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Field Testing a Steel Brush

October 1, 2015


The other day we finally made it to Quebec City. We’ve been living in Montreal for about five years now, but for whatever reason, it took us this long to visit.

For our first trip, I wanted to hit the obvious highlights – the old town around the Château Frontenac. A lot of people feel they should go out of their way to find unique, undiscovered views in any town. Me, I tend to go right for the postcard view. I feel that given a limited amount of time, I want to start with the most recognizable spot, and move outward from there. I don’t know I’m that committed to this as a strategy, but it’s how I’m doing it for now.

15Sep06_Quebec_City_Post OFfice

We had arranged to meet up with a friend of ours – inveterate sketcher, Larry D. Marshall who knows the city from the pages of his own sketchbooks.  He walked us over to this perfect view of the cupola on the old post office. Larry’s a loyal reader of my blog, so I think he knows I’ll sketch any dome I can lay my eyes on :)

15Sep06_Quebec_City_Post Office Pano

This is actually a double-page spread – here’s the sketch combined with its other half making the panorama across the square.

These drawings are in a big 15×20” pad of Canson Montval. I made sure to bring large format paper, as I wanted to play with a 3/8” size Steel Brush. Which, as you can probably tell from the sketch, is a big huge nib. I mean – this drawing looks normal in proportion – but it’s 30” across.

NibShotThe steel brush is a rectangular sandwich of thin sheets of metal, each layer with a pattern of slots. When dipped, ink clings between the sheets of flexible metal, making a juicy reservoir of color.

I’ve had a few of these nibs in the back of a drawer for 20 years. I think I inherited them from an uncle. Unless I picked them up when I worked in an art supply store back in college. In any case – I’ve had them for a long, long time, and never had the nerve to draw with them. I had a 3/4” with me as well, but amusingly, it was too wide to fit down the neck of the 5ml ink bottles I carry.

So – these are only my first few drawings with this nib – I have to say – I really like it! The nib holds a lot of ink and can make broad and juicy strokes – as if you’re working with a watercolor flat – but somehow it’s a scratchy, springy, metallic flat. And, just like a watercolor flat, you can draw with the corners and the front edge, instead of the broad width. You get these weird wedgy cuneiform shapes, as well as some jagged slender-line work.

[If you order a Speedball Steel Brush on Amazon.usa I get a small kickback – thx!]
[Note: I see these are cheaper on Dick Blick]

Occasionally the leaves of the nib will catch on the paper and fling a spray of ink drops. I like this. I’m a huge fan of tools that put you on the edge of control. It’s more fun to draw with them. I get bored if my materials are too predictable. The drawing should be an interaction between you and the media.

15Sep06_Quebec_City_Place Royale

This last one from Place Royale – a scenic little square in the heart of the old town – has some fun effects. I wonder if anyone can guess how I got these effects?

15Sep06_Place Royale_Detail

I know we’ll be back to Quebec city sometime. There’s plenty more to draw. And I’m sure i’ll be playing with this pen some more – I’ll have to keep you updated. It might be interesting to try it with watercolor for instance. I’ll see what kind of fun and games I can get up to next time I have a day off to play with it.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. bluerock / debrazone permalink
    October 1, 2015 11:58 AM

    Nice! Many years ago we visited a friend in Quebec City and he took us on a day-long tour that included several waterfalls in the area. Definitely not the first thing you think of when you go to QC, but it was very cool.

  2. October 1, 2015 12:09 PM

    So glad you made it to QC Marc. I know Larry has been looking forward to your visit. I would have loved to have seen you working in the large format. Hope it wasn’t windy. I’ve had several of these steel nib pens since my days of lettering and calligraphy. I’ve never used watercolor in them but I did have success with watered-down gouache. Love the spontaneity of these sketches. As usual, you blow me away.

  3. October 1, 2015 12:12 PM

    Just fabulous sketches, Marc. Your work and your descriptions are so inspiring. And did you get the effects with salt? Just love it. Will try the nibs, too.

  4. October 1, 2015 12:12 PM

    Oh my, I have several steel brushes from about 40 years ago. Thanx for the idea of using them for sketching! Will I be brave enough!?!

  5. October 1, 2015 12:15 PM

    Beautiful sketches, really dynamic. I have never come across steel brushes in all my years of drawing with an ink dip pen. I will have to check them out. You have inspired me.

    I visited Quebec as part of a tour of NE America and SE Canada in 2001. We had not planned it but we pitched up in Quebec in the middle of a festival of the city’s history. It was fantastic and I have many fond memories of the place – and of Montreal. We stayed in an inn just opposite the Château Frontenac which was quite a treat. We want to take our kids to that region of Canada in the next year or so.

  6. mahreecastellano permalink
    October 1, 2015 12:16 PM

    Wonderful effects. Can’t wait to drag out my old steel brushes from calligraphy days and try them with sketching.

  7. October 1, 2015 1:11 PM

    I always enjoy reading your posts and seeing your work.

  8. October 1, 2015 1:11 PM

    Great sketches, I love the effects with the steel brush. I am a former Montrealer, and I have been to Quebec City once… It is beautiful… My favourite restaurant there is Aux Anciens Canadiens! I was amazed by all the historic old buildings , The province of Quebec is so picturesque … A wonderful place to visit!

  9. Debra permalink
    October 1, 2015 1:53 PM

    I’m from Illinois and I’ve been to QC three times in as many years. Once for Carnival! I love this place! Happy to see your drawings!

  10. cathykatejohnson permalink
    October 1, 2015 2:24 PM

    I’m guessing spraying wet ink lines with clear water, and what fun! I love these, Marc…and yes, those unpredictable lines, yum. I cut quills from goose feathers I found at the lake, also unpredictable…”the edge of control,” as you say. It’s an interaction!

    • October 1, 2015 2:38 PM

      Very good! Yes – small misting bottle and water soluble ink. I quite like the way spattered ink from catches on the paper becomes those faint misty dots. It’s a neat effect I’m sure you can’t easily get any other way. – – I’ll have to try goose quills someday too! I bet I can get some on ebay.

  11. October 1, 2015 2:31 PM

    “I wonder if anyone can guess how I got these effects?”

    [Larry, jumping up and down with right hand in the air] I know, i know, I know :-)

    What’s amazing to me is that all of these drawings, and more, were done in half a day, that included a break for lunch. It was simply amazing to watch you create these, Marc. I hope the constant conversation didn’t bother you too much.

    It’s really nice to see some of Laurel’s photography. She’s really good! — Larry

  12. Shannon permalink
    October 1, 2015 9:04 PM

    Ahhh, finally a use for my vintage steel pen! I’ll have to give it a go soon, thanks for the inspiration.

  13. October 3, 2015 1:06 AM

    After staying at the Frontenac this summer, I can’t wait to go back – so much to sketch. I have a great idea: next summer you and Shari Blaukopf can do a week long workshop, love your work and yes, it is amazing how much paper you can cover in such a short time!!!!

  14. Ted permalink
    October 3, 2015 10:27 AM

    Mark, I am glad to see your post on these great nibs because they are really expressive. However, I believe the link you give for the Speedball steel brush nibs at Amazon is for a single E.37 (3/8″) nib and not the entire set shown in the picture. This is totally misleading on Amazon’s site. At $14.85 for the one nib plus $17.25 for shipping, this is a ridiculously high price, $32.10 for a single nib. The other three sizes are also listed on Amazon from the same seller at similar but differing prices. Out of curiosity I put all four in my cart and the totals were $58.66 for the four nibs and 64.27 for shipping (even though they all ship from the same seller) for a total cost of $122.93. Dick Blick prices all four sizes at $9.96 each, and if I recall correctly their shipping cost is about $5, so if you bought only one nib the cost would be about $15, less than half the Amazon cost. And a set of all four shipped together would be about $45.

    • October 3, 2015 12:25 PM

      Thanks for spotting that Ted. I didn’t notice this – and you’re right, that’s a terrible price and a misleading ad. I will change that link right now. (Fixed! – changed a different vendor). You are right to bring this up, you have to watch out for these independent online sellers. You are also right that Dick Blick has a sale on right now, so that’s the best place to order today! (Added the Blick listing inline). Thanks!

      • October 3, 2015 12:51 PM

        I actually took the time to send in a report on a misleading image to Amazon. That’s the best thing to do with those kind of vendors. Amazon will track that behavior and shut them down if they see a pattern.

  15. Glenn permalink
    September 15, 2018 1:24 AM

    I know this is an old post, and I could find no search function to check if a newer post mentioned it, but this “steel brush nib” reminded me of the Pilot Parallel pen. It functions similar to a normal fountain pen (cartridge or converter), is cheap, and has a wide pair of plates for a nib. Here’s a link to one source:


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