Page 2. Tools and materials

For busy people who want to sketch (and who isn't busy these days?)

You want to sketch, but maybe you are not able dedicate much time to it. Or maybe you simply find long sketching sessions tedious. No need to feel guilty; practically everything we enjoy in life becomes miserable or even harmful if taken to extremes. It's a matter of dosage.

A small dose of sketching now and then can greatly enhance your life. You are the boss. Short sketching sessions of only a few minutes can be very fulfilling, and more enjoyable than long marathon sketch sessions.

I confess I sometimes find it a challenge to fit sketch time into my schedule. I don't sketch every day, but manage to sketch just enough to keep a little art in my life.

Looking back at the past forty years since I took up sketching, I can see many times when sketching was practically all I did or thought about; I was obsessed with it. Those times alternated with periods of little or no sketching at all, when other things pushed my art to the back burner. Sometimes these dry periods lasted for years.

It's good to recognize that if there is a lot going on in your life, then your activity in sketching might resemble a pendulum; you will go back and forth. When you realize that you aren't sketching as you had in the past, don't throw away your supplies and think you have moved on.

It's a good idea to keep a minimum of sketch tools handy for the moment when the spark returns and you find you are once again able to give a little more attention to your art. A tiny sketchbook and a few of your favorite sketch tools in your bag will call you when the pendulum starts to swing back.

This section covers the particular tools I use in my sketching. Some are perfect for busy people (and some are not so perfect).

tornado linesMechanical Pencils

The pencil is still the most versatile sketching tool, and easiest to control. A mechanical pencil is even easier to use than the wooden ones that need to be sharpened.

A mechanical pencil might help you to sketch more often and not worry about the results so much.

Much of my pencil sketching is done on the train with fellow commuters as models.

That means I have no time to think about what I'm doing, but just have to dive right in, often correcting and re-drawing as the model changes his or her pose.

I can easily end up with lots of extra lines, and it can get pretty confusing, so I use a thin lead for fine lines.

0.5mm lead pencils

For many years I've used 0.5mm leads which is the most common size for fine leads, and available in a wide variety of models from many companies.

There are several wonderful pencils in the 0.5mm range such as Platinum's amazing OLEeNu which has a special mechanism to protect the lead from breaking (Ole-enu is Japanese for "won't break").

It really works, and the lead won't break under normal writing conditions. I apparently draw with a heavy hand because 0.5mm lead would break frequently (every few seconds) in the past, but I have had no lead breakage problems with this pencil.

However, if you are even more heavy handed than me (and I can't imagine that), Platinum has recently come out with the Oleenu Shield which offers even more protection than the regular OLEeNu.

0.3mm lead pencils

Sometimes I get so sloppy that I end up with a tornado of confusing pencil lines which obscure details even with a 0.5mm lead, so I recently switched to a thinner 0.3mm lead for sketching train commmuters.

There are still not that many options among 0.3mm pencils, but here are two 0.3mm mechanical pencils that are really useful.

The first is the Pentel Graph Gear 1000 Drafting Pencil for 0.3mm lead.

graph gear 1000.

I'm amazed at the fine detail I can get with a 0.3mm lead. I had previously thought that pencil leads this thin would simply give spider-web-like delicate lines with no life, but I realized that they are simply like using a freshly sharpened regular pencil which feels so good and makes such a nice line as dark as you need. At this size I have no problem drawing fine details even when I get sloppy.

I went over to Amazon to read more about this pencil and judging from all the reviews and customer photos, it apparently has a cult following. There's a window that shows which level of lead hardness you have chosen, from 2H to 2B. It is an all metal pen, and seems indestructible. Everything about this pen is cool. This model also comes in a 0.5mm and 0.7mm version so you have to be make sure you are choosing the size you had in mind.

The tip of this pencil is a long needle-like tube sleeve which is great for drafting because you can get the lead real close to a straight edge or French curve.

For many years I had thought that the only draw back is that like practically every 0.3 mechanical pencil out there, the tube sleeve of the Graph Gear 1000 was not retractable, so it would catch on your pocket. But one day while reading some of the thousands of good reviews at Amazon, I was puzzled by those who praised this pencil's retractable tip! Finally I discovered that the tip does retract when you release the clip.

I have one other 0.3mm mechanical pencil with a retractable tip, and that one is the Pilot FURE FURE SPRINTER. FURE FURE sounds something like foo-leh foo-leh and means "shake, shake." This one has a plastic body which is lighter than the Pentel Graph Gear.

fure fure

It has a retractable tip and a unique mechanism for advancing the lead. You just give the pen a shake and a metal sliding spring inside the barrel bounces up and down, banging on something which makes the lead come out in increments.

You can also click the pencil like a regular mechanical pencil, but that's not as fun.

This one had been available in a 0.5 mm size size for a while, but now Pilot has made a 0.3mm version.

The same pencil is also available under a different name, and comes in various colors with dots on the barrel. It's called the Fure Fure Corone. The design is exactly the same as my black Sprinter.

It goes without saying a 0.3mm lead can break more frequently, especially if you use a lot of pressure to get a dark line, as I do. So the shake mechanism will let you advance the lead without interrupting your work.

But I was happy to discover that the lead in this pencil almost never breaks, thanks to another cool feature: the metal tube sleeve which covers and protects the fragile lead is not stationary, but can slide.

When you write at an angle, the tube is pushed back just enough for the tip of the lead to protrude and stay in contact with the paper. You can expose enough lead to do the job without breaking.

The tube then slides back into the barrel as the lead gets shorter so you can use it for a longer period of time.

When the lead and its protecting tube get too short, you just give the pencil another shake or click and the tube and lead are once again extended full length.

It's an amazing pencil!

The only disadvantage I have found with the Pilot Fure Fure is that the plastic clip is fragile, and will break easily. I threw away a few of these pencils and replaced them with new ones until I got wise and attached a metal clip from a disposable Sakura Micron pen that had run out of ink. The plastic nub of the clip that remains on the pencil will keep the metal clip from sliding off. Not so pretty, but very practical and strong.

Both pencils have erasers on the end which are covered by a cap. I usually keep the eraser cap off my pencils so I can use the eraser without delay, but I keep it in place on the Pentel because the click spring mechanism is so strong, it sends the eraser and all the leads flying if there is no cap to stop them.

There is now a mechanical pencil with an an even thinner lead. It's the Pentel Orenz Ultra Fine with 0.2mm lead!

0.2mm orenz

These leads break very easily, and goes without saying that this pencil requires a light touch! The instructions tell you to not advance the lead beyond the metal sleeve. Like the FURE FURE, this metal sleeve retracts as the lead gets shorter. These 0.2mm leads are much more expensive than thicker ones, and I'm reluctant to use -- and break -- these unnecessarily. I use mine sparingly for special jobs such as carefully drawing a subject accurately in pencil which will then be drawn over in ink.

Thicker leads

When I'm sketching at a more leisurely pace, I like to use a fatter pencil lead that gives more expressive lines than a 0.5mm or 0.3mm lead.

Pencil and watercolor sketch of a water covered rice paddy. Done with 0.7 size mechanical pencil in a 3 1/2 X 5 inch (12.7 X 9 centimeters) pocket sketchbook. This was drawn in more of a crisp ink style than a traditional pencil style. This took about 10 minutes.

0.7mm and 0.9mm size leads don't break as easily, but also don't make the sharp fine line of a 0.3 or 0.5 lead.

If you like to sketch in pencil but want a darker black line than what you get with graphite, try using a black colored pencil. It will give you lines as dark as ink. Some colored pencils are erasable and therefore as friendly as graphite pencils.

black color pencil

A lot of color pencils resist water very well such as the Berol Eagle black colored pencil which I used in the sketch above and added watercolor. Other colored pencils are water soluble and let you turn your pencil sketches into watercolor drawings with a brush and water.

A tree done with a size 0.9 2B mechanical pencil and watercolors. This is also in the crisp line type style with no gray pencil shading. I don't do much light pencil shading, but stick to dark black lines.

The sketch above was done with this ugly little pencil which was my absolute favorite for nearly twenty years.

It's a wood mechanical pencil, size 0.9 (0.9 millimeter leads) and I used it with 2B leads. I always carried this in my pocket. It used to be a full length pencil made by Ohto. I sanded off the shiny green paint, and sawed it down to 11.5 centimeters (4 3/8 inches) for portability.

Finally it stopped working and would not accept any more attempts top repair it, so I went shopping for a new mechanical pencil, and found a few I think I like even better.

Kokuyo makes a nice 0.9 mechanical pencil which has a three sided barrel which feels good in the hand.

They also make a 1.3 pencil which uses 1.3 millimeter leads which gives even more line variation. I am undecided as to which I like better, but either one makes great sketches in a small sketchbook. Both are in the above photo resting on sketches done with the 0.9 pencil.

For larger sketches, I found a wonderful mechanical pencil with even fatter leads.

It's from an old Japanese pencil company in Tokyo, KITA-BOSHI (North Star) who wanted people to return to the joys of using a traditional wood pencil, so they made this one called OTONA NO ENPITSU (Adult's pencil) which uses standard 2mm drafting pencil leads.

kitaboshi otona no enpitsu

This pencil was an instant hit and won the "stationery item of the year" award in Japan.

I used 2mm leads many years ago in art school and always thought they were fantastic for sketching.

uni lead pointerThe main reason I never warmed up to drafting pencils was the fact that they were heavy, didn't feel so good in the hand, and you had to use both hands to slide the lead out whenever it got too short.

This new pencil is much lighter, similar to a real wood pencil, and advances the lead in increments with clicks of the button like a mechanical pencil.

I also carry a tiny Uni Lead pointer in my pocket for when I want to give it a sharp point and not make a mess with graphite powder.

Of course, the traditional wood pencil is still widely used by those who don't mind all the wood shavings that come with sharpening them.

Pen and Ink

Nothing beats pen and ink for clean, crisp line work, especially if you do a lot of hatching.

The traditional tool for this ink sketching is the dip pen and bottle of ink, preferably waterproof India ink if you are going to cover the drawing with watercolor.

Of course, a dip pen is a bit messy for sketching outside.

You could borrow an idea from the Japanese. For centuries Japanese writers and artists have a used a spill proof brush and ink carrier called a "yatate" which has an ink pot filled with cotton or silk which has been saturated with ink, but not to the point of dripping.

You could do the same thing with a film canister filled with cotton and saturated with ink. Then you could dip a pen in the ink and not worry about spills if the whole thing gets knocked over.

But you will need to clean the pen when you are finished, which makes a dip pen a bad choice for the busy sketcher.

Some dip pens have amazingly flexible nibs, some are so flexible they are very difficult to use without some practice.

Dip pens make their best lines when using down strokes. Up strokes can make scratchy lines or even cause the tines to catch on the paper, causing a mess. You have to vary the position of your hand to get the best angles for the best strokes. Also, dip pens leave a bead of ink on the surface of the paper that takes a while to dry. It's very easy to forget this and smear ink all over the drawing with your hand.

For many years, since my high school days I used a 102 "Crowquill" pen point with India ink, and found it very gratifying.

Today, most manga artists use a flexible G Pen Nib. There are many rich black drawing inks for dip pens including manga ink and Japanese sumi inks. Don't use these inks in a fountain pen or you might clog it and ruin it.

It's fun to collect various pen points and holders, and when you dip a pen in ink and start to use it, you become part of a tradition that goes back for thousands of years.

platinum blue black inkWriting with a dip pen

By the way, I prefer a dip pen for writing in my journal. But when I write, I use blue black ink. Since most dip pen ink is black, I have to use bottled fountain pen ink.

Fountain pen inks are thin so they can travel through ink channels in fountain pens without clogging, but with a dip pen these inks will feather (spread out) and bleed through notebook paper.

After trying several brands of bottled ink, I settled on Platinum's blue black. In a dip pen, this ink is very dark, and does not feather or bleed at all because it's a traditional iron gall ink.

The Amazon link will take you to a Japanese vendor who (when I last checked) transliterated the Japanese name directly into Roman characters: Purachinaman'nenhitsu ink (Platinum fountain pen ink).

Fountain pens

Many pen and ink sketchers choose fountain pens for sketching. These are very portable and convenient and still retain that old traditional feeling. Some come with semi flexible nibs, but no modern fountain pen nib can match a dip pen for flexibility. If you want extreme variation in line width you will have to use a dip pen or brush.

In the early 20th century a lot of fountain pens had very flexible nibs. However, with the advent of the ballpoint pen (biro) people changed their writing habits and began applying much more pressure in order to get a decent line. This extra pressure will ruin a delicate flexible fountain pen nib.

But most modern fountain pens -- even cheap ones -- have strong suitable nibs for fast sketching.

Fountain pens also work best when using down strokes like dip pens, but because most fountain pens have a ball of tipping material on the end, the issue is not as great. This tipping material is usually made of a combination of iridium and osmium or some other hard metals. It serves to protect the tip from wear since lot of fountain nibs are made of gold, and are not disposable like dip pen nibs.

There are fountain pens which are marketed as drawing pens such as the Rotring ArtPen which looks very artsy, is nicely balanced and feels good, which might put you in the right frame of mind for sketching. But any regular writing fountain pen will work just as well.

rotring artpen

Most fountain pen inks are watersoluble which will allow you to get some great artistic effects if you use a little water in a brush to draw out the ink from the lines and use it like a watercolor wash.

Waterproof fountain pen ink

If you want to paint watercolors over the ink drawing without dissolving the ink lines, you will need to use waterproof fountain pen ink. You can't put regular drawing ink such an India ink in a fountain pen because it can dry up inside the ink channels and under the nib and ruin the pen.

inkThere are several brands of waterproof fountain pen ink today, and I have tried three: Platinum's Carbon Ink, Sailor Kiwa-Guro (extreme black) Ink, and Noodler's Black Ink. They all work very well for me.

Platinum Carbon ink comes in a bottle, or cartridges which will fit Platinum pens (as well as Kuretake and Kaimei brush pens).

Sailor Kiwa-Guro also comes in a bottle, or cartridges which fit only Sailor pens.

Noodler's ink comes only in a bottle as of this writing (and for very noble reasons concerning economics and the environment).

All three are great drawing inks, but I usually buy Platinum ink rather than Noodlers simply because I live in Japan, and Platinum Carbon Ink cartridges are sold everywhere, even down the street at the local neighborhood store. I also have a box of Sailor ink cartridges, but most of my pens are Platinum, so the Sailor ink doesn't see as much action.

I would recommend that you only use these waterproof inks in a pen especially designed for these inks, or a fountain pen that could easily be taken apart and thoroughly cleaned, or a cheap fountain pen that can be easily replaced.

For many years I have used Platinum Carbon ink in a special fountain pen by Platinum called a Carbon Pen which is so widely available in Japan that it can even be found hanging on the racks in neighborhood supermarkets.

carbon pen in package

This pen has a larger ink channel for their carbon ink so it won't dry out as easily. Also, the soft plastic slip-on cap makes an airtight seal so the ink does not dry out when it's not being used. I have several of these pens and I have found them to start right up even after months of sitting unused. The nib looks like gold, but it's not. I've used this pen every day for many years and absolutely love it!

carbon pen

It is a long desk pen with an extra fine nib which is great for fine drawing and hatching. Desk pens look so classy with their long shape reminiscent of old movies and they feel great because they are so nicely balanced. Unfortunately this great design becomes a liability when you try to carry the pen in your pocket. Suddenly that classic design is not so desireable.

In my quest for the perfect drawing pen, I've tried to add clips to this pen, but they eventually fell off. I've also tried Carbon ink in my regular fountain pens (against my better judgement), but the ink flow eventually stopped, either because the ink channel wasn't deep enough, or the screw-on cap wasn't air-tight.

The Platinum 3776 CENTURY and Carbon Ink

Then I discovered that Platinum has redesigned one of their flagship model fountain pens to accomodate Carbon ink!

They took their 3776 fountain pen and gave it a new nib and ink feed and also came up with a new screw-on cap which becomes air-tight after you screw it on. They renamed it the Platinum "#3776 CENTURY.

century 3776 pens

This pen had been on the market for a few years when I discovered it, and I immediately ordered a black one with an extra fine nib and a translucent wine colored one (a.k.a. Bourgogne) with an ultra extra fine nib since I do a lot of fine pen hatching in my drawing. The ultra extra fine seems to be the closest to the Carbon pen extra fine nib, and the best choice for fine hatching. The extra fine nib is my personal choice for general drawing.

Platinum clearly states that these pens were specially designed to be used safely with pigment inks, and Carbon ink is a pigment ink, as is Sailor Kiwa-Guro.

I inserted Carbon Ink Cartridges and have used these pens for drawing and writing, and I've had no trouble at all! So now I can carry a beautiful fountain pen with a Carbon Ink cartridge in my shirt pocket, and have any nib type I like. Yes, this is a dream come true.


convertersAs I mentioned above, Noodler's Black ink does not come in cartridges, but only in bottle form.

Up until the late 1950s there was no such thing as an ink cartridge for fountain pens, and all fountain pens used bottle ink via a filling system such as rubber ink sac with squeeze bar or piston with rotating knob.

Fountain pens with filling systems are still very popular with pen aficionados, but ink cartridge type fountain pens are more popular with general pen users who don't want to bother with filling pens from a bottle.

If you want to use Noodler's ink in your cartridge type fountain pen, or if you want to use Platinum or Sailor inks in a fountain pen from a different maker, you can still do so if you have an ink converter.

Ink converters fit in the pen in place of a cartridge and have filling systems, usually with a piston or squeeze bar so you can use any maker's bottle ink with your fountain pen.

Some pen companies make converters and cartridges that will only fit their particular pens, but many companies use a standard size cartridge called International or European, and their converters are also usually interchangeable.

Waterman, Pelikan and MontBlanc are among these companies.

Disposable pens

By far the most popular ink sketching tools today are disposable pigment pens. They come in a variety of nib sizes and make a very black permanent line that is completely waterproof when dry. You can also draw in any direction and angle and get a consistent line.

Several companies make these, and they are easily obtained. One popular brand is the Sakura Pigma Micron pen which apparently comes in a blue barrel in Japan where they originate, and a light brown barrel outside of Japan. They are great for carefree sketching with a stiff nib pen. You need to carry more than one with you since you never know when one will run out of ink.

When these disposable pens run out of ink, make sure you save the metal clip; they are actually removable. These are very useful for attaching to pencils or pens which have lost their fragile plastic clips. I was able to save my Pilot Fure Fure mechanical pencil this way when its plastic clip broke off.

This tree was done with Pilot DR pigment ink drawing pens, sizes 08 and 02, and watercolor. It's the same tree as the one done in pencil above, and the drawing style is the same as well. I did these two sketches just to compare the pencil and pigment pen.

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