Fountain Pen Sketching Part 4: Choosing a fountain pen

December 10, 2015 | 41 Comments

After an epic Part 3: Using a fountain pen, I will change the pace a little and have some fun!

Pen comparisons and recommendations will begin in Part 5, but first I want to share some aspects to think about that will help you choose a pen that will suit YOU.

So here is a list of aspects to consider when choosing a fountain pen:

  1. Budget
  2. Use
  3. Nib
  4. Ink Capacity and Refilling
  5. Weight
  6. Thickness
  7. Length
  8. Design

Let’s get going….

1. Budget

You do not need to spend a lot of money and get the ‘best’ pen!

I will be comparing a range of different priced pens from $5 – $140  (USD) and they all work really well! If you are unsure whether you will get really hooked on fountain pens don’t rush out and buy an expensive pen. There are some great options under $30!

2. Use

Is this pen just for sketching or do you want to write with it as well?

I know that I have a lot of fountain pens but as I said in Part 2, I could live with only two pens. I love having a ‘basic’ pen that is good for everyday writing as well as drawing (my Lamy White Joy) and also a pen with a variable line (Sailor pen with fude nib) which is great for fancy writing (headings!)

3. Nib

The biggest factor in choosing a pen is normally the nib.

The first thing is to decide how much line variation you want and how expressive you want your lines to be (note: these might be different criteria). Whilst line variation is an important factor to consider, there is no need to over worry it, particularly if you are new to fountain pens. Just buy a ‘basic’ pen and get to know it well before exploring the flex and calligraphic nib options.

With a standard nib you will also want to consider which size will best suit your style of drawing – such as do you work fast and loosely or are you more interested in detail? The most popular nib size with sketchers is an Extra Fine (EF) nib so that the lines are not so dominant. However I am preferring a Fine nib these days so that I get a little more line variation. Each brand of pen has a different standard (just like dress sizes!) but I understand that the Japanese nibs (Pilot and Platinum) are finer than those in European-made pens.

Aside: I love seeing how the nib size affects my handwriting – how big or small I make my letters so that it suits the line thickness.

There are other aspects of nibs – smoothness, wetness and feedback – that fountain pen enthusiasts discuss, but as the paper is such a huge factor and the range of paper that sketchers use is so broad, it is too hard to make any generalized statements. Maybe in a future post….

Some nibs are more springy than others – this is not the flex between the tines creating line variation, but whether the nib ‘gives’ a little when you apply pressure. I prefer nibs that give a bit and are not really stiff.

Looking at reviews once you have one or two pens in mind is a good way to narrow the selection down to the one you think will suit you best.

4. Ink Capacity and Refilling

We looked at this in part 3, but I just want to revisit it with a slightly different emphasis. How much of a hassle do you thinking filling up the ink will be?

  • If it seems just ‘too hard’ then a Platinum pen which uses the Carbon Black ink cartridges is probably your best option.
  • If you draw a lot then a larger capacity option (a piston pen) would be worth investigating… but as I said in Part 3 don’t fill it up and then not use it!
  • Having a ink window (like a Lamy pen) or getting a clear/ demonstrator model pen helps you keep track of your ink supply!

5. Weight

This is a big issue for me as I have a sensitive hand so I am always looking for the lightest options available. But you might find a more solid heavier pen feels more comfortable!

Also think of what a few heavy fountain pens will do to the weight of your sketching kit – which you carry with you everywhere – right? The weight can really add up!

6. Thickness

Similarly with the thickness of the pen – if you have big hands you might want a pen that is a little thicker.

One of the reasons I like Lamy pens so much is that their signature triangular grip feels really good in my hand – but I am well aware that for some people this grip makes the pen almost unusable.

7. Length

Think about what suits you, the size of your hands, and once again, your sketching kit as well.

I love the balance of the long-tailed Lamy Joy but sometimes its length makes it hard to fit into various bag pockets.

8. Design

Some fountain pens have such amazing designs that they are hard to resist!

You are probably not going to choose your first pen solely on the basis of its design, but maybe your second or third! Sorry, I shouldn’t be such a bad influence on people but I can tell you that I did buy my first Kaweco Sport (the orange pen) purely because of its design. And oh! I love the design of that middle pen a lot too (all will be revealed in Part 5!)

And some pens offer you a range of colours so that you can choose one n that makes you smile every time you pick it up. (I am yet to own a turquoise pen!)

Aside: Can you tell that I have been having a lot of fun taking photos of my pens?

Ok.. what have I missed out on? Would love to hear what you think about the most important aspect/s when you choose a pen!

Up next Part 5. Basic fountain pens

Once you have a fountain pen you will have to start drawing with it!
If you would like to learn the fundamentals and start urban sketching please check out my Foundations online course.

Subscribe to my mailing list for my monthly newsletters for first news of new courses and face to face workshops in Australia (and overseas!)


  • Liz Steel says:

    I understand that they are hard to get in the US… hold on and I will talk a little more about them in part 6!

  • FuryTigresse says:

    Pen in the middle: TWSBI Eco?

  • Liz Steel says:

    well spotted!

  • Liz Steel says:

    I have used them in the past and though about including them in my part 5…but I had a lot of problem with ink leaking and stopped using them. But certainly a good pen!

  • Cathy Dwyer says:

    Hi Liz, I would love to know where you got the gold nib for your Joy. (I love my Joy and it's been asking me for a special nib.) My favorite pens these days are my Lamy Joy and my Pilot Falcon. I LOVE the flex of that pen (Falcon) and I'm anxious to hear what you think about it. This is such a great series! Thanks.

  • Ruby says:

    Hi Liz, thanks for sharing about fountain items for sketching! Just to add on to what you have stayed , the section of the pen matters a lot to me as well. I don't like the triangular grip of the Lamy Safari, and I prefer rounded sections that do not taper much, if at all. I also dislike a huge step down between the section and the barrel, and sections with rubber (lint mangnet) grips. Sections with screw threads or a pronounced lip near the nib usually get rejected as well because I tend to grip fairly close to the nib. So very often, just looking at a section will quickly help me decide whether I should even consider the pen!

  • Leon Berg says:

    thanks Liz for your wonderful review!Did you use this Rotring Art Pen Sketch Fountain Pen
    what can you say about?

  • Liz Steel says:

    Hi Ruby- love hearing all about your preferences. Very helpful to know what works for you!

  • Pat says:

    Liz, I bought the Lamy Joy as my 1st fountain pen as an adult. (only came in black). I love it. I am not sure who to blame or give credit.., one of the SBS instructors. Everything you describe about the weight and feel (the triangular grip) for me is spot on.

  • MiataGrrl says:

    Love your sketch of the pens! You show such affection for your all-important sketch tools in this sketch! For me, the top factors I consider are: nib (line variability and size), weight of pen (same issues as you), size of pen (despite needing light weight, I also need fairly hefty in girth, because slim, dainty pens make my hand tired). In terms of design, I love color, of course, but in terms of function, I find texture to be important, too. I have a pen with a matte finish, and for some reason, it is harder to grip than all my shiny pens. It's counter-intuitive, I know, so it's strange! I think the bottom line for all these really personal, idiosyncratic preferences is the importance of trying out a pen for a while before buying, if possible. If you can borrow before buying or at least try it out (by actually sketching, not just scribbling) in the store before buying, all the better. I tested by sketching extensively before buying my two expensive pens.


  • Enjoying this series Liz. I think another important deciding factor is how detailed one wants to draw or sketch. The more detail you want to include, the finer the nib you'll need. That's where the Japanese pens really come into their own – a Lamy EF is a Fine or even Medium in some Japanese pens, with Sailor creating pens that will allow extra fine lines so you can produce exquisite detail.

  • Leon Berg says:

    thank you for your answer! much appreciated.

  • Cathy Dwyer says:

    Thanks, Liz. Holding…

  • B.D.M. says:

    Another factor to consider is ease of maintenance. For example, some pens can be easily disassembled and reassembled; good for cleaning. The Lamy Safari has to be the easiest pen on which to swap a nib, and replacements are readily available — another plus.

  • larry says:

    Liz, I just can't stop applauding. You're boiling fountain pens down to their basics for sketchers, keeping it simple enough for a non-fountain pen person to understand.

    You asked what you were missing and I'd say there is one thing. Lamy pens are wildly popular in the sketching world because, up until a couple years ago they were the most reliable, inexpensive pen available on the market. All of you high-profile artists adopted them and continue to use them.

    Nothing wrong with that, of course, but times change, as do markets. You've pictured the Eco and have said you're going to talk about it but the real "Lamy killer" is the Pilot Metropolitan (MR in other places). It is roughly half the price of a Lamy Safari, doesn't have the triangular cross-section, comes in Asian Fine and Medium nibs, and draws wonderfully, as do all Pilot pens. The Platinum Carbon pen is also a fantastic sketching pen that's used by many of us and is an easy solution to waterproof sketching because it takes Platinum Carbon Black cartridges.

  • I am LOVING this series, Liz, thank you so much! Brilliant resource.

    The nib/line variation matters so much for some of us, and not at all for others–I used a Micron Pigma or Zig Millennium for years, and those disposables vary virtually none, as you know! (OK, yes, a little, depending on pressure!)

    And pressure is a big issue for me too…I am sure the wetness of the nib is part of it, but the pens I've used that are dependable and sturdy and WILL flex a little deal me fits after a while because you have to press so darn hard to get that flex! Ouchie…

    Larry, I've just ordered my THIRD Metropolitan…thanks for your original recommendation,it's a honey for dependability, by the way!

  • I always reach for a Japanese pen when I want fine details, you're right, Jane. Soooo relaxing to do a slow, contemplative drawing exploring the most delicate detail…

  • WOULDN'T it be great if there were somewhere you could actually try out all the pens you're drooling after?! I've often thought that…I've bought quite a few pens over the years on someone's recommendation when I love their work. And one fast try will let me know they're not for me, drat! Just needing to pass along one a friend told me about, forgetting that he's 6'4" and a big strapping guy, and I'm 5' 1-1/2" with arthritis. Great pen, but it's HUGE! 😀

  • I think there are pen exchanges in various cities – Seattle comes to mind. There might be information in the Fountain Pen Network too. Liz and I have done a number of pen testing sessions – a great way to decide on the right nib size and check the weight of the pen in your own hand. We all need a pen buddy 🙂

  • I found the Metropolitan (MR) in Sydney Larry – only the M available and AU$31. I can get Lamy for $34, though the RRP is $49 – without a converter. It's a different world of pen pricing down under. I've ordered a few metropolitans in F and M from Goulet to try out as I love Pilot pens in general, especially the Desk pen and the Falcon. I don't see them being 'Lamy Killers' as the ease of changing the Lamy nibs is still a big plus, and I find the Lamy pens very comfortable to grip. A pen that writes like the desk pen but is shorter for easily fitting into some pencil wraps etc is worth adding to my collection – hope that's what the MR will be.

  • Yes the fine lines and delicate cross hatching and shading possible with the Sailor 1911 EF is another league again – but like the Falcon, it's switching up to a gold nib too, with the extra cost.

  • PJ Magalhaes says:

    Thanks heaps, Liz. Not only am I getting lots of info from your posts but also from your other readers in the comments. Coming from a high detail comic book work working with dip pens, that's still something that i highly value. The pen i currently use is a Tachikawa School G Manga pen that I made sure i bought when I was in Japan. Love it. 🙂 those Pilot and Falcon pens sound great to me as well.

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks Jane – I just added a note about detail vs fast and loosely. It was what implied with my comment about 'sketching style' but didn't quite spell out. Thanks! excellent point!

  • Liz Steel says:

    yes BDM – totally agree – thanks!

  • Liz Steel says:

    oh! I love sketching my pen as well as sketching with them.
    Yes ideally you should test them out. I always do a drawing on the test pad of paper when I am in a pen shop- not just write "the quick brown fox"… actually I never write that!
    How did you manage to get pens to test?

  • Liz Steel says:

    yay! great to hear Pat – enjoy!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks Larry – excellent point that there are a lot more pens on the market now!

  • Liz Steel says:

    yes Kate – it would be great… I am thankful to have Jane as a friend who seems to have a lot of things that I want to test… well between the two of us we cover a lot of ground…not just fountain pens!

  • Liz Steel says:

    Hi PJ! thanks for reading. Love hearing from a comic book background..does that mean there is a whole different set of pens to explore! Oh! only joking…I don't want to know about manga pens!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks Kate – I don't always want much line variation… sometimes a simple line does what you need!

  • MK Buike says:

    My favorite pen is the Platinum Cool. The nib has a bit of flex. However, I've stopped using them as I lost one and dropped and destroyed another. At $40 each, too much for that to happen in the field. So now I just use the cheap Preppy in Fine.

  • Dries says:

    I recently acquired a desk pen (a carobon desk pen) and I tottaly get the thing you said about the balance. It feels soo great to use. I love it!!
    Best wishes for the new year btw!!


  • Sherry Fabricant says:

    What nib are you using to make your titles?

  • Liz Steel says:

    the cool is on my list!

  • Liz Steel says:


  • D Burgoon says:

    Liz, I enjoy your blog very much. The series on fountain pens has been invaluable to me. I just ordered Lamy's new white Joy gift set that includes the pen with 3 nib sections each with a different calligraphy nib plus 3 packs of ink cartridges in black, turquoise, & violet all in a lovely metal box. Converers have to be purchased separately. I already have several Lamy pens, including the Joy in black.

  • Liz Steel says:

    sounds great – enjoy!

  • Liz Steel says:

    sailor fude 55degree

  • Rob says:

    Hi Liz Thanks ever so much for this review! I used to use rapidographs but after years of non use they are kaput. I took your advice and grabbed a lamy studio and I love it! The variation in line width and the detail i can draw really brought the joy of the medium back for me. Thank you! Now what should I get next?

  • Inya says:

    Lovely blog post, as always! For me, I would absolutely love a Pilot Falcon EF to add to my collection. I’m just seriously getting into inking. After years of love for graphite I feel like I need something new in my practice.

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