Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Pernicious Penography

     Much has been made about what pens you should use to ink a comic. Finding just the right pen is an epic quest, albeit one that rewards you with an empty wallet rather than experience points. I suspect that this Perfect Pen is different for each person. Why, I myself prefer the pen to be wrought from yew with core of finest phoenix feather….all the better to roast that little Potter twerp with! Mwahahahhaw!

     Er, where was I? Oh yes. Pens. Even though the appeal of one pen over another largely comes down to personal preference, I find that different types yield wildly different results.

      To the left are three hastily done drawings. I actually did not want to do the best I could with these because you can often times tell the qualities of a pen by what mistakes you make rather than how well it preforms.

      The top portrait I did with Micron pens. Microns are disposable technical pens with small, felt tips. They come in different nib sizes and usually go for 2-3 dollars each. Other companies make similar pens- Zig and Faber Castell, for starters, although I have yet to find a Faber Castell that can get as fine a line as a Zig or Micron.

     I have used these pens for years. In fact, I drew most of my first webcomic with them. Their ink is archival quality, which means that it will not fade easily and will not yellow or burn the page over time. You can also get a pretty steady line with them. The downside is that they are rather unpredictable. The felt nibs tend to split or break easily, so suddenly the pen that once gave you a nice hair-tin line is acting like one several nib sizes larger. You can see this in my drawing. The nib I used was supposed to be small, but the lines it gives are awkward and thick. Also, I got really tired of throwing away pens whenever they dried up. It seemed like a damn waste and having to shell out the money to replace them all the time really adds up.

     Rapidographs are gods among pens. And they are price accordingly, retailing for around $30. Each.

     Rapidographs are what architects and engineers used to use to make technical drawings back before they switched to computer. These pens are refillable and give you the best line you could ask for. Seriously, I have one that can draw a line .13 millimeters wide. They are frickin’ sweet. I have a mixed opinion on how they do with shading. The one I used for the middle sketch is clearly not ideal for crosshatching, but you’ll get a better result with some of those super-fine tipped rapidographs such as the .13 mm.

     The downside, besides the cost, is that they do clog easily. Not surprising giving how small the tip is. You have to clean them fairly regularly. In the meantime, though, they do wonderfully. As a side note, be sure you use India ink meant only for a rapidiograph as regular India ink will clog it more readily.

Dip Pens
     Talk about old fashioned, right? But a lot of artists still use them, especially for special effects. They’re cost effective and they last for ages. Plus most India ink these days is lightfast and nonacidic. Dip pens are the best if you want to play around with line variation, as you can see in the third sketch, and the lines they leave are usually very crisp and bold. Also, the smallest nibs are excellent for shading.

     The downside of dip pens is two fold. First, it’s easy to blotch your page. I’ve had more trouble in this area using the larger nibs than I have the small ones, but the danger of it is ever present. Fortunately, this can usually be fixed with either white India ink or a healthy dose of Photoshop. The second problem with dip pens is more troubling. See, they can only really do certain strokes- vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines are fine, but only so long as you are pulling the pen towards you. If you want to push the pen away from you, it tends to skip and move all over the place. This becomes a big problem if you’re drawing anything circular.

     I’m sure the limitations of many of these pens are easily overcome with sufficient skill, of course, but until that point these are things you will have to deal with. These days I find I prefer doing most of my work with a rapdograph. If I need a particularly bold line I might pick up a Micron and if I need shading or line variation, I’ll use a dip pen. Hey, no one said you have to pick just one, right? But the rapidograph is definitely my default.


  1. I've experienced most of these problems, and my current solution is a fountain pen. Cheap American fountain pens are hard to come by, but Chinese and Japanese companies still make them in the lower end. I've been using a "accountant nib" pen that reproduces most of the benefits of a .01 Micron, without the splitting or waste.

  2. That is one kind of pen I haven't tried. hmm...a .01 would be nice. Do they have non acidic ink for them?