Eling, Southampton

Fountain Pens for Sketching


I’ve been doing a bit of Urban Sketching recently, and I’ve been asked about my pens a few times, so I thought I’d post about them.

I use fountain pens because they are refillable (in almost any colour you want!) and because they are really nice to use. I love the flow of the ink across the page, and I love the quality and variability of line that is possible.

Line drawing, Winchester city centre.
14 x 14 cm handmade sketchbook
The ink is Domininant Industry’s Forest.

Sketches are different to my finished work. They are often done very quickly. They live in books and they don’t need to be light-fast, so I can use regular fountain pen inks, the sort that won’t damage your pen if you leave them in it. Such inks are usually resoluble (that is, they aren’t waterproof) and will probably fade in sunlight. I’ve done windowsill tests that indicate that most of these inks will at least change colour. Some disappear altogether (washable blue, I’m looking at you).

Some resoluble inks separate into their constituent dyes (think chromatography) when you add water and the effect can be rather lovely. Adding water (I use a waterbrush, which is very convenient) allows you to create shading quickly and effectively.

Monochrome line and wash drawing of Kingsgate, Winchester. A5 sketchbook.
The ink is Sailor black.

I also use waterproof inks for a line and wash style. Sometimes it might be a fountain-pen “safe” pigment ink like SketchINK, but more often it will be a document ink or one of Noodler’s “Bulletproof” inks, which seem to be less trouble.

Note that pigment inks cause a problem when they dry up in the feed. Having a good seal on the cap helps to prevent or delay this. Screw-fit caps are better for this than push-fit, and a longer thread improves it even more.

Wolvsey Castle, Winchester. A4 sketchbook.
Line: Noodler’s El Lawrence ink; Colour/wash: Inktense pencils

My favourite sketching pens often have flexible steel nibs, such as the Noodler’s Creaper flex (in the UK, buy Noodler’s Ink and pens from Pure Pens) or an FPR (Fountain pen revolution – there is no UK importer, so you must buy from the USA) ultraflex. Flexible nibs were used, as dip pens (which can be very flexible because they are thin), for the beautiful copperplate writing style. When fountain pens, with their sturdier nibs, were introduced, it was found that soft gold nibs were the best for flexibility (and copperplate handwriting). Pure gold nibs are very expensive, new or vintage, and so I make do with the flexibility available from cunningly shaped steel.

My current favourite sketching pens are:

  • an FPR Darjeeling ultraflex, currently loaded with Rohrer und Klingner’s Alt-GoldGrün (old gold-green) Schreibetinte (writing ink – this ink is resoluble) and
  • a Noodler’s Charlie (an “eyedropper” filled pen), fitted with an FPR ultraflex nib and feed. Currently loaded with Noodler’s El Lawrence (a murky dark greenish brown, waterproof).

The following drawing of houses backing on to the Itchen in Winchester uses both of these inks (the houses and their gardens are drawn in Alt-GoldGrün and the darkest lines are El Lawrence). There is also some Dominant Industry’s Forest ink – a dark blue-green – in the river. You can see where I have used a waterbrush to pull out the colour from the Forest and the Alt-GoldGrün. As far as I recall, all of these inks were in pens with flex or ultraflex nibs.

Houses backing on to the river Itchen. A4 sketchbook.
See text for inks

The quick drawing of the whelk, to the left of the Itchen drawing above, was done in Cornwall with my Hero fude pen and Noodler’s Walnut ink. “Fude” nibs are bent forward to mimic a brush in oriental calligraphy. I have a couple of angular Sailor fudes and a curved Hero fude. Sailor, a Japanese company, make good, reliable pens (which I have only sampled at the lower end of their price range) while Hero, a Chinese manufacturer, have a more variable reputation (albeit better than some) but the pens, like most Chinese fountain pens, are remarkably cheap – especially considering that the barrels are enamelled metal to Sailor’s plastic. The drawing of Kingsgate (near the top of this post) was done with a Sailor 55° fude.

Both flex nibs and fude nibs produce variable line widths. With the flex nib, following the tradition of copperplate handwriting, line width increases with pressure. With the fude nib, you roll the pen gently to alter the line width.

Flex nibs tend to create smooth and width transitions, but can “railroad” if pushed too far. The lines you get from a Fude nib can be a little ragged at times.