Sketchbook Adventures: Sketching with fountain pens

Published by Nela Dunato on in Art, Sketchbook, Thoughts, Tips for creatives

As a hoarder of art tools and stationery (I mean professional creative tools), I frequently dip into creative obsessions that last until the novelty wears off, and I purchase yet another new tool. Lately it’s been going on with fountain pens, which are my new go-to note taking and doodling tool.

In this post I share why I switched from ballpoint pens to fountain pens, which pen models I’ve bought so far (there’s quite a few), and my impressions of writing and sketching with them.

Sketchbook Adventures: Sketching with fountain pens

Why I’m switching to fountain pens

Awhile ago I found a post on Facebook with tips on reducing plastic waste by switching to multi-use instead of disposable products, or at the very least products packaged in metal, glass, paper, or recycled containers. One of the tips included using fountain pens instead of ballpoint pens.

I used a lot of ballpoint pens. There was one in each bag, and a couple more in my office. (I especially loved multi-colored ones.) I don’t dare to even count how many pens I’ve thrown into the trash over the years. Confronted with this realization, I decided to switch to fountain pens for good.*

* Big caveat: I still use white gel pens, because that’s the only portable tool that makes thin, opaque white strokes. I haven’t managed to give them up yet.

Soon after I realized I wanted to switch, I met a writer who is a fountain pen enthusiast. Through her I discovered there’s a vibrant community gathered around fountain pens. I dove into online research and browsed through local stores in order to find the best pen for my writing and sketching style.

And so my descent into the fountain pen rabbit hole began…

How I got from two to nine (!) fountain pens in three months

I had two Pilot Parallel calligraphy pens for a couple of years. Wide as they are (2.4mm and 6mm), I didn’t perceive them as writing pens, but for the sake of accuracy I’ll let it be known that these two were my starting point—apart from those, I had no other fountain pens.

Nela Dunato's fountain pen collection 2019
My current collection of affordable fountain pens. Writing samples closeup is posted below.

Before splurging on new ones, I tried to locate old pens I used in elementary school. My was only able to find a no-name pen I didn’t recognize, and I started using it. It’s fine, dry, scratchy, and heavy (made entirely out of stainless steel), but it served me fine in my early tests.

Next, I went into a local stationery store with a gift card to spend, and found that they carry two german brands, Lamy and Online. I heard good things about Lamy Safari and Al-Star, but couldn’t find a single one with an extra fine nib. I chose a black aluminium Online Vision instead which came with a (so called) extra fine nib. I also got a converter and a couple of bottles of cheap Pelikan 4001 ink so I can avoid disposable cartridges altogether. The Vision was quite nice, but still too thick for my taste. OK for writing and taking notes, but I didn’t like it so much for sketching. It sits in a box now, I’ll probably give it away.

I looked to Japanese brands which feature thinner nib widths, and decided to get a Pilot Metropolitan, the most popular pen under $15 USD. With their thin fine nibs, aluminium body, and a nice range of colors, it seemed like the perfect pen for my taste. When it arrived and I tried it for the first time, I was enamored. It was gliding across the page with little effort. The fine line was as thin as I wanted it to be. I wasn’t super happy with the ergonomics and the color of the pen which leaned towards brick red, but it was a cheap one so it’s fine. It seemed like I have found my perfect pen and would not buy any more…

…until I got greedy for flex.

Being a hand-lettering and calligraphy lover, I got interested in flexible nibs for cursive writing. I enjoyed cursive writing with a dip pen, and wanted to see what it’s like to write with a flexible fountain pen. According to my research, Fountain Pen Revolution is a brand that offers the most flex for the buck. I bought their Himalaya pen in Sindoor Red body color with an ultra flex nib upgrade for a total of $42 USD (plus shipping).

Fountain Pen Revolution (FPR) Himalaya Ultra Flex
Fountain Pen Revolution Himalaya pen with ultra-flex nib and Pelikan 4001 Violet ink.

This is a super fun pen to play with and wonderful for calligraphy practice, but not something I would use daily. At its thinnest it’s just like the Online Vision EF, but so much wetter and drinks up ink very quickly. I need to wait a while before flipping the page, which makes it impractical for writing notes. It also requires better quality paper in order not to feather, while my other pens can write on most papers without any issues. But the cursive and the flourishes look amazing, and I’m really happy that the flex nib has lived to my expectations.

Fountain Pen Revolution adds a free cheap pen to each order over $25, so alongside my fancy Himalaya I also received a transparent plastic (aka “demonstrator”) pen called Muft. While I didn’t need it, having an extra one to fill with different color inks is useful. This pen writes nicely, but has an unpleasant synthetic smell.

Nela Dunato's fountain pen collection 2019 - writing samples
Fountain pen writing samples on 200 gsm copy paper.
Ink used: 1. Pelikan 4001 Brilliant Black. 2. Pelikan 4001 Violet. 3. Pelikan 4001 Brilliant Black. 4. Pelikan 4001 Violet. 5. Pelikan 4001 Brilliant Red. 6. Pilot Mixable Colour Black. 7. Pilot Mixable Colour Blue Black (diluted with water). 8. Pilot Mixable Colour Red. 9. Pilot Mixable Colour Red.

During all this pen and inks research my interest in calligraphy was revived, and I bought the remaining two sizes of the Pilot Parallel pen so now I have a full collection. This brings the total number of my pens to nine—five regular writing pens and four calligraphy pens.

Calligraphy italic Pilot Parallel pen 3.8mm
Free-form italic calligraphy with a 3.8mm Pilot Parallel pen

That’s the story of building my lovely fountain pen collection. I think I’m done shopping for pens for a while… Though the thought of another Pilot with a “stub” nib for even smaller italic cursive is appealing.

Update: A few weeks after writing this I gave in and ordered a Pilot 78G with a B nib. It’s wonderful and now I write most of my notes and greeting cards with it. You can see samples of my writing with this italic pen in my 2020 “graphic essays”:

2022 update: I added another vintage pen to my collection which is now my main sketching pen. I’ve added more information about this pen towards the end of this post.

Writing with fountain pens vs. ballpoint pens

Switching to writing with fountain pens was easy and I don’t miss writing with ballpoint pens at all. Since I mostly write with fine nibs and I’m right-handed, smudging or bleeding was less of an issue. I just need to be more careful with pairing different pens, inks, and paper since in some notebooks some of the ink in some of the pens will feather or bleed through.

I think my handwriting looks nicer with fountain pen ink than it does with any fine-liner, ballpoint pen ink, or gel pen.

Fountain pen vs. ballpoint pen handwriting comparison
My handwriting as of early 2019 — a mix of script and printed letters. We’ll see if I can turn it into a nicer script in a year.

Sketching with fountain pens vs. ballpoint pens & fine-liners

This was less straightforward than I’d like. Back when I started sketching regularly during my university years, I used a ballpoint pen daily. I liked them because my pen drawings didn’t smudge as much as graphite drawings, but I also learned to appreciate their texture. Getting gradual shading was easy with a pen like the Pilot Better Retractable Fine, my all-time favorite. I didn’t use any pencil outlines—I would only use a pen, and the initial construction lines would be barely visible in the end. I liked that a lot.

Red and black ballpoint pen sketches by Nela Dunato
My ballpoint pen doodles from 2005

Fountain pens can’t emulate the most delicate of lines made by ballpoint pens, nor can they achieve pencil-like tonal variation. They’re more similar to fine-liners, and shading can be achieved through hatching, stippling, scribbling and washes. That’s not bad, but it will take some getting used to.

Fountain pen sketch of a flower
Pilot Metropolitan F & Pelikan 4001 Brilliant Black ink in a Handbook Journal

So far, almost every sketchbook I tested can easily handle fountain pens since I mostly use those that work well with ink. My favorite one is the Canson Art Book Universal (I wrote an entire post about it), and the paper in it is perfect for both dry and wet pens. You’ll see many examples of drawings from this sketchbook below.

Face caricature doodles sketched with a fountain pen and brush pen
Pilot Metropolitan F fountain pen & red Pentel brush pen in a Canson Art Book Universal sketchbook

Since I can’t achieve subtle gradients through delicate hatching as I would with ballpoint pen, I started experimenting with other forms of shading, and creating more expressive drawings with lots of wobbly lines, instead of clean, precise lines.

What I loved about ballpoint pens is that I didn’t have to use a pencil to sketch out the outline beforehand. What if I didn’t use a pencil before sketching with a fountain pen too? How would my drawings change if I didn’t know for sure what the right move was? I let myself experiment and use texture to cover up the earlier, exploratory lines which were “incorrect” and it resulted in quite different drawings than I usually make.

Flex fountain pen doodles
FPR Himalaya ultra-flex & Pelikan 4001 Brilliant Black ink in a Canson Art Book Universal sketchbook

MerMay mermaid drawing day 7
Pilot Metropolitan F with Rohrer & Klingner Verdigris and FPR Himalaya Flex with Rohrer & Klingner Solferino ink in a Canson Art Book Universal sketchbook

Fountain pens & watercolor (and other wet media)

Ink wash

Since most fountain pen ink is water-soluble, combining a line sketch with a wet brush can have a nice effect, similar to that of a water-soluble pencil. I started using this technique when I want to carry the lightest possible sketching kit: just a sketchbook, a fountain pen, and a waterbrush.

Fountain pen ink wash doodles
Pilot Metropolitan F & Pelikan 4001 Brilliant Black ink in a Canson Art Book Universal sketchbook (The pigment separates a bit into green and purplish gray when water is introduced.)

This effect becomes especially cool with darker color ink where more of the actual tone of the ink is revealed by watering it down, while the crisp dark lines provide structure.

Fountain pen ink wash doodles
Online Vision and Rohrer & Klingner Alt-Bordeaux ink in a Handbook Journal

Fountain pen ink wash urban sketches
FPR Muft F with Rohrer & Klingner Verdigris ink + Derwent Inktense Shiraz pencil in a W&N hot press sketchbook. Click to see larger image.

Waterproof ink

I use waterproof fountain pen ink in combination with watercolor, brush pens, and watercolor pencils. My current inks of choice are Platinum Carbon black ink and Super5 Frankfurt gray ink. (I even switched the original ink in my Pentel Pocket brush pen with Platinum Carbon black, since it comes out 3 times cheaper.)

Ink and watercolor sketch of a walk path by Nela Dunato
Pilot Metropolitan F & Platinum Carbon black ink with Van Gogh watercolor in a Hahnemuhle watercolor sketchbook

I like using gray outlines with watercolor because it results in more delicate-looking drawings.

Kantrida – fountain pen and watercolor urban sketches by Nela Dunato
Fountain Pen Revolution Muft fountain pen & Super5 Frankfurt ink with Van Gogh watercolor in a Hahnemuhle watercolor sketchbook

Flexible fountain pen vs. brush pen

I adore drawing with brush pens—they’ve been my absolute favorite inking tool for years. (You can see some examples of my ink drawings in my sketches gallery.) I was wondering how flexible fountain pens compare to them since some artists seem to like those.

I attempted to do a couple of drawings relying on the nib flexibility to get an expressive line—what you’d get when drawing with a dip pen. I didn’t enjoy it. The nib is stiff and while it works for shorter vertical lines, when I attempt to create a long curvy line going from thick to thin or vice versa, it’s a struggle. I had to turn my paper all the time so that I could create thick strokes where they should be, because unlike with a brush pen, the thick stroke only works in one direction: from top to bottom. I was much slower. Filling up large surfaces is tedious too, which you can see on the sketch below.

Flex fountain pen portrait sketch
Not my best self-portrait, but it will do for a demo.
FPR Himalaya ultra-flex & Pelikan 4001 Brilliant Black ink in a Canson Art Book Universal sketchbook

I would not use a fountain pen instead of a brush pen. The brush pen is unparalleled in creating thick expressive lines and extreme line variation with ease, as well as filling up large dark areas. I prefer to use fountain pens for thin, consistent lines, the way I used fineliners before.

I have a very light hand, so creating thin and delicate strokes with a brush pen is not an issue for me, but these lines tend to be more wobbly and organic. If I’m trying to get a very clean line, fountain pen with a bit of flex is fine. Harder pressure can be used for outlines, and very light pressure for hatching. But varying pressure within a single stroke is difficult, and it’s impossible on upward strokes. I’m not always able to rotate my sketchbook freely to use a downward stroke in all areas of the drawing, so I just don’t think a flex pen makes my life any easier compared to the brush pen.

2022 update

In the spring of 2020 my partner’s mom found his grandfather’s fountain pens. Most of them are broken and non-functional, but the newest one among them was the Pelikan 140 from the 1960s with a 14-karat gold nib. It’s a soft/springy/semi-flex fine nib, lovely to write with. (I’ve been told not all gold Pelikan F pens are this flexible.)

Pelikan 140 vintage pen with a soft gold nib demo
Demonstration of line variability produced by this vintage Pelikan 140 gold F pen

Recently I tried drawing with it to see if I like it more than the Pilot Metropolitan F nib. It produces a range from a very thin and dry line, up to a 1mm thick juicy line. The lightest line is skipping a bit on grainy paper, so it almost resembles a textured ballpoint pen line which I’ve been missing so much! It’s exactly what I want for sketching.

Ink and watercolor doodles sketched mainly with the Pelikan 140 + the thickest lines with a Pentel Pocket brush pen, both filled with Platinum Carbon Black ink. (Click to see the larger image)

I definitely prefer the quality of the brush pen line whenever I depict anything organic (hair, eyelashes, branches, foliage, grass, clothes, etc). But this fountain pen is great for straight lines and precise details in small sketches. I think I’ve found a perfect combination that works for my style. In the above sketch you can see the faint, dry construction lines that remind me so much of my old ballpoint pen doodles. In the drawing below, I used the fountain pen for the hatching on the coat and the background, and for the uniform lines on the girl character’s face.

Ghost dog comic ink drawing
Pelikan 140 + Pentel Pocket brush pen, both filled with Platinum Carbon Black ink

In conclusion…

Fountain pens are not the best replacement for ballpoint pens if you do a lot of gradual shading. They’re a decent replacement for disposable fine-liners if you fill them with waterproof and lightfast fountain pen ink (not india ink!). Regular writing ink is not to be used in final artwork that’s meant to be displayed or sold, but it’s good enough for sketchbooks. Plus, the ability to use the ink wash technique is fun.

Another important thing to be mindful of is paper. Ballpoint pens and fine-liners work on any sketching paper, while fountain pens require sized paper with little to no texture, otherwise you’ll get a blurry feathery mess. If your sketchbook is intended for dry media only, it will not work with fountain pens. You need to look for sketchbooks intended for ink or watercolor. I prefer those with smooth paper and lots of thin pages for both sketching and writing notes, like the Canson Art Book Universal. If you don’t mind the cream-colored paper, Royal Talens Art Creation sketchbook is a good choice too.

I stand by my decision to stop buying or accepting free ballpoint pens because the sacrifice is more than worth it, and I’ll be looking more into where I can substitute single-use art supplies with reusable/refillable ones.

If you’re interested in learning more about my sketching kit, I created a detailed article and video: 5 types of portable sketching kits I use: watercolor, minimal, travel kit & more.

Have you made a switch to more sustainable art supplies?

How difficult was it for you to get used to them?
Do you still miss the old supplies, or is your new alternative fulfilling all your creative needs?
Do you have any tips to share?

Let me know in the comments—I’d love to hear about your experiences.

To sustainable creativity,


Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon or Jackson's Art Supplies. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

5 responses to “Sketchbook Adventures: Sketching with fountain pens”

  1. You are such an impressively skilled artist! You draw faces and flowers very well! I was surprised to read you used so many ballpoint pens that you felt environmentally guilty enough to switch to fountain pens. I almost exclusively use pencils when I draw so that I can erase. Great post!

  2. I’ve also switched, and while new fountain pens are nice, I’ve fallen in love with antique fountain pens available on e#ay and elsewhere. The nibs the old masters used to make simply cannot be reproduced except by a tiny slice of custom nib craftsmen working the lost craft. And each of the millions of flexible fountain pens available on the used market has a unique and totally individual character. Also, I dip my old pens; you can dip or fill, I just prefer to dip for quicker color changes and to keep these old beauties super clean/pristine. So yes, there are great pens in the current market, but there are also irreplaceable treasures available that will take your art in a very surprising direction on the secondary market as well. EXPLORE! YAY!

  3. @Wayne: Thank you! I’m glad you liked my drawings.
    To clarify, I used ballpoint pens both for writing and sketching (and not just personal art but also design sketches for my client work), so that’s how I got to use up so many of them. I use pencil as well, but it smudges a lot in spiral-bound sketchbooks so pens are a more permanent medium.

    @BillyCoop: It’s nice that you found some nice vintage pens you like! Eventually I’d like to acquire some to see how they work.
    Interesting trick, dipping fountain pens. I own plenty of drawing and calligraphic dip pens so I didn’t feel the need to try that.
    Yay for exploration and experimenting!

  4. Late to the comment party but thanks for the review/article.

    I deliberately look for recycling info on supplies and tend to hang onto my art non-refillables as long as possible because… ever cleaned up water ways?

    I buy tube watercolour paints and refuse to buy plastic bristles in brushes. Looked after a well-made sable will outlast… everyone.

    I have a bunch of fountain pens but I don’t use the (very old, solid gold nib) good one for sketching. Too scared to lose it! I did buy a bunch of cheapie Platinum preppy in 02 (extra fine) so I could try a Platinum Carbon Black and a Noodler’s Blue Ghost without stuffing up my better pens. Yes I’m more likely to be lazy and leave ink in a pen until it dries out. Almost a decade on my ears are still ringing from the chewing out I got from a nibmeister- the specialist trade that restores fountain pens of any age.

    I love the quality of the Platinum Preppy almost as much as the option to convert it to a highlighter if I didn’t like the fountain pen. I also love my TWSBI Diamond mini and Eco (not the inconsistent XF nib sizes across the range) and Pilot Prera (small hand perfect and the XF is a Japanese XF). Each has their own ideas on metallic inks (Diamine, Edelstein, Herbin and Oster).

    Copic markers and fineliners are great but very expensive initially. I tend to go through the SP nibs way too quickly though and love a UniPin fineliner. It’s dumb that a new 3 pack of UniPin is cheaper than a 2 pack of SP nibs, but the UniPin nibs just last forever. I’m heavy handed I guess but I also use them on watercolour paper- I can’t find new Maxxon ball liners so used the fineliners instead. (My Uniball eye just doesn’t work the same.)

    Where I am all markers/pens are recycled at my local office (and a bit of art) supply store. Terracycle is the box I look for (they also collect for different recycling companies your batteries, printer consumables like toner etc etc).

  5. Thanks for sharing your favorites, Skint Student :)
    It’s cool that you can recycle used markers and pens where you live! I wonder what happens with those, I’ll look into it. Never heard of that, though we do have battery and toner collection as well in my country.

    I can’t get over the animal cruelty involved with sable and squirrel brush production, so I’m quite happy with synthetic brushes. I guess it comes down to what one considers “lesser evil”.
    I don’t remember ever throwing a brush away. When a good brush wears out, I degrade it to a “mixed media brush”, and keep using it in my art journals.

    I only use metallic inks in the B and flex pens, and didn’t expect them to work well in F/XF nibs at all… Pilot pens are quite dry, which I like a lot, but mica particles don’t come through very well, even with a B width.

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