Which Pens & Pencils Should You Use?

One of the most common questions beginning artists have is “Which pens and pencils should I use?” The best answer is always…whichever ones you have on hand! When you’re first starting off, that’s seriously and honestly the best answer. Why would you wait until you had the top of the line of any art supply to start?

Here’s the downside of waiting…

If you’re going to wait until you get high-end pens and pencils, you’re wasting time. That’s time you could have been getting serious practice in. If all you have is a yellow Ticonderoga pencil, USE IT! If all you have is a regular blue Bic ballpoint pen, USE THAT TOO!

The good ol’ #2 Ticonderoga school pencil and an ordinary Bic pen. You’d be surprised at what a Bic can do!

Look at it this way, if you can master your skills using what most consider “substandard” supplies, think about how far ahead of the game you’ll be when you can get your hands on actual artist’s pens and pencils!

Also, let’s assume you heard through the artist’s grapevine that a certain brand of pencils (or pens) is the best. You rush out to purchase the same brand. When you get home and dig in to a new project, you find that the brand you purchased, the one you’ve heard so much about, doesn’t work well for the type of art you do, or it doesn’t fit your particular style. A total waste of money and time!

Here’s the thing…

Pencils don’t really get that expensive unless you’re talking about large sets of colored pencils. Pens have the potential to get pricey from the get go, depending on what you’re looking for. Let’s break it down.

My two favorite brands of artist’s pencils…Prismacolor and Mars Staedtler.
  • Pencils
  • Everyday pencils like Ticonderoga
  • Cheap
  • One graphite hardness
  • Medium grey
  • Silver graphite shine when trying to draw super dark areas (never gets truly black)
  • Artist Pencils
  • Costs more than Ticonderoga but still relatively inexpensive
  • Multiple graphite hard/softness (6H [extremely hard-light grey] to 9B [extremely soft-dark black])
  • Available in sets
  • Easier to avoid the graphite shine

What this means in a nutshell…

If all you have to start out with is your average yellow school pencil…USE IT. Don’t let that stop you. You’ll gain experience in the meantime. However, you may run into some challenges. While they are most definitely cheap, there’s only one graphite hardness. #2. That’s it. Depending on how hard you press while drawing, you’ll be able to create light grey to medium dark grey. The harder you push, the more of a graphite shine you will get. You’ll never get to a true black. Bummer. AND your work will not last very long because these pencils are not in the least bit archival. Major bummer.

So there’s a bummer and a major bummer involved. But in the meantime, you learn how to compensate for working with only one graphite hardness. Whenever you’re able to obtain a set of artist pencils, you’ll be ahead of the game and you’ll find that your work comes much easier with a variety of graphite hard/softnesses available to you.

Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph refillable pens and Sukura Micron fineliner pens
  • Pens
  • Office supply ballpoint pens like Bic
  • Cheap
  • Various colors
  • Artist fine line pens (markers)
  • Average $2.50/pen
  • Various colors
  • Multiple sizes 005 (smallest) to 08 (largest)
  • Can be purchased in sets
  • Available in archival inks (see note below)
  • Artist ink pens (free flowing ink)
  • Average $4 to $5/pen
  • Various colors
  • Disposable and refillable options
  • Variety of nibs and/or brushes
  • Available in archival inks (see note below)
  • Available in refillable versions
  • Can be purchased in sets

What this means in another nutshell…

This is what ordinary Bic pens are capable of. Left: Blue Bic ballpoint pen portrait by artist, Mostafa Khodier. Right: Artist Samuel Silva used regular office Bic pens, 8 colors.

If all you have to start off with is a Bic pen…USE IT! There’s no shame in using Bic pens. I have seen some extraordinary artists who only use Bic pens or other varieties of regular office variety ballpoint pens to create photo-realistic portraits. However, ballpoint pens may not give you the look you’re after.

Comic book artists, for example, use fine line pens or ink pens. For those, you might be able to find starter sets on Amazon. Or, if you time things right (at the start of college semesters) most art supply stores have drastic discounts that you can cash in on, both in-store and online.

Refillable pens are more expensive up front, but cost effective in the long run.

For refillable pens, it’s important to note that these might be more expensive up front, but you save when you only end up having to purchase the ink to refill. A lot of the refill bottles fill up pens many times over before you have to buy another refill.

As for recommending a brand, I hesitate to do so. Everybody has their own personal preference. Some inks (even fine line pens/markers) flow differently. I’ve heard artists on both sides swear to their preferred brand and won’t ever touch the others. So what’s a new artist to do if you’ve never used any of them before?

There are two options…

  1. Go to an art supply store and test them out yourself.
  2. If that’s too much of an inconvenience, purchase only one pen online and see how you like it. If you don’t, you haven’t wasted too much money.

The thing with art supplies, even with something as ordinary as pens and pencils, what works best is primarily based on preference. Yes, there are industry standards. Pens and pencils that most artists use because that’s just what’s typical of the work or genre. But even within those typical supplies, lies room for what YOU prefer. I know some artists who weren’t 100% happy with anything sold here, in the US. They continued their search with the help of online stores like Amazon UK.

The point here is, use whatever you have on hand. If you don’t like what you have, search for something else, but don’t stop working in the meantime. If you do, you’re wasting valuable time. Never stop drawing just because you don’t have the ideal, most raved about supplies. Be proactive and if possible, test supplies before you spend money. But by no means should you not draw just because you don’t have the top of the line pen or pencil.

Will you be selling your work?

If you’re not selling your art, feel free to use whatever floats your boat. If you are going to sell your art, you’ll want to make sure your materials are archival (even your paper). While this may not be a big concern in the beginning, it’s definitely something to consider when you get to the point of making sales.

Remember the experience you’ll gain even with a Bic pen or #2 Ticonderoga pencil. As a matter of fact, that yellow school pencil was what I drew with for the first 24 years of my life. Mostly because I never knew that artists had special pencils. I also used Pentel RSVP pens for my ink drawings because for me, I felt I had better control of ballpoint that flowing ink. It’s still my preference for ink. And as much as I’d love to use brush and ink or free flowing ink with nib style pens, a benign tremor in my hands makes that option very difficult for me.

Feel free to test out what others suggest and claim as their favorites, but don’t feel like you’re limited to those choices. Ultimately, whatever you choose is up to you. It should be whatever you’re comfortable with and whatever works best for your type of art.

NOTE: If you are using non-archival materials (pens or pencils…or anything else for that matter) and intend to sell your work, the last thing you want is to have angry customers coming back stating that the artwork they paid good money for has faded. You might consider purchasing and spraying your work with archival fixatives and also advising your customer to put it in a frame with UV glass. Also hanging the artwork away from direct sunlight will prolong the life of your work.

Further Reading:

Graphite Pencils

Inktober 2018

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Myra Naito

Myra Naito

Freelance copywriter who is passionate about art and fitness. Check out my art blog at mnatiodesigns.com/blog/ or follow me @mnaito_fineart .