There’s an appeal
to drawing traditionally with dip pens and ink, but…
Unsure of where to start?
If you’ve been searching for answers on how to get into drawing using dip pens or how to choose the right supplies for your projects, I was in that same spot. Uncertain about how to proceed with all of the options and I was quite nervous about using dip pens incorrectly.
Guide to drawing with dip pens
Now that I’ve been drawing with dip pens consistently, I’ll share with you what I wish I’d known before starting so that you can get a smooth start.
A lifetime of satisfying mark-making
My goal is to curate and create resources to help with your decision-making so that drawing with dip pens is fun to get into.
What is a dip pen?
By definition, a dip pen is a pen that you dip in ink. It has two parts, a nib, and a pen holder – also called a handle.
Pros and cons of using dip pens
The primary benefit of using a dip pen is the flexibility of the tool. For example, you can vary the line weight of your stroke, and the thickness of the line, without having to switch pens. Other benefits are:
- You can change the nib for different effects to suit your drawing approach
- You can alternate pen holders for higher comfort
- You can use a single pen and vary just the ink to experiment with colour or to combine with multimedia; and
- Dip pens are comparatively inexpensive – a low commitment if you’re unhappy with your initial choices
- There are more parts to deal with
- They require care and maintenance to stay in good working order; and
- A flat stable surface for best performance – as such, they are less travel-friendly
- It can take longer to complete a piece because of the constant dipping and cleaning/wiping during the ink application
Lastly, the biggest drawback is probably the intimidation factor as using dip pens has a reputation for having somewhat of a learning curve.
However, once you’re familiarized and have the basic supplies, dip pens last a long time and are super satisfying to make marks with.
Don’t know what illustration supplies to get? Visit the Tool page to see what I use.
Types of nibs
When I first searched online, getting started with supplies was daunting because of the vast array of options.
I made a trip to my local art supply store to get a better idea. Although choices seemed overwhelming at first, a lot of nibs were in fact destined for calligraphy writing. So you can at once narrow the selection to nibs that are labeled for drawing, sketching, mapping, or illustration.
The next hurdle was when I read the nib-type descriptions. There were terms like “flexibility” and “elasticity” for “line width” variations plus “Manga” vs “Western” type nibs.
I can assure you now that these distinctions matter to a degree of importance determined only by whom is using the tool.
Are you the type of artist who uses many, quick, scribbly strokes? Or do you generally ink in an orderly, controlled, methodical manner?
Do you apply a heavy load of pressure on your tools while drawing (i.e.: death grip) or glide gently across the surface?
Certain nib types will respond favourably to your approach and others will work against you.
Best nibs for your approach
From my experience, the approach matters more in your selection of nibs than the style or subject of your projects. Whether you’re into inking comics, manga, technical urban renderings, or flowy botanical line patterns how you draw is more important than what you draw.
Each brand, type, and size or shape of nib performs differently. Therefore, a good option as a starting point is to get a sampling kit.
Initially, I bought a kit labeled “Manga-specific”. I soon realized that these nibs were not particularly versatile, because of what I did not yet understand about elasticity and flexibility. Manga nibs are not all created equal, and when lacking the discernment to spot the differences, are not ideal as a beginner-friendly kit.
Then I found Speedball’s sketching kit that comes with two pen holders and six nibs. This was a good first choice for me.
As you progress you may decide, as I did, to expand your kit and experiment with additional nibs.
A quick guide on flexibility and elasticity:
Flexibility refers to how much a nib will bend under pressure. Nibs can range from extremely stiff (not flexible) to quite soft (flexible). Too much flexibility can be challenging to control, feel erratic, sloppy, or prone to wear out prematurely (bend and be ruined). In turn, an overly stiff nib can limit the range of stroke techniques used for creating textures and effects, and as well be susceptible to breaking under pressure (caput).
Elasticity refers to how quickly a nib springs back into its original shape after pressure is applied. A newbie inker will have a better learning experience using a less elastic nib because these are more predictable to handle and to produce even marks with. An advanced inker will appreciate moderate to extremely-elastic nibs because of how they respond to the slightest change in pressure. Super-flexible nibs felt squirrely to me at first but became amazing for finessing once I got used to the responsiveness.
Most of the “drawing” nibs will hold a reasonably consistent line. The quality of line variation, meaning the transitions of thin-to-thick and vice versa depends on these combined factors:
- The size and shape of the nib (example: pointed, bowl, spoon)
- The ratio of flex and elasticity
- How much pressure is applied
- The angle (degree) at which it is held
- User experience level
Visit the FAQ page to see the full list of tools, materials, and supplies I use in my studio.
Over time I’ve accumulated a collection through trial and error. Here are so far my six favourite nibs:
For precise rendering and long flowing lines:
For general illustration:
I enjoy the 512 Bowl nib, which is comparable to another industry favourite the 361 Steno also known as the “Blue Pumpkin”. The Blue Pumpkin grows along with you. Mine has proven to increase in performance at the same rate that my skills have improved. Through further investigation of Manga nibs, I did become partial to the soft Maru for fine details, and occasionally Tachikawa’s G-nib for when I need to draw a bunch of dynamic action lines.
Nib rating table
|Nib name||Brand||Flexibility||Elasticity||Best for||Holder type|
|101 Imperial||Speedball Hunt||Soft||High||Finesse, hatching details||Classic or universal|
|102 Crow quill||Speedball Hunt||Soft||Medium-high||Precision, long flowy fine lines||Cylindrical holder|
|512 Bowl||Speedball Hunt||Stiff||Medium||General use, outlines||Classic or universal|
|361 Steno||Brause blue pumpkin||Medium||Medium-high||General use, textures||Classic or universal|
|77 soft maru||Tachikawa||Soft||Medium-high||Curves, fine details||Cylindrical holder|
|Gnib||Tachikawa||Medium-stiff||Medium-low||Straight lines, dynamic lines, sketching||Classic or universal|
Many have reached out after watching my YouTube video (below) on this topic to recommend their favourite dip pen nibs. Some of these included brands such as Nikko, Zebra Titanium, Principal, and the highly rated Gillott nibs that I have yet to experiment with. I mention these brands as “vouched for” by other experienced inkers, in case you come across any of these mentioned and wish to try them for yourself.
Also, I was told by subscribers that Speedball nibs can be difficult to obtain from locations outside of North America.
There are straight and oblique holders. For drawing, a straight holder is usually preferred. Straight holders come in different shapes, diameters, and materials across brands. Some are wider in grip or offer a rubber section for added comfort. If you were to own only a single holder, I recommend one that has either a universal mount with the four prongs or a classic mount with two hole sizes that fit most of the standard Japanese and Western nibs plus the small cylindrical shaped Maru and quill nibs.
Note that you may end up needing two holders regardless. The Hunt 108, 107 hawk quill, and 102 crow quill cylindrical-shaped nibs typically function exclusively with Speedball’s crow quill holder. I have come across other holders (Tachikawa, Zebra Comic, Nikko N-17, Kuelox) intended for the cylindrical Maru and mapping nibs that sometimes also work with the hawk quill. Speedball’s plastic crow quill holder is quite slender in diameter and shorter than a typical-size holder.
For this reason, some artists will wrap sports tape, strips of leather, or other materials to improve the grip on this particular holder.
As a sidebar, I did reach out directly to Speedball’s marketing director inquiring about designing a classic holder for the crow quills and they are considering the idea favourably.
Pigment-based inks are best for dip pen drawing such as Speedball’s super black India ink which is a pigment-carbon mix. Most brands that are labeled as India ink or drawing ink will work well for dip pens. What about acrylic inks?
The key thing to remember is that there are two kinds of inks:
- Pigment-based ink
- Dye-based ink
Paper is important. Bristol paper is ideal because it has a heavier weight which is more resistant to potential bleeding or scarring from nib action. Bristol comes in two surfaces, super smooth and vellum finish. Super smooth is best for precision drawing and my first choice. Depending on your approach to drawing (scribbly or orderly) you may prefer a vellum surface that has more tooth thus offering resistance and therefore easier to control marks than on the slick surface of Bristol smooth. Keep in mind that paper has limitations and anticipate compromises when choosing one finish over another.
If your project is mixed media – like combining ink with crayon, graphite, paint, washes, and markers, then my second choice from Bristol is a hot press paper. I love my Moleskine Art Collection sketchbook for doing subject studies. Its hot press paper responds well to dip pen and brush inking mixed with other illustration mediums with minimal show-through.
Curious about paper for sketching? Visit the FAQ page to see the full list of supplies I use.
Important nib preparation
New nibs out of the package are covered in a protective oil or waxy coating. This is for storage and shipping and requires prepping before use.
Skip this step and you’ll soon find out why not to.
Submerge the nib in boiled hot water with a mild cleaning agent such as a squirt of dish soap for approximately ten minutes then wipe it dry. To be certain there is no lingering protective residue, I wipe the nib with isopropyl alcohol then wipe it again to ensure no moisture rests on the nib.
Other methods I had read about to remove the coating were saliva, toothpaste, or running the nib under a flame. I assessed those methods and found them to be less effective plus; gross (saliva) messy (toothpaste) and a risk of possibly damaging the nib (flame). My guess on this is that the protective coating formula has likely improved over the last few decades (century) and now dissolves simply with soap and warm water.
Once that coating is removed and your nib is completely dry, gently insert it into its holder.
After all of these ceremonious steps, one would assume that our nib is ready for an epic inking session … but there’s one more step that I urge you to consider.
Before diving into your first project, it’s a good idea to conduct tests. First, gather your supplies: A water jar, alcohol, a clean rag or paper towel, an ink bottle, a spare piece of Bristol paper, and a flat clutter-free, well-lit, surface to work on.
How far to dip in the ink
It is said to dip just past the eyelet vent (breather hole) followed by a vigorous shake to remove excess ink. I prefer to dip it less deeply and more frequently to avoid mishaps, just below or halfway up the eyelet.
Some veteran comic inkers use an eye dropper to fill the nib’s shank and tines with ink.
Whichever dipping tactic works best for your drawing approach is the right one.
Your new nib needs a warmup. Spend a good 20 minutes just making marks on a spare piece of Bristol paper. Lines, hatches, curves, dots, scribbles. Additionally, to get a feel for your nib’s effects in motion experiment with pulling the line towards you and then pushing it away from you while varying the angle, applied pressure, and speed.
Depending on the nib, the inking surface, and your drawing approach you will need to re-dip to load with ink each 4 to 8 strokes.
A good quality drawing ink is typically rightly viscous and quick drying. Ideal for illustration yet problematic for accumulating and drying on the nib while in use.
I keep an old jam jar of clean water next to my refillable 2oz ink bottle along with a paper towel. To keep the nib well functioning, I periodically swirl-rinse it in water, wipe it, and then reload it with ink, rather than continuously dipping in the ink.
A clean nib is a happy nib!
Clearly, part of the process of using nibs is being attentive to their maintenance. There are nibs made of (or coated in) gold or titanium to help prevent corrosion. The majority are made of metal, typically stainless steel, some even come in bronze, chrome, or other fanciful-colour finish. Either way, these can rust, or as mentioned, caked with ink.
After each session, I remove the nib from the pen holder, clean it with mild soap, sometimes also using a soft-bristle brush, wipe it with alcohol, then a final rust-preventing wipe. An ultrasonic jewelry cleaner is a nice alternative especially if you have several nibs to clean at once.
I insert each dry nib back in its handle and keep the pens pointing upwards in a container (a ceramic glass) away from snag and fall hazards. For individual nibs, I keep them in a re-sealable plastic baggy along with a sachet of silica gel or beads inside.
Signs of a damaged nib
You’ll know that a nib is worn out if it:
- Becomes overly flexible (sloppy)
- Leaks ink
- Is visibly misshapen
- Is encrusted with rust
To prevent damaging your artwork, it’s best to just replace a worn-out nib.
Visit the FAQ page for additional resources and answers to the most commonly asked questions.
I hope that sharing my learnings in this guide will help make your start with dip pens a smooth experience. Let me know in the comments because I’d love to read them!