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Pen and Ink Drawing Supplies: Recommendations to Save You Time and Money

  • 13 min read

If you want to start drawing in pen and ink you really only need 3 things: a pencil, a pen, and paper. Sounds simple enough, right?

I bet that right now if I asked you to, you could produce a blank piece of copy paper, a pencil from the back of a drawer, and a pen of dubious age.

Congratulations! You’re ready to create pen and ink masterpieces! I’ll see you over on Instagram. 

Just kidding. Sometimes having the right tools makes the process easier and more enjoyable. Take cooking for instance.

I could prepare my dinner entirely using a butter knife to chop all my vegetables and prep my meat. Do I? Of course not, I own a chef’s knife. Not only does it save me the time and frustration of mangling my meal prep, but if I didn’t have one I probably would not enjoy cooking very much. In fact I would likely avoid it as much as possible. 

The same goes for art supplies. The right tool can make your drawing experience feel effortless and boost your self-confidence as an artist, while subpar tools can lead to frustration and inconsistent results.

In this article I’ll share with you my favorite tried and true drawing supplies to sketch with that give me the results I want for my pen and ink artwork. The good news? You don’t have to break the bank. 

I hope these recommendations save you from overbuying art supplies so you can spend more time creating great art.

The Most Versatile Sketchbook for Artists

In my experience, I’ve found that the type of paper you use has the most effect on the amount of frustration and effort expended getting the results you want in your final artwork. Let me explain. 

The most expensive watercolors applied with sable brushes made of the finest craftsmanship will create a soppy mess that is difficult to control if you’ve grabbed some cheap copy paper out of your printer.

With pen and ink, ill-suited paper can become oversaturated with ink and shred under too many layers of crosshatching. Or fibers can become stuck to your pen nibs.

My general advice for any media is if you’re going to indulge in one component of your art, spend money on the paper. At least then you’ll have a good base to experiment with other tools and determine which materials work the best for your style. 

Best Everyday Drawing Sketchbook

For most of my sketching I think the best balance of quality, price, and page count lies with the Stillman and Birn sketchbooks. The Alpha series, in particular, is a great multipurpose sketchbook for pen and ink artists. 

Size and orientation is a deeply personal preference and Stillman and Birn is a clear leader in these categories, offering many different configurations to suit your needs. I like the hardcover Alpha A5 size in landscape orientation. It’s nice and small so I can finish a sketch in a single day, and I’m not too intimidated to start. It’s also small enough to be portable. And I do most of my sketches in a landscape orientation anyways, so the layout is perfect. 

They also make a soft cover version for an even more lightweight and travel-friendly option.

The paper in the Alpha series resembles vellum; it’s smooth but not too smooth. It can take ink, graphite, colored pencil, and Copic marker well.

Something else to keep in mind when selecting a sketchbook is how are you going to treat it? Another reason I like the Stillman and Birn sketchbooks (the hardcover in particular) is because it turns out I don’t treat mine very well and the spine can really take a beating without falling apart.

The Stillman and Birn Alpha is my number one sketchbook I reach for when I want to draw in pen and ink.

A Nice Toned Paper Option

If I want toned paper to play around with, the Nova Trio from Stillman and Birn (I promise, this post isn’t sponsored) is a great value because you get three color options in one sketchpad: grey, black, and tan.

This paper is different from the Alpha, it is lightly textured. I’d describe it as soft press, excellent for various kinds of media. I’ve used pen and ink, Uni Posca paint markers, colored pencils, and gouache, all to good effect.

Stillman and Birn makes a fantastic and comprehensive lineup of sketchbooks, and you really can’t go wrong with either the Alpha or the Nova for pen and ink sketching.

Beginning a Sketch: Which Pencil Should You Use?

Remember when I said you didn’t have to break the bank on art supplies? This is one tool that as far I can tell, no manufacturer has been able to catastrophically mess up (erasers are a different story, but more on that in a minute). The truth is, any pencil you have will do. You’re most likely going to erase it in the end anyways.

But to go back to the cooking example from earlier, while a great chef’s knife can cut probably anything in your kitchen it isn’t always the easiest option for the desired outcome. For instance, you might struggle to prep a freshly caught fish if you try to debone and fillet it with a chef’s knife, and it’s not the most elegant solution to core a giant pile of strawberries. 

As I’ve drawn more with different kinds of pencils I’ve found there are subtle ways to make drawing easier for me. You might find your preferences are different than mine.

For instance, I’m always misplacing things and my pencil sharpener is one of the small items that once I put it down, it disappears from the material realm, never to be seen again. I’m also a chronic pencil sharpener because I love a good sharp point, which interrupts my sketching flow.

This is why my favorite pencil to draw with is a mechanical pencil. It allows me to focus. It’s also great if you plan to sketch on the go, since you don’t need to pack a pencil sharpener.

My favorite mechanical pencil to draw with is the Pentel Quicker Clicker in 0.7mm. This pencil is not fancy, and it is not expensive. It doesn’t showcase the latest technology in mechanical pencil engineering. But it does have a little button on the side of the grip section to advance the lead and this one simple feature brings me endless joy.

I barely have to pause at all to get more lead so I can start sketching and just keep going. It’s also got a soft grip section that’s slightly contoured and just feels comfy in my hand. It’s got a solid build with a sturdy metal clip. And it’s also available in 0.5 and 0.9mm to suit your drawing style.

So for me, eliminating the need to sharpen and the sometimes clunky maneuver required to get more lead from mechanical pencils means that I don’t even think about the pencil during the drawing process. It is just an extension of my hand.

You can’t go wrong with this mechanical pencil. It’s simple and you can get it for a couple of bucks at your local office supply store. If you’re in the market for a reliable drawing pencil, just get one for yourself, you won’t regret it.

A Note On Erasers 

In my experience, most of the erasers on the backs of pencils (especially the kind of questionable origin you dig out of the back of a drawer) are just eraser-shaped-objects waiting to ruin to your day.

I’ve created enough smeary messes, ripped enough paper, to now resist the urge of flipping over a pencil and trying to erase marks with what’s on the back end. 

I would suggest buying a separate eraser anyways, since you will get though it quickly erasing pencil lines from whole drawings. But like pencils, an inexpensive eraser will do just fine.

My favorite eraser is the Sakura Sumo Grip B80. It erases quickly, cleanly, and with little mess. I find it also works really well on colored pencil. It makes long satisfying clumps of eraser debris that are easy to tip into the bin. And it’s black so it always looks brand new.

Another great eraser that is widely available at most office supply stores is the Staedtler Mars Plastic eraser. This one takes a little more effort to erase colored pencil but it doesn’t wear down nearly as quickly, so will last you much longer. 

They cost almost exactly the same, so I would say to get whatever is more conveniently available for you.

A Note On Drawing Leads

One of the things I’ve noticed with pencil leads is that softer grade leads (in the B range) work better for smoother papers and harder grades (HB+) work best for rough papers. 

I like pairing my Quicker Clicker with the Uni NanoDia lead in B. I find B lead to be the Goldilocks ideal between nice dark lines that erase easy with minimal smudging on the Alpha paper that I prefer. And it’s not so hard that it dents the paper’s surface.

The Uni lead has a good amount of feedback for sketching, it's not too slippery and it takes forever to wear down. I seriously can't remember the last time I put lead in my pencil and I draw everyday. It’s a great lead to draw with.

Recommendations for Inking Tools

My favorite way to ink a drawing is with a fountain pen, I find them delightful. For me it’s somehow easier to control. My lines are more precise, straighter, parallel. And something about it just adds an extra sense of magic to my creative process. 

Sadly, I couldn’t go to real-life wizard school growing up, but I feel a bit like a wizard artist while drawing with a fountain pen. It just feels fancy and special. Sometimes that’s all you need to get a positive mental boost. 

I also like to use a fineliner, which has a sketchier feel on the paper. It is perfect for certain types of drawings. It’s also way easier and cheaper to buy several different colored fineliners to use for your artwork than it is to ink 8 fountain pens with different colored inks.

The tool I use least for inking is probably ballpoint pens, but that’s not through any fault of the pens themselves, just more my own drawing preference. I'll touch on their strengths and weaknesses in this section.

Do You Need an Expensive Fountain Pen?

You do not need a fancy and expensive 14k gold-nibbed fountain pen to make amazing artwork. There are certain features and characteristics only available on higher priced models, but none of them are required to make superb artwork. 

Let me illustrate with kitchen knives again. You can spend $230 on a high end, handcrafted Japanese Chef’s knife (or “Gyuto”, as it’s called) made with VG10 steel and a sleek genuine mahogany wood handle. You can also buy a mass-produced $40 Victorinox Chef’s knife with a plastic handle and made with steel not unique enough to be mentioned as a feature. 

Can both knives dice a butternut squash? Yup. Did the person who purchased the $230 Japanese knife suddenly become a better cook? Nope. Does their squash taste better? Also, nope.

The Japanese knife is made from more expensive materials in a process that also costs more in labor. It isn’t superior to the $40 knife from a cooking standpoint. 

The same goes for pens. Fancy pens cost more because of the components and the craftsmanship, but you won’t produce better art because you bought a high end pen. But you might feel guilty if you don’t like the kinds of lines it makes and so you never use it.

For an excellent fountain pen for any level of artist, I love the Pilot Penmanship with an Extra Fine nib. I like the contoured grip section. The nib is very fine and allows for clean uncluttered linework. 

If you want to get started with a fountain pen, the Pilot Penmanship will get you plenty far. I use mine all the time. Plus it’s super cheap so I own 5 of them and keep them inked in different colors to keep my drawings fresh. 

And best of all, I don’t have to feel bad about not using it all the time when I want to use other inking tools because it costs so little.

The Best Fountain Pen Inks For Artists

I ink my pens with De Atramentis Artist Ink, mostly custom mixes that I make using the Blue, Magenta, and Yellow inks. With this setup not only can I mix a huge range of colors, but I find I don’t really need to buy a black ink. I have a jar I call the “swill bucket” where I dump my failed mixes and unused ink portions from using it with a dip pen. It’s a lovely shade of charcoal black. Plus the shade is always shifting slightly which makes it a delight to draw with every time I refill my pen. I prefer it to black ink, but if you only want to buy one bottle of ink, you can't go wrong with black.

Their Document Ink line is also worth checking out since it is more widely available. The Artist inks are identical in formulation to the Document inks. They’ve just been rebranded because many artists enjoy that these inks are pigment based and lightfast, so your work won’t fade or change color if you decide to display or sell it rather than keep it confined to the dark pages of a sketchbook.

I’ve never had any issues with this ink. It’s reliable, doesn’t clog or bleed, it’s waterproof, and alcohol marker proof. It also works well with dip pens and I love that the inks can be mixed to make a wide range of colors.

I think these inks are great if you are an artist looking for archival quality in your materials and want a color selection as well.

Fineliner Pens

If you don’t want the maintenance and extra startup costs of a fountain pen, then a fineliner pen is great.

My favorite brand is the Sakura Pigma Micron fineliners and my primary size I reach for is a 01. I sometimes switch to a 005 for finer details or a 05 for thicker lines. These pen nibs have the sketchiest feel and I love the Sepia color for a fun alternative to black. They’re also available in the widest color range I’ve found for pigment fineliners so there is a lot of room to experiment. 

The Uni Pin fineliner tends to be the cheapest, although not as ubiquitously available as the Sakura Pigma Micron pens, and not available in as many colors. It writes juicier and makes smoother lines, if that’s more your style. It is fantastic in black but I find their colors to be lackluster and inconsistent. The browns are weak and the grays are different shades depending on the size of the nib. 

There’s not a whole lot of nuance between the different brands I’ve tried and I use them all interchangeably. This is not a purchase where the brand is worth fussing over. If you like fineliners or want to try a fineliner, I’d recommend getting whatever is most easily available to you.

A Note on Ballpoint Pens

Ballpoint pens come in a wide range of colors and they’re cheap and easy to obtain. The ink in most roller-ball style pens is a water-based paste-like consistency. I’ve found that this creates two drawbacks for me.

The first is that it begins to cake up on the edge of the pen tip, and if not blotted frequently on a scratch piece of paper will deposit little ink blobs on your drawing. 

The second is that the ink dries more slowly, making it prone to smudging if you accidentally drag your hand through it. To prevent this you have to keep another scratch bit of paper to cover bits you’ve already inked if you want to lay your hand down on the paper. 

I do use ballpoints from time to time because they shade really well. You can create smooth, soft patches of ink that can even be layered with different colors for even more shading. So it’s pretty neat. 

I like the Uni-ball Signo 0.38mm, I find these make the most consistent marks. The Zebra Sarasa Clip Gel pens are also nice, and both come in a staggering number of colors.

If color is your vibe then you might enjoy experimenting with ballpoint.

    It’s not about the tools, it’s about the artist who holds them

    When starting out with a new medium it can be tempting to accumulate piles of supplies, many of them redundant, for the sake of trying things out and seeing what works best. Or jumping to the most expensive options with the hope of eliminating trial and error. But having the best or the most art supplies doesn’t make you a better artist. At some point you have to do the work. 

    It makes sense to pick a tool to start with and master it before moving on to see if something might suit you better. Afterall, how would you know which qualities need to be improved upon if you haven’t developed your own way of doing things yet. 

    It’s like if you buy yourself a shiny new kitchen knife because you want to learn how to cook but have somehow made it this far in your life without ever having prepared a meal for yourself. Your first meal might not be a resounding success. But that isn’t through any fault of the knife. You have to develop good technique, put in the time, and find out the best way to use your new knife to get the results you want. Only then can you consider if your knife might be limiting your growth as a chef, or perhaps you might prefer a different style blade. 

    It is the same with art. Only it feels better to discover that a pen that cost you a few dollars isn’t really your favorite than one that cost you several hundred. And once you’ve found your drawing groove, there’s nothing wrong with trying new tools more suitable to the way you work.

    All of the supplies I’ve mentioned are tried and true favorites that I use all the time. Many of them I haven’t felt the need to move on from and I buy them on repeat. 

    I’ve included links below to the best deals I could find on the tools that I’ve mentioned. Some are affiliate links but if possible, you should support your local art store.

    I hope you found my pen and ink art supply picks useful. If you did and you’d like to see more reviews of art supplies and tips in the future, please consider subscribing to my email list below to be notified when I post new blog content.

    And I would love to hear what your favorite drawing tools are, or if you have questions about supplies after reading this article, talk to me in the comments below. Happy sketching!

    The Stillman and Birn Alpha and Nova Sketchbook

    Pentel Quick-clicker Mechanical Pencil

    Uni Nanodia Lead

    Sakura Sumo Grip Eraser and Staedtler Mars Plastic Eraser

    Pilot Penmanship Fountain Pen and Ink Converter (or save even more when you buy two)

    DeAtramentis Artist Ink and Document Ink

    Sakura and Uni Pin Fineliners

    Uni-ball Signo 0.38mm in Black or my favorite Off Black Colors

    Zebra Sarasa Clip Gel Pens in Black or my favorite Vintage Colors


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