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Everything old is new again : Getting excited about Dipping Nibs

October 7, 2014

Everyone who sketches has a love of pens. We all have a collection of our favorites, the ones that feel right in our hand. I’ve certainly laid down a lot of miles with my personal trifecta: a ballpoint, the Lamy Safari, and the Pentel Pocket Brush (replaced these days with the Kuretake #13 plus Sable tip add-on).


I think I might be ready to retire my manufactured pens, in favor of dipping nibs. These little tin nibs are just so flexible. (Pun intended).


The great thing about nibs – they come in so many sizes and shapes – you can get a whole range of drawing styles for a few bucks. My mainstays (right now) are: a new Japanese crowquill called a “G” nib (used for fine lines).  A weird Brause nib called 361 Steno or ‘The Blue Pumpkin’. It’s a larger nib featuring a gunmetal blue finish. It seems to be a bit more flexy, offering a large range of tapering marks. And some chisel tips from Brause in 1 and 2.5 mm, used for bolder brush-like marks. These chisel nibs are the grandfather of the new ‘Parallel Pen’ you may have seen on the market.

Most of these were in the back of a drawer for 20 years, so I have no idea where they came from. But these days they are all available on Or, if you prefer to shop locally, just look for a stationers with a calligraphy section.


The first thing you’ll notice, drawing with a dipping nib, is the nice range between thick and thin marks you can make. They’re much more responsive than a fountain pen.  For me, the next huge discovery is how easy it is to switch colors on the fly. And to jump around between water proof and water soluble on the same drawing. I have a little fleet of jars with different custom ink mixes. It’s like alchemy, combining colors to get a favorite shade.

Yes, you could just carry a fat handful of pens (like my online crush Andrew Tan), but you’d need quite a few fountain pens to cover all the combos of nib styles, colored inks and solubility. I enjoy the elegance and efficiency in this minimal kit of pen nibs.


Shown here: 1 oz (30ml) Nalgene jars (leakproof). Syringe with large bore needle for measuring out ink mixes. ‘Clip-on’ oil painters medium tin that can go right onto a sketchbook or drawing board. I have four of them, from the Guerilla Paintbox brand – these have a rubber seal to prevent leaks.



Doing these ‘research drawings’ side by side with some traditional Lamy pen work had me saying “Time to toss out all the modern conveniences!”.

The only thing holding me back is the issue of mess. There is a much higher risk of ink spots, drips and stained fingers. And perhaps one day a serious spill. But you know, I think the risk is worth it. There is an energy to a messy drawing that I enjoy. I don’t want it to be perfect. If I wanted that, I’d go back to my previous career in digital art.

Next pen drawing outing (not sure when that will be – let me know if you want it soon!) I’m going to try Kiah Kiean’s ancient Chinese trick – filling a bottle with gauze, which is then saturated with ink. I want to see if this makes it spill proof. I’m not sure if it’s going to interfere with loading the pens with enough ink. More on that soon-ish.


25 Comments leave one →
  1. Mili_Fay permalink
    October 7, 2014 10:26 AM

    I have just decided to illustrate my novel series using dip pens with nibs. I’m having so much fun! They are great. The only downside is that sometimes after I spend hours of inking (you can see some of the new illustrations at the bottom of this post if you are curious: a drop of ink would drip onto my page. I’m crazy careful working with nibs, but it happens. I think I may try a more sketchy feel for my upcoming children’s book. Anyway, the point is: if you have not used a dip pen to date, you have not lived. ;-)

    I really like the new acrylic inks that are available, because they are permanent and you can get them in many colours that you can mix to get even more colours. However, to date I have stuck to sepia and black, and have added colour with watercolours. :-)

    • October 7, 2014 12:59 PM

      Hey Great work Mili – nice pen work! I know what you mean about the drips! lucky for me, I just make everything so loose normally it blends in :) Not so easy with your refined work. Might try taping a clean sheet over the finished areas? I also take out that sort of blemish in photoshop after making the scan. (Clone tool). Are you doing your own scanning?

  2. October 7, 2014 10:57 AM

    I’ve not yet done so, but I’m going to have to start using dip pens. I’m familiar with them from my old medieval-style calligraphy days. But now I’m going to be doing historical re-enactment (again) but in the year 1855 and interpreting the art of the period at a Fort. So it’s back to dip pens! My first thought was concern about the mess. I have a period appropriate ceramic ink well. I eagerly await your experiment with the cotton. That I’d not heard of before! I’ve reading Cathy Johnson’s “Drawing on the Past”.
    Cheers, Kate B.

    • pegjuanita permalink
      October 7, 2014 8:12 PM

      Kate, see my post below for some good tricks.

  3. October 7, 2014 11:54 AM

    My old dip pen is one of my most treasured possessions. I use it all the time. It dates from the 1970s (it belonged to one of my older brothers before me) and I have had to replace some of the nibs but even then only in the last ten years. I actually even sometimes use a goose-feather quill (or at least I did until I emigrated – I couldn’t bring it with me so I need a replacement) because I love the scratchy, messy quality I get with it when drawing. I quite like the extra drips, splatters and dribbles when they happen with sketching with my dip pen (less so when working on “complete” pieces). There’s an energy and dynamism inherent in all those scruffy marks that adds something to the drawing. In all my years of drawing with pen and ink, the only time I have ever spilled ink was in life drawing classes and each time was because I moved to get a different angle. There is actually little risk I think if you are holding one position or working at a table. I look forward to reading about your experiment with the gauze as that is not something I have heard of before.

    • October 7, 2014 1:00 PM

      “There’s an energy and dynamism inherent in all those scruffy marks” – Yes! Exactly :)

  4. Tony Underhill permalink
    October 7, 2014 1:48 PM

    Hi Marc. Thanks for sharing the insight into your thinking. Interesting to see the changes you’re contemplating as regards drawing tools not long after the changes you made in painting method and style. Never stand still I guess. And I love the sketch of Shari …. hope she does too. Meant to reply to your earlier post re Pete Scully’s wonderful hand drawn maps. Had the pleasure of meeting Pete and sketching the Wren churches with him when he was in London on his summer break. Best. Tony

  5. Abrian Curington permalink
    October 7, 2014 1:51 PM

    I love dip pens! I’ve used them since I was little. I’ve been favoring the Brause Rose and Blue Pumpkin lately, along with my usual fine, rigid unidentified nibs… and for lettering I use either Leonardt or Brause. I don’t really enjoy the feeling of Speedball typically.

    Great post!

  6. October 7, 2014 4:28 PM

    OK, getting out the dip pen, I have also held off for fear of disaster, “energy and dynamism” trumps that for sure.

  7. pegjuanita permalink
    October 7, 2014 8:10 PM

    Like minds, Marc: I JUST pulled out a few of my nib pens and had the same experience and “discovery.” The best way to carry ink: Old film canisters, each one has a piece of foam stuffed into it, not compressed, just trimmed so it fits nicely. Add the ink. When you dip your pen, the foam sponge is soft enough to allow you to compress it enough to get the whole nib into the ink. LONG ago, a friend who did calligraphy taught me that trick. Also told me about Mitchell nibs, also a little flat piece that clips to the underside of the nib and acts as a well, thus one dips much less frequently. Enjoy!!

    • December 4, 2014 7:27 PM

      This idea is excellent. I too have tended to stick with cartridge pens and rollerballs just because of the risk of spillages and having to usually stuff my sketch kit in a (non upright) position which might not be ideal for bottles of ink in my suitcase! OF COURSE film canisters ARE the answer, and will adapt one for drawing ink just as soon as my next studio session! NOTHING beats pen drawing with a metal nib, so MANY THANKS for this encouragement!

  8. Anne permalink
    October 7, 2014 10:27 PM

    Ah…dip pens, countless hours with them on a New Orleans college campus, then misplaced for many years after many moves. Now they are almost 55 years old and still my favorite so I love seeing these posts. Second love, also from college, is india ink with large Chinese brushes so a recent purchase (on eBay) was an old yatate from Japan that I stuff with silk scraps to hold my ink. Well, where can I find old film canasters? Pencils, charcoal, fountain pens…never have I loved anything like those dip pens, and now,, adding some watercolor. Thanks for the reinforcement for my first love, there is nothing like them!

    • October 8, 2014 8:27 AM

      Heh :) I am imagining pulling out a yatate at a sketching meet up :) very cool!

  9. Nathalie permalink
    October 8, 2014 5:43 AM

    Great post. Thanks Marc.

  10. October 8, 2014 6:44 AM

    Hi Marc,
    Great post. The gauze trick works. The trick is to get the right amount of ink associated with the wad of gauze you stuff in the Nalgene bottle. Too little and the nibs don’t pick up enough ink. Too much and there’s too much liquid ink and it could spill. My bottle would spill if I turned it upside down, I guess but turning it on its side causes a bit of ink to flow along the low side but not sufficient to actually spill out of the bottle.

    I’m just starting to play around with this myself. My ‘standard’ dip pens work well but I’m struggling a bit with the Tachikawa nib holder. I love them and bought it because of the protective cap that comes with them BUT, as you know, they are larger in diameter and I end up getting ink all over the handle trying to dip it into the Nalgene bottle. And ink on fingers means ink on everything :-) If you have a solution for that, please report :-)

    Cheers — Larry

    • October 30, 2014 11:59 PM

      This happens to me as well – ink on the holder. I try to remember to hold it further back – like an arteest with a brush. And I put my pinky out. Just to look classy.

  11. October 8, 2014 8:32 AM

    This is great – I’ll have to see if I have any foam bits lying around.
    Maybe pillow filling stuff will work too. Re: film canisters – (if you still have any!) just have to watch out for the pop when the lid comes off! I used to get a fine spray of dots every time :)

  12. Larry Goldfarb permalink
    October 28, 2014 5:26 PM

    Can anyone tell me where I can buy reservoir tips. Cannot find them at Jetpens or
    European Paper.

  13. October 28, 2014 5:35 PM

    Larry, you have to look closely but Jet Pens does have some, at least for crow-quill like nibs. They actually have a couple types so look close at the extra photos for the products. Here’s one:

  14. Larry Goldfarb permalink
    October 29, 2014 11:13 AM

    Thanks Larry

  15. June 3, 2016 10:51 AM

    Hi Marc – love your work and blog.

    Random question: how do you transfer the ink from the original bottle to the nalgene bottles?


  16. June 3, 2016 11:24 AM

    Hi Marc – love your work and blog!

    Random question: how do you transfer the ink from the noodler’s bottles to your small nalgene bottles?


    • June 3, 2016 1:40 PM

      Hey Eric – I use a blunt hypodermic – (for medicine dispensing I do believe – so maybe you can get one from a pharmacy) – I got it from Private Reserve Ink in a big set of sample colors they sent me ages ago.

  17. Amy McLaughlin permalink
    June 29, 2016 6:19 PM

    Enjoyed this. Fell heir to an art hoard that includes a cigar box full of various dip pens and tips. Based on dates of clippings of calligraphy samples. I believe it belonged to my great aunt. Decided to buy some ink and play with them. I’ve always loved the look of pen and ink art. With or without watercolor.

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