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)

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