08 March 2017


I have read several diferent illustrators remark that the question they are most often asked is what pen they use - implicitly complaining that people think the creation of good art is mostly a matter of choosing the right pen.

I myself am most often asked whether I use a magnifying glass when I draw. (I do not.) But I suspect that someone or other wants to know what pen (and what other tools) I use. So here begins a short series of posts on my preferred tools and materials.

First, I confess that I don’t find my tools and materials especially interesting. Some artists really love theirs; some even consider the give-and-take between an artist, his materials and his tools to be the very essence of the creative process. Personally, I just want them to be obedient; I have an image in mind and I want to use whatever will put it down most precisely.

My basic method is to draw outlines in pencil, draw over the pencil outlines in black ink with pens, erase the pencil marks, add dark colors in ink with pens, add medium and light colors in ink with paintbrushes. I use a knife to make corrections and to etch details into inked areas.

PENS: Usually, I draw with metal-tipped pens that I dip into pigment-based calligraphers’ inks. When I first decided to make these sort of pens my primary drawing tool, I didn’t know which holders or nibs I would like best, so I bought a variety. That inital purchase has lasted until the present, and every one I have tried has worked pretty well. On my desk now I have a Nikko G nib in a black plastic holder, a Hunt 22 nib in a double-ended wooden holder, and a Hunt Crowquill nib in a smaller plastic holder. The last is the one I like best, and when it comes time to replenish my tools, I will probably just buy these.

I used to draw almost everything using technical pens, the thinnest available (usually labeled size 005 or XS). I’ve tried various brands, and have no real complaints about any of them. Faber Castell is what I use now. I have a stash of technical pens in various colors, but only use the black ones with any frequency.

I prefer dip pens to technical pens for several reasons. First, technical pens are made for drawing on paper, not calfskin or goatskin. If used for drawing on skin that has a nap (fuzzy) surface, the felt tips dry out and the pens are ruined very quickly. When I was using technical pens more often, I would sometimes go through a dozen before finishing a single drawing. This gets expensive. Although I did find that when technical pens start to dry out, they can produce an even finer line, so I would keep a few half-ruined ones on hand for detail work.

When drawing on smooth calfskin or goatskin, there is a different problem. The ink from technical pens does not adhhere to the skin as securely as bottled calligrapher’s ink. When I would use an eraser to remove pencil likes, it would take away ink with it.

Compared to pigmented bottled ink, the black ink from a technical pen looks dark gray; when I would use both in combination (technical pens for outlines and bottled ink to fill in the colors), the colors would sometimes look darker than the black outlines - an undesired effect, of course.

I continue to use technical pens for making black and white drawings on paper; for making small corrections or additions to letterpress prints; and for fixing the edges around gold and palladium leaf. On occasion, when drawing on calfskin, I need to draw on a troublesome spot where the surface is unusually rough or thin. In this place, the wet ink off of a dip pen is unpredictable, and I switch to the slow-flowing technical pen.

KNIVES: In medieval illustrations, monastic scribes are often depicted holding pens in their right hands and knives in their left. While I hold both my pen and my knife in my right hand, I do use one about as much as the other. The knife is for erasing mistakes in ink and cleaning up edges - but it is also a useful drawing tool for etching fine lines into ink. When drawing on smooth calfskin or goatskin, it is very easy to remove ink cleanly with a knife, because skin cells naturally lie in thin layers.

My usual knife is a Xacto with a #10 blade, which is shaped like a small scalpel. I use the curved blade to scrape and the point to etch. (An iron etching stylus might be an even better tool for this, but I do not own one.)

PENCILS: Ordinary #2 pencils are my usual tool for preliminary drawing.

ERASERS: I prefer kneaded rubber, which picks up pencil marks cleanly off of calfskin, but is gentle enough not to remove much ink. I have also some hard white erasers for use on paper.

PAINTBRUSHES: I have a variety, but the ones that I use most often are 20/0 Princeton Monogram. This is about as precise a paintbrush a is available; it can produce as thin a line as a pen. I even use this to draw entire pictures on Japanese washi paper (where metal-tipped pens don’t work).

BURNISHER: This tool’s main purpose is to burnish gold leaf. I have found it a useful tool also for drawing, even when I am not using gold leaf. It has a smooth agate tip shaped like a dog’s tooth that is used to apply pressure; this can flatten surfaces of paper that has been scraped with a knife, and even manipulate ink that has soaked into paper.

MOBILE ART KIT: During times when I am especially busy, I make it a habit to carry a project with me. Aside from the burnisher, my basic supplies fit neatly into an eyeglasses case. With contact lens cases to hold different colors of ink, a cloth diaper to wipe ink off of the pens, and a thin, hardcover book to carry the drawing and scratch paper, I can set up a drawing desk almost anywhere.