Why I quit fountain pens (for a while) and picked a Bic pen

Earlier in my urban sketching years, I thought I had discovered the holy grail when I saw people drawing with fountain pens. That’s how it’s done, I told myself.

Fountain pens, especially those with flexible nibs, create thin and thick strokes that can make a sketch more expressive and lively. The problem with fountain pens, however, is that every line you put down on the page makes a bold statement. If it’s misplaced, it can be a trap. Pretty soon you have a drawing in your book that may be artful and expressive, but bears little resemblance to the scene you are trying to draw as accurately as possible.

Fountain pens and ink pens (I still carry a Lamy Safari and Uniball Vision pens in my kit) can produce sketches that are both vibrant and accurate. But these days I’m finding it easier to sharpen my eye for composition, perspective and tone with a ballpoint pen. I also don’t believe it anymore when I hear that drawing directly with fountain pens or ink pens that make strong marks will help you loosen up. On the contrary, I think it can be paralyzing. If you misfire some lines early on in your sketch (and those early lines are always the most important!), what do you do? The ink lines are too strong to be disguised.

If I ever recommended anyone to start urban sketching with a fountain pen, I’d like to take that back. A better ink tool I now recommend to people interested in urban sketching is a simple Bic Crystal pen. This instrument may feel utilitarian an unartistic, but it’s really a powerful tool. The ballpoint technology dates back to the 19th century and it was refined over time until the Bic brand took off in the 1960s. Ballpoint pens were actually advertised as a replacement to fountain pens, because their ink dries faster on the paper.

What I love the most about drawing with a Bic pen is the ability to create line work of different intensity. From soft whisper lines to solid strokes, the range of markings a Bic can deliver is fantastic. Ballpoint sketching helps you develop an important drawing skill: awareness of the pressure you apply when you put pen to paper. Oh, and Bic ink is water resistant, so you can still add watercolor to your sketches if you wish to do so. Here’s a video to prove it!

Below are some other recent Bic drawings from my pocket sketchbook.