One of my favorite things to do is to work directly, and quickly with a Pentel Pigmented brush pen. I’ll sit and sketch this way when I’m out and about, or when I’m at home watching TV. If Dick is at home I’ll sketch him this way (though those pesky eyebrows of his cause problems!).
Working directly with a brush pen like this forces you to make quick decisions about line position and proportions.
It’s like mini quizzes for your eye-hand-brain connection.
It’s also a good test in editing down which lines are essential.
If you start such a portrait, which is over in a few minutes, and you find you are making errors in placement, you can of course start again.
But I prefer to stop worrying about likeness at that point and instead focus on getting the rest of the portrait down quickly, perhaps focusing on a vocabulary of marks that I’ll use for head and hair.
Then turn the page and start another one.
You can start with one of the eyes as I did here and work your way out, judging distances based on the first lines and shapes you put down.
Or you can make a light oval for the whole head and start to break it down and put in the features. (I typically only do that when I’m using a finer tipped tool, but it works with a brush pen too.) The intent here is to work from the outside in, but as you can see this doesn’t always work out for me. (See sketch of Bill Bailey.)
Another approach that you can consider, when working with brush pen, is to work with water-soluble ink. Then you can wash away lines that are no longer meaningful to you as you work and build the portrait.
I usually only use this approach when I’m going to do a more finished sketch. You can see several examples of me working in that fashion in my 2018 International Fake Journal.
In particular item 20/39 in the gallery at the base of that post shows this type of lay in, and you can see still see some of the diluted ink strokes in the finished portrait.
If you scale down the level of washes you use, you can still produce a portrait quickly with the brush pen as you see int the first green paper image.
This still works your editing skills, forcing you to decide which lines and which areas of shading will be most useful to sell the portrait.
I find it is a wonderful way to work quickly at the zoo, when I’m looking to capture information about an animal’s shape and texture, and not worrying about the colors of its coat or feathers.
Other Considerations and Approaches
I’d like to encourage you to not feel intimidated by putting bold ink lines on paper. The more you do this, the easier and faster you hand will respond. And the editing choices you make will be useful to you in all of your sketching, fast or slow.
Finally, I’d like to remind you that if you do have the time to add color you can use gouache to cover up lines you might no longer want. Or you can use watercolor washes as I did in this final sketch. Here the watercolor is mixed with a little bit of white gouache. That helps me eliminate the lines at the top of his head that I no longer wanted.
If you’re a long time reader of my blog you’ll have seen hundreds of direct brush pen sketches that were made very quickly and then “covered” with gouache or watercolor used opaquely.
Here’s an example of one I did of Dick in the TV room. If you scroll to the bottom of the page you’ll see the texture and color that was already on the page, and the sketch I made before I painted.
I used that simple sketch to build up and refine those facial features with paint.
Sketchbooks for Brush Pen
Pretty much any quality sketchbook will be suitable for brush pen, and any washes (ink or watercolor) that you might want to follow up with. You’ll find your favorites as you experiment.
I find that the APICA 1A5 Japanese Lined journal used in the first image in this post has been my favorite for about 10 years. It is an 11.75 x 8.25 inch, portrait orientation notebook made for students. It has soft covers and sewn signatures. The paper is smooth for writing with one of the many Japanese brush pens on the market.
But as you’ll see if you use this blog’s category list or search engine and call up Japanese Lined Journal that I love to sketch on this paper with brush pen and also love to paint on it, especially with gouache.
Recently some students in my Textures class asked me where they could purchase this journal. I have always been able to buy them at JetPens.com or through Wet Paint in St. Paul. Unfortunately I discovered no one is carrying them. The manager at Wet Paint told me that the 1A5 is no longer being made.
Items get discontinued all the time.
I was able to find the APICA 6A10 which is 7 x 10 inches and 100 pages (thicker than the larger book) at Amazon. I have used these before as well. (I am not connected to Amazon in anyway.)
APICA makes a bunch of other notebooks with a similar weight of paper and similar ruled lines, even grid patterns. However, in all the others I have tested the paper has not had the same surface that I like to work on. Hence the reason I’ve continued working in these journals with almost grey paper.
I did purchase a couple different notebooks at Wet Paint when I didn’t find my usual notebook. I’m not sure how they will work out and it will be a while before I can test them.
When you do buy notebooks with lightweight paper like this please realize they aren’t perfect for mixed media. I just happen to be perverse and enjoy using them that way. Many people write to me or tell me in person that they cannot stand to have the paper buckle—and in all these notebooks the paper will buckle when you use wet media—including the Montana Markers.
Why Use Lined Papers and Lightweight Papers Anyway?
Don’t take a notebook off your test list simply because it buckles when you paint on it. Remind yourself why you’re using the notebook in the first place. My list goes like this.
- I love working on lined papers.
- I love smooth finished papers for brush pen.
- I produce a lot of journal pages every day, so I can’t only work on 100 percent cotton watercolor paper. I’d rather keep producing with abandon and not worry about paper costs.
- I absolutely love the way the paper buckles. And then when you turn the pages of a quickly filling book the most amazing noise crackles out. I love it!
- Using these books is a bit nostalgic for me—it reminds me of being in high school and college and not having much of an art supply budget. Work on the paper you have.
In fact, because of reason 5 between my cataract surgeries I started working in another type of lined notebook, just to wallow in that energy and urgency vibe I had when I was in college. I’ll write about those pages and note books when I write about my experience with the surgery.
My point here, is that we can use a lot of different papers to make our quick brush pen sketches.
You might even want to try some grade school composition books. In 2014 I made literally hundreds of quick sketches of actor Phil Davis in a series of primary school composition books—the paper is very lightweight (I could only work on the recto page of each spread); the top of the page is blank for kids to sketch on and then there is the multiple lined bottom half for them to practice their writing.
There’s no way around it. The brush pen is a really fun and useful tool.
So go ahead and be bold with your brush pen.