Saturday, July 15, 2017

Exploring Art with Ballpoint Pens (Inspired by Alphonso Dunn)

An eye and surrounding skin rendered in purple ballpoint pen.

If I could travel back to that time when I started to explore art, I would have told Younger Me four things:

  1. Start with pen. Pencils, charcoals, and pastels will aggravate your asthma horrifically.
  2. Buy a good Uni-ball ballpoint pen and you can use all that spare printer paper for practice.
  3. Buy a pocket-sized plain notebook that takes pen well so you can draw everywhere you go.
  4. Ignore the haters who think you're not a real artist because you use ballpoint pen.

This would have saved me a great deal of starting money, a good chunk of health and peace of mind, and given me everything I needed to start building my artistic foundation.

Alphonso Dunn is among my favorite artists to watch on YouTube because he teaches art concepts well and has a very open mind as to what can be used to create art. In fact, of art teachers I've known and watched, he's the only one who ever recommended that starting with a ballpoint pen is a good step forwards (and by no means the only way to start the artistic journey).

In fact, I've seen a lot of artists who ought to know better deride ballpoint pen as Not Proper for Art, even though archival, waterproof, lightfast, acid-free inks are the rule with good yet affordable ballpoint pens these days.

But yeah, it's not a great idea to tell someone who's not flush with cash, who's disabled, or who doesn't want to be overwhelmed by an art store that the only proper pen and ink they can learn is through a dip crow quill nib with india ink.

Plus ballpoint pen is just so wonderfully expressive as a medium, with properties all its own that distinguish it as a unique member of the pen and ink family. If Alphonso's video intro to ballpoint pen techniques doesn't convince you, here's what I've been able to do with old ballpoints I found lying around (some are ten years old):

An example of a cheap Papermate black ballpoint pen (fun-sized gel pen)'s value scale.
Note the uniquely energetic lines more reminiscent of pencils than ink.

You can of course do the standard scribbles and hatching, but that subtle shading is also more pencils than ink.

And of course that eye, plus some very varied cross-hatching textures from light and airy to downright bold—difficult to achieve with technical pens, easily done with a single ballpoint pen and without the steep learning curve of a brush or a nib.

I did not expect a random Papermate ballpoint pen about five years old to be waterproof but there you go—that grey is the ink wash, not the pen itself, which you'll note did not smear despite the watery wash.
If you decide to learn ink washes or watercolors, you could do a LOT worse than this for waterproof line purposes—or even for full archival-level works with the right ballpoint pen.

One thing to watch out for is that older inks or very, very cheap pens can splotch. This can teach you an important lesson about adapting to accidents. For instance, I turned a splotch on a sphere I intended into a splitting of a truffle with some kind of dark, rich fruit-based filling inside:

A sphere became a nice Lindt truffle sort of confection.

An amusing and at times frustrating difficulty with pen and ink is trying to capture the energy of an original pencil sketch with a permanent medium. Ballpoint pen gives you that energy and the permanence from the get-go. Plus you can do all the normal strokes and patterns that most pens give you, which means that Dunn's wonderful book on pen and ink is relevant to learning.

It can be frightening to go forth bravely with a non-erasable medium, but overcoming your fear is a huge step towards breaking out your inner artist.

And afterwards you'll know what you like, and perhaps frustrations you might want to explore—and that means you'll have a better handle on your future personal art lesson plans than leaning on any one teacher's advice—even that of Dunn.

Happy ballpoint pen adventures!

This post was entirely my own idea—no product placement paid for or even suggested by others.

The Amazon links give me a small affiliate fee at no cost to you if you buy the items through the link; this helps me buy art supplies in the future and continue blogging about art.

Ava Jarvis is an ink and watercolor artist with a portfolio site at If you found this post useful, consider a one-time tip or supporting Ava on Patreon.