my favourite drawing pens

My Favourite Drawing Pens

Recently I found a blog by Tommy Kane (artist/illustrator) where he was talking about things I think about a lot. One of the things that he talks about is drawing pens, his favourites and why. I think it’s great when an illustrator is so open about the tools that they prefer and their ongoing struggle to find just the right one. It’s very honest. In the case of Tommy Kane, this honesty permeates all of his work – it is immediate, spontaneous and gritty, with throw-away visual gags to go along.

Tommy Kane’s favourite drawing pen just now is a uni-ball pen. I’ve tried it and I can see why it works for his style. For those who draw a lot – either for fun, therapy, business or as a kind of pathology – then hearing why he chose this pen is really interesting. I like the pen but I couldn’t draw with it.

Tommy Kane, Red Hook (below)

On the other hand, and at the other end of the drawing spectrum, is Tommy Kane’s artistic collaborator, Danny Gregory. Danny has developed a style that employs a variety of dip pens, some of which have a very flexible nib. The nature of the pen obviously gives his work a very different feel. I would guess that the type of pen you use actually determines your direction. In a very mundane way it also can narrow or expand your choices – nobody is going to tell you to stop drawing on an airplane if you are using a uni-ball pen; on the other hand if you have all your inks out then you might be escorted off at the next stop. So Tommy Kane wins on the guerilla art front.

Annotated Drawing

This is were it gets interesting for me. I like to have a pen that I can write and draw with. Something that feels natural enough to make any kind of mark. Above all it must flow. It took me ages to realize that I HATE scratchy drawings on rough watercolour paper. I don’t hate other people’s work, it’s just I hate the feel when I do it. So that narrows it down for me: a drawing pen must have a fluid feel for my loose drawing style – I’m really a painter by nature so this figures.

But the drawing pen also must be decent for writing as I like annotations. This narrows things down even more for me. I really like Danny Gregory’s work, especially A Kiss Before You Go. His drawings use a flexible pen and exploit the nature of it’s almost naive marks. These drawings are intentionally sensitive but don’t be fooled that there is not a lot of control here, there is. This type of drawing is very hard to nail.

Danny Gregory, A Kiss Before You Go (below)

But I’m not going for that type of drawing. I want to achieve a certain amount of volume (not flat and naive) and be able to maintain a degree uniformity if I need it. This means that if I use a very flexible nib then I’m just working against it all the time. Bruce Lee, in his last film, The Game of Death, takes on an a club wielding opponent with a bamboo stick.  He is making the point that if something is not flexible it is dead, the flexible overcomes the inflexible /mechanical just like water can crush and wear out anything with fluidity – very Taoist. The same applies with drawing in my opinion. Not so flexible though that it is out of control – it is a combination. You get the idea.

Here Bruce Lee talks a little about his martial art. Interesting that he saw his art as self expression and that you learn form in order to forget it: the alchemy of combining control with naturalness. Profound. The most difficult thing is to express yourself honestly. Any art is really a vehicle for education, discipline and self discovery…as well as expression of course.

Bruce Lee (below)

And to illustrate the point that anything can be an art if done with mindfullness, here is a short movie made by Danny Gregory titled The Art of Breakfast.

Mole Furiously Digging (below example of a Tony Ross/Post Office type dip pen)


So eventually I found a type of dip pen that suits me – something like a Tony Ross post office nib. I like to use a long pen holder though to extend the flexibility slightly and ensure the ink flows more. I like the volume that Tony Ross gets in some of his work but I”m going for something in between him and Quentin Blake when I use a dip pen. Tony Ross says he likes the scratchy quality of his pen on rough paper. Each to their own.


Crie (example of my dip pen above)

With the advent of computers there is scope for a whole new approach. You can draw with a biro if you like and colour in photoshop or painter. Pencil would also be fine as you can change the tone and contrast to suit when scanned in. And my personal favourite just now – felt tip pens. I like to use pressure when I draw and this can be lost with some types of pens. This is one reason that I still love pencil drawings. A good example is someone like Dennis Jones who draws in pencil and then works up a finished illustration in Adobe Photoshop, keeping some of the pencil all the way through.

So here’s another couple of drawings with my favourite dip pen below


Little Driver (above)


Trainee Dictator (above)

A few people have asked me recently about travelling pens. These are the best I’ve found. And the numbers are the ones I use most. (I wouldn’t use a dip pen on a plane.)

Faber Castell PITT pen (F=0.5) specs

Rotring Tikky Graphic (0.3 and 0.5) specs

Rotring Rapidograph (0.5) specs

6 thoughts on “my favourite drawing pens

  1. Clare

    Thanks for such an in-depth post about something so important to artists! I like using an ink pen, the type with cartridges, but it can be a bit (in your words) scratchy, so I think it’s about time I start looking for another pen which suits me! One of my teachers used to say about exam technique “find a pen which writes quickly”, now the challenge is to find a pen which draws quickly and fluidly!

    1. Post author

      Hi Clare

      Thanks. Much appreciated. I think you might want to check out Suhita’s idea in the comment below. I have also discovered the Sharpie (in my case it is because I was doing digital work and I realized that I could use anything). Suhita’s advice about the type of Sharpie is something I’ll be trying ASAP. You might try out the Rotring Tikky Graphic if you haven’t already – it really flows.

      I’ve just been looking at your blog and will be back. You do have a gift. And it’s really funny, which I love.

  2. Suhita Shirodkar

    Interesting how we all gravitate to pens that suit our style, or pens that set a style. Your work has so much expression, and a lot of it comes through the linework. I use, of all pens, a Sharpie, and it sets the tone for my work as well as the pace I work at. Beautiful blog. Thrilled I found you, through Tommy Kanes posting of this url

    1. Post author

      Thanks Suhita

      Really kind of you. I like your lively line work. I’ve got to give it a try. I need more time to have good look at your work. I went to London while at art school to see Feliks Topolski work in his studio under the arches and saw him do his continuous line drawings, which apparently the Queen really digs too. Your work reminds me of his approach.

      I’ll have to have a good look around your inspirational site. Your colours really cheer me up. I love strong colour.

  3. John Roblin

    I read Tommy’s blog post about pens a while ago too. I don’t really know him, though we both went to Buff State at the same time and have a number of friends in common. Back when I did more illustration than I do now, my primary tool was a rapidograph. These days I draw as a means to think through whatever I’m working on before executing the final product using Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and Strata 3D. My “on paper” tools now are a black Paper Mate Flair M pen or sometimes a Grumbacher 8911/HB pencil.

    I know… a black Flair… dime-a-dozen… boring… but you can get a lot of expression out of that thing.

    1. Post author

      Hi John

      I totally agree with you. I love rapidographs. In fact the refill one I was using for years clogged up and I haven’t got round to getting a new one, dagnabit! There are few pens that give that consistent flow and polish to your work. That’s definitely in my top three of all time.

      I honestly don’t know about the black flair. But I have no problem drawing with a biro or a stick even if it gives me the right mark. Before I went to art school I was on a summer art course (I know, overkill) and one of the tutors there suggested I try drawing with twigs and ink. I absolutely loved the effect. Along with some washes, wow! And I was drawing with quills with the nephew and niece the other day. Really nice.

      I really don’t give a monkey’s so long as it works. Especially if it’s getting scanned in.

      Black flair is on the to-do list.


Comments are closed.