Quick Guide to Sketching with Pen, Ink and Watercolour

This is the companion blog post to the Youtube video that I've created on this topic.

This guide is written for beginners who want to start sketching with pen, ink and watercolour. It's going to cover the tools you'll need and a hands-on tutorial (for that you have to check out the Youtube video).

Sketching with pen, ink and watercolour is how I create most of my art. It's fun hobby that can be therapeutic at times. You don't have to spend a lot of money, and you can get tremendous satisfaction when you look at what you've created.

I've been sketching regularly since joining the Urban Sketchers Singapore group since 2009. In this article, I'm going to share with you the basics to get you started.


Let's start with pens.

There's a huge variety of pens to choose from. For use with watercolour, you'll need pens with waterproof inks.

Sometimes you can identify pens with waterproof inks just by reading the labels.

Sometimes, it's not so clear, such as the example above. I associate water-based inks as water-soluble inks. However, when there's mention of pigment or pigmented ink, then the ink is probably waterproof. Pigments are physical particles so they don't dissolve in water.

You should assume that most pens use water-soluble inks unless they are clearly labeled otherwise. Sometimes, you just can't tell by looking at the pen. You don't want to have any surprises when applying water or paint over your lines. It can destroy your art.

Waterproof or water-soluble inks can be found in disposable pens, fountain pens, technical pens or whatever pens you can think of. If you don't know whether or not a pen is waterproof, do some research online.

If you want a quick recommendation, I recommend the Uniball Signo series of pens. Most Uniball Signo pens feature waterproof ink. But just to be sure, always double check and research. Some of my favourite pens are the Uniball Signo Gelstick, Uniball Impact, Uniball Vision Needle, Uniball Eye, Uniball Air.

Using disposable pens can make you spend more money than expected because you always have to buy new ones to replaced used ones. The alternative is to get a fountain pens and load them with your own inks. Some of the more affordable fountain pens I recommend are the Pilot Metropolitan, Platinum Preppy or Lamy Safari (convertor not included). The waterproof fountain pen inks I recommend are Platinum Carbon Ink, Sailor KiwaGuro or the De Atramentis Archive Ink. Note that not all waterproof inks are safe for use in fountain pens. Waterproof inks are pigmented, so those tiny particles may clog fountain pens. If you don't use fountain pens for long periods of time, clean them out.


Watercolour is available in tubes, pans and in sets. For beginners, I recommend getting sets because you don't have to think too much about colour selection. Also, don't get too many colours. A 12 half pan box set is more than sufficient for you to mix all the colours that you need. For a list of recommendation, you can check out my article "Best Watercolor Sets for Beginners".

If you have limited budget, the choices you'll have is probably to choose between a student grade set or a few tubes of artist grade paints. I would suggest getting artist grade quality even it means having less colours. It's easier to work with artist quality paint. You just need a bit of artist grade paint to achieve intense vibrancy. For student grade paints, sometimes you have to use more to achieve the same level of vibrancy, and thereby you will use up the paint faster and have to spend money to buy more paint.

If you get individual tubes or pans (not worth the money), you would have to get watercolour palettes as well so that you can have a surface to mix paint on. If you get box sets, you can usually mix the paint using the palette box (mixing area is usually behind the lid).

The brand is not as important because well known paint manufacturers all produce student and artist grade paints.


Artists are living in a wonderful time now. There's so many art supplies, and high quality ones at that, to choose from when you step into an art store.

Just like pens, and paints, there are many types of watercolour brushes.

A typical watercolour brush is one with a short wooden handle. There are collapsible pocket watercolour brushes as well. In terms of comfort, both are comfortable to use. The advantage of the wooden brush is there are more variety. With pocket brushes, they are round brushes, although Rosemary Brushes do have more variety of pocket brushes. I recommend using pocket brushes over wooden ones because they are more convenient should you want to use them outdoors. The ones I recommend, in order of my preference are Da Vinci Maestro, Rosemary Brushes and Escoda Brushes.

If you know you're not going outdoors, check out the Silver Black Velvet watercolour brushes which are good value for money.

By the way, if you buy your brushes from Jackson's Art (UK) and reach £20 in orders, you can get free global shipping.

For more brush recommendations, read my "Best Watercolour Brushes for Beginners" article.


Unless pens, ink, watercolour paint and brushes, paper is something that can get used up quite fast. And good watercolour paper do cost a bit so cost can add up really quickly.

Just like paint, there are the student grade watercolour paper as well as artist grade paper (usually 100% cotton). The main difference between this two quality grade is how easy it is to achieve certain watercolour techniques.

With non-cotton paper, it's usually a bit difficult to achieve nice wet on wet techniques to produce soft colour blends. Paint does not diffuse or move as much.

For sketching with pen, ink and watercolour, you don't really need 100% cotton paper if you're looking for quick sketching and watercolour application. 100% cotton paper is good for those who want to achieve smooth colour blends or to apply multiple layers without the paper fiber coming off.

Paper can be sold in pads or in sketchbooks. Choose the one you like.

For pads, I recommend either Daler Rowney Aquafine or Fabriano Studio paper. You can get them in jumbo 50-sheet pads which is quite economical. If you're into sketchbooks, maybe check out the Global Art Materials Watercolor Journal, Hahnemuhle Watercolor Book, Pentalic or even the Moleskine Watercolour Sketchbook. Paper is a very personal choice so try many and find out the one you like.

Start sketching and painting

After you have all the tools and materials, it's time to start sketching!

Start by drawing something simple, for example, the art supplies that you have. Don't worry about your art not looking nice or making mistakes. Just enjoy the process of making art. I'm going to use basketball as an analogy. Basketball players don't feel dejected when the ball doesn't go into the hoop, they keep throwing and practicing. Same as musicians and basically any sort of activity that requires skill and technique. You practice, learn and improve. No one is going to be perfect on the first day. And don't go comparing with other artists because you don't know how much time and effort they have spent perfecting their craft.

The goal is to be familiar with your tools and the techniques. The more you draw, the better you will get. And also learn from other artists.

Happy sketching.



Very good summary to get

Very good summary to get people started, Teoh!
Re. waterproof ink: No one seems to know how De Atramentis Archive Ink is different from De Atramentis Document ink. But the Document series is just as pigmented and waterproof. And there's a modest range of Document colours. In my fountain pens I've had no problems with either D.A.'s Document, or Platinum Carbon.

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