Beyond the Pen: Fountain Pen Ink as Watercolor Wash

This week’s guest blogger in our guest series Beyond the Pen (a focus on fountain pen ink uses outside of the fountain pen) is Jamie Williams Grossman, who has a terrific sketching blog called Hudson Valley Sketches. I recommend checking out her blog for lots of great art and advice on sketching, painting, and watercolor art. Thanks Jamie! ~Brian Goulet

If you’re already fond of fountain pens and ink, maybe it’s time to get creative with them in a different way! By adding just a waterbrush, like the kind that comes with some of the Noodler’s 4.5 oz inks, it’s amazing how expressive and quick a sketch can be. Whether you’re just doodling while talking on the phone, enjoying a quiet afternoon out on the deck, or recording your travels, there’s nothing faster to work with and more convenient to carry than a pen, waterbrush, and paper. In fact, if you’re into fountain pens, you probably already have two out of the three on your person at all times!

Aside from lots of practice, there are three components that will determine the outcome of your efforts. They are:

  • The type of pen you choose
  • The weight, sizing and finish of the paper
  • The washability and saturation of the ink

You’ll want to use a pen that lays down a lot of ink, so that you’ll have enough ink in the lines to create your washes.  I’ve had good success with the Platinum Preppy fountain pens with the 05 nibs, and they are inexpensive enough to keep an army of them filled with all my favorite sketching inks. I either empty and refill the cartridge that comes with the pen with the ink of my choice, use the Platinum converter, or do an eyedropper conversion with the pen. The Lamy pens and converters have also worked very well for me. I use one of those little label-making machines to label the barrels of the pens so I always know what’s in which pen.

Inks for these “ink and wash” sketches need to have a high saturation, due to the fact that you’ll be diluting them with water from the brush to create your darkest areas and shadows.  “Bulletproof” or “water resistant” inks will not work well for these purposes. Some inks wash better than others, but the trial and error is part of the fun and exploration of the process. Thank goodness for ink samples!

The paper you select also plays a role in determining the outcome of your sketch. Well sized watercolor-type paper lets the ink sit on top of the page, so it washes easier and retains more brilliance. A smooth, “plate” finish with good sizing allows the pen to easily glide across the surface and makes the wash flow effortlessly, but good sizing makes textured paper possible as well. I happen to like all of the Stillman & Birn sketchbooks (can’t even choose a favorite because they are all so good) for ink and wash work, and the Fabriano Venezia book.

The sketch above was done with an ink that many artists seem to love — Private Reserve Velvet Black. I did this sitting in front of the gorgeous courthouse in Hudson, New York. First the line drawing was done with the pen. Then I took out the waterbrush, and using the ink from the lines I drew, I pulled out the shadow areas of the building, leaf clusters on the tree, and gave some halftones to parts of the grass and path. This was done in a 10×7″ Stillman and Birn Beta Series sketchbook, which has very heavy, bright white paper that can take a beating. If you prefer ivory paper, their Delta series has the same heavy weight paper and great sizing in the ivory color. What I love about this Private Reserve Velvet Black ink is that the wash is a bit violet-tinged, with some subtle shades of pink. The complexity of the color, high saturation, darkness, and ease with which it washes make it one of the indispensable inks for my sketchbooks.

This sketch was also done on location, this time at the old Tioronda Hat Factory in Beacon, New York. If you look closely, you can see that it was done across a two-page spread of a stitch-bound sketchbook, which is my preferred way of working. In this case, it was a Fabriano Venezia book, using Noodler’s Nightshade, another of my favorite washable inks. I find it colorful without being garish, and the high saturation makes it a natural for ink and wash techniques. A Lamy Safari fountain pen with Medium nib was my weapon of choice here, followed by the waterbrush.

Private Reserve Chocolat (above) is more toward the reddish brown spectrum than Noodler’s Nightshade, and also washes very well. Above is another street scene from Hudson, New York.

If you’re too shy to go out sketching in public, just look around your house! I had a nice time last weekend relaxing on the porch while sketching my patio tomato plant, using Noodler’s Sequoia in a Stillman & Birn Epsilon Series Hardbound book. The paper in the Epsilon book is a fountain pen aficionado’s dream.

In addition to the ink and wash samples shown above, I have many other favorite colors that you might like to try for your doodles. Many of the Noodler’s inks work very well because they are so saturated. I’m always exploring and trying new inks, with a preference for subtle colors that don’t scream too loudly. Here’s a list of some of my current favorites for ink and wash work (including the inks showcased in the sketches in this post) in no particular order:

Noodler’s Sequoia
Noodler’s Nightshade
Noodler’s Midnight Blue
Noodler’s Purple Wampum
Noodler’s Brown
Noodler’s Zhivago
Private Reserve Velvet Black
Private Reserve Chocolat
Private Reserve Midnight Blue
J. Herbin Cacao du Bresil
J. Herbin Poussiere de Lune
Caran d’Ache Grand Canyon
Iroshizuku Yama Guri

In addition to all the brands and colors currently available, it can be fun to mix your own colors. Brian has warned me that mixing different inks can cause pen problems, so don’t experiment with your favorite expensive pen! Private Reserve Chocolat and Private Reserve Velvet Black mix together in various ratios to form fabulous neutral colors. Below is a mix of mostly Chocolat, with about 1/4 Velvet Black. The result is like a very highly saturated version of Iroshizuku Yama-guri! (This sketchbook is a Stillman & Birn Beta Wirebound.)

Back in April, I did an experiment based on the April Ink Drop. Those of you who are Ink Drop members will remember that was the Easter Egg Hunt month. I took equal proportions of the five inks from the hunt, mixed them together, and called the result Scrambled Easter Eggs. It’s a gorgeous muted blue that washes into tones of pink, blue and violet. Who knew!

Keep in mind that while fountain pen ink is wonderful for use in sketchbooks, it is not archival. My own lightfastness tests have indicated that none of these works could be framed and hung in a room with even indirect sunlight without fading after a period of time —- sometimes a short period of time! Enjoy them in your covered books, and when working on pieces to hang on your walls, turn to lightfast, archival alternatives in artist grade mediums.

Fountain pen use for artists doesn’t stop with ink and wash. I use some of the bulletproof inks with watercolor for colored sketches. I also use gray and black inks in brushes to create multiple values without using the ink lines to get the wash color. But those applications are for another post someday! Those interested in seeing more of my sketches and techniques can follow along with me on my blog, Hudson Valley Sketches .

2017-10-11T13:12:26+00:00 June 3rd, 2011|Tips & Tricks|32 Comments
  • Loved this post!  Very informative!
    These guest posts are a great idea.  🙂

  • Jamie Williams Grossman

    Thank you, Rita! I hope you'll pull out a sketchbook and give ink and wash a try!

  • I'm no artist but you have given me some inspiration here. I think i'll need to get a sketch book and try some of this myself. Let me get this clear, you have one of the brush pens and fill it with water to get those effects?

  • Jamie Williams Grossman

    Mark, that's exactly right. I use waterbrushes like these: . They are designed for use with watercolor pan sets. I use my regular fountain pens with ink, then create the wash effect from the lines using that brush filled with just water. 

  • Parsifals

    Terrific overview.

  • g kelly

    Jamie got me started on sketching with the Preppie ink fountain pens. I got loads of colors to sample from Goulet and have been testing out what I want to order larger quantities of – those sample vials are genius. Now I am getting into sketch books that she has recommended to me.

  • Definitely!

  • And as far as things go in this hobby, what Jamie's describing here to get set up is a really minimal investment. She's done a great job with this post!

  • Jamie, your drawings are beautiful! The washes add so much depth, and I love your descriptions of the way the different inks blend into unexpected colors of the spectrum when water is applied.

    I've spent a lot of time looking for waterproof fountain pen inks to draw with, so that I can lay down watercolors over the drawings when they dry. But I never would have thought to incorporate washable ink's properties into a drawing like you've done here. Great post!

    Experimenting with ink washes is definitely on my weekend to-do list now. I already have a few of the colors that you mention here, so I'll start with that. (no scrambled eggs though – lol! great idea!) I look forward to reading more about your work on your blog.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Zenadier

    Loved the article. Even made someone with no artistic talent like myself want to go play and see what could happen in my note books.

    Just a quick note as a picture framer. While most of the inks you are working with are not light-fast (especially after being watered down) a good framer can help you make these pieces last for quite a while on the wall. UV resistant glass can greatly slow down fading caused by light. Nothing can stop it since any visible light will degrade pigment and dye over time. However blocking the most damaging part of the light spectrum (uv) can greatly slow this process. Just my 2 cents.

    Now I am off to create a glorious mess with ink and water ^_^

  • Lawrence

    I've been doing this for a couple of years now in my sketchbook, but have never gone beyond the "standard" inks that happened to be in my original kit (some Sheaffer or Cross cartridges). But it's certainly a fun way to add shadow and light to a line drawing.

    One of my watercolour buddies tends to use Noodler's Bulletproof with a Lamy to add ink lines to his watercolours; sometimes he does it after the watercolours are dry to add the "line" effect (especially with architectural subjects) and sometimes he does it before, but lets the Noodler's dry so that it doesn't mix with the watercolour.

    Yes, Mark, the waterbrush has a reservoir in which you can put water and then it gets wicked up into the brush part (very much like a fountain pen, sorta kinda). You can get large, medium and small brush sizes (depending on the manufacturer). They're a great tool for watercolour pleine aire (painting outside) since it means you don't have to shlep along (or find) water–you take it with the brush. They're also really easy to clean when you change colours.

  • Your 2 cents is very much appreciated! I think that's a great idea, is UV resistant glass relatively affordable, or would it likely only be reserved for more valuable pieces of art?

  • Biffybeans

    I have been drawing with FP inks for several years and have also used a wet brush to pull color out of an inky line. I personally think the longevity of the ink will vary not only on the ink, but also to what degree it was watered down. I've just been noticing a certain blue ink (Aurora) is fading in my journals but it doesn't seem consistent throughout its use. I'm guessing that perhaps there was some water left in the pen or converter that compromised it's longevity so I'm not sure I can specifically place any blame on this particular ink.

    Also, I've actually filled those waterbrushes with ink from a bottle. It's a hassle to clean and it takes a long time to use up.

  • Jamie Williams Grossman

    Karen, many thanks for your kind words. Best of luck with your weekend experiments!

  • Jamie Williams Grossman

    Zenadier, thank you for your professional advice. It's good to remember that there are some options if something comes up that I feel I absolutely need to have hanging in a frame under glass!

  • Jamie Williams Grossman

    Lawrence, thank you for chiming in! Yes, I work that way with the bulletproof inks and watercolor too…..But that's for another article!  As I said to Brian, it would have just been too much to discuss all the ways in which artists use inks in a single post. I will do a couple more in the future to cover some additional approaches. So many inks, so little time. 😉

  • Jamie Williams Grossman

    Wow, that's pretty scary that the ink is fading without even being exposed to sunlight! How old are those pages that are fading?

  • Biffybeans

    A little over a year…

  • This is beautiful! Never thought inks could be used in this manner. Thanks for sharing your technique!

  • JessicaVarin

    Beautiful sketches. For some reason, I had never considered using Noodler Nightshade for this activity … time to load up a pen and bust out the waterbrush. 

  • JessicaVarin


    The Niji waterbrush is a very good product. Would you consider carrying it as a writing accessory? 

  • We'll consider any good product that people are interested in. It's a matter of whether or not it's readily available to us that's the issue…we'll look into it.

  • Bill Chance

    Wonderful ideas (and beautiful sketches)! I've been working with cheap disposable Pilot Varsity pens and refilling them with remixed ink.
    This is a great technique for using them. Have to put my sketchbook in my bag and get going.
    Bill Chance

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  • AndraK

    Coming late to this, but remember, too, that you can pick up some of the ink from the nib with the brush, to deepen shadows.
    I use this technique in life-drawing class.

  • milky1018

    Im pretty impressed on how these people make use of simple tools to make great paintings.

  • Thanks for the tip….I haven't messed around too much with using inks like watercolor, but the technique produces some amazing results on paper!

  • John B. Fisher

    I am also coming late to this conversation / blog. I wonder if Noodler's Eternal Inks might not offer better lightfastness than other inks. It's one of the reasons I chose Noodler's Ink. I used Noodler's Manjiro Nakahama Whaleman's Sepia ink to create the following image. Once the ink dried, It seems to be quite permanent. Of course, if you are concerned about the impact of UV on the picture, you can use UV blocking glass and/or acrylic in the frame.

  • Gwyneth Swann

    Very artistic and informative. Your are amazingly blessed. Need to try some too. Keep it up!

  • Gwyneth Swann

    Can you spray a lacquer or something to preserve the ink art? Thank you!

  • rosemm

    This is a great way to illustrate the ink wash for artists. Thanks so much. It would be nice to have more ink wash samples as the colors in a wash are sometimes surprising. Thanks for these samples Jamie.

  • Debrs

    Looking forward to playing around with the various inks of Goulet Pen company and a sketch book.
    Thank you for the inspiration.