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The Power of the Ballpoint Pen: An Artist’s Magic Wand

As pen and ink drawings take center stage this Inktober, we turn to artist Jason Franz who understands the “draw” of the ballpoint pen. Below, he shares with us how this easily accessible writing utensil can be an artist’s magic wand.

The Power of Ballpoint Pen

Many artists and designers favor the ballpoint pen as a go-to tool. Some are seduced by the rich surface and delicately modulated values it can produce. Others, especially designers, use it as much for its ubiquity as for its dynamic range of line weight. For line drawing, it allows for everything from ghostly soft to unyieldingly graphic marks.

Meanwhile, the blue color of the common pen’s ink serves as a badge of membership in a distinctive circle. There’s just something about making art or concept design using an object that can be found on just about any office desk in the world. The ballpoint pen is a source of power lying in wait wherever you look.

These are all good reasons to work in ballpoint. But for me, the medium has come to embody something greater. It’s an entire way of making art and relating to the world.

Here I’ll explain how using ballpoint has helped my students gain confidence and skill. I’ll share a few pointers for working with this rewarding and surprisingly versatile implement.

A Tool for Conquering Fear

My own use of ballpoint pen as a favored tool arose out of my teaching. One obstacle for many would-be artists is their inherent fear — of the media, of the subject, of not being talented. If you don’t let go of fear, you’ll never discover what you can really do.

Combating this sort of fear, especially in first-year students, is a significant challenge. To do so, I developed a strategy for encouraging students to revel in mistakes and uncertainty and turn those mistakes into assets in their search for quality.

This strategy involves requiring students to draw with media that are not easily erased. Erasing is, in one sense, a safety belt that protects the artist. But it can also be a crutch that impedes him or her. I start by having students use wax-based colored pencils, assigning them to complete line drawings of simple objects in three layers.

Each layer will have a different value — light, medium and dark. I also instruct them to undertake each layer of line work with a different mindset — first searching, then confirming and finally punctuating. The idea is that the first layer, no matter how inaccurate it is, can only be so dominant, by virtue of its light value.

Layer after layer, good drawings emerged from messes. As a bonus, the combination of layered colors proved aesthetically rich, energizing the drawings. Most powerful was my students’ newfound enthusiasm for and deliberate engagement in an honest, focused process.

I soon expanded my students’ options to similar media, such as grayscale markers and ballpoint pens. The governing factor is that these media are not erasable and are available in varying values. With ballpoint, the artist can produce multiple layers with a single pen, for adjusting the pressure achieves different values.

Choosing and Using a Ballpoint Pen

  • The right pen for you might be one designed especially for fine artists, or it might be the cheapest bulk-rate ballpoint you can find. Choose a pen for its color, for how it feels in your hand and for how the line feels on the paper.
  • With a good pen you shouldn’t have to press too hard to get a clear line, nor should ink blob out at a light touch. Look for a pen that can make light but clear lines when handled gently and very dark lines under more pressure. When you change the pressure, the corresponding change in line weight should be clear and consistent.
  • Retractable ballpoints are available in different “weights,” each with different sizes of ink balls, as well as in many different colors.
  • Consider wiping the pen tip from time to time to eliminate the accumulation of ink and paper fibers that can smear or become blotches on the paper.
  • Experiment with different kinds of paper, from simple recycled printer paper to drawing paper, Bristol paper, high-quality matte inkjet paper, et cetera.
  • Remember that ballpoint ink may fade over time when exposed to air and light, and it can even change color. Scan or photograph high-quality images of your finished drawings, and save the files in a safe place.