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(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artistsí Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

The principle of transferring a colored liquid to a drawing surface via a brush, pen, marker, or, in uninhibited moments, the fingers, is based on capillary attraction. Capillary attraction is the natural attraction of a liquid for a solid and its tendency to flow toward it. Gravity also plays an important role in keeping the flow in one general direction. Capillary attraction allows a liquid, such as an ink, to be held by a tube, a point with a split end, or a collection of filaments or hairs and then be transferred to a more absorbent surface such as paper.

The pen was in use long before the first true brushes made with hair. Simple pens, made from hollow reeds, were already being used by the Egyptians in 4000 B.C. The Greeks were using them in 1296 B.C. Not long afterward, the Romans used simple pens for making drawings on papyrus. During the Renaissance, such pens were preferred for drawing rather than writing. The popularity of pens among such artists as Rembrandt, and later Van Gogh and even Expressionists like George Grosz, stems from the great expressiveness that can be transmitted to a drawing with the flexible pen tip. The tip of a reed pen widens greatly with the slightest pressure, transferring larger amounts of color to the working surface. The relaxation of pressure allows the line width to narrow. It is this characteristic that is the standard to which all modern pens are compared and, in most cases, that they attempt to duplicate using a more durable tip. Reed pens are not durable and several are often needed to complete even a single drawing.

Reed pens are made by first removing the barbs fromm the shaft. The larger end is cut across the shaft. That end is then cut again, about 'h inch from the end, halfway through, curving toward the end. The cut is completed by continuing toward the end and cutting down the middle of the shaft. The same type of cut is made again along the remaining half of the shaft, starting about '/4 inch from the end. The resulting tapered point can then be further shaped to a point or left in a chisel. The edge of a chisel point is made sharper by cutting the tip to a 45-degree angle from the top of the point. The tapered point that is created is split in two. The hollow part of the reed, just behind the point, is filled with an absorbent material that acts as a reservoir for the liquid.

The Romans improved the durability of writing and drawing instruments by developing pen nibs (writing points) made of bronze. These early pen points closely resemble those used today. Yet metal nibs were not commonly available until the nineteenth century, when steel, a more durable metal, was developed, as was a machine-manufacturing process.

Quill pens made from the feathers of such large birds as geese, ravens, and swans were common during the sixth century B.C. Crow quills were used for fine line work and the name is still used today for its steel substitute. Turkey quills have now replaced most other feathers because of price and availability. Quill pens are made by first tempering the quill. This is done by gently heating the quill, without scorching it, to remove any oil and fatty acid. The tip of the quill is then cut similarly to that of a reed, but the taper is shorter and a piece of the quill is often used internally to create a reservoir. A quill pen is more durable than a reed pen and almost as responsive, but still not as durable as a metal nib. The need for a metal nib became clear when, by the early nineteenth century, European countries (especially England) began importing 30 million quills a year. The best quills came from Russia and Holland. Some early attempts at more durable nibs ranged from tortoise shell to gold with precious stones set in the tip.

The development of modem steel manufacturing, during the early nineteenth century, led to practical metal replacements for the quill. In 1780, in England, Samuel Harrison made steel pens by.hand. Such pens, which were small steel tubes cut into crow-quill-style points, were not marketed until 1803. In 1828, an Englishman, John Mitchell, developed the first practical machine-manufacturing process for the production of metal nibs.

The metal nib, which tended to be very stiff and not conducive to expressiveness, was modified in the 1830s by putting additional slits along the side of the nib as well as by cutting a hole in the top of the middle slit. The nature of steel, with its strength and resiliency, made it possible to make not only durable nibs, but also a wide variety of shapes and styles. Many styles of nibs evolved to accommodate the numerous writing and drawing styles. Some were designed to work with the then readily available varieties of machine-made paper; this paper made the artwork look stiffer and more mechanical.

Today, many types of metal are used to make pen points, including gold and platinum. Often the tip is coated with such specially developed alloys as iridium, ruthenium, and osmium because of their resistance to wear.

Although the principles applied in the production of the fountain pen were known since the mid-seventeenth century, a practical pen was not invented until 1884. L. E. Waterman, a New Yorker, is credited with this feat. Yet, if it were not for the development, during the nineteenth century, of synthetic ink dyes, which are fluid enough to make a fountain pen practical, Waterman's invention would have been worthless. The ball-point pen was patented in 1888, shortly after the fountain pen. But it was not until 1944, when World War II demanded an improved technology for the production of precision ball bearings, that Lazlo Biro was able to produce the first practical ball-point pen and patent it. Improvements made during the 1950s, involving methods of coating the ball with ink, as well as producing a micro-texture on the ball's surface, helped it surpass the fountain pen as the universal tool for writing, but not for drawing. With the exception of a few styles of fountain pen, most ball-point pens are unsatisfactory for sketching and drawing because they are designed more for durability than for expressiveness. The pen holder with nib, known as the dip pen, is still the most common pen for fine artwork and calligraphy.

The development by the Japanese of a precision nylon filament led to the introduction of the nylon artist's brush and the fiber-tipped pen. In 1964, Americans switched by the tens of thousands to the fiber-tipped pen for drawing and writing. It was not until 1985 that sufficient technological progress was made to allow lightfast ink or pigments, necessary for fine artwork, to flow freely through a fiber tip.

Bamboo Pens

Bamboo pens were first made by the ancient Egyptians and can be found in art supply stores today. They resemble reed pens, but are larger and much stiffer. Bamboo pens produce scratchy and somewhat crudely expressive lines.

Dip Pens

A dip pen has two to three parts-the nib, the holder, and sometimes a reservoir. Most reservoirs are permanently attached either to the holder or to the nib. The Mitchell Pen Company, however, makes reservoirs for its nibs that are sold separately and are theoretically removable for cleaning. Once on the pen, and used, however, they are often difficult to remove.

The primary advantage of a dip pen is that waterproof inks can be used without concern about clogging. Since the pen is loaded by dipping it into the ink, rather than through an internal reservoir such as that of a fountain pen, dried ink can easily be removed by cleaning or by redissolving in the same ink. Because of the need to dip constantly to reload the nib with ink and to blot and test before restarting, as well as the need to clean up after each use, most users have been induced to switch to nonwaterproof inks and fountain pens.

There are three basic categories of pen nibs-writing, drawing, and calligraphy. The three categories frequently overlap and at times certain groupings are based on traditional justifications that no longer apply. Drawing pen nibs are simple metal versions of traditional quill pens. They are capable of downward as well as side-to-side strokes. Because of the pointed tip, an upward stroke results in the pen point stabbing the surface. Most writing pen nibs have a semicircular shape at the tip, which has the appearance of a droplet of metal or looks as if the tip had been folded back and underneath. This allows for making the upward stroke without stabbing the surface. You might think this would also be ideal for drawing, and you would be right. With this nib, however, some control of precision will be sacrificed for freedom and speed.

Calligraphy pen nibs are generally one of two types-lettering or calligraphic. A lettering calligraphy nib has a tip that resembles a round plate. This will produce letters of a consistent line width throughout the stroke. A calligraphic calligraphy nib has a chisel edge so that the letters vary in thickness if the letter is drawn with the edge held at a consistent 45-degree angle. Calligraphy pens are available in sizes up to 1 1/2 inches. The Steel Brush, Automatic Lettering Pens,

and Coit Lettering Pens are some of the larger styles. Scroll nibs, which have several points at the tip to draw multiple lines, are also available. A number of artists have created abstract watercolor paintings of interlocking grids of lines using various sizes of large calligraphy nibs.

Fountain Pens

Fountain pens are composed of four elements-pen nib, delivery system, reservoir, and shell. It is the reservoir that makes the fountain pen convenient to use. You are limited, however, to using primarily nonwaterproof inks. Although there are several new waterproof inks designed for use in fountain pens, their use violates virtually all pen manufacturers' warranties. The basic problem is that if the bladder, or delivery system, clogs with dried waterproof ink, it is difficult, if not impossible, to restart or properly clean the parts to get the pen back in working order.

The available fountain pen styles are the same as dip pens, although the range is much smaller. Platignum and Osmiroid are the two most common brands of calligraphy fountain pens, although these manufacturers also produce lettering and sketch pens. A new arrival to the United States is the Rotring Artpen, which comes in a limited but finely made variety of calligraphy, lettering, and sketching fountain pens. Because the art of calligraphy is most often performed at a slow pace, expensive pens with improved flow characteristics and gold nibs, although desirable, are not necessary to produce excellent results. Writing and sketching are performed at a much quicker pace, and flow characteristics, as well as the quality of the metal used in the nib, become more important factors when choosing a pen.

Waterman Pens, which are made in France, and Mont Blanc pens, made in Germany, are recognized as among the world's finest writing pens and are in high demand among sketch artists. One of the reasons for this is that both companies use solid gold nibs. The characteristics of gold allow ink to flow along it with minimum resistance. Gold also has the right balance of softness and strength for ideal responsiveness, and a gold nib will do a great deal to improve a writing pen's performance. A sketching pen, however, requires more than just a gold nib. It requires a larger nib (although not necessarily a larger point) and quality design, such as the tomblike structure underneath the pen nib, which holds a quantity of ink ready without flooding the tip of the nib. The best writing pens usually make the best sketching pens. It is not difficult to justify a finequality pen if drawing is your primary medium of expression. Just as a watercolorist will have at least one brush of the finest quality, so will a sketch artist have at least one fine pen.

Technical Pens

Even though technical pens were originally designed to meet the needs of the drafting industry, they have great appeal to the contemporary artist. The primary characteristics of technical pens are that they produce an unvarying, even line and that they use a waterproof ink. They differ from fountain pens in that they have a point that consists of a round hollow tube with a needle or pin that runs down the center, rather than a traditional pen point. This design allows the ink to leave the tip and deposit on the drawing surface in a consistent and precise width. For best results, the pen should be held perpendicularly to the drawing surface and drawn, slowly, across a smooth surface. Tilting the pen too much, drawing too quickly, or using a moderately textured surface will produce a broken line. Using soft or heavily textured paper can contribute to clogging of the ink flow, for fibers can collect in the tip and prevent flow. Most technical pens can be kept ready to use, loaded with ink, for several weeks if they are properly capped. Each manufacturer has developed a technical device within its pen caps to help keep the ink in the point from drying out. Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph makes humidifiers for its pens. Rotring Rapidograph has a new style of technical pen, which recently entered the American market. If you use its ink system with its cartridges, the pen is significantly less sensitive to clogging as the result of ink drying in the tip. Because technical pens use a waterproof ink, filling, maintenance, and cleaning must be done according to the instructions provided by each manufacturer.

Since the line width produced by a technical pen remains the same, several pens of different point sizes are often used to give a more expressive look to the artwork. There are several high-quality brands of technical pens on the market. Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph is the most recognized brand name and this is the pen that all others use for comparison; therefore, we will use Koh-I-Noor's scale for describing the various sizes of pen points. There are thirteen points ranging in size from 0.13mm to 2mm in width. A number is assigned to each width: 6 x0 = 0.13mm, 4x0 = 0.18mm, 3x0 = 0.25mm, 00 = 0.3mm, 0 = 0.35mm, 1 = 0.5mm, 2 = 0.6mm, 2.5 = 0.7mm, 3 = 0.8mm, 3.5 = 1.0mm, 4 = 1.2mm, 6 = 1.4mm, 7 = 2.0mm. Most technical pen points are made from stainless steel, but some are made with a harder tungsten carbide tip or a sapphire for use on polyester drafting film. (Drafting film and tracing papers have very abrasive surfaces that can wear down steel tips quickly.) Refograph, made by the Alvin Company, and Unitech, made by the Charvoz Company, have a slightly polished edge to their points, which serves two basic purposes. First, it allows for adequate ink flow even if the pen is held at the same angle that a fountain pen would be held, and second, it allows the pen to be drawn across the surface at a slightly faster pace. However, the polished edge can result in lines with slight inconsistencies in width. This might be considered a drawback by a draftsman, but is usually insignificant to the sketch artist.

To prevent damage to a technical pen, use only those inks made specifically for technical pens. If your pens are not to be used for several weeks, clean them out.

The Ball-Point Pen

The black inks used in many ball-point pens (as opposed to the so-called rolling ball-tipped pens) are paste inks of carbon and would be considered safe for fine artwork. Few manufacturers, however, identify the nature of their ball-point inks. The ones that do are calling theirs "India Ink" ball-point pens. Roller-ball pens use a liquid ink and write more like a marker, but are more durable because of the metal, or ceramic, ball tip. There are two brands, both introduced in 1985, which claim to be lightfast and waterproof. The Pigma Ball, made by Sakura Company, is offered in three colors and black. Roll Pen, manufactured by the Tombo Company, is available in black and blue. Both companies use the latest technology to produce these pens so that they are lightfast and become waterproof when dry. All other ball, or rolling-ball, pens should not be considered safe for fine artwork unless lightfastness is specified.

The ball-point pen is recommended to the artist who likes the appearance of sketches with consistent line, as well as being able to sketch quickly. A further note is that ball-point pens often do not start immediately when first used or when left standing for long periods. This is a sign of quality workmanship. Pens that start too easily often leave undesirable ink deposits that can later smudge.

(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artistsí Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)


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