Thoughts on The Issues Involved in Using Brush Pens

July 26, 2017
12 x 16 inch quick sketch with the Pentel Brush Pen with pigmented ink (squeezy barrel) and watercolors. This is on Nostalgie paper from Hahnemühle.

If you’ve never used a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen (PPBP) before getting it going might be a little confusing at first.

You need to unscrew the top from the barrel and insert the Pentel ink cartridge. There is a little cylindrical opening at one end of the cartridge. That’s the top. You need to push that up onto the ink feed tube that comes out of the tip part of the pen. You have to push hard. You may be surprised at how hard you have to push. You won’t break the pen—you need to get that cartridge all the way in so that the seal breaks and the ink can flow. It will feel really “seated” in there when you do it correctly.

Screw the barrel back on to the top half of the pen and the hold the pen tip down to get gravity to start flowing the ink. This isn’t going to be very quick so I suggest that you gently stroke the pen across a scratch piece of paper. I don’t know if this helps get the ink going, but it passes the time while it does flow and the pen is in the proper orientation. 

Do not, out of frustration, or any misguided sense of how things should work, pound the tip into the paper. You’ll crack and deform your bristles. And it’s just silly to do that anyway.

I have at various times actually shaken the pen in hopes of getting the ink to flow. I spent years illustrating with technical pens and it’s a habit to shake pens in my hand. There is something comforting about the little clicking noise some of the technical pens made as you shook the pen to get the ink to flow again. (Do NOT ever absent-mindedly shake acrylic makers while their lids are off. Don’t ask me how I know this.)

Don’t shake the pen over something that could be stained or damaged if you have the lid off!

After a moment or two of stroking the pen on your scrap paper you’ll see some black streaks make it into the white bristles of the tip. The flow is starting. Continue to stroke and more and more ink will move through the pen. As more ink moves into the tip you will be able to create a fuller line on your paper and drag the tip through that line to get more of the tip inked up. It will help the ink flow faster from the pen.

When the bristles are black you’re ready to start sketching.

Another quick sketch, about 9 x 12 inches also on Nostalgie. Pentel pigmented brush pen and watercolors. Both portraits in today’s post are from inspiration photos in the Sktchy App.

The beauty of the PPBP is that its flow is consistent from the beginning to the end of the cartridge—until it reaches empty. (More about that in a moment.)

Unlike the squeezy pens you don’t manipulate the barrel to get more ink.

Using this pen is like using a fountain pen, if you want fuller lines you need to move at a speed that accommodates the ink flow and not “outrun” the pen.

Pressure is also important. More pressure will press the brush tip wider and create a wider line. You’ll need to move a little more slowly to get a dense black line at that point. Move quickly and you’ll get a broad “dry-brush” effect line because you’ve outrun the ink flow.

Keep your hand speed in mind whenever you seem to be “running out of ink.” Simply slow down. This doesn’t mean you can’t make flowing lines, just remember to breath. You’ll still be working faster with this pen than most others you’ll ever use.

Keep in mind that besides hand speed and pressure the type of paper also effects the line quality and attributes. I like to work on mostly smooth papers or cold-press watercolor papers. This means that I only get texture in my line if I lighten hand pressure. Then you’ll be able to see the ink break up over the subtle tooth of the smooth paper or open up into almost a “shading” effect on the toothier cold press texture.

If you want to hand letter lovely crisp letters note that a rough textured paper isn’t a good choice as the paper texture, even with a lot of hand pressure, will break up your ink line. So pick a paper that works for your desired outcome. (Some impossible to manage? Nope it isn’t, it’s a great excuse to test a lot of papers.)

Don’t forget that paper absorbency also will effect your line quality. A more absorbent paper will suck the ink out of the pen. You’ll need to work more slowly for a dense black line or you’ll quickly outrun the ink flow. On the other hand papers with lots of surface sizing like Arches Watercolor paper will float the ink on the surface for a long time. Little pressure and a faster hand speed will allow you to have dense lines.

Don’t go into drawings on heavily sized paper too quickly with your watercolors—the ink needs more time to soak into the sizing and dry.

At some point you’ll notice that the ink is not coming out as strongly as it first did with the new cartridge. If you unscrew the pen you’ll see that there are probably only a few drops of ink left in that cartridge. Don’t worry, you don’t have to change the cartridge yet, you get to enjoy “dry brush” effects of a whole different magnitude at this stage. In several of my friends typically have two brush pens around, one full and one almost empty, just so they can play with this ink level. A cartridge that is almost empty allows you to let the bristles splay so you can smooth around a stippled sort of layer that reads as shading on your sketch. (Don’t press too hard on the bristles once they are splayed.)

It’s also a good time to do a sketch with very light lines (broken up because of the ink flow) and work out your proportions and such, add some shading. Then when the cartridge really is no longer functioning at all you can change it out for a full one and restate any lines you want bold in your sketch.

Remember three things:

  1. Once you have got ink on the bristles they will never be white again and that’s normal.
  2. Once you have moved past the first cartridge switching to a new cartridge gives you almost immediate full speed flow—no wait time like the first cartridge.
  3. Regardless of which cartridge you are on  you will still have to push that cartridge into the pen so that it seats securely, or the ink won’t flow.

I have found that my PPBPs last a long time. In fact I still have every one I’ve purchased including the very first one I purchased circa 2000. Why? Why did I buy new ones if I still have that one?

Over time the bristles do wear down. 

Then why keep a worn pen?

I found that even though this first one lost its tip and made blunter lines that didn’t have the finesse of going to ultra thin like a “healthy” tip did it had a unique line that was great for a variety of chores—filling in large areas of black ink when you don’t need a fine tip; writing brush pen lettering that looks almost like sign-painting because of the plumpness of the line.

That pen has been filled with ink for 17 years! It has never clogged. Sometimes I’ve put it away when the cartridge was almost empty and not used it for over a month and it still writes. 

I have carried two of these pens on an airplane and they worked not only in the plane’s passenger cabin, but at my destination and again at home.

This pen might just be one of the most amazingly designed tools ever created. I have never met a more forgiving art tool—even a pencil needs to be sharpened and will crack if you drop it!

I certainly can’t live without a PPBP.

Can I Use Other Inks In the PPBP?

I know people who do, but I don’t understand why they would want to. The ink has been formulated to  flow in this pen. The ink is waterproof/resistant (again depending on which paper you’re using it on). The ink is archival and a deep rich black. The ink comes in convenient, reasonably priced cartridges.

I don’t see the upside to using any other ink in this pen. I know people who have saved an old cartridge and filled it with different inks using a syringe. About the third time they do that the pen starts to leak because the cartridge isn’t meant to last forever and the constant refilling and action of putting it on and off the attachment point loosens its ability to grip and create a seal.

Some individual users may have better luck with that leaking issue than the people I’ve observed. Again I have to ask, “why?” It doesn’t seem worth it.

Maybe I’m just smitten. Go ahead and knock yourself out.

Don’t Forget—You Can Use the PPBP or Pentel Pigment Brush Pen (squeezy body) with the Color Brush (Dye-based ink) if you don’t want to use your water brush to pick up ink from the tip of your PPBP or squeezy pen. You can see an example of that in this selfie of me on Wave Paper—a very unsuitable wet media paper, which nevertheless loves the Pentel Pens!!!

What If I Want More Ink Flow Control?

If that’s the case, and ink flow control is a taste thing, get yourself one of the Pentel Brush Pens from their Color Brush line—the ones with the squeezy barrels. There is both a pigment ink option (waterproof and archival) and a dye-based ink that is water-soluble (and also fugitive, keep that in mind). You can use this handy post to help understand the differences in the various brush pens offered by Pentel. (Remember—it’s a Color Brush and it has a gray body it contains pigment ink. If it has a black body that’s dye ink. The exception to this is the Aquash with Light Black Ink. That pen has a blue cap and a black body. It’s also shaped like Pentel’s water brush and has a bulge at the middle. That pen contains pigmented light black ink even though its barrel is black.)

If you use any of the squeeze-body brush pens you can simply squeeze the barrel if you want more ink delivered. (Be careful how hard you squeeze and what you’re aimed at or over when you squeeze!) Watch for the ink coming into the clear cylinder at the pen’s top, just below the tip. If you fill that too full or fast it will drip out of the pen tip. With practice you’ll develop the ability to squeeze up only enough ink to keep a “dry-brush” effect going even on smooth paper.

Remember, though, you do not have to squeeze the barrel constantly, or even every few minutes. I sometimes sketch an entire sketch with full strong lines based on a squeeze I did before at the end of another sketch. You will find your own rhythm.

Avoid trying to make the pen last too long, however, by squeezing and squeezing when the ink is finally running out. If you have any computer related carpal tunnel issues, or in my case that and some shoulder nerve issues, you’re setting yourself up for some painful days. If you have to stop drawing and squeeze the pen with all your might to get it to deliver “normal” ink flow it’s time to let it go. You’re more important than that last bit of ink.

I have to stop writing now and go sketch with a Pentel Brush Pen. Maybe you should do the same?


    • Ted Byrom
    • July 26, 2017

    Why refill cartridges? I like to use four values for monochromatic sketching: black, dark gray, light gray, and white (the paper). I refill two empty cartridges with diluted DeAt Doc Black (diluted with DeAt Dilution Fluid, not water) using a syringe. The two gray pens are marked with a dab of dark and light gray acrylic paint on the ends of the respective caps an barrels. They have always worked well and never leaked, but every time I empty a black cartridge I throw away one of the gray ones. The biggest headache is the refilling because I have found no easy way to carry spare refilled gray cartridges, i.e., I have to carry a syringe and two little vials of gray ink. I have also used some of the more expensive natural hair brush pens that will accept converters, but the PPBP is hard to beat and if lost or damaged, not a big deal.

    1. Reply

      Thank you Ted for explaining this mystery to us so clearly. I especially like your reuse and toss policy so that you are keeping your recycled cartridges “fresh.” Thanks for sharing this approach which I think several folks will be excited to try.

    • Tyanne Agle
    • July 26, 2017

    I keep wanting to like this pen just because of posts like this. I will be the first to admit I haven’t given it a fair trial and now I need to go see if I can find mine because I want to try again. I am imptressed that you have everyone you have ever purchased and haven’t lost one.

    1. Reply

      Tyanne I also have most of my brushes since about the mid 1980s! They all can serve a purpose. Though recently I did throw out 17 years of old Nijs saved “just in case.” I kept some caps and some bodies that were in good condition and tossed everything else. One can hold on to too many tools.

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