Using Dip Calligraphy Pens in Your Art Journal

dip-pen-tipsIt’s no secret I love using my Speedball Calligraphy Pens * in my art journal. If you have been watching my YouTube videos – you’ll see me grabbing them almost towards the end of every video when I add the finishing doodles and journaling!

Today I thought I’d share some tips on using them and getting started so you too can try it out if you’d like! {IMPORTANT: Don’t feel like you have to rush out to the store to buy a pen and ink set – I am a HUGE advocate of using what you have!  Ball point pens are cool too!}

Now, when I was first introduced to the idea of using a dip pen…I was very skeptical. It seemed like one more thing to buy and try and I thought I would never use it again. Boy was I wrong! Now it’s my GO TO PEN when I create, and even though my handwriting is not great and it’s a messy experience {um, my cats may have knocked over my bottle of ink more than once!} – I still love it for a number of reasons.


Here’s why I love it:

Smooth writing over acrylic and watercolors: In my tests for writing on acrylic paint, nothing will write as smoothly as a dip pen. It doesn’t matter if you use the world’s finest acrylics or the cheap craft paints…it all writes! The only important thing is that the paint should be dry first!

Very economical: Once you get past the original expense of buying the pen set {which is under $10 online, slightly more expensive at craft stores unless you happen to have a coupon!} – you only need to buy ink, which is around $4-$5 a bottle and it lasts for months. {Unless your cat knocks it over – if you have curious critters at home use care around them and you *may* want to keep an extra bottle on hand just in case!} When I was using gel pens – I was lucky to get 5-6 art journal pages out them, with the ink and dip pen – I get almost an entire journal as well as several canvas projects before needing to buy new ink.


How to Get Started:

The first thing to do of course is get a dip pen set and some ink.

I like the Speedball Calligraphy No-5 Artists Project Set * – it has a number of nibs to choose from and experiment with so you can see which one you like best – it’s a matter of personal preference!

The next thing you need is ink. I like Higgins Black Magic Waterproof Ink * – but have been experimenting with others as well. I like this ink in particular because it dries fairly quickly and doesn’t smear quite as much…but it’s a matter of preference also. One thing about this however is that the bottle is oddly shaped, so it is hard to get a good amount of ink. One way to get around this is use a little inkwell {a kid’s medicine cup or similiar sized item would work OK} – you want to be able to get your pen in and out of the ink easily! I recently bought the non-waterproof ink that comes in a nice wide-mouth jar – it does make a difference!

There is a little bit of controversy about preparing your pen nibs – some say you need to burn the nib to remove the manufacturers oils, others suggest using acetone {nail polish remover} – I have never done either to my nibs – and in the package I didn’t read anything about doing either to start either. {Though I must confess I have never been one good at following directions or reading all the fine print – this is probably why I love art journaling so much – no rules!} I just rinsed mine with water to start.

Next you need paper. I usually paint and collage over cardstock or Canson/Strathmore mixed media or watercolor paper. I’m really rough on my pen, and so don’t stress over this too much! For now, use some scrap paper you have – maybe even an envelope or some junk mail. Just be sure to have a protective surface over your desk or table in case the ink leaks through {I find a piece of cardboard from an old desktop calendar works nicely – use whatever you have handy!}


Tips for Working With Dip Pens

1. Work from Top Left to Bottom Right if Right-Handed – Top Right to Bottom Left if left handed…

I always start at the top left of my paper and work to the right, then moving down the page or canvas…at least that’s what I try to do! This helps you prevent smearing your writing or doodling. If you’re left handed, just do the opposite if you can. I try to work in little sections at a time, so I don’t accidentally put my hand or wrist into the ink.

2. Practice Strokes: The first place to start is just by making lines. Make vertical lines, horizontal lines, diagonal lines – this will help you get an idea of how to comfortably hold the pen and help you start controlling it better. While I’m sure someone out there has a “right way” to hold a dip pen – I think the more important thing is that you’re comfortable and have control – so hold it in a way that feels right to you. There are basically downstrokes and upstrokes – each one takes a little different pen pressure.

3. Practice Circles and Swirls: Circles and Swirls take a little more practice, and you’ll find that you need to start from the top or bottom and do half at a time. Going down you might press a little harder, going up you don’t need to apply as much pressure typically. Use care when going up/down – you’ll find you need to turn the pen making up strokes…that will help prevent the nib accidentally tearing paper.

4. Dip your pen carefully: Don’t go all the way to the bottom of the inkwell, and be sure to let the ink drip off so it doesn’t accidentally leave huge drops of ink on your page or canvas! {If that should happen though, don’t panic! You can often quickly blot off with a baby wipe, or wait to dry and then paint over a few times}

5. Practice different pressure and flow: You’ll find you don’t need to press very hard to get ink to flow from the nib. Pressing too hard could possibly bend or damage the nib!

6. Keep a cup of warm water nearby: I find dipping the pen in warm water periodically while writing helps prevent the nib from clogging. They make nib cleaner – I have never tried it, I just dip in water and then wipe with a soft fabric rag. {Paper towels or baby wipes also work, but sometimes they leave strands of fabric on the pen and so you have to be careful when using them sometimes} – I have heard that rubbing alcohol can be used – again, never tried it, so don’t have personal experience to say how it works or if it is good for long term use.

7. Pay Attention to How Often to Re-Dip: There is no steadfast rule on how often to dip your pen into the ink…but the more you use the pen the more you’ll get an idea for when it’s time to refuel. If your pen doesn’t seem to be holding ink very well – it most likely needs cleaned…warm soapy water for me usually does the trick!


What are your dip pen experiences? Do you have any tips you’d like to share?

If you have any other tips or handy hints for using one please do share in the comments below! I am always learning too! And as always, if you have any questions feel free to ask and I’ll try my best to answer them!

* The publisher of ArtJournalist.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

Comments 12

  1. Nice article! Also, If you haven’t tried this yet, consider yet one more amazing tool… The FineLiner calligraphic drawing pen. It has a teensy tiny reservoir that you put your ink (I use watered down acrylic paint for my ink) and you fill up the little cup w your brush, it flows thru a teensy channel and out. I’ve used this for fine drawing and Zentangle inspired work in my journals and elsewhere. I think US ArtQuest makes them, I’ve also seen similar ones at specialty art shops. My newest go-to tool!

  2. I recently discovered dip calligraphy pens also. Much fun! I love your tips for practice. I’m still working to feel at complete ease and I think your ideas will help bunches. TY :~)

  3. Please answer me this, as it’s such a ridiculously basic thing, I haven’t been able to find the answer no matter how many calligraphy books I search through:

    how far do you dip the metal tip into the ink? The whole thing? Just the very tip? half way? Why will no book tell me this?! haha

  4. Profile photo of KarenLane

    I have used dip pens, markers and other pens but my favorite to use is a Sheaffer fountain pen (I also have a set of Sheaffer calligraphy pens). The only problem is that I can no longer find indelible ink for fountain pens. I ordered one brand and it comes with a dropper – well, that’s not how you fill a fountain pen! I need a bottle of ink I can submerge the pen points in to “suck up” the ink! At one time, Sheaffer made indelible black ink that was almost as dark as Higgins India ink (which is what I use in a dip pen). I don’t like the cartridges and got the filler gadgets to use in my Sheaffer pens for using bottled ink.

  5. Profile photo of Karise Lane

    I recently began taking calligraphy lessons and am enjoying it immensely. I can’t wait to have a go at combining lettering with my artworks. My teacher doesn’t do any of the fancy tricks with equipment. She uses nibs straight from the pack, rinses in cold water and wipes with paper towel. She also experiments with all sorts of papers and inks as well as watercolours, with lovely results.

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