The dip pen – an ancient method of making marks that conjures up images of monks with goose quills writing manuscripts – is still a wonderful tool for the creative person. You can’t beat the feel of holding an ink-stained wooden stick with a metal nib, dipping it into ink and making a mark on paper. No matter how good a computer gets at recreating this method of drawing, it will never be exactly the same experience.
These days you can create calligraphic lines using a pen tablet and a vector image app like Adobe Illustrator. There are advantages to this – mistakes can be corrected or lines altered easily, the artwork can be resized to any scale without loss of quality, and file sizes are small. Although I use Illustrator regularly in my work, I always come back to a dip pen.
Just to be clear, this blog is about drawing with a dip pen, it’s not about calligraphy – you can use the same materials but that’s another blog!
In this blog we will look at the following:
Tools and materials
Nibs Start by experimenting with different nibs. Drawing is different to traditional calligraphy in that you want more flexibility. Don’t go and buy a calligraphy set from a stationers or art shop – what you want are a selection of flexible nibs to try and some pen holders. These are freely available online (see below) and not so easy to find locally. I personally like to use a Gillott 303 because you get a great deal of variation in line thickness depending on how hard you press on the nib, it holds the ink well and it has a perfect combination of flexibility and strength – it’s a delight to use! You might also try Hunt nibs e.g. a 99, 100, 101 or 108, or other Gillott nibs e.g. a 170 or 291, or a Brause 66 nib. You may find the Hunt nibs too flexible, but they are lovely too use. The Brause is tiny but it punches way above its size. I also prefer a wooden pen holder to plastic for feel and grip.
NB New nibs may not ink straight away because they usually come in a protective lacquer – gently brush them with an old toothbrush soaked in hot water and washing up liquid and it should be fine – keep water off the holder and carefully dry the nib. You must protect the nib – if it gets bent or damaged it won’t be repairable.
A bottle of Indian ink E.g. Sennelier, which is waterproof – this gives you the option to add colour – it must be for dip pens. If using a large bottle you might want to tape it to your desk to avoid accidents! Or you could cut a hole in a large sponge and place it over the bottle to add stability.
Paper If you are going to colour the image e.g. with watercolour (see below) you will need watercolour paper of a decent weight e.g. 300gsm, otherwise any paper will do, especially if you are sketching and experimenting.
A pointed round brush For filling in larger dark areas – preferably sable if you can afford it, but student quality is fine.
Blotting paper More on this below.
Give the bottle of ink a stir. Dip the pen into the ink but not up to the holder – it needs to cover the hole in the nib where ink is stored.
As you take the nib out of the bottle, give it a tap or two on the bottle rim (so the nib is not overloaded with ink which could result in a big blob on the paper) and then, holding the pen at a comfortable angle, make your mark. You might like to sketch out a design lightly in pencil first. Some people draw on a board set at an angle (either an adjustable drawing board or a board resting on a couple of large books) for two reasons:
- you avoid the visual distortion you can get when your sketch looks as though it’s been stretched slightly to the top right corner
- your seated posture is better – not hunched over your work
Loosen up! Take bold steps – use the pen initially to make a rough sketch – maybe of something or someone that won’t stay still for long, so that you gain confidence in making marks quickly. You want to get a balance of freedom versus economy of line (simplicity) and control, so that you make every mark count. If you don’t like the result, note what you do and don’t like and try again – build on your successes and failures.
Don’t get caught up in small details – look at the bigger picture. What are you trying to emphasise or convey? Details and improvements can wait.
You can create depth and emphasis by adding darkness – either using a brush or by shading with the pen. This can be done loosely or it can be more uniform. I tend to do both quite quickly and so will you after some practise. Shading can be achieved with parallel lines, cross-hatching, stippling (dots) or dashes:
I also use a dip pen with other media such as charcoal and pencil as in this illustration The Beast Must Die – you can see how I drew it here:
Work from the top left of the paper down and right to avoid smudging (unless you are left-handed). Have some blotting paper handy – sometimes you can reduce a nasty blob of ink to almost nothing by quickly applying the corner of the blotting paper to soak up the ink, or place it over the blob and press down (although on a deep blob this can spread the ink so be careful). Place scrap paper under your hand to protect the paper from grease and from smudging any pencil marks.
Wash your pen in a jam jar of water now and again. Dry gently with a soft cloth or paper towel, and make sure you dry the pen holder as well.
If you intend to add colour, I usually use watercolour. You can also scan your drawing and colour it using an image manipulation app like Adobe Photoshop – scanning at a high resolution e.g. 600 ppi gives you greater flexibility with size (300ppi is fine for most same-size printing). I have also vectorised images in Illustrator using the trace function and the trace options to achieve the desired level of accuracy – this means it can be scaled to any size, but there may be some loss of subtle line imperfections.
- Mistakes can be sorted depending on your preferences. If you have used watercolour paper gently remove the line with a hard rubber or sharp scalpel. Carefully clean up with a putty rubber. Adding colour may be a problem however, as it could create a noticeable colour difference where paper has been scraped too heavily.
- Use Bristol board or hot pressed watercolour paper for a smooth line, cold pressed for a ragged-edge line (it is textured). For drawings not intended for watercolour or for scanning and computer-colouring, I also use draught film e.g. Polydraw which can be scraped and drawn over repeatedly, and even heavyweight tracing paper (90gsm), although thick ink can flake off the tracing paper.
- Use layout paper for sketching so you can trace your sketches and improve them.
Study other artists’ work and see how they handle shading, composition, emphasis/depth etc. Here are some suggestions to start with:
- Gustave Doré – see how he creates depth with light and dark areas (above left – this is an engraving but still useful for ideas)
- Arthur Rackham – his line art is great for composition and style ideas (above right)
- Aubrey Beardsley
- E H Shepard
- manga art – often executed with dip pens because of their flexibility
As for the subject – any artist or any thing can be inspiring. The picture below was inspired by an exhibition of 20th century Soviet propaganda posters, a trip to Mont St Michel and the wood engravings of Albrecht Dürer!
Where to get materials (UK)
If you don’t have a local art shop (use it or lose it!) you can try these stockists for supplies:
Scribblers have all things calligraphic at https://www.scribblers.co.uk/
Jackson’s have pen and general art supplies (but not individual nibs at the time of writing this blog) at https://www.jacksonsart.com/
You can see some examples of my dip pen work on this website or here: