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Tutorial: Basics of Drawing with Nib Pens

In this guest blog, winner of the #CreateArtHistory challenge, Natasha Sim walks you through the process of using Nib Pens in your art.

Nib pens (or dip pens) have been used widely since the early 19th century. They’re a fantastic medium to use for illustration because they’re relatively cheap, easy to learn and capable of producing expressive linework! In this tutorial, I’ll show you the basics of drawing with nib pens and give you a rundown of the stuff I use. I’ll also show you how I use them to ink a pencil sketch.

What I Use

Pen shafts and nibs

I use Speedball pen shafts. These can take both Speedball and Hunt branded nibs. I was first gifted a set of these by an American pen pal in high school, and I’ve stuck with these brands since! I’ve seen the pen shafts sold online for about US$2 to $4 and AU$6 to $7 each. The nibs can be as cheap as US$1.60 or AU$2 each, depending on which nib you buy.

The nibs I have in my set are:

Larger Nibs

  • Hunt 100 Artist: Produces a delicate line but will blot and/or catch on the paper and splatter sometimes!
  • Hunt 99 Drawing (RECOMMENDED): Great for illustrators! You can get a wide variety of line widths out of this one.
  • Hunt 22B Extra Fine: A little bit stiffer than the Hunt 99.

Smaller Nibs

  • Hunt 107 Hawk Quill (RECOMMENDED): Quite stiff – good for drawing lines of consistent width
  • Hunt 102 Crow Quill: Produces incredibly fine lines – great for working on very small details if you like to work small

You can buy the pen shafts and nibs separately and use the same pen shaft with different nibs. The pen shaft has a hole at the bottom where you can insert the nib. Here, the larger nibs go with the black pen shaft and the smaller nibs with the brown.

Other Stuff

You don’t need expensive paper to use nib pens. Just make sure your paper is thick and smooth, otherwise, the more flexible nibs may catch on it. Have some scrap paper nearby so you can test out your pen on it.

You can get both water-based and waterproof inks. Buy inks that are sold in ink bottles that allow you to dip your pen into the ink bottle.

Wash your pen nib in a cup of water while you’re drawing. This prevents ink drying and crusting on the nib. Use a toothbrush to gently scrub off any dried ink, and a paper towel to dry the nibs once you’re done (otherwise they’ll rust).

The Basics

A. Before you use the nibs, soak them in just-boiled water. New nibs have a water-repellent coating on them to prevent them being damaged while in storage. This coating can prevent the ink flowing properly.

B. Insert the nib into the hole at the bottom of the pen shaft.

C. Dip the pen into the ink, deep enough that the ink covers the vent.

D. Draw by placing gentle pressure on the nib, releasing the ink onto the page. Avoid “upward” pen strokes.

Inking a sketch with nib pens

You can get a wide range of effects out of nib pens, depending on how you use them. Since I’ve been playing Tabi Kaeru/“Journey Frog”/旅かえる, I’m going to be inking a drawing of a traveling frog to show you one way of using them. For this drawing, I use the Hunt 99 Drawing and Hunt 107 Hawk Quill nibs.

Let’s get started!

1. Try to ink things from the top to the bottom, and from left to right (if you are lefthanded, go from right to left), to minimise the risk of smudging. Let the ink dry before you return to an area of your drawing.

2. With the Hunt 99 nib, I use quick, short strokes to indicate the texture of the frog’s hiking stick.

3. Since the frog’s hiking stick is behind the frog’s leaf hat, I’ve used a thicker line for the hat to indicate depth. Still using the same Hunt 99 nib, just putting more pressure on it!

4. If you’re inking in this style, try to only lift your pen when you hit a corner in your artwork, so that it’s not obvious where you’ve lifted your pen off the page. If your pen does run out of ink partway through a line, reload it with ink and re-start your inking just before where you ran out.

5. I used the Hunt 107 to do some hatching details on the frog’s lantern, as I needed a nib which could produce steady, uniform lines.

6. Wait until you’re sure that the ink is dry before carefully erasing any bits of your sketch that are still visible.

The pencil sketch of my frog.

The complete line-art, ready for colour on the computer!

The completed work! Ready for upload!

That brings us to the end of the tutorial! I hope you enjoyed it and that you consider using nib pens in your future designs! If you have any questions, please feel free to send me a message or post a comment and I’ll reply.

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Natasha Sim

I am a self-taught illustrator who works as a full-time lawyer. My work is characterised by a strong but versatile style.