentally to me from when I work with the PPBP. The brush pen makes me think about editing out things and trying to be more minimalistic.

For someone who has a tendency to go fussy the built in necessity for editing out is a useful change of mental mode!  

So here is the assignment for Project Friday: Get a large journal or sketchbook and a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. Fill the first two or four pages with marks of every sort you can make—see paragraph 6 above which talks about making every mark imaginable to get familiar with the pen.

Next take the pen and large journal with you everywhere you go from the end of your workday on Friday until you go to work again on Monday. (And if you work at home like I do you know what adaptations you're going to make—more hours for you.)

Sketch everything with it. Make sample marks with it. Write with it—small and large letters. Doodle with it. There are only a couple times during this Brush Pen Intensive that you should even let the pen out of your hand; driving for instance. Otherwise you should be sketching—with that pen.

Sketch your favorite items—pets, kids, partner, peppers, trees, birds, toys, buildings—you get the idea. EVERYTHING.

After each experience take a moment to ask yourself how things went. How did the line quality vary in the way you expected? What do you need to change it? What didn't work and how can you change it in the next drawing?

Why the PPBP? Because the ink is so richly black you'll love it. The ink dries quickly and won't smear at all (or as much—I really can't control how messy you are).  The ink will allow you to do what I'm going to suggest you do at a later date. But most important, the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen has a brush tip with individual synthetic hair bristles so you will be able to get solid lines and broken lines. (I just thought of another Project Friday as I was writing that.)

Why a large format journal? See above where I recommend the Fabriano Venezia. Using a large format journal with paper conducive to this pen's specs will allow an easier breaking in time. We'll worry about how this pen responds to different papers (some papers which you might even prefer) later. The point of this weekend project is to immerse yourself in the feel of the pen on the paper so that you can begin to get a sense of what the pen can do in your hand. If you start off by scribbling on every paper in your flat file you're not going to build the base of intuitive understanding that you need to start to control this pen. There is a good reason 99.9 percent of U.S. Teenagers get some of their first driving training in large supermall parking lots—the surfaces are flat, even, and unimpeded in off-business hours. (That said, I learned to drive a stick shift on the hilly streets of Jefferson City, Missouri, but I think that was just a way for my boyfriend and my roommate to both have a laugh at my expense.)

Visual Inspiration for You

Craig Thompson is a graphic novelist who uses the Pentel Pocket Brush pen in his work and you can see fabulous images from one of his books, Carnet de Voyage, at this link. I recommend everyone buy this book because it is so wonderful. You will see in this book someone TOTALLY comfortable with the brush pen.

Lucy Knisley's French Milk, is another great graphic travel memoir. She too uses a brush pen to capture the events of a trip—her sojourn in Paris.

For All the Overachievers Out There Reading This

If you have a particularly grand time this weekend with your PPBP keep working with it all week long.

If you have a particularly grim time of it this weekend using your PPBP keep working with it all week long.

Next Friday I'll have another Project Friday devoted to getting comfortable with the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen.

If you do decide to go ahead and use the PPBP all week long sometime during the week, maybe on Wednesday, take a couple hours and sketch with your previous favorite FINE-tipped pen and remind yourself what you liked about using that pen. I don't want you to go through withdrawal from your favorite pens. Just think of this as an art materials vacation.

    • iona
    • April 13, 2012

    I have a fabriano sketchbook and a pentel pocket brush (which I have never used) so this is such a good idea to try just after April IFJM ends – thanks!

    • Diane
    • April 13, 2012

    Great! Just what I needed a project with direction from a wonderful teacher.

    • April 13, 2012

    Fun post on a fun product! I remember my first one years ago! Plus they’re on sale at WP through April! 😀

    • Miss T
    • April 13, 2012

    It’s the Hmm Woman! Great sketch, Roz. Looks just like her. You really captured the gesture of her face, and the intensity of her kabuki makeup.

  1. Reply

    Iona, you’re all set up to get going after IFJM, yes. I hope you have fun.

  2. Reply

    LizzieBo you can sketch while in a reclining position but it does change things a little! Have fun with your experiments.

  3. Reply

    Diane, you’re too kind. I only wish I had time to do a couple videos on this—keep watching the blog. I’m hoping to do that.

  4. Reply

    Liz, I did not know they were on sale at Wet Paint. I will return and get one.

    People don’t know that yesterday I went to see Greg’s presentation on 6 esoteric things and he had more than 6 things and bought 5 things, but went to get my credit card out and had that sinking feeling I’d lost the wallet as it wasn’t in my pack. I could get all my purchases and this is a perfect reason to go back today instead of tomorrow! As if I needed a reason.

    I was relieved to arrive home and find the credit card wallet still in my bike pack (I’d been on a ride earlier in the day and not put it back in my back pack).

    Liz there is a good reason I do not go to the bead store with you!!!!

  5. Reply

    Miss T, did you see that episode? On my previous drawing which isn’t shown because it isn’t painted and I don’t like it as much as this one I have “Hmmmm.” written on the page!!!!

    Wasn’t she a hoot!? What was up with her life plan anyway? I did not think she would make the turnaround.

    Have a great weekend.

    • Pica
    • April 13, 2012

    OOOh. We’re having a sketchcrawl outing here in Davis this weekend. I’m doing this. Starting today. Thanks Roz!

    • Ann Bemrose
    • April 13, 2012

    Okay, Roz. I’m in on this one! About a year ago, maybe 18 months ago, I bought a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen because you love them so much and I have been so impressed with your sketching when you’ve used it. I’ve never been able to achieve anything I felt good about with this pen. No lasting control, nothing reliable in any way. I felt totally incompetent and dismayed even after pages of doodles, pressure experiments and the like. So, I put it away. But I’ll give it another try. I would love to be able to enjoy using this pen well!

  6. Reply

    PIca, doing this on a sketch crawl is perfect because you can keep working and working, regardless of the results you get (i.e., don’t let your internal critic say things aren’t working—just wait until the end of the day to check over everything with a fresh eye) and get lots of repetitions and experiments in. Have fun!!!

  7. Reply

    Ann, thank you for giving it another try. Sometimes it takes many tries to get into a grove with a new tool, especially something as different as a brush tool, if you’re used to using a hard point of some sort. Hang in there, give it a go, and in the coming weeks try the other suggestions in this series to start to ge some of the control you desire. Start by sketching something that you love and are already good at sketching—I mention Gert for me in my post, but I also did a lot of pears! Start with something simple and work up as you get a grasp of it all.

  8. Reply

    Oh I’m in I haven’t been using my PPBP since starting the IFJM journal, and have been missing it horribly. One of the many wonderful things I’ve learned about on your blog. I got some Schmicke gouache PB60 last week too! Haven’t used it either, I’m seeing a theme coming on here, now to decide what sort of journal to use. Commercial or handbound, I love the PPBP and have used it almost daily since I got my first in January (yes from seeing all your posts about it). I instantly ordered a couple more so I can always find one. Thanks for all the gentle kicks in the butt to stretch a bit more, I actually take most of them to heart!

  9. Reply

    Margo, rock that PPBP and enjoy the PB60 (which is so FAB!). Since you’ve been working with the PPBP for awhile maybe you could give it a go in the Fabriano Venezia I recommend above, or try it in one of the Stonehenge journals or in a Strathmore visual journal—it is particularly fun in the plate bristol version of the last.

    • Dana Burrell
    • April 13, 2012

    Oh Roz, thank you for the ideas! I chose to work with the PPBP for my IFJM journal so I can finally get comfortable with it… maybe loosen up and go faster. Now I hear I might want to slow back down. Ay, there’s the rub!

    I’ve been working on Fab. Artistico HP and found the ink isn’t quite dry when I go in with watercolor. Maybe I’m just putting down too much ink. I’m putting in a WP order for Strathmore 500 MM paper (love their journal… just not the spiral binding.) so I’ll add a Venezia journal to the list. (No, I don’t have PB60 gouache but I have it in watercolor… hope that counts.)

    I always look forward to Project Friday… thank you. Now please excuse me… my PPBP is calling me.

  10. Reply

    I have a PPBP that I haven’t used yet, so I’m looking forward to finally trying it out. I’m curious – how does the paper in the Fabriano Venezia journal compare to the Strathmore Mixed Media paper? I see in your comments that you mention the Strathmore bristol journal – is that paper more similar to the paper in the Fabriano Venezia journal? I can get the Strathmore visual journals locally, but I would have to order a Fabriano Venezia journal. Or what about the Nideggen paper in the journal you sent me?

  11. Reply

    Dana, everyone’s individual so if working faster is helping you work with your PPBP then keep at it as quickly as you can.

    The sizing on the Artistico is probably what’s causing your problem. Just floating the ink for a little bit. I haven’t had that problem much myself, but I may work in a less humid environment or be working still from a really old batch of paper.

    You can work in watercolor over your pen lines, no problem.

    I’m glad you went back to your PPBP.

  12. Reply

    Cheryl the FV and the SMM papers are different. Both take the pen really well, both take wet media really well. The FV is a harder surface, though more textured, or with a larger texture pattern perhaps that’s a better way to say that.

    You’ll notice a paint absorption and spreading difference between those two papers neither of which is really like expensive watercolor paper which is a good thing for the ink absorption. I think for learning to use this pen the Fabriano Venezia is a bit better, but you’ll be able to do the same things in the Strathmore Mixed media. If you search the blog for the examples of both papers you’ll see when you look at the images, differences in how the paint goes on and that’s probably the best way to describe it without writing a long post and having video to show you.

    But either will work, it’s just that you’ll feel a difference and You’ll probably want to try both and see which works best for you. Since you can get the Strathmore journals locally I’d go with that.

    I love working with the pen on Nideggen, but depending on which side of the paper you’re working on there is a slight different and because of the sizing there is also a little more suspension of the ink (longer sink in and drying time). It’s pretty minimal, but it will be noticed as you work more and more with the pen and get a routine going.

    WIth either of the Strathmore Bristols you’ll get the ink sinking in almost immediately and so then you’re just deciding do I like the vellum texture or the plate texture when I move the pen across the paper.

    I hope this helps a little.

    Hope everything is going well!

    If you generally like smoother papers get the plate to start and then in your next journal get the vellum.

    • Miss T
    • April 14, 2012

    Roz, yes, I did see that episode! She really was wacky, and seemed entirely clueless about so many things. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if she backslides.

  13. Reply

    Hi Roz, Late here… spent the weekend looking for a PPBP, as I did not have one, and didn’t want to order 1 pen and pay shipping for it, plus I’d be so far behind… anyway, long story short… it is Sunday, and I found one at Michael’s YIPPEE… after a bit of trouble getting the ink cartridge properly seated and the ink flowing I’m ready to give it a go for the rest of the week… It is NOT at all what I expected, and I think from the tiny bit I’ve done with it… that I’m going to like it.

  14. Reply

    Miss T, I hope for her sake she has made her business her passion. I’m not going to visit and find out.

  15. Reply

    CaptElaine, glad you found the PPBP. I’m sorry you had difficulty getting the cartridge in and starting the pen. I haven’t found trouble getting the cartridge in, but I think I should have mentioned that it takes a moment to get the ink going. I usually have to shake mine a little bit (which is probably not a good thing, but something I can’t help myself from doing because of years of using technical pens) and then brush with it a little bit to get the ink in the tip.

    I hope you get to use it this week and come to love it!


  16. Reply

    I’m going to give it a try but it may have to wait til Monday. My weekends are usually busier than my weekdays and this one is packed. BTW, is this just a typo? – “So here is the assignment for Portrait Friday:” because I didn’t see anything about portraits and I’m definitely not ready for portraits with the PPBP!

  17. Reply

    Anytime you can join in Melisa is great. There will be another Project Friday on the PPBP tomorrow (Friday of course). So you might want to work for a bit on the the first suggestions before you do the second week’s.

    And THANK YOU for spotting the typo. Yes, it was meant to be Project. I have portraits on the brain as I posted a portrait (of that woman) and have been working on several in the studio before writing that post.

    Thanks for your eagle eye and have fun with your PPBP.

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