Finding my way with fountain pens

Since I’ve been drawing more regularly (thanks to Inktober 2019), I’ve been giving a lot more thought to the tools of art. I’m not much of an object fetishist, nor do I need the “best” or most expensive things; in the end, it’s the art that matters. But that doesn’t mean tools don’t matter. New tools can mean different ways of thinking about things, better tools can mean easier use. So I’ve been re-evaluating what I’ve been using and experimenting with different things.

I’ve been drawing comics since I’ve been little, and I’ve been using disposable technical pens since I got to use them in high school. I never got into using a dip pen (crowquill) or brush and ink. Even though I know they are “proper”, I just didn’t want the hassle of leakage and cleaning. So it’s been felt-tip pens since the mid-nineties, Microns being the most common brand.

I did make a side-step to the refillable tech pens in the late ’90’s. I got my hands on a set of Koh-i-Noor Rapidographs. These were supposed to be the best of the best in tech pens, and because they were refillable, a set could theoretically last a few decades if properly cared for. But man, they were expensive: I paid somewhere around $60 to $75 for a set in 1998 dollars. (Now these sets are about $120!) And I was never happy with these finicky tools–at least one leaked, one or two never worked properly from the start. Maybe it was due to user error, but in my pre-internet days it was hard to figure that out easily. Instead, I looked forlornly at my major investment, a sum of money equal to a day or so of wages, a set of pens only half-usable. I pulled out the Microns again and didn’t look back. Yeah, they’ll end up in a landfill after they’re exhausted, and I am not thrilled by that. But they cost $2-4 each and work. And I do get quite a lot of life out of each one.

But these have been days for experimentation, so I wanted to try something different. No, I’m not giving the Rapidographs another shot yet. And I’ll probably do some stuff with dip brush and ink, but I decided to give a go to another tool: fountain pens.

I’m surprised that I never got into fountain pens. Maybe it’s because some people seem to get really into them, nice ones can become status symbols. Maybe because it was never really sold to me as a drawing instrument. I’ve had a few cheapies over the years, nothing that would excite me.

Then I found an inexpensive one that impressed me. Distributed by MUJI (basically the Japanese Target), it’s a no-frills aluminum body number with a fine tip that takes standard international cartridges. Emee picked one up for me when she was in Japan last year. They retail for about $15 in the US (there are stores here, one is even in downtown Portland). Unlike the other cheap fountain pens I’ve used, it produced a consistent line. I don’t want to use a pen that hiccups when I’m drawing. And the tip is good enough that I can vary line width by applying pressure–none of the other crap pens I’ve had seemed to do that.

I also got another fountain pen, this one made by Kaweco, a German company. The Kaweco Sport design has changed little since it was introduced in 1935. I was turned onto the existence of the pen by Retro Snapper. I expected this pen to be expensive, but was surprised that the standard version (plastic) goes for about $25! (You can get more expensive with bodies made of metal or even carbon fiber, but essentially the pen remains the same.) I got my hands on one last week, and already dig it. It gives a great line, is comfortable to use, and most importantly, it’s compact: the capped version is a hair over four inches, uncapped about 5 1/4″. Small is good for my everyday art kit, or when I want to go on a bike tour.

The great things about using fountain pens like this for drawing is being able to vary the width of the line. With a Micron I’m pretty much stuck with the designated width, so I often carry many different sizes. With a fountain pen I can go wider (though not loads wider) if I need to. Couple one or two different width fountain pens and a brush, I can do a lot. And I’ve been liking the idea of limiting my drawing to a fountain pen and a brush, vs all the different Micron-style pens I use.

The only big downside to fountain pens is that the ink is usually water-soluble. I understand why: it makes the ink flow easier. (See the trouble I had with the Rapidographs, which used waterproof pigment.) I have to be more careful than I used to. Also, the ink doesn’t dry as fast as the Microns. But I think these are things I can get over.

I’m imagining when I’m able to bike tour again, bringing my pocket-sized sketchbook with just a pencil, brush pen, and fountain pen. It’s simple, but it works. Now if we can tour again…

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