Working Quickly with the Brush Pen

May 13, 2019
Page from an APICA Japanese Lined journal. Portrait sketch using a Pentel pigmented brush pen.

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.

For this quick portrait of British comedian Bill Bailey I used a fine tipped solid-fiber brush pen and toothier paper I made ovals and guidelines lightly first. Then build up the features making adjustments as needed. Sometimes my initial marks might not have the scale I need as I start to put other elements in. I just keep working anyway.

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.

Still a quick brush pen sketch with only minimal ink washes for shading (green cardstock).

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.

Quick fine solid fiber tipped brush pen sketch on green cardstock, with watercolor washes and Montana Marker background. (8 x 10 inches.)

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 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.

  1. I love working on lined papers.
  2. I love smooth finished papers for brush pen.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.

    • Susan King
    • May 13, 2019

    Great post, Roz. When you use these books do they become your single, sequential journal?

    1. Reply

      Susan, I think you’re asking about the Japanese Lined journals? I tend to use these for studio journals or project journals as they tend to have project writing in them, a lot more written journaling in general, and are a bit floppy to carry around as the covers are flimsy. (I stand when I sketch when I’m out and about, so that would mean I’d have to carry a board around to use these large floppy books on the run.) But there have been times when I’ve been stuck at home and used them for my daily journal.

      While I prefer to have only one journal going at a time because I love chronology, I have found over the past several years that at various times during the year I’ll start a second journal for some reason. This could be because I have a new project I want all the notes and images for to contain. It could also be because I have been using a small journal and want to work bigger but haven’t finished the small journal yet. (This typically happens because I have a small journal to take around with me, but then have a need to work larger.)

      Sometimes I just want to test a new paper right now, so I’ll start a new journal to do that.

      If you read this post you’ll learn how I index my journals.

      If I have 4 journals going simultaneously, one for the studio, one for a project, one for going out and about with, and one for something I can’t think of right now, but probably an additional project, or paper testing, then When I finish one of them it takes the next letter designation in the year’s list (the first volume of every year is letter A and paging starts at 1), even though there might be pages that chronologically were done first in one of the other 3 remaining, unfinished journals.

      Then when I finish one of them it gets the next letter (e.g. B) and paging numbers start up where the previous one left off.

      Since I generate so many pages—my journals are workbooks and I generate a lot of ideas I want to get down— the journals get filled quickly and there often isn’t too much disruption to the chronology, but the index will allow me to find things. Also the way I name my scans (year, month, date, number on the day, keywords— for example: 190515_3_Carl_Too_Fabriano_Artistico would tell me that page was done today, the third sketch on the day, and it was of Carl Too on Fabriano Artistico paper.

      Labeled in that fashion all scans line up in chronology in my yearly folder for journal scans. And that gives me all the chronology that I need. (Special project journals may get special labeling digitally depending on the needs of the project.)

      The only time any of this might SEEM confusing to others is at the end of the year, as I have a bit of anal retentiveness over finishing all started journals before December 31. Even if I start a new journal on December 15 or so!

      It isn’t critical. But if I’m going to be able to count the pages in a journal in my yearly totals it has to be completed by Dec.31. This leads to some interesting situations. You can see this in an end of year chart that I have in this post (note: this is pre-2017 so the images in that post don’t enlarge.)

      There I actually had 6 journals I was finishing up. As the year end approaches if I have more than 2 journals in progress, I list the journals, list the remaining pages, and then work out how many pages or spreads I have to do each day on average to complete them all by the last day of the year. It becomes a fun game for me, and ensures that regardless of other demands on my time I will get my drawing practice in. It also ensures that I’ll keep up my trips to the zoo etc. where I can get 10 or more pages spreads done in a couple hours. So it helps with practice management!

      Everyone has things that are important to them in the way they set up their journaling. I’ve gone through periods where I’ve had multiple journals going and periods when I only use one journal. What’s important to me is that I keep journaling, that I keep sketching and noticing what I find interesting or important to me in the moment.

      Everything else about my journaling has been worked out with those issues in mind, simply so that I can be as productive as I want to be.

      I recommend that everyone be as flexible as possible when setting up a system. The system needs to work for you and the way you like to work, and the way you archive your materials.

      And the system you use needs to support your productivity, not hamper it—so it needs to be quick and easy to execute or it will be burdensome and collapse in on itself.

      I have known people with no organization around finding pages again and they have led happy and successful lives. Since they don’t have that need they don’t need a system. I knew as early as 5 years of age, that I needed a system and it has evolved to work for me ever since.

      Hope this all answers what you were wondering.

        • Susan King
        • May 24, 2019

        Thanks so much for the comprehensive reply. Under your fabulous tutelage, I managed to get down to a single journal (finishing about 25 in the process) because the chronological thing was nagging at me so bad) . Sometimes, for the reasons you mentioned in your reply, I feel the desire to start another journal. So far I have resisted, fearing a return to the old situation. So, I really appreciate your detailed information about your practice.

        1. Reply

          I’m glad this was helpful and I’m glad that you have found your way to working with a single journal in a way that feeds your love of chronology. I would only encourage you not to fear a return to the old situation. Instead I would suggest that you embrace the fact that you can contain many things, be many things over the course of your life. If there is a need for another journal kept simultaneously allow yourself to explore and experiment to see what additional richness you can bring into your life. You won’t break your journal habit by some planned for experimentation, in fact you’ll learn more about yourself. Maybe there are situations and circumstances where you’ll want only one journal, maybe several. Keep in mind that you get to have choice with what you do. And let the fear drain out of that choice.

    • kathy wedl
    • May 13, 2019

    Roz, you refer to a drawing on “yellow yardstick.” Is this a type of paper? Hope you’re feeling better. Peace, Kathy

    1. Reply

      Kathy, I couldn’t find a reference to “yellow yardstick.” But I did find the auto correct had changed “card stock” to “yardstick” in my reference to the papers that are green in this post. I’m thinking that’s what you were looking at. Thanks for letting me know. I’ve gone in and fixed this. If there is a yellow reference somewhere I’m not seeing please let me know and I’ll clear that up as well.

  1. Reply

    Is there a black permanent ink version of the tapered tip Pentel Pigmented brush pen? Seems like it would work well to do the base sketch with permanent marker and then use water-soluble brush pens or watercolors to lay in color fills.

    1. Reply

      Richard, there is a pigment based ink in one of the Pentel Brush pens (grey squeezy barrel; several tip types) and the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, and ink in all of the pigment based inks is water resistant. They are what I use to put in the lines when I want hard lines to remain. The green paper sketch with black washes is made that way. You can work up the shading more as I did in this post’s examples

      As to using those pens and then adding watercolor that’s exactly what I do 99 percent of the time.

      I’m sorry this wasn’t clear. If I’ve misunderstood the comment please let me know. Thanks so much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Close Cookmode

Pin It on Pinterest