Fountain Pen Sketching Part 2: Why draw with a fountain pen?

December 3, 2015 | 84 Comments


Part 2 of my series on Fountain Pen Sketching – for the Introduction click here.

Note: In this post I am primarily discussing fountain pen usage as it relates to ink and wash sketching with the goal to use a permanent line that will not be affected by the watercolour. You can do a lot with watersoluble ink but in general I use permanent ink lines.

This is also a very personal summary of what I think are the most important aspects of fountain pens.

I want to look at three questions – and as always would love to hear your thoughts and comments at the end.

1. Why use fountain pens for sketching?
2. What are the negatives of using fountain pens for sketching?
3. What makes a good fountain pen for sketching?

1. Why use fountain pens for sketching?

A permanent pigmented ink fine liner pen does a great job at providing a uniform permanent line which can then be painted over with watercolour, but I much prefer a fountain pen!

Here are a few reasons why:

I love the flow of wet ink on my page – ah!

I have no words to describe how much I love it. Fineliners are much drier which naturally means their lines will dry and become permanent quickly. As a result there is less likelihood of smudging as you draw or smearing with the application of paint. However, even though I am a fast sketcher and never wait before jumping in with my paint, I rarely have any problems as the ink I use is fast drying.

But regardless of any potential ‘risks’ there is something really special about the flow of ink on the page.

The nib does not deteriorate and become harder to use over time.

In fact fountain pens normally function better with more use. When I am using a felt tip pen it only takes me a few days before I’ve worn the tip and the quality of line work decreases. My ‘White Joy’ body might be grubby, but the nib just gets better and better.

I like to hold a pen at a 45° angle and fountain pens are much better for this.

Fine liners are best used in a more vertical position.

A flatter angle encourages a looser grip and movement coming from the shoulder rather than the wrist. Both of these are good for spontaneous drawing.

I can get a variation in line using the one pen.

As we will see in  Part 3: Using a fountain pen, even a non-flexible nib will produce different thickness in line.

I can choose whatever coloured ink I like.

An increased range of coloured permanent pigmented ink for fountain pens has been an exciting new development in the past 12 months. Now I can go crazy matching inks to my pens! More about ink in Part 3.

Not only the colour of the ink but the type of ink gives me lots of options.

  1.  I can put water-soluble ink in my pen and then use that to advantage when adding water – line and tone in one!
  2. The more standard usage is for ink and wash using a pigmented ink that dries quickly and permanently so I can freely paint over without any movement of the ink.
  3. Or I can do something crazy and put ink over the top of wet paint!

This might look a little out of control (it is a small doodle after all) but this merging of ink pigments with watercolour is something that I do a lot in my sketches.

It has been a prominent feature of my teacup (and teacosy) sketches in the past 12 months and well… any of my sketches at home or abroad.

The lines are lively!

I love the vibration and liveliness caused by the bead of ink at the end of each stroke – BTW the official term for this is ‘shading’. There are some inks that will give you a more solid black line if that is what you are after, but I like shading, especially in my mixed De Atramentis ink – perfect for the gold edge of teacups (sorry I couldn’t resist!)

Most fine liners come in very similar plastic bodies but fountain pens are designer objects.

There is so much variety available so you can choose a pen which you really like the look of and fits your hand well – thick or thin, light or heavy. it’s very exciting when you find a pen that just feels really good in your hand and whose design you really love.

I also like the reusable nature of the  fountain pens.

I certainly prefer not to be buying and disposing of plastic pens all the time! I do wonder whether they work out cheaper in the long run but have never done any costings – let me know if you have worked this out. UPDATE:  Should have checked the Goulet Q&A first… check this video out!

Of course obsessively buying new fountain pens is an expensive hobby and I am certainly guilty of this, but honestly, I could survive with only two fountain pens. More about pen selections coming in future parts of this series!

I love the flow of wet ink on my page

Oh, I have said that already! But hey, that is really the number one thing for me so it is worth repeating it. The flow of the ink and my linework are inseparable!

So… have I convinced you yet?

2. What are negatives of using fountain pens for sketching?

If the wet ink is what I love about fountain pens, it is also the thing that makes it a hassle. “And oh! there is the need for care and maintanence!” I hear you cry.

Seriously it is not such a big deal!  I think any inconvenience to do with refilling my fountain pen and cleaning it is insignificant compared to the benefits of using it. I am just resigned to the fact that I always have ink on my hands but I have been developing a few strategies that are making it a lot easier – more in Part 3. Note: the ink on my hands is only when I fill my pen (I am looking at refining a careful refilling process!) and NOT from my daily use of it.

Another barrier to people trying a fountain pen is that it seems totally overwhelming. There are so many choices and fountain pen nutters (like me) love getting all technical. I am writing these posts for a mixed audience, some of you want a detailed answer to a specific question from your own experience. Others just want to be told what to buy in order to start! For the second group of people I will have a specific recommendation when we look at basic pens (Part 5) and if all my details get too much for you, just look at the pretty pictures and come back later to read the text after you have had a go with a fountain pen for yourself!

3. What makes a good fountain pen for sketching?

Ultimately any fountain pen with a good flow can be used for sketching – however these are a few things that I think make for a good fountain pen sketching:

Writing involves a rhythmical movement of up-and-down with a few loops. I find it easy to vary my pressure when I write, creating a heavier down-stroke and a lighter upstroke with associated loop. (Aside: A separate blog post about architects’ handwriting is on my to-do list – I promise!)

But when I sketch, my pen movements are a lot more varied and I am constantly changing my grip. I hold the pen a lot more loosely and the position on the barrel of the pen changes as I work. I therefore need a pen that is not only comfortable in the grip section but in the whole body of the pen.

These are a few stills from videos filmed for my SketchingNow online courses. It is surprising for me to watch how frequently I change my grip – I am really not conscious of it while I am sketching, but in the process of preparing these posts I have worked out a few reason why and… guess what? There will be more in Part 3. Hmm, Part 3 is obviously going to be a good one!

These days most of us don’t do a lot of handwriting so are not used to holding a pen for a long period of time.  A typical time for an ink drawing would be between 30-60 minutes which is not insignificant. (Note: I am guessing here, as I rarely go longer than 20 minutes with a pen!) It is therefore critical that the pen feels comfortable in a hand and is not too heavy. I have a very sensitive hand so the weight of the pen and the thickness of the body is a big issue for me. However you might have bigger hands and/or prefer and feel more comfortable with a heavier pen with a thicker body.

As sketching pens are taken out on the streets constantly and do not remain safe and sound at the desk, it is important to be using a pen that is not too expensive in case it falls out or you leave behind. It is up to you to decide what ‘too expensive’ means for you. They can also get a bit of rough treatment in our sketching kits. I therefore am generally looking at cheaper but well made models.

Of course, I am not following my own advice. I currently use an expensive pen (well a plastic pen with an expensive nib) and am very nervous about losing it – especially as I’d lost two black Lamy Joy pens a few years ago within a few months of each other. Having a white pen makes it easy to see if I’ve left it on the ground or in a dark cafe. And I am now a lot more diligent in looking around for stray art tools before I leave a location.

Anyway, I had better get cracking on Part 3 as I have made a lot of promises about it!

Have you got any other thoughts on what makes a good fountain pen for sketching? Please include them in the comments below.

Click here for Part 3: Using a fountain pen

Once you have a fountain pen you have to start drawing with it! 🙂

If you would like to learn the fundamentals and the start urban sketching please check out my Foundations online course. There are some free intro lessons to help you start and find out more about the course.

FInd out more about SketchingNow Foundations



  • brett danvers says:

    I am also a fountain pen sketcher. I like the committedness of fountain pen sketching. There is no going back – no erasing.
    If you make a mistake – go on!
    I started with a medium nib Parker as that is the pen I had but I think a fine nib is better, you can get subtler effects.
    I usually carry a small sketch kit of a 10x15cm 200gsm sketch book a waterbrush and three fountain pens.
    A fine point preppy with super5 waterproof black
    An Indian eyedropper pen with a fude nib and sepia non-waterproof ink, and
    A Hero fude pen with waterproof Dr Atramentis fog grey – I am a bit disappointed with the colour. It is a greyish blue rather than a bluish grey.
    I also usually carry a palette of 6 half pans.

  • Liz Steel says:

    Oh ah! you will have fun with your Hero!

  • Marissa Swinghammer says:

    I started sketching a couple of years ago using Micron fineliner pens. I enjoyed them mostly and I still keep a few of that type around for airplanes and other circumstances that are less friendly to fountain pen sketching. But I greatly prefer the variety of width I can get from a single fountain pen versus a collection of fineliner pens. Plus, when it comes to the finest of the fineliner tips 01 and 005 I tend to kill the nibs way before I run out of ink and that is frustrating. Plus I like the ink for fountain pens and how they feel in my hand. Once I tried sketching with a fountain pen I pushed aside my collection of other pens or gave them to my children!

  • Liz Steel says:

    Hi Cristian… I am sure someone will know. That certainly makes it tough to get ink!

  • Liz Steel says:

    Hi Carmel- thanks for comment. So glad to hear that the CDP is doing it for you. I will be including it in my recommendations.

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks Larry! I just clarified in the post that my inky hands are only when I refill not from general use.
    The build up of ink on my white joy is because I haven't cleaned it well each time I fill it up. The white is discolouring too – from the AUstralian sun??? It does get a LOT of use!

  • Liz Steel says:

    My pleasure Alexandra!

  • Liz Steel says:

    hi Jim – yes in Part 3!!!

  • Liz Steel says:

    exactly!!! Actually really good point at the very fine fineliners – I kill mine very quickly too. Much before the ink runs out! thanks!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks Sketchbookblue – yes looser grip, DeA flows beautifully and I love the attachment to a single pen!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks Brett – sounds like you have it sorted!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks Sandra and so good to hear about the improvement in your RSI (from a fellow sufferer!(

  • I have to agree totally with the point that it's all about the flow of ink onto paper…it's a lovely feeling to have the pen just glide across the page…I find that I hold the pen (Lamy safari) more loosely than a pigment liner which I feel I have to push around more as it has a slight hold on the paper. Also the De Atramentis ink flows beautifully and never bleeds even with a really wet wash. Plus in a "throw away age" it's great to be able to use the same pen for years – always knowing what line you're going to get….just refill the ink and go sketch again.
    Looking forward to more of your review.

  • Teresa says:

    Great post Liz ! I love fountain pens, and still write – whenever I need – with one. But, only some months ago I decided to try one of them to sketch, and it was such a surprise that I do not want anything else ! I've bought some waterproof ink – Noodlers – and a week ago I bought from eBay "Hero 9018 Black With Golden Trim Calligraphy Nib Fountain Pen". Can't wait ! Thanks for always sharing these precious opinions.

  • Thanks Liz! Wonderful and very useful posts!
    I'm so worried that where I live, Argentina, there's no way to buy waterproof ink for FP. I've researched everywhere and the result is "nothing". And there's no way of buying it abroad because of the tough custom regulations. So my question would be: Does any of my fellow readers of your blog have an experience like mine, living in a country like this? What would be the best solution for using FP and then paint with watercolor over the drawing? The ink brands available here are: Parker, Lamy, Waterman, Monteverde, and two or three more.
    Thanks in advance for any useful tip!

    • Martina says:

      Hi, Cristian. I have the same problem. Here’s my solution: I make drawing in ink, gently add some water inside the shapes trying not to touch lines (touching a little is OK) and then add color with almost dry brush now touching lines but as little as possible. Water paint ratio is the key – the less water the better, but not less. However I turned to Ink and Wash now to focus on light studies, but then I hope to improve my technique, which is basically Dry on Wet.

  • Carmel says:

    I have a collection of pens but keep coming back to the Platinium Carbon Desk Pen. It costs $12 and $8 for the convertor. I arrived at this pen by accident. I use Carbon black ink which dries instantly and I wanted a pen that would not be ruined by the ink. When I got the pen I discovered it had this fantastic extra fine nip. It is the only pen that I used the ink in. The nib on the my first CDP is worn down to a fine nip. I now have a second desk pen. So have the best of two worlds with a fine and extra fine nib. I recently had a problem with a converter for the first pen. The ink had hardened inside it. I washed it out and left water in the converter. It now works fine. What I need to do is hide the pen and try working with some of the other pens I have purchased. I will also destroy the tip of a felt pen quickly. Although I always keep one as back up in my pen case. This is a great series. Thank you for sharing your discoveries.

  • Wonderful post and art!
    I learn so much thanks to you. Thank You!

  • Jim Serrett says:

    I am just working my way into fountain pens for sketching. The main reason (as you have pointed out) is the angle of attack and varied line weight which makes for a much more expressive and natural mark. Currently I am using a dip pen with India ink in the studio, Pitt pens and a Rotring Art Pen on location with water soluble ink.
    I would like use a waterproof ink in the Art Pen with my converter but am just a little uncertain what ink to use? And how to clean and maintain it. So I am intently following, hopefully you will cover some of that. Great post and greatly appreciated.

  • sandra de says:

    Great post Liz. You introduced me to fountain pens through your sketching class. I discovered an added benefit … fewer periods of RSI in my hand. I think it has to do with the flow of ink and the decreased need to grip the pen and press down on the paper. Now I have a wonderful collection of Fountain pens/ inks/ nibs and discovered all those wonderful blogs/sites.

  • larry says:

    Do I have any thoughts? Sure… you should have put this in bold face:

    "Another barrier to people trying a fountain pen is that it seems totally overwhelming. There are so many choices and fountain pen nutters (like me) love getting all technical."

    To hear the 'experts' talk you'd think using fountain pens was quantum physics 🙂 I love how you've boiled it down to what's relevant, Liz.

    On the cost thing, I can't imagine how many hundreds of dollars I would have spent on Microns if that was my approach to sketching. As you suggest, a week (if you're lucky) into using the darn things you start wishing you had a new one 🙂 That said, the "buy another fountain pen cuz it's cool" is a force that is strong within me, but that's sort of another hobby as I sure don't NEED them.

    Lastly, I can't figure out how your Lamy gets so dirty. And ink on your fingers? Is it leaking? I use pens constantly and rarely clean them, yet none of them look dirty like this. Odd that. — Larry

  • Liz Steel says:

    I do too… you are stealing my thunder for part 3!!! only joking!

  • MiataGrrl says:

    Well, you already know what a fountain pen junkie I am, and I am thrilled to read your post because very few sketchers articulate why they favor FPs (even though many do). Anyway, all of my reasons are the same or similar to yours, though I had never thought much about flow — yet that is certainly an important factor for me. If I find that a FP (or the ink in it) seems to flow "dryly," I will stop using it almost immediately. I'd say my #1 reason for using FPs is the line variation and expressiveness that just aren't possible with a technical pen (which I started out with, as many sketchers did).


  • I forgot to mention that I often draw holding the pen nib "upside down" which gives a finer line that "right way up" ….if this makes sense! 🙂

  • Bee Rozatti says:

    Hello Liz! I am so appreciative of all this information, and beautifully explained with all of your sketches–I am so excited to explore with the fountain pen! Sending Santa a request. . .

  • larry says:

    I've noticed that it's common for white pens to yellow over time. I guess they're not made for street sketchers (grin).

    One of the reasons I prefer filling with a pen syringe is that 1) my fingers don't get ink on them, and there's nothing to clean off the end of the pen that most people stick into ink bottles 🙂 It's also easy to carry backup ink/fill stuff.

  • Cathy Dwyer says:

    Hi Liz. When I started to sketch it was fine liners and I bought them all. But as soon as I discovered waterproof ink for fountain pens the fine liners went in a drawer and it's fountain pen all the way! I'm with you-there's noting quite like the feel of ink flowing on the paper! (I left my M200 Pelikan in Singapore somehow. Oh dear.) Thank you for this series!

  • I have always loved the livelieness and fluidity of a fountain pen for writing and for sketching; it has a more personal connection to me and my hand. It feels more direct and give me mentally a sense of freedom. Now that there are such beautiful colored inks and good quality papers which allow the ink to move easily, i am very excited to bring colored permanent inks into my sketching. Thanks for this series. Chris k

  • B.D.M. says:

    Wonderful! I have a great appreciation of fountain pens and am enjoying this special series. You mention bad experiences with a Noodler's Ahab fountain pen. Do you make much use of flex pens, since they are built to provide line variation? Thank you. (BTW, as you probably know, the Goulets and others explain that Noodler's pens should be cleaned before use, since the feeds may have "machining oils" on them. Of course, other people report problems with Noodler's pens even after cleaning.)

  • I like the nostalgia aspect. I loved using fountain pens as a child and teen. Now as a sketchbooking mom of six it's as though I'm still allowed to play! I wrote just about the joy of it here:

  • Wonderful post on pens!!! I love sketching with Lamy Safaris with various size nibs. Can you tell me what brand your Raw Sienna you used in those sketches. Great color!! Thanks so much for sharing your expertise.

  • Liz Steel says:

    yes I use a pen syringe most of the time too!!!

  • Liz Steel says:

    Thanks Tina.
    Ah! you all know about your quest for the perfect line variation!

  • Liz Steel says:

    yay! enjoy and I hope santa listens (whoever Santa is for you!)

  • Liz Steel says:

    yay – all the way! so sorry to hear about your M200… I have my eye on one of those!!!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks! Great to read your blog post!

  • Liz Steel says:

    Yes… I have just recently done a flush with the Goluet pen flush and I think it is working better (got a lot of pens on the go at the moment!) I prefer fude nibs to flex, I think… but I am still exploring them

  • Liz Steel says:

    my pleasure Chris – yes the coloured permanent inks is VERY exciting!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks Patricia – more about that raw sienna ink here

  • Liz Steel says:

    Ah! another tragic!!! ha ha!

  • Ooooh yes, ink on paper, and those varied lines…I am in LOVE.

  • BethGi says:

    I am loving this series, Liz. Good information, and it is wonderful to enjoy our shared obsessions (fountain pens, watercolor, architecture). Cheers!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thank you! Yes 'snap' x 3!!!

  • audrina K says:

    Omg this is the best and most informative blog post I've even read! I just ordered a Lamy Joy in a fine nib but thinking I should have ordered an extra fine? I also ordered a Lamy Safari in extra fine 🙂 are the nibs on these two pens interchangeable?

    I've recently discovered a love of sketching with fountain pens and colouring with watercolour. Your workshop sounds fantastic!