Are Fountain Pens Necessary for Watercolour Sketching?

A viewer sent me a question through my Instagram page recently to ask if it's necessary to use fountain pens for watercolour sketching.

The short answer is no. You don't have to use fountain pens for watercolour sketching. But you do have to use a pen with waterproof ink.

There are a few reasons why i use fountain pens.

1. Some fountain pens come with special nibs that allow you to draw lines that other pens just can't draw. Shown above is the Duke 551 with a fude nib, aka a bent nib, allows you to draw thin lines when you use the tip, and thick lines when you use the broad area.

Some pens have flexible nibs that allow your to draw thicker lines when you apply more pressure on the pen. Brushes do that too. But not many fountain pens or even non-fountain pens do that.

2. You can use your own inks. To use with watercolour, you can choose waterproof inks. And you can refill your fountain pen an infinite number of times which makes it economical compared to buying disposable pens constantly.

Many of those pens above are disposable pens and will be thrown out after their ink runs out. Here in Singapore, we incinerate our trash. In other countries, these go to landfills.

Fountain pens are actually not much more expensive compared to disposable pens. You can find really affordable and functioning ones on eBay. Many will come from China. Some actually look quite good, such as the Moonman M2 shown above, that I bought on eBay for less than US $15 including shipping.

Fountain pens are not difficult to use. You just use them like normal pens.

There are many advantages to using fountain pens. But if you still prefer disposable ones, below are some of my recommendations:

Uniball Signo Gelstick UM-170

Uniball Signo Gelstick is one of my favourite pens because they can produce the unpredictable but distinctive ballpoint pen ink blobs that I like. They use pigmented gel ink that dries quite fast so you can apply watercolour over the lines almost as soon as you put the pen cap back on. These comes in various different colours. Not that the fluorescent ones are probably not lightfast.

One downside is the gel ink gets used up quite fast, but this pen is relatively inexpensive, thankfully.

Lightfast? When something is lightfast, it means the colour will not fade with time. If you want your work to be archival, choose lightfast inks, more specifically pigmented inks.

Look for description on the pen body regarding the ink that's used in the pen. Just because it's waterproof does not mean it's lightfast. But if pigmented ink is mentioned, it's definitely waterproof and archival, lightfast.

Shown above are the Uniball Jetstream and Sharpie. Both use waterproof ink but they are not pigmented so the colours will fade. Even black will fade when exposed to light long enough, or strong sunlight. And when you spread fixative over the ink, the ink just breaks into other colours. Definitely not something you want. You don't want surprises.

Always test your pens before using them to create art.

Uniball Eye UB-150

The Uniball Eye is a roller-ball pen uses liquid pigmented ink. In some countries, it's sold as the Uniball Vision. These pens are available in different colours and tip sizes. The liquid ink takes a while to dry, but still relatively fast.

These perform quite consistently and predictably. Lines are always uniform.

Uniball Vision Needle UB-187

Uniball Vision Needle is a variation of the Uniball Eye but features a needle point instead of rollerball. The liquid ink is also pigmented. This pen is available with different tip sizes and colours.

Always allow for some time for liquid ink to dry because they take more time.

Kuretake Cambio

Some brush pens come with waterproof ink, such as the Kuretake Cambio (shown above), Pentel Pocket Brush Pen and Kuretake brush pen.

These brush pens use more ink so they need even more time to dry.

Uniball Air UBA-188-L

Uniball Air is another one of my favourite pens. This rollerball point pen uses pigmented liquid ink. It's available in two tip sizes, the Micro and non-Micro. Main selling point is you can get line variation with this pen depending on how much pressure you apply. This is the only rollerball point pen that I know that can do this.

Uniball Signo UM-100

This rollerball pen also uses waterproof ink but I'm not sure if they are pigmented.

Uniball Signo UM-151

This rollerball pen also uses waterproof ink and this produces an extremely thin line. I'm not sure if the ink is pigmented.

Uniball Gel Impact UM-153S

This rollerball pen has a big tip, hence the name IMPACT, and produces really thick lines. It uses waterproof fadeproof gel ink. This pen gets used up quite fast because it puts out a lot of ink. It's actually more economical to get a fountain pen if you want to draw with such thick lines. Get fountain pens that come with broad nibs.

Technical drawing pens

Technical drawing pens are typically needlepoint pens. These pens are sometimes called multiliner or fineliner.

The disposable ones use felt tips and refillable ones use metal tips. There may be variations. The selling point of these pens is they are available with many tip sizes, eg 0.03, 0.05, 0.1, 0.3, 0.5, 0.8, 1.0. These pens produce consistent uniform lines. The ink is usually waterproof and fadeproof.

Some technical pens that I have are Copic Multiliner, Copic SP (refillable), Rotring Tikky, Rotring Isograph (refillable), Faber-Castell Pitt and Zig Mangaka. There's a detailed review for some of these pens on my blog.

These are pens I don't use often because the felt tip can wear out quite fast, especially if you use the pens on rougher watercolour paper. You can go with the metal needle-point drawing pens on watercolour paper but they won't be as smooth compared to rollerball or fountain pens.

You may notice I recommend a lot of Uniball pens, or Uniball Signo pens. Not all feature waterproof inks so be sure to always test, test and test.

So these are the non-fountain pens I recommend. If you know of other pens that have waterproof pigmented ink, share with me in the comments section below.

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1 Comment

Fountain pens are great

Fountain pens are great writing tools, pretty and collectable but their main disadvantage is that you need one fountain pen for each ink colour that you might use and you have to be always careful on what sort of ink you are going to use on your pens if you don't want to clog them.
The technical drawing pens now don't last that long and don't offer any kind of variation on the lines that you get from them. And as they are disposable they are not the most environmental friendly option either because they can't be completely recycled.

So personally I prefer dip pens that I use with individual nibs in different shapes.

The main advantage of dip pens is that they don't need any particular maintenance. You don't have to worry if a particular ink will clog the mechanism or erode the nib of your pen. You can use them with any kind of ink with or without shellac, sumi or indian ink, even iron gall ink, or acrylic or other and you can change the colour of the ink instantly by just wiping the ink from the nib. Most of inks are available in small sample bottles so you can hold safely with you a many as you like ( or need) .
The nibs are also available in all kind of shapes, flexible or square, pointy etc they are very affordable and they don't occupy that much space in your sketching bag. I hold my pen nibs in a tiny pill case but a matchbox can do the job either. And all that you need to hold with you is one nib holder and the nibs. ( and a small bottle of ink).

They can be used also safely with other mediums like watercolour, acrylic inks, gouache and even for applying masking fluid if you want to as there is no chance to clog. And in the rare case that you mess them up, if you leave for instance the ink dry on a nib, you can clean them easily with an old toothbrush.

So I don't see any good reason to invest on a ( usually expensive ) collection of fountain pens or ( the cheaper ) disposable felt tip/gel/technical drawing pens that will limit my options on the colour mediums that I can use with them and/or will trouble me with their maintenance.

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