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Selecting a Suitable Pen: Fine Arts, Fun Colors, Sketching and Drafting

Updated on October 25, 2009

Line Art

Poster for outdoor class: done in permanent marker, then colored with washable markers
Poster for outdoor class: done in permanent marker, then colored with washable markers
Basket illustration sketched in pencil, then completed with ink pen.
Basket illustration sketched in pencil, then completed with ink pen.
Book cover illustration done in pencil, reinforced with ink pen and Sharpie, photocopy colored with watercolor pencil
Book cover illustration done in pencil, reinforced with ink pen and Sharpie, photocopy colored with watercolor pencil
Technical drawing for fisherman; pigment marker over pencil draft.
Technical drawing for fisherman; pigment marker over pencil draft.

Pens: Portable, Predictable Lineage

There's a joke that during the space race, the US spent lots of money to develop a pen that could write upside-down, in vacuum, or in extreme temperatures. The Russian space program used a pencil...

The main thing that distinguishes a pen from other drawing tools is its ability to produce a thin, continuous line of ink, of a constant width. This makes pens popular for writing, technical drawing, and cartoons; but they can also be used for everyday sketching and even shading.

So which pen is the right one for the job?


Markers have a porous tip, usually felt or sponge-foam. Ink or dye flows through the pores. Good markers have a smooth, even flow and won't clog or leak. They all dry out if you leave the caps off, and will wear out fast on rough surfaces. Some markers come with special tip shapes like chisel-tips for calligraphy, or forked and stamp-shaped tips for quick graphic accents.

'Permanent' Markers (Sharpies, Marks-A-Lot, etc): a dye-based permanent marker, soluble in  industrial solvents. Usually non-toxic, but not intended for eating or writing on skin. Most colors are fugitive; of Sharpies' red, blue, green, and black, blue lasts longest under UV, and the red is a fluorescent orange when diluted. Marks most/all surfaces, with varying degrees of permanence; may dissolve in alcohol or rub off with mineral oil.
- I like these for their smooth flow, bold lines, and ease of use. They're great for temporary art like posters, or originals that will be scanned or photocopied. Cartoons and caricatures, signs and notices.
- Sometimes I do a drawing in pencil or thin black pen, then go over the outline or key details with a black marker for emphasis. Make the original oversize, and shrink it when printing or photocopying, for a crisp, professional look. You can also color photocopies with colored pencil or markers, or make your own coloring book.

Coloring Markers (Crayolas, etc) - a dye-based, water-soluble marker, usually non-toxic. May be fugitive, and will bleed when wet. Available in washable versions. Marks porous surfaces, beads up on slick ones. Can be layered, but too many layers at once will weaken the wet paper.
- Great for quick, brilliant color, kid art, or craft projects like "dye-flowers" on coffee filters. Will put out a lot of color quickly, great for big art projects and drawing diagrams in presentations. Can use with water to "wash" color around the page.
- Note: "Color-changeable" markers are great fun, but even less color-fast than regular ones. Many are acid-base combinations, and can degrade over time. Best used for temporary art and science projects.

Highlighters (various makers) - a dye-based marker with a fluorescent component. Generally fugitive, some will change color with age even with no UV exposure. Bleeds / washes when wet, some varieties can be permanent when dry. Intended for use marking documents and books.
- Nothing brighter for catching the eye. Fluorescent compounds absorb UV and release it as visible light, so they can literally reflect more visible light to your eye than is hitting the rest of the page. Hence the 'glow.' They don't work in the dark, but try them under black light.
- 'Glo' effect is fugitive, and doesn't copy well, but it's good for posters and temporary art projects. Black light posters can be fun. Blends well with coloring markers for interesting effects and more nuances of color.

Pigment markers (Staedtler, Copic, Micro, etc) - a pigment-based marker or pen, available in permanent or water-soluble versions. (Check labels closely, these brands make other pens too). Some varieties don't flow as well as dye-based markers, the pigment can block the tip. But once on paper, they last longer.
- "Glitter gel" or "metallic" paints are also pigmented, and the pigment tends to settle over time. Get them when you intend to use them, and keep them with your portable supplies so they get shaken and used more often.
- Great for archival art, technical drawing or drafting. Marks most surfaces, best on porous ones. Staedtler makes some of my favorite permanent, micropoint pigment pens. I always keep one with my travel sketchbook. They tend to have good ink flow even under abuse and neglect.

White-Board Markers: heavily pigmented, solvent-based markers. Mostly non-toxic, probably fugitive. Will wipe off of specially prepared, slick surfaces, but can be near-permanent on porous surfaces (and stain whiteboards if left too long). Overhead markers are older version of this basic technology, which are water-wipeable unless marked "permanent." Will wipe off of shipping tape and most laminated surfaces. Can also be used on glass and plastic, but test first to see if it will wipe off. Test any solvents on a small corner of the whiteboard, as they can remove its protective coating and cause new stains to form in the same place.
- Best for their design purpose. They're much darker on paper; try them with markers and highlighters on paper art, but be gentle with the tips. Great for storyboarding (get it all sketched out and take a picture), or practice sketches, or elaborate ephemeral art.

Hard-tipped Pens

In hard-tipped pens, the pigment flows around the tip, and is dragged or rolled onto the paper. They can be more durable than markers, and create finer lines. Large hard-tipped pens are rare, because it's difficult to get the ink to spread evenly across a wide, non-porous nib or ball.

Ballpoint Pens (Bic, Uni-Bal, etc.) - various inks, various solvents including water-soluble and oil-based. Work best on paper, drafting surfaces, matte or semi-porous surfaces like satin tape.
- I like the Bic style for everyday writing, back-of-the-napkin sketches, and notes that may get wet. Their ink is an off-black, seems to be oil-based or a gel, with a suspended pigment rather than a dye. This ink stays on its own side of the paper, and smudges only slightly, wet or dry. "Erasable" versions smudge more, too. Flow is sometimes uneven.
- I prefer a smooth-flowing, straight black ink like Uni-Bal for drafting, design drawings, or sketches I may want to photocopy. Seems to be a dye, with plenty of true, sharp color. As long as you let it dry first, and keep it dry, the line stays crisp and you can erase over it without smearing. Will bleed through most paper, and flow away altogether if the paper gets wet.
- A dead, de-inked ballpoint can be used as a stylus, or to reveal under-coatings in layered oil-pastels.

Fountain Pens: A metal-nibbed pen like historic ones, but with a "fountain" or cartridge of ink inside. Works with a variety of colors, dye- and micro-pigment inks. You can switch out tips and colors for different effects. Or you can purchase the pen equivalent of a "timepiece" and get a beautifully made, refillable fountain pen that costs more than your briefcase.
- I used to love fountain pens for calligraphy, their main purpose in modern times. I liked to have 2 or 3 of the same brand (Schaefer does a decent calligraphy set) so I could have 2 or 3 colors of ink for the same project. They do get messy, and can leak when you're traveling.
- A consistent angle must be maintained on the nib for good ink delivery, so sharing fountain pens (especially between right- and left-handers) can lead to frustration.

Quills and Inkwell Pens: Quills can be cut from actual feather quills, bamboo, or tipped with a metal nib for longer wear. They are used like a paintbrush, by dipping into an inkwell or dish, and drawing or writing for a short time. Blotter paper is a useful companion, for testing the load of ink and avoiding unseemly spots on the page. The nib can be trimmed to a suitable angle for right or left-handers, but it's still best to ask before borrowing one.
- I like being able to adjust the shape of my own pen, and there's a timeless beauty to the process, but Gawd it's slow! Best uses: an experiential lesson in historic techniques, meditative prayers, anachronistic documents, poetic fancies. Can be used to write with unusual ink alternatives like blood, lemon juice, or Inky Cap mushroom goop.
- I still pull out a quill or fountain pen if I want to make out a gift certificate or fancy card. I also use a thin-tipped fountain pen to add fine lines to a watercolor or ink painting; it's easier to wash scraped-up paint off the quill, and I don't risk clogging my micropore markers. I can use a dry nib (or the clean, dry end of the same bamboo pen) to scrape paint off and make white lines.

Do you have a favorite pen? What do you use it for?

Creative Explorations

Tell me again about the Unwanted Fugitives, Auntie Ecca! - Getting Started

Are all paints toxic, or just the pretty ones? - Paints and Pigments

Why doesn't my 12-year-old nephew like crayons anymore? He used to draw such cute little pictures .... - Pencils, Crayons, and Charcoal


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    • agvulpes profile image


      9 years ago from Australia

      Thanks for the tips :-)


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