Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching

How do you make sure you can practice anywhere, anytime? Bring a sketchbook! There’s always one in my bag or backpack. The best ones are A5-sized with a hard cover, like this Moleskin (Amazon link). The small size makes it easy to pull out and use anywhere. Secondly, thanks to the hard cover you don’t need an extra surface to draw on. I even sketch while waiting in line in the supermarket.

Now have a look at my old sketchbooks:early 2013 SB Iris HoppIris Hopp Sketchbook pageslate 2013 SB Iris Hopp Do you see what has stayed the same over the years? The ballpoint pen. When you think about drawing, often pencils come to mind, but I love ballpoints! There are actually a lot of artists who scribble away with ballpoint pens.
But why?
My main reason to switch to a ballpoint pen was… smudging.

smudge 2012 sketch Iris Hopp
My poor drawing :'(

Now with a pencil you can avoid smudging too… drawing with your arm, not resting your hand on the page… But with my small A5-sketchbook, I was constantly turning my pages into a grey mess. Do you know the silverlike stain you get on your hands? It is easier to just use a tool that doesn’t smudge.
Oh, the day that I started doodling with a ballpoint pen. Wonderful! Amazing! Glorious! It’s just so comfortable: no worries about smudging away my art. Since then I’ve used the ballpoint everyday.

The Ballpoint to the Rescue! But…
Ballpoint pen BIC subtitle banner

So, cleanliness is a big advantage of the ballpoint pen. But isn’t it more difficult to draw with than a pencil?
Well… it depends on the ballpoint. Not only the brand, but also the model. You have any kind of ballpoint like a 14 karat gold ballpoint  (Amazon link) which you’ll never use, but also cheap gel pens from hotel rooms.
A gel pen or a very liquid ballpoint pen will be difficult to control, because the ink comes out smoothly and consistently. That’s a good trait for writing, but for drawing you want a stubborn, fairly dry ballpoint pen. You’ll be surprised to find ballpoints that draw exactly like a pencil! With pressure, you can vary lightness and thickness. This way, you can sketch very lightly before going over the drawing with your final lines, just like with a pencil. Of course, erasing is still reserved for pencils. There are erasable ballpoint pens, but they are not up to the same quality as pencils yet.
I also found that ballpoint pens have a good grip on the paper, sometimes more so than pencils.

So how do I choose my ballpoints? First of all, I test out all free ballpoints I can get my hands on. Am I a cheapo for that? I don’t know… wouldn’t a company be happy when I use their branded ballpoint pen & tell everyone how good it is? 😉 It’s amazing how often ballpoint pens are given away during promotions and in goodie bags.
Secondly, when I buy a ballpoint pen, I opt for a bulk package of the retractable black ones from BIC. I couldn’t find the exact model on Amazon, but I think that this model comes the closest (Amazon link) .
I prefer the retractable ones because I always lose the caps. 😳
BIC is dirt cheap too. In fact, I also buy mechanical pencils from BIC (Amazon link) because of their cheap price combined with the bright colours 😀
Oh, I’m so superficial.

Other criteria for picking a ballpoint? Size doesn’t matter. I do advice getting a dark colour though, like black or dark blue. You need your drawing to stand out on the white paper!
Now what would be a bad ballpoint? The main difference between a good and a bad ballpoint pen is blotching. Let me show you the problem:

Iris Hopp - blotchy ballpoint pen

But heck, does it matter? Just grab a ballpoint, try it for a few days & then decide whether you like it! It’s not a big deal like choosing a new drawing tablet would be 🙂

“But I don’t like the look of ballpoint drawings”
The Look of Ballpoint Drawings - subtitle banner

Don’t worry! You’ll just have to find the right ballpoint for you. Now that sounds a bit cheesy. Wait, I’ll show you. Could you guess that this image has been drawn with ballpoint pens only?

Redhead Girl, Ballpoint pen, by VianaArts

I didn’t know it either, but there are so many colours and types of ballpoints out there… there are no limits! Heck, you can even buy ballpoints with invisible ink. Eh… so you can reuse your drawing paper, I guess?

Anyway, I love ballpoint pens. I’ll just give you a quick overview of the pros and cons!

– dries out if unused for a long time
– ink flows slower in freezing temperatures (I know because I sketched outside during the winter…)
– ballpoints can smudge too, if your rub over the ink in the millisecond before it dries
– you can’t erase it

Well, that doesn’t sound too bad, does it? First of all, don’t let your pen go unused. Draw every day! Secondly, you don’t have to draw in freezing temperatures. Thirdly, you most likely won’t touch the ink before it dries. And lastly, being unable to erase it is a way to increase your line confidence!
However, a downside to ballpoint pens versus hand-sharpened, classic pencils is that you cannot draw broad strokes.

late 2014 SB A4 Iris HoppPros:
The biggest pro is that a ballpoint pen draws like a pencil. There’s a reason why pencils are so popular – because they are awesome. If only they wouldn’t smudge…
So an important advantage of the ballpoint pen is: cleanliness! No accidental smudging anymore 🙂
– draw light or bold lines by varying pressure (which translates into sketching first and then drawing the final version, and also enables you to vary shade colour)
– you develop drawing confidence because you work with ink
– a wide selection of stylus and ink types, sizes and colour

And lastly, you can show off with a fancy, 14 karat gold ballpoint pen that you’ll never need. I hope it’s refillable.

Whew, I’m amazed that a rave about ballpoints turns out this long!
Now… what do YOU think of the ballpoint pen? Hate or love it?

– Iris

P.S.: completely irrelevant but funny, here’s my favourite ballpoint pen review on Amazon.

Update 1:

Reader David J. Teter gave a great tip in the comments: the ink of cheaper ballpoints might fade, so if you want your drawings to last, choose a ballpoint pen that advertises “india ink” or “permanent ink”.

Update 2:

After trying it in a restaurant, I became a fan of the “Amazon Basics” ballpoint pen… They’re sold by the 100. But I’m pretty sure they’re identical to BIC’s “Round Stic” size M.

8 thoughts on “Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching”

  1. I love working in ballpoint too as do many artists. No breaking the point, no sharpening, no dipping in ink well… just pull it out and draw.
    It is advisable to make sure the ink is permanent though, like india ink. Some of the cheaper pens have ink that is not colorfast. I have had a couple sketchbook covers that I drew in ballpoint fade alarmingly fast. Some brands will have written on the pen or packaging either india ink or permanent ink.
    Keep drawing…

      1. Iris, don’t throw away all your sketchbooks. At least give them away. You would be surprised how much others would really love them. Don’t underestimate that.
        In art school we had an assignment to do an illustration in ballpoint pen. Our instructor did them in his work. He had us buy BIC brand, they said india ink on the pen. I have not seen them in years though. Too bad because they were readily available and that is the challenge, finding them everywhere.
        I should say I too sometimes just grab what is at hand ( a bad practice) cheap or not. It is a good idea to test lightfastness (like James Gurney has written posts about).
        I did find this info, see this Wet Canvas forum link from 2002
        They mention stick pens in the link which usually means common.
        Otherwise google ballpoint pens with india ink since manufacturers like to constantly change their formulas.

        Keep drawing…

        1. ” At least give them away.”
          This was great advice -I gave one of my sketches to someone at the airport. He was so happy that it made me feel good too! 😀 I will change my habit from throwing away to giving away…

  2. Very cool Iris!
    I have had similar responses giving drawing away.
    Another good one is to give to the kid who may be sitting nearby and watching you draw. You never know, it may inspire them to become an artist.

    Keep drawing…

  3. I used to use my fountain pen for drawing, but I like the sketchy feel of the ballpoint pen so that’s the go to pen for me now. You’re right about how it’s like pencil.

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