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Why the ballpoint pen is great for sketching

Updated on January 3, 2012

A variety of ballpoint pens

A variety of ballpoint pens
A variety of ballpoint pens

Why the humble ballpoint is great for sketching

I was sitting outside in Boston drawing last year and a fellow I had never seen before came over and sat down and started asking me about what I was doing. I told him I was sketching the building in front of us. He asked if I was using some special super-expensive artist's pen, and I told him that no, I was just using a regular run-of-the-mill super-ordinary ballpoint pen.

That conversation started me thinking about the types of pens one can use for drawing and how one of them, the ballpoint, is sometimes overlooked as a drawing tool, yet has qualities that make it a unique and exciting tool for drawing.

Variable line weight is the best drawing quality of the ballpoint pen. Simply by pushing softer or harder, you can create extremely light, delicate lines that are barely visible and blend into the background or heavy dark lines that can really pop forward. Most other types of ink pens don't offer that sort of on-fly-the-flexibility but rather give you one flat line weight that changes little in response to hand pressure.

A ballpoint pen has better contrast than a pencil. While a pencil shares many of the same qualities as a ballpoint pen, graphite can't create the same blacks as the black ink of a ballpoint pen. The ability to use a full range of values with a ballpoint pen creates dynamic value contrast that can be hard to get with a pencil.

The ballpoint pen can be used as either a fast drawing tool or a slow drawing tool. In my experience some people like to draw very fast and energetically while others prefer to draw very slowly and carefully while still others like to do both depending on the situation. The ballpoint pen works well either way. Some pens don't flow very well when moved too fast.

It can be moved in almost any direction with good results. Not all pens can do this. Some catch on the paper. Some create spatters and irregular marks. Ballpoint pens have a nice smooth point that allows the pen to be pushed about the page in a very free manner. Perfect for sketching and idea generation and just being generally creative while letting the ideas flow.

No need for erasing. Because of the ability of the ballpoint to vary its marks from very light to very dark, you don't need to worry about erasing. Just draw light at first then press harder as the direction of the drawing becomes more clear. This is especially helpful when drawing on paper that doesn't stand up to erasing very well.

One pen, many line weights

In the image above, the same ballpoint pen was used to create the different line weights simply by changing the pressure on the pen. Note how the darker lines appear to be closer to the viewer than the lighter lines. Using different line weights in different parts of a drawing is very helpful for creating both an illusion of depth and a visually dynamic and interesting drawing. Ballpoint pens make this very easy to do. You could get this same effect with a pencil as well, but would find it harder to get the very dark lines that a ballpoint pen with black ink can create.

Ballpoint pen sketch

The above drawing was an idea sketch for what would eventually become a digital painting. The entire idea was generated and composed on this single piece of copier paper. Note how the ballpoint allows the use of fast marks and a wide variety of line weights. The variable line weight not only allows you to test visual ideas on the fly but also helps create both texture and the illusion of depth and space. This sketch was done rapidly and in one sitting using only a single pen.

And the ballpoint pen is pretty inexpensive! (Most of them are anyway!) Yes, I know that doesn't seem a particularly dramatic quality, but I as an artist I've spent more than a small amount of money on various drawing supplies over the years and some of them can be pretty expensive, especially if buying in quantity. Having a reliable drawing tool that you can buy a bunch of for just a few dollars is a big benefit. Especially if you draw a lot!

None of this is to say that a ballpoint pen is the BEST pen for drawing. There are many different type of pens and they all have their uses. As do graphite and charcoal. And the ballpoint pen does have limitations. But the ballpoint pen definitely has a place in any artist's toolbox. So if you haven't already, give it a try. Play around with one on your own and see what it can do.


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    • profile image

      james 5 years ago

      has anyone found a pen that doesn't smudge or blotch out?..

      I've tried several and they all seem to leave an ink smudge somewhere on the sketch where not wanted..

    • FalconSays profile image

      Karen S Falcon 5 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Can you please sketch a profile pic? jk :0 Naaa, loved your hub, thanks

    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 5 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      I sometimes use pen when I don't have any pencils with me. I mostly sketch outlines of ideas for clothing, so pen works fine for my purposes.