First impressions: Brush Pens

The first part of of my recent shopping expedition to the art store was about the non-brush pens. But the rest of my shopping basket was full of brush pens: self-contained pens designed to emulate using a small brush with ink. Why is that important? The technical pens I usually use are designed to make lines that are always the same width, but that’s not always the look I want. Due to having cats whose instincts are so refined that they believe they can walk across a glass-topped table that’s at a 45° angle (they can’t) using an actual open ink pot is out of the question unless I want to end every art session with a massive ink-spill clean-up. Fortunately I’m not the only one to have this issue, and for folks like me they’ve invented brush pens!

So what did I try this time around?

First up, for reference, the Faber-Castell PITT B

Faber Castell PITT B sampleI’ve been using this pen quite a bit lately because of the issues I’m having with the Sakura Brush pens (losing their fine points quickly, fraying if I’m not careful, etc.) so I used it here as a benchmark for comparison. As you can see, it has a pretty wide range from wide to narrow, but it can difficult (not impossible!) to get extremely fine lines.

Faber Castell Pitt B sample detailsSince it has a flexible solid fiber point, it can get mashed and damaged, but I’ve found it to be relatively sturdy. It’s easier to get extreme line variation by changing the angle and direction of the pen rather than pressing harder so the point bends, but in practice you’d do both. This was a new pen, so it wasn’t broken in very much and started out a bit on the stiff side. It’s very easy to control, but not as expressive as some others. Even though it’s classified as a brush pen it doesn’t handle much like a real brush, it always remains a bit stiff. It uses a waterproof pigment ink so if I want to embellish with watercolor later I can do so without the ink lines bleeding  or smearing. This one has become a familiar and comfortable go-to pen for me.

By comparison, there’s the Pentel Arts Color Brush
Pentel Color Brush sampleThis pen has a few distinguishing characteristics:

  • The gray barrel is actually flexible and a little rubbery, so you can squeeze the ink out. So far I only really needed to do that when starting out, since once the ink started flowing it feeds through naturally, thanks to capillary action. (Fortunately the part right near the nib is solid plastic, because I have a tendency to GRIP if I’m not paying attention…)
  • Unlike many brush pens, the brush is a “real” brush, made of fine synthetic hairs, instead of a solid felt or fiber nib… tho this may not be visible in my photographs.
  • This particular model is not refillable, but I believe they make a refillable version.

The brush is clearly the standout feature of this pen. I haven’t used an actual brush for a while, so I wasn’t sure how well I was going to handle this one. When I opened it my first reaction was “this brush is way to big for my drawing, it’s going to look completely blobby unless I draw something larger.” Boy was I wrong!  As you can see in the sketch lines above, it has an impressive range, making lines from very fine to wide, even in the same stroke, moreso than the brush pens with a solid nib. Right out of the box, the Color Brush’s synthetic fiber bristles were still white and clean. The pen has a ring to keep the ink inside the storage chamber during shipping, and once it’s removed you have to prime the brush a bit (squeezing the ink out) to saturate the bristles with ink. After just a little bit of doodling it created a smooth, even line. It seems like it’ll need just a bit of a squeeze to re-prime it every time I start using it. Pentel Color Brush sample detailsEven after pressing hard enough to make the widest lines the brush springs back very quickly to a fine point. The bristles have just the right amount of give that it offers a lot of control, although it’s still a brush so there’s more wiggle to it than the more pen-like brush pens. This drawing was made mostly with the very tip of the pen with very little pressure, but didn’t need such a light touch that it was difficult to maintain. Using a very hard pressure, it was difficult to maintain a clean, smooth line, so it’s not really something you can use as a mop brush, although it seems like it would do an ok job of filling large areas with solid black. With very little warm-up I was up and running, although I’ll need more practice to feel really proficient. Ordinarily, I’d probably have switched to a technical pen or solid-nib pen for tiny details like the pupils of the eyes — and definitely the lettering! — but I wanted to push my limits. I’m really enjoying this brush, and have been wanting to find a good way to use more real brush-work in my drawing. However, because of the flexibility of the barrel I’d be reluctant to just chuck it into my travel bag like some of my other pens for fear it will become damaged or waste ink. I’ll be practicing more with this one!

Pentel Arts makes several different brush pens, all with different qualities and features. I picked up a couple more in this same shopping trip, but haven’t opened them all yet, for fear they’ll dry out. But I’m looking forward to trying them all!

First impressions: Pentel Arts pen reviews (Part 1)

I’ve been doing a lot of digital work lately, which I enjoy but in many ways it’s not as satisfying as scraping and smearing pigment across paper. So when the local art supply store was having a sale and a shiny new display of Pentel Arts pens… well, I couldn’t resist. Since I hadn’t used these pens before, I had to try them out to see how they stacked up with the ones I’m used to.

In other words: Yay!!! New shineys!

From top to bottom: Pentel Color Brush (Medium, black pigment ink), Pentel Stylo, Pentel Sign Pen, Faber Castel Pitt B

From top to bottom: Pentel Color Brush (Medium, black pigment ink), Pentel Stylo Sketch, Pentel Sign Pen, Faber-Castell Pitt B

By the way, I’m loving that the Pentels retain their Japanese labelling, even though these are being distributed for the American market. I’m sure that has as much to do with manufacturing costs as it does with their manga-inspired display and packaging.

For reference, the fine art pens I usually have in my arsenal include:

  • Fixed-width technical markers, including Sakura Pigma Microns, Staedtler Pigment Liner, Zig Millenium… whichever brand is on sale at the time. These are great all-purpose pens but require a bit more conscious effort to draw varied line widths, either by drawing over the same line multiple times or switching pens frequently. However, they’re less temperamental and more predictable than brush pens so when I’m in a hurry they’re still my go-to. Even if the rest of the drawing uses a brush pen, these are still better for tiny details like eyes and fingernails, certain patterns, and any time I really need consistent line widths like geometric elements that may require a ruler or template.
  • Sakura Pigma Brush pen has a thin, flexible “felt” marker tip, or nib, that is long and tapered like the shape the bristles of a round inking brush make and produces lines that range from narrow to wide just like a small brush would — at first. The problem is they lose their pointiness VERY quickly, the ends become frayed if you’re not careful, and they seem to dry out fast. When using these, I keep a “fresh” pen in reserve for the finest details and use a broken-in pen for the majority of the drawing.
  • Faber-Castell PITT B brush pen doesn’t have as much flexibility and range or come to as fine a point as the Sakura, but wins out for consistency and longevity. Good for when I’m working on drawings a bit larger size. I used it here as the familiar point of comparison with the new pens I hadn’t use before.

Notably not present: Dip pens, like crowquill, and actual brushes. Why? Both require an open jar of ink, and the last time I used one of those I had to look up how to get ink out of cat fur and how much of it a cat can ingest before you need to be concerned. Since my studio door doesn’t latch well enough to keep overly-curious furry critters out, for now I’m sticking with pens where the ink is safely encased in a cartridge. But I do miss using a brush and have been keeping an eye out for a good solution.

Coming home with my armful of new pens, I needed to give them a practice session to see how they performed. I started out with a quick pencil sketch. Dragons, of course! (Although one of them is a bit beaky and feathery… wait a minute, how did that one slip in?)

Pen test pencil sketch

(Yes, that’s an el-cheapo mechanical pencil from the drug store cuddled up next to my Prismacolor. Don’t judge!)

For the tests I used Marker Rag paper, which is very smooth and slightly translucent, so I could trace over the pencil drawing. That way I’m comparing apples to apples. Thusly:

My husband: "Wait a minute, are you just drawing the same thing over and over again?" Me: "Yes. Don't look at me like I'm crazy, it's a thing!"

My husband: “Wait a minute, are you just drawing the same thing over and over again?”
Me: “Yes. Don’t look at me like I’m crazy, it’s an artist thing!”

First up, the non-brush pens, starting with the Pentel Stylo Sketch    Pentel Stylo sampleI  wasn’t sure what to make of the nib of this pen at first; it was hard to make out from the picture  on the package, which said that it could make both wide and narrow lines. It looks like the white part is made out of some kind of very stiff wicking material, so I assumed you could use the tip for narrow lines and the sides for wide lines, but even after my practice drawing and a ton of just plain scribbling I was able to get only a little variation. More than from the technical pens, which are designed to always be the same width, but not by much. Maybe it needs to be broken in more. This particular pen uses water-based ink, so it’s not waterproof like most of my pens are, but nearly all the Pentel Arts pens were available in your choice of waterproof pigment ink or water-based ink, depending on if you want to use water to blend it or not.

Pentel Stylo sample detailsThis pen handled like a really firm fine-point felt-tip, except it had more drag on the paper. It’ll be ok for sketching or simpler drawings and also writing. It has a firm-fitting cap with a clip on it, reinforcing the idea that it’s for carrying around. I looked online and saw reviews complaining that it spattered a bit, which I noticed too as a bit of roughness in the line (since marker paper is very smooth, the pen lines should be too).  Not what I was expecting, but not a bad pen once expectations are adjusted. I probably won’t be getting another any time soon though. There are cheaper options, like the Paper Mate Flair, for this kind of sketching.

Next up, the Pentel Sign Pen

Pentel Sign Pen sampleIt turns out this is Pentel’s signature pen in Japan, and I can see why. The tip, while not as flexible as an actual brush pen, allows for a wide range from narrow to wide with a lot of control (important when writing traditional calligraphy, and it letters nicely in english too!) The ink is nice and dark; I bought it in the waterproof pigment variety, which means the lines shouldn’t bleed if I want to add watercolors or color markers on top later. Like the Stylo, the cap snaps on nice and tight, so it should travel well and hopefully won’t dry out too quickly. It’s hard to see in any of my photos, but the barrel is ever so slightly hexagonal rather than round and also tapers near the tip, which makes it a little easier to hold despite having a very slick surface. And the flat-ish sides mean it’s less likely to roll away when you set it down for a just a second without the cap oh my gosh where’d the pen go it’s going to dry out did it go under the table is the cat eating it argh argh argh. Not like that sort of thing ever happens to me. Ahem. Moving on.

Pentel Sign Pen sample detailsThe nib of the Sign Pen has a little bit of give to it, but most of the line variation comes from controlling the angle and direction of your stroke. The nib is slightly conical so the wider lines come from drawing sideways and narrow lines from drawing with the tip. The nib feels a lot firmer than a typical felt-tip marker and seems like it will last at least as long as the ink does, unlike some pens I’ve used. Time will tell. I have a feeling that with a bit more practice I’ll get better range and expressiveness out of it, but the firm nib means it’s less temperamental and more predictable than a brush tip. It’s narrower but has a similar range as the PITT B, which is an actual brush pen that will be featured in the next post. In the meantime, I’ll probably be adding this pen to my travel bag for sketching, I’m liking it so far!

Next time: the brush pens!

Happy Birthday, America!

© 2015 Stephanie Smith

© 2015 Stephanie Smith

It’s America’s birthday, so let’s celebrate!

I didn’t have any cake, so instead I had some fun playing around with a few new digital tools and techniques. I based the eagle-riffic portions of this digital painting on one of the amazing wildlife photos taken by Lawrence Ten Eyck, used with his permission.


© 2015 Stephanie Smith

I hope you’re enjoying your summer! Guess which summer popcorn movie with dubious scientific underpinnings I went to see last week? Jurassic World was a fun flick (although not without some serious plot flaws) but some paleontologists were not as amused: the current science says that critters like Velociraptors would actually be much pudgier and probably covered in some kind of feathers, virtually unrecognizable as the same critters from the movie. Which gave me the idea for this sketch!

I’ve always had a soft spot for dinosaurs and the original Jurassic Park totally blew me away when I first saw it in the theater. It was the first time we actually saw on the big screen the active and social dinosaurs that I’d read about in books like The Dinosaurs: A Fantastic View of a Lost Era by William Stout (I still have my well-thumbed copy of the original printing!) instead of the slow, plodding behemoths of the past. But that was 20 years ago, and paleontology has advanced a lot since then: the movement against “shrink-wrapped dinosaurs” (art that focuses mostly on the bone structure and discounts musculature, skin flaps, and fatty tissues) and concrete discoveries about pigmentation and feathers are starting to change the representation of dinosaurs again. And there’s enough evidence out there to back it up that the Jurassic World even hung a lampshade on the fact that their dinosaurs don’t measure up to scientific scrutiny.

Mine’s not particularly accurate either — I drew it too large, for starters, and the proportions are off — but as much as I like drawing my boney, scaly dragons I also love the idea of a world full of crazy, colorful, feathery dinosaurs.

Pencil sketch on bristol, with blue pencil underdrawing, © 2015.

Making a Book Cover: Plug Ugly Ball, part 3

Time for the final installment on making the cover for Plug Ugly Ball (available on Amazon!) (Get caught up with part 1 and part 2)

Now it was time to add the one part of the cover I wasn’t making myself: an engraving of the city of Baltimore from 1868 that depicts the neighborhood where most of the story takes place. The Library of Congress provided a beautiful high-resolution scan, but it was unevenly yellowed with age. I color-adjusted the scan overall, because I was going to need it for the back cover too, and did more adjustments for the inset panel so it integrated better with the other artwork.

Antique Etching of Balitmore

Now it’s time to start adding all of the textures and details that bring all of the artwork together. We were making a hardcover book with a matte finish on the slipcover (rather than shiny) so I wanted the cover to have a softly antique look. Some of the textures are from photographs, while others were generated from Photoshop filters. I layered them into rest of the artwork using a lot of transparency so they’d be subtle.

Sample TexturesSome textures required something a little more. For this center area, I drew some starburst shapes in Illustrator and copied them into my Photoshop file.

Starbursts used as textureI wanted this texture to be subtle, so I used the blending modes and other effects in Photoshop to fade them, way, way back. After doing similar things with my other textures, I had that gently worn look I was looking for.

Plug Ugly Ball - final texturesNow that the front cover artwork was finished, it was time to build the book’s slipcover. For this I used Adobe InDesign, software for designing printed documents. I received the correct sizes and other technical requirements from the publisher and the text from my client for the back cover and the wrap-around flaps. Together with the 1868 engraving, I put everything together with my cover illustration, being careful to leave plenty of room where the folds and edges would be when it was wrapped around the book.

Plug Ugly Ball - Cover in LayoutThen I sent everything off to the printer, and had to wait for it to come back to see how it all turned out. And here it is!

Plug Ugly Ball book photoThanks for following along! If you find these kind of blog posts interesting, let me know. And if you’re a member of Behance, I have this and my other recent projects posted there too.

Making a Book Cover: Plug Ugly Ball part 2

When we left off at the end of Part 1, I had a client-approved layout sketch and color scheme. Now it’s time to turn that into a real book cover!

Plug Ugly Ball Cover - Final SketchIf you’ve seen any of my other art-process entries, you know I usually draw the actual illustrations on good old-fashioned paper before scanning them into the computer to add color and other details. This time, however, I used a completely digital workflow for the final art for two reasons:

1. While the interior illustrations were reminiscent of newspaper and fine-art engravings from the time period, which made them a good candidate for ink drawing, the cover illustration was meant to evoke posters and other signs, which tended to be painted in bold colors or use woodblock printing. Which would have required tools that would be difficult for the next reason…

2. Part of the time I’d be working on this, I’d be traveling. Keeping everything digital meant that all I had to bring with me was my laptop and drawing tablet instead of a bag of art supplies.

For digital artwork I typically use the Adobe products — mostly Photoshop but others as needed — and a Wacom Intuos drawing tablet.

First, I opened my sketch in Photoshop and used the drawing tools to redraw sections of my source drawing that I wasn’t happy with, like this baseball.

Baseball Drawing - SketchThen, on another layer, I drew in the linework, just as I would have with a real pen. This is the final version; I didn’t take screenshots as I went along, so I had to go into the different finished layers to pull out the samples for this article. Which means you don’t get to see all the erasing and redrawing and erasing and redrawing etc etc… lucky you!

Baseball Drawing - "inks"Finally, on a layer that went underneath all the others, I filled in a flat area of color and then added shading. Each element of the illustration was drawn separately and then all the layers grouped together in a “smart object” so they’d be easy to resize, move around, and add effects to.

Baseball drawing - ColorsOnce I had all the hand-drawn parts finished, I started in on the frame. I couldn’t find any patterns that would work 100% from my clip-art collection, so I built my own in Illustrator. This program makes it easier to make geometric shapes and build repeating patterns, so after I figured out the basic shape I wanted, I drew it in Adobe Illustrator and turned it into a symbol that could be copied as many times as I needed.

Vector Frame Drawing - SymbolsOther details were drawn in, including using the “dashed line” feature to make these little raised dots.

Vector Frame Drawing - DetailsThere were a couple other elements that proved easier to draw in Illustrator, like the picture frames in the corner, and the banner for the subtitle. All of these pieces were then copied into my Photoshop file as Smart Objects, just in case I needed to open them again in Illustrator to make changes — and boy did I! Here, the images on the left are in Illustrator and the last image on the right is in Photoshop, where you can see here how I’ve started layering in textures so it doesn’t look too crisp and clean.

Vector Frame SequenceAs the artwork started coming together — including adding the text (the font is the lovely HandShop from Fontscafe) — I needed to adjust some of the proportions and positions.

Plug Ugly Ball Cover - ArtworkNow that I have all of the main pieces of artwork done, it may seem like it’s pretty much finished, but now it’s time for all the details that really make the cover come together: textures, shadows, shading, and other adjustments. But those will have to wait for the next installment!

UPDATE: Continue the story with Part 3!

“Artist at Play” prints for sale!

Work+Play-show-wall-ssmithAs noted in my last entry, I was honored to have my work chosen for display among 70 other illustrators from around the country (and the world!) for a group show during ICON, the Illustration Conference. The opening was this past Friday at the Land Gallery — an awesome little gallery and art shop in Portland, Oregon. It will be on display until August 24, sharing wall space with the likes of Allison Cole, Thomas James, and a boatload of other fabulous illustrators!

Even if you’re not in Portland, you can still take home a piece of the show.

From now until the show closes on August 24, you can buy an 8×10 archival print of my piece above, “Artist at Play” for the low price of $25 plus shipping (usually $5)

Buy “Artist at Play” now at!

Take another look at the closeups in my previous blog post — or marvel at the blurriness of my photography here (the actual print is not blurry, I promise!)


“Artist at Play” – new art!

Artist at Play - in progressLast month, I created a new piece for the Work+Play show at the Land Gallery in Portland — a group show in celebration ICON, the Illustrator’s Conference. Here’s a peek at the drawing when it was still in progress on my drawing table. I think this is the fastest I ever finished a piece this intricate — probably because I created it by throwing together all of the things I like to draw the most (except for myself… I’m not big into self-portraits!) and not thinking too hard about it for a change. Although I’m reserving the right to go back and tinker with the colors later….

"Artist at Play" If you’re in the Portland area, the opening/reception is Friday, July 11 starting at 8pm — but the show will be up for the rest of the month… and for a limited time there will be small prints available. I’ll post details about that when I get them. UPDATE: Until August 24 you can buy 8×10 prints from In the meantime, it’s kindofa big image, so click on it to see it bigger, and have some more details below! (also viewable on Behance)

"Artist at Play" detail"Artist at Play" detail with self-portrait

“A Moment of Reflection” in progress

Preliminary client sketches for a commissioned illustration

This recent commission was for a black-and-white image to be used as the cover for a short fantasy story, “Why,” written by Maggie Allen for author Janine Spendlove and published by the creator-run Silence in the Library Publishing as part of a Kickstarter backer bonus. The story is a bittersweet character study that takes place in Spendlove’s “War of the Seasons” fantasy universe. I worked with both Maggie and Janine to make sure I captured the style and spirit of the characters and setting.

Moment of Silence in-progressFor this drawing, I used the Pitt brush pen. I needed to work quickly and the brush pen is a good compromise between detail and speed. Although I used my light table to trace from the sketch, you can see in this picture where I made a few final adjustments in blue pencil before committing the drawing to ink.

Want to see the final product? Head on over to my Behance page! That’s where new finished artwork will be showing up, so if you’re a community member there Follow me to be updated when I add new work.