The best pens for artists in 2021
Having the best pens can really make a difference to your life is an artist. But how can you decide on what’s the best pen for you? It’s a difficult one, because pens are used for so many different things. So in this post, we’ve gathered the opinions of artists, designers and other creatives to find out which pens should be in your desk drawer.
Read on and you’ll find out which are the best drawing pens, of course, but we’ve also got the also the best pens for writing, the best pen for sketching, the best calligraphy pens and so on. In short, whatever you need a pen for, you’ll find the right one for you in this list. If you’re sorting out your full pencil case, take a look at our guide to the best pencils, too. And once you’re armed with the right equipment, don’t miss our how to draw tutorials.
The best pens for artists right now
Picking the best pen for drawing was a close-run competition, but ultimately we had to opt for the Copic 1.0 mm Multiliner, which is a truly premium quality pen in all respects. The ink is densely pigmented, holds well on paper, and creates crisp, clean lines. Copic sells its Multiliners in a range of thicknesses, so you can pick the option that suits your artistic style best. Artists report they’re comfortable to use, and not scratchy – even in the finer sizes. Finally, the range is good value for money, and refillable.
Ben O’Brien, aka Ben the Illustrator, started using Copic pens a couple of years ago for the Inktober challenge. While he used a range of different nib options, his preference was for the 1.0 pen (although he also noted Copic’s Multiliner brush pen is “brilliant”). “I find thinner pens too scratchy, but the 1.0 has a luscious feel to it. I use it for ‘good drawings’, usually on textured watercolour paper.”
“Copic fine liners are great for drawing,” agrees interactive designer Sush Kelly. “I mainly use them for inking sketches; I wouldn’t waste these bad boys on notes and so on. I love the super-fine, refillable nibs; I tend to use a 0.05, 0.1, 0.3, 0.5 and 0.8.”
With its hardwearing synthetic bristles, sturdy, precise tip and waterproof, fade-resistant ink, the Pentel Brush Pen runs a close second for our favourite all-round pen for drawing. The artists we spoke to commented that these pens are great for creating a variety of different line types – although the delicate nib does take some getting used to. The deep black pigment scans very well; ideal if you want to finish your artwork digitally. You’ll need to be careful transporting them though – the ink can leak or clump if the lid isn’t on tight.
Illustrator Ailish Sullivan has fond memories of receiving her first Pentel Brush Pen. “A guy on my illustration course gave me one and I was blown away,” she recalls. “I think I drew everything for the rest of my course with it, because it added character and a personal touch to every stroke. I have now dated this guy for 10 years… a love story started by a brush pen!
“I love the variety of lines you can get from the pen. If you want to get really expressive, the individual hairs create a great texture when you really sweep it across the page. When you want something really precise it can also perform well, with practice. When you want to add a feeling of weight, you can increase the pressure ever so slightly and get a bolder finish.
“It does take a lot of practice because it’s so delicate,” she cautions. “I’ve tried the Kuretake Sumi brush pen and Pentel Sign pen alternatives and they are much easier to use, but have less potential.”
The Pilot V7 Rollerball is essentially a hybrid between a fountain pen and a ballpoint, and our favourite pen for writing. Comfortable to hold, it produces a clean, consistent line with no smudging, and there’s a transparent ink reservoir window so you can be sure of getting hold of extra refills in time.
Kelly uses the 0.7mm version for everything from scribbling to-do lists to creating quick wireframes. “It has such a great feel,” he enthuses. “It possibly wouldn’t be so good for really accurate drawing, as the flow is quite quick for a rollerball. But otherwise, this is my go-to pen.”
If you’re looking for the best ballpoint pen, we’d recommend the Pilot BPS GP Fine. This smooth, stick ballpoint with triangular rubber grip is comfortable to hold, cheap to buy, and beautifully functional in use. However, like most ballpoint pens, ink clots can form on the tip, which will smear if they end up on your paper. This ballpoint pen includes 0.7mm, 1.0mm, 1.2mm and 1.6mm options.
Most people use them for writing of course, but it’s not unheard of to use them for drawing too. Illustrator Gaia Brodicchia sometimes uses the Pilot for black and white interior illustrations. “Shading with it produces darker drawings than working with graphite, but the process is identical; it only requires a lighter hand,” she explains. “The Pilot Fine tip works well even on smaller details, which are usually an issue with other brands of ballpoint pen. It gives a really good tonal range. I actually keep one that’s a bit spent for the lighter areas, and a new one for the darker parts of the illustrations.”
These are quite hard to get hold of in the US, so a good alternative is Paper Mate’s ballpoint pens, which also feature a soft grip.
Maybe it’s because we’re Japanophiles, but Muju’s MoMa pen with its unusual 0.38mm tip is our clear favourite for the best gel pen. These produce a thin line and consistent flow, and the ink won’t run when wet. You can also buy refills.
And art director, designer and illustrator Savanna Rawson uses them for the linework in her illustrations. “Originally I was most interested in using this pen for my quite tiny handwriting, but in the last few years have I been using them for drawing as well,” she says. “I find it great for the line work in my illustrations, which I then complete with watercolour washes. The ink doesn’t reactivate with the water, which is perfect.”
If calligraphy is your thing, the best pen for you is the Tombow Fudenosuke brush pen. You might assume that the best calligraphy pens cost a lot of money. But actually, our recommendation is a brand that’s both made in Japan and delivers excellent results, yet is surprisingly affordable. Coming as a set, with one soft type and one hard type, these light pens are very easy to use, with a flexible nib that’s perfect for the nuanced lines and curves needed for crafting beautiful Japanese script.
“I recently got a proper calligraphy set with nibs and inks and all that,” says brand and marketing guru Aleksandra Tambor. “But my Tombow brush pens are still the best for quick calligraphy and lettering.”
Specifically looking for a pen for sketching? Then we recommend the Platinum carbon fountain pen, with its ultra-fine nib. Unlike most fountain pens, the nib isn’t rounded off, so you can use it to create thick or thin lines. Your expressive linework won’t run with water either, thanks to the carbon ink. It’s also great value for money. Like some other pens on this list, there’s a learning curve on this one, as it can feel scratchy to start with.
Wil Freeborn, an illustrator and watercolour artist based in Glasgow, describes it as: “The closest I’ve found to using a dip pen on the go. Using it literally changed how I draw.” Freeborn uses this pen mainly for sketching. “It gives a really naturalistic expressive line, great for drawing in cafes,” he enthuses. “I use it with a Pentel Brush Pen, which pretty covers most of what I need. It needs quite a smooth paper to work, so wouldn’t really be suited with a rough watercolour paper.”
It was a very close-run thing, but we’ve plumped for the Sakura Pigma Graphic 1 as our runner-up for best sketching pen. This pen, which combines water-based and pigment-based inks, is a seriously fine model, delivering a bold, consistent line and superb colour transferal.
Illustrator Anna Rose uses it for quick sketchbook studies, and finds it works particularly well for buildings, objects, food and lettering (although less so for people and animals). “The consistency of the ink and the way the pen tip glides mean I can get expressive lines and marks down immediately,” she says. “I also love the width of the line. With fine liners, I get too precious about lines. But the Graphic lays down a bold line, so it sort of forces me to be bold and really commit to the lines.”
The Sakura Pigma Micron is our pick for the best pen for lettering and line art. It creates a pleasingly dark line that bleeds very little, is archival safe, and won’t smudge when washed or erased over. The tips are fine but not too delicate, and they’re also odour-free. With a little practice, you can also use them to create a variety of line types – although if you’re wanting a lot of line variation, you’re better off with a brush pen. You’ll also want to add a marker to your pen set if you need to fill in large areas of shadow. Any downsides? Well, the nibs can sometimes spit a little ink, and the line can crack if used with some types of paper.
Cartoonist Aaron Uglum uses a Sakura Micron 08 for the majority of his line art and lettering, with a 01 for details such as eyes and mouths. He started out using a traditional dip pen with India Ink, but didn’t like the setup and clean-up time it required. “Eventually I moved to the 08 as my pen of choice,” he explains. “I liked being able to just pick up a pen and start inking. No worries about spilling the India Ink. And I could stop inking whenever and just walk away. No cleaning pen nibs. Very convenient. And it was still good ink.”
Concept artist Courtland Winslow is also an admirer of the Pigma Micron line, and regularly makes use of the 0.2mm version (the 005) in combination with a Copic Y19 Napoli Yellow (see number 13). Of the Micron, he says: “I needed a liner that wouldn’t run when washed or erased over, a good feeling tip that was both as thin as possible and sturdy, because I don’t have a very light hand.”
PaperMate’s Flair Original felt tips are ideal for adding a splash of colour to your pen work. If you’re sick of looking back on your notes, only to be faced with an inchoate mass of scribbles, these are the felt-tip pens for you. The colours are vibrant and bold, and won’t smudge or bleed. They flow smoothly across paper and the nibs won’t fray. If you’re thinking of using these for illustration, be aware they’re better suited to outlines – you’ll want something chunkier for colouring in large areas.
Ross Middleham, content lead at the Met Office, uses them for scribbling, storyboarding and general note-taking. “I love making notes in multiple colours as it simply livens up the day. My fave is the hot pink, which really zings on a white page,” he says. “You can be confident that the stroke you want will be the stroke it makes.”
Looking to draw living things? Check out the Kuretake Sumi brush pen. It offers a wide variation in line width to give your sketches an organic, dynamic feel that’s well suited to portraits, animals and plants.
“It’s refillable and fits a Platinum converter, which is very helpful because the ink that comes with it isn’t anything special or waterproof,” comments Rose. “It would be nice if Kuretake supplied a waterproof ink themselves, though; I do worry that the Platinum may clog it up eventually.”
Short on cash, but still want a decent pen? Our budget choice is Berol’s Colour Fine range, which has a fine tip that’s suitable for detailed colouring and drawing. The perennial classroom favourite, these felt-tipped pens are available in a variety of colours (if you don’t want the full set, you can buy these individually), and are strong, sturdy and reliable.
“I have used Berol colour fineliners all my life, in all different colours. The bolder colours – especially the orange and light blue – have got a really good tone to them,” says O’Brien. “I have black ones littered around my desk, bag and house for writing lists and notes, and the colour ones I usually use for more experimental sketchbook work, or bringing a little colour to observational line drawings when I travel.”
For colour fills and shading, you can’t beat Copic Sketch markers. The lines blend together seamlessly for block shading, and if you leave them to dry, they won’t bleed into each other much. They feature one brush tip and one wedge tip, meaning you can also use them for fine details. The full range includes a whopping 358 colours (buy the full set here, if you’re feeling flush), so you’re bound to find the shade you want.
Concept artist Courtland Winslow is a loyal user of the Copic Y19 Napoli Yellow, which he uses in conjunction with the Micron 005 (see number 9, above).
The Pentel XGFKP/FP10-A Brush Pen is specifically designed for oriental artwork, cartoons and calligraphy. This light pen has a soft, flexible nib that’s great for both fine detail and graceful, sweeping lines.
As such, fashion, beauty, food and lifestyle illustrator Niki Groom, aka Miss Magpie, typically uses it at to add finishing touches to the end of any artwork. “I call this my desert island pen,” she says. “I use it to add names for live illustration work, and to make areas even more black if I’m not happy with the depth of colour.”