Category: Pen and Ink

Thoughts on Line: Edmund Sullivan’s Line: An Art Study

I didn’t read Edmund J. Sullivan’s Line: An Art Study all at once, but piece by piece over a few months. Besides just life getting in the way, I took this book slowly because it isn’t the kind of book you get lost in. It’s written in an older style and it references people and ideas that are not around anymore. That makes a lot of the book nonsensical. So you have to wade through that to find the parts that are still helpful. Sullivan also has the attitudes of a man of his time, including the casually racist ones (he has no trouble tossing around the word “nigger,” for example). For all that, Sullivan was an incredible pen-and-ink artist and his thoughtful observations about the craft come from years of experience.

So because of these two things- Sullivan’s insights and Sullivan’s attitudes- I feel the need to recontextualize what he says. Also, his insights are rooted in a pen-and-ink style that is not popular anymore and he of course wasn’t considering comics. So again, I feel the need to put his ideas into my own context. So here we go…

Line weight
One thing using a dip pen gives you is the ability to modulate line weight. Often, the rationale for this is that heavy lines are used to depict areas of shade. Sullivan makes an interesting observation about this; he calls it “doubly wrong” (74). He thinks that the heavier lines should be on the side of the object nearest the light source. This is for two reasons. One, if the heavier line is on the shaded side, then that side tends to come forward rather than recede. As in painting, darker shapes seem near, while lighter shapes seem distant. He shows a drawing of a head with the far side in shade outlined with a heavy line and it makes the head seem odd, because the dark side, which is supposed to be receding, actually comes forward. His second reason is for contrast. The light side will seem lighter if set off with a darker line. I can also think of a third reason: the thick line will get lost in the shading and so lose its power.

So here, the egg on the left has the weighted line on the shaded side and the egg on the right has the weighted line on the light side. Notice how for the egg on the left, all your attention sinks to the bottom right. The egg on the right has a fuller form. The line weight and the shading balance each other. And as a result, the center comes forward and the whole thing seems more three-dimensional.

Still, if one doesn’t use any shading, which is much more common in drawings these days, then putting the heavier line towards the light source looks odd. The egg on the right looks a bit like it’s floating, while the one on the left seems more grounded.

The other useful thing line weight is used for is the relative distance of objects in your drawing. As I said, darker objects come forward while lighter objects move backward. In the drawing below, the guy on the right seems farther away. This is partly due to him being overlapped by the person on the left, but it’s also due to his lighter line weight. The person on the left has a heavier line weight, so comes forward. There is also more line and tone variety in how she’s drawn. That also makes her command our attention more.

However, Sullivan doesn’t talk much about balancing line weight against itself. For him, it is always balanced based on some external rationale, like light source or relative distance. While he does say that varying line weights makes for a more visually interesting picture, he doesn’t abstract line from what it is supposed to represent. This is probably a result of his time period and tradition, but it limits his insights into line weight. Again, he only thinks of it representationally. Recently, I have been playing around with alternating line weight by putting a heavy line next to a thin one. So I change line weight not based on any claim on realism, but simply based on the lines themselves. I’m not saying that this is the best way to do things, but I present it as an option that Sullivan doesn’t consider.

Speaking of which, I of course think about this in relation to comics. Personally, I find really thick panel lines to be distracting. If the lines in the border are bolder than the lines in the drawing contained within, then the panel comes forward and takes attention away from the drawing you are supposed to be reading. Likewise, a panel composed on lines all of equal weight can be difficult to read. In my early comics, I didn’t vary line weight but used a lot of shading. That resulted in a lot of muddy panels.

Line harmony
I found this part of Sullivan’s book to be very interesting. Yet again, I wish he had gone even further with this topic. Basically, he says that you should have a rationale for how to do your shading. He offers three possibilities: the shading running across or perpendicular to the light rays (A), the shading running parallel to the light rays (B), and the shading being molded to the form of the subject (C).

While Sullivan seems to prefer the third, his point is not that one approach is better than the others, but that if you mix approaches then the drawing will become muddied. I realize now that I tended to use A before and now I am much more drawn to C, but honestly, before reading this book I didn’t consciously categorize these different methods. And when I first started with pen-and-ink, I didn’t consider my approach at all; I was just scribbling down lines. So Sullivan entreats us to stop a second and consider what we’re doing.

As before, Sullivan’s rationale is based on representing reality. Here, line harmony has to do with how one shades in relation to the light source. But of course, you could approach line harmony in other ways. You could gather your lines to a certain focal point or to convey a certain emotion. For instance, I once noticed that in a lot of his portraits, Van Gogh radiates his brush strokes away from the eyes. The result is that the eyes of his subjects have a particular intensity.

You could also arrange your lines to make your image more readable. This is something many cartoonists consider. In the example below, John Adkins Richardson shows how the lines in this George Price cartoon help draw the reader’s attention to the speaker (The Complete Book of Cartooning 128-9).

When you’re dealing with multiple panels, the lines from one panel can relate to the lines in another. Again, this can help readability. I did this in Carnivale on a few occasions. In these three panels from page seventy-two, I used the background shading lines to guide the reader’s eyes to the correct reading order. I was also hoping that the strong vertical lines of panel one would take the reader’s eyes down to panel two. And notice how the lines that compose the tree in the second panel swoop from the panel above to the panel on the right.

Sullivan says many more things in his book. He discusses perspective, anatomy, and beauty. But the ideas above are the ones specifically about line, not drawing in general. They are also the ones that stuck out to me the most and made me think. So while Line is an odd book in many ways, it still manages to teach after all these years.

Dover publishes the book.

(written October 26, 2016)

How to Hold a Dip Pen

(Not like this.)

When I was learning to play trumpet as a kid, I was told to never let my cheeks puff out when I blew. But take a look at almost any picture of Dizzy Gillespie. What do you see? Huge, puffed-out cheeks. So watch out for being too precious with the “rules” that you hear. Yes, you should listen to the advice of those who came before you, but “rules” are just lessons that another artist learned to help them create. The goal of all these rules is to eliminate potential problems that might hinder you from doing the art you want to do. But if those very rules are getting in your way, then you have to break them. However, breaking rules won’t make you a great artist, just as obeying them won’t.

That being said, pen-and-ink can be an unforgiving medium at times. I remember plenty of moments of frustration over the years and most of those could have been avoided if I had known the correct way to do things. Most everything I learned was through trial-and-error, including how to hold my pen. But I’ve seen a few photos and videos recently that have shown me very different ways of doing this. So what is the correct way? (hint: the first paragraph is a spoiler)

In the classic pen and ink book, Rendering in Pen and Ink, Arthur Guptill says that you should “hold the pen naturally, much the same as for writing” (21). So basically, hold a dip pen the same way as you would hold any writing instrument. Yet he warns you to “keep your fingers far enough back from the point to prevent them from becoming daubed in ink, and above all, don’t cramp your fingers tightly onto the penholder.” George Carlson says basically the same thing:

This seems like sound advice to me, yet the manga artists showcased in How To Pen & Ink: The Manga Start-up Guide all hold their pens choked way up on the holder. Here’s Oh!great:

And look at Nightow Yasuhiro here. He’s choked up so far his finger is on the nib itself:

These are professional manga artists so obviously this way of holding a pen works for them. That being said, I would really not recommend holding a pen this way. I saw Jeff Smith talk at the TCAF a few years ago and he said that when he was done with Bone he had a slew of health problems, all of which stemmed from a rigid drawing posture. I want to be able to draw till I’m old, so I don’t want to develop cramped habits that may cause problems later. So take Guptill and Carlson’s advice and hold your pen in a relaxed, natural way.

For instance, I rest my pen on my ring finger with my index and middle fingers on top. Yet I’ve seen other artists rest the pen on their middle finger. I don’t think either is “right;” it’s just a matter of what feels comfortable to you.

The more important consideration is the nib’s orientation to the paper. In general, the pen should be angled at about 45 degrees. This will vary as you draw, but you should never hold the pen completely perpendicular to the page. Not only might the ink drip out, the tines of the nib are more likely to catch and send a spray of ink. Basically, if you rest your hand on the page, the angle from the height of your hand to the paper makes for a nice working position for the pen. I recommend having some kind of blotter or other piece of paper beneath your hand so that you don’t smudge your drawing or get your hand oils on the drawing paper.

Also, the pen needs to be in a position that you can draw with it. And I mean draw in the sense of pulling. The nib is made to be pulled down the page in the opposite direction of the tip. Never push. Not only will you get ink splatters, but you may also ruin your nib. Some nibs can be moved sideways, creating very thin lines. But the drawing motion unlocks the full potential of the nib, allowing lines to swell from hairlines to broad strokes. Catherine Slade shows this in her Encyclopedia of Illustration Techniques:

All kinds of how-to videos exist on YouTube and they vary widely in quality. In one video, the artist Dan Nelson holds his nib completely upside down. This seems to work for him and it does allow him to get very thin lines. Still, it goes against the very intent of a nib’s design. If a nib is upside down, you can’t use pressure to vary the line. Basically, it would be like drawing with a rapidograph, which means you are depriving yourself of the expressiveness in your chosen tool.

Overall, there is a lot of variation out there in how artists hold their pens. What we are all looking for is that sweet spot where things feel comfortable but where we are also accessing the full potential of our instrument. And in the process, not developing bad habits that keep us from creating or even harming us in the long run.

(written March 10, 2016)

Choosing a Nib Holder

There are many different kinds of nib holders out there, especially if you start to get into antique models. But which one you use mostly comes down to personal preference (the two on the right are the ones I use most often). Even so, there are a few things to keep in mind. (I am only considering straight pen holders here, by the way).

Size. Will the nib holder fit your nib? This is the most important thing, but it’s not too challenging. There are, roughly, three main nib sizes: the large, like the Brause 76, Zebra G, Leonardt 30, and Gillott 404; the medium, like the Brause 511, Hunt 100, and Easterbrook 356; and the small tubular nib, like the Brause 515 and Hunt 102. Most holders will fit the large and medium sizes or the small tubular sizes. Most the ones you come across fit the large and medium sized nibs, so the only size you have to make sure you get the right holder for is the small tubular nib.

Material. Personally, I hate holding plastic. It just doesn’t feel right in my hand and if it’s hot the holder gets slippery. So, I always look for wooden nib holders. I also have a metal nib holder for my small tubular nibs. It has a nice feel, though I have a rubber sleeve on mine since the rough metal at the end sometimes rubs against my finger in an uncomfortable way.

Shape. A lot of nib holders swell towards the nib end and I prefer this to a perfectly straight holder. In addition, some nib holders will have a bit of cork near the end, which makes holding them more comfortable.

Weight. This isn’t a big deal, but overly light nib holders just don’t feel as solid to draw with. This is the main drawback I found with the e+m antique style pen holder. Obviously, you can only check weight if you get to try out the holder in a store.

Mount. This is what I really want to discuss here. The question is: how does the nib attach to the holder? This is a matter of the proper size; you want to a mount that will fit your nib. But this is also a matter of feel. If the mount isn’t snug, then your nib will wiggle a bit and affect your drawing.

Most nib holders you will find use the kind of metal prong mount shown above. The e+m, General’s, and Koh-i-noor pen holders all use this kind of mount. Basically, four metal prongs hold the nib against the inside of a metal ring. This works okay at first, but I have found that the prongs start to weaken fairly quickly. You can see this on the right above. In this case, dried ink on the nib holder actually helps keep the nib in place. This isn’t an ideal mounting mechanism. The ones on the e+m pen holders haven’t worn out for me yet, but they are also new holders. So we’ll see.

The other mount that you tend to find these days involves concentric plastic rings. The nib slides between the rings to rest snuggly in the holder. This mount fits larger nibs really well. The Tachikawa holder (right) supposedly fits small tubular nibs also, but I find that it doesn’t do so very tightly and is too big for the Brause 515. It works best with larger nibs, like the Zebra G. The holder on the left is a really nice rosewood holder by Ken Altman. I use this one with my Leonardt 30 for lettering.

Some wooden nib holders will just have holes cut into them for the nib to slide into. If the nib is the correct size, then this makes for a very solid feel since the nib is directly against the holder without any metal or plastic acting as an intermediary. The holder on the right is a rosewood carrot shaped holder. The one on the left was an oblique holder which I took the oblique mount out of. The resulting hole fits a Brause 511 perfectly (this is what I draw with almost exclusively).

All the above holders are for large and medium sized nibs. For the small tubular nibs, you need a more specialized holder.

The one I have is metal. The nib slides in between the prongs and then you turn the collar to tighten the prongs. The result is that the nib is held very tightly.

So far, the nibs I’ve shown are the kinds of ones you could find in a brick-and-mortar store or on-line. But people have been writing and drawing with dip pens for a long time. So many kinds if nib holders have come and gone over the years, and sometimes they come up for sale at various antique stores on-line.

One style of mount that you don’t see anymore is the metal collar. Basically, it’s two curved pieces of metal and the nib slides between them. This kind of mount works best for medium nibs like the Hunt 100 and Brause 66ef.

This next kind of mount I’ve encountered only once.

The nib slides into the mount and you depress the lever. This pushes metal arms against the underside of the nib, locking it in place.

This is a really cool mechanism, though I find that the lever rubs a bit against my ring finger as I draw.

And last but not least, I wanted to mention something I heard about a long time ago. You can use the cap of a Pitt artist pen as a nib holder. It only works with larger nibs, though.

There is a really nice guide to nibs and pen holders at Jet Pens.

(written February 12, 2016)

Nibs: a comparison

When I got into regularly drawing with dip pens, nibs were easy to find at the local art store and I could get them for thirty cents a piece. So it wasn’t too hard to try out different kinds. These days, not all art stores carry nibs and they tend to be around one to three dollars each. They’re still pretty cheap for an art supply, but you have to actively seek them out, usually from on-line retailers (I’ve listed some at the bottom). Since trying out different models takes a bit more effort, it helps to narrow your search a bit. One way to do that is to find out what nibs your favorite pen-and-ink artists use. The other way is to look at guides like this one.

Finding a nib you like is a matter of taste. But there are certain qualities to look for in any nib (in each category a spectrum is possible):


Thin line – Thick line
What is the size of the line produced when standard pressure is applied to the nib?

Smooth – Scratchy
How does the nib feel on the page?

Stable – Flexible
How does the nib feel as you increase pressure on it?

Steady – Elastic
How quickly does the nib return to its original shape?

High modulation – Low modulation
How much variation can you get out of the line created?

The following is a brief overview of a few pointed pen nibs. This is by no means an exhaustive list; it’s just a few of the more common nibs I’ve used and enjoyed. This list moves roughly from thick line nibs to thin line ones (or right to left in the image above).


Brause 76
I hadn’t heard about Brause nibs when I started out. What I have discovered is that the Brause nibs are consistently the best made nibs I have ever tried. The 76 is also called the “Rose” due to the little rose embossed on the shaft. It’s a fairly large nib and so creates wider lines, but it is incredibly flexible. The 76 is the closest thing to inking with a brush of any nib I’ve tried. It’s a lot of fun.

Hunt 512
This is a stiff, not very flexible nib with a smooth feel. It has a “bowl tip”: meaning that the point is rounded slightly. This makes drawing curves easier. I used to use this nib for all my lettering, but have stopped because it seemed like the 512s were getting scratchier and more frequently defective. I feel that the Hunt nibs have really gone down in quality over the years.

Leonardt 30
This is the nib I use for lettering now. Leonardt nibs have recently made a comeback. The 30 is solid and stiff, which works well for consistent lettering. It’s a lot like the Hunt 512, but with a bit more modulation possibility and a smoother feel.

Zebra G
Comics artists inspired by manga are often turned on to the fabled “G” nib. In my limited experience, the Zebra G nib is better than the Nikko G nib. It’s not very flexible, but delivers very controlled lines. For a larger nib, the line it creates is actually fairly fine. The nib feels strong and it lasts a long time. Personally, I find the nib a bit too scratchy and inflexible for my tastes. The Tachikawa G is slightly more flexible (maybe I’ll post a comparison at a later date).

Gillott 303
This is a reliable nib with a bit of flexibility. While there are smaller Gillott nibs, I’ve found that the 303 actually can produce a thinner line than many of them. So this is a good nib to start with if you want to try a nib from Gillott. Overall though, I find the 303 a bit too scratchy for my taste, and this is true of all the Gillott nibs I’ve used.

Esterbrook 356
I got this nib on eBay. Esterbrook was a standard line of nibs once upon a time. From what I’ve tried, all their nibs are solidly built. The 356 is a bit stiff and doesn’t offer a lot of line variation.

Brause 66ef
I used this nib when I drew Carnivale. It produces a fairly fine line, but has a very springy feel. Even so, it is easy to create a stable line with the 66ef. When you vary the pressure on the nib, the line fluctuates evenly. It doesn’t suddenly swell or drop off. I think this is due to the quality of the metal used to make the nib. While the point of the nib is fine, it is also slightly rounded, like the Hunt 512. That means that you can almost draw a circle with one stroke, versus composing a circle from two strokes as you have to do with most nibs. It also has a good ink capacity, so you can create long, flowing lines. Overall, it’s a nice nib and would be a good nib to start with if you wanted a fine line.

Brause 511
This is my favorite nib and the one I draw with most often now. When I first used this nib I liked how smooth it was, but I thought it was a bit too unyielding. Yet this was due to the fact that I was coming off using the Hunt 100, which is the most elastic nib out there. The Brause 511 is not very elastic, but capable of a nice bit of variation if you apply the pressure. Don’t be shy with it; bear down and see what it can do. Since it is more stable and steady, when you apply pressure, the nib smoothly comes back to a thinner line. You might be able to see the contrast with the Hunt 100. With the 100, the line drops back quickly to a thin line, making for a little cliff after the large swell. The 511 modulates at a more consistent rate. So this nib offers a lot of variability while not sacrificing control. And it feels like a dream on the page. This is why I love this nib so much.

Hunt 100
At one time, the Hunt 100 was my main drawing nib. What I love about it is it’s incredible springiness. The nib is very elastic and flexible. Because of this, it takes a steady hand to control it, but it is capable of making some very expressive marks. Yet the flexibility of the nib also means that it’s not very good for hatching, at least if you want a consistent size to your hatch marks. There are two main reasons that I no longer use this nib. One, it wears out fast. The elasticity of the nib is due to the lightness its metal and this light metal wears out quickly. Second, this nib has made me want to scream one too many times. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to draw but having no ink flow from your pen. I’ve had this problem more often with the Hunt 100 than with any other nib I’ve ever tried. When I was more inexperienced, I thought the problem was me (and sometimes it was). But I’ve since realized that it’s mostly the nib. So, this is an expressive nib, but not one that you want to rely on. Honestly, this nib has caused me more frustration than any other.

Hunt 102
This is a small tubular nib, which, unsurprisingly, creates a very fine line. So if you want small marks, this is a nib to try. I’ve found though that at a certain point, lines can get so small that they don’t reproduce well. Since I create comics, this is a concern for me. So I find the 102 too small. The Brause 515 is a similar nib, though not quite as thin, yet with a much smoother feel.


On-line nib retailers:
Pen-and-Ink Arts

Other on-line nib guides:

(written December 23, 2016)