Descendant of the quill

A number of these tip segments will be, I think, about dip pens. I

That's tea, not ink.

A hawkquill pen, a mug of oolong

love them, and so many people seem to hate them. If I’m not clearing their name at least I’m hoping to make using them a little more fun and a little less frustrating.

I’ve been using dip pens pretty regularly since my first year of IB art back in high school, which means something like nine years of wrangling the lovely little buggers. Hawkquills have generally been my nib of choice, because of their versatility. They’re large, they’re flexible; you can get anything from very fine lines to very heavy ones, all depending on the pressure and angle. What flexibility can also get you, however, are big droopy ink blots in the middle of your drawing.

Some basic tips to avoid blots, and keep a happy pen:

1) Keep your nib clean. This might seem more basic than basic, but it’s something that was never mentioned to me in school. Keep a cup of water on hand when you’re inking. When the ink in your pen runs low, rinse it off then wipe it dry with a soft, expendable cloth. Take it apart between uses, clean it and let it dry thoroughly. This will also help you avoid ink and rust buildup, which can fuse the nib into the handle for good (says one who speaks from experience).

2) Use fresh ink. Ink can go bad, either slowly or quickly depending on the ink and its properties. Bad ink can smell funky, or it can seem completely ordinary until coming out of your pen. Bad ink was the culprit in my crowquill debacle (which I shall describe at a another time), coming out chunky and drying on the pen. That ink was eight years old, so it can take a while, but don’t hesitate to replace ink if you suspect it’s past its usefulness.

3) Let the excess drip off. It’s really far less annoying to dip your pen a little more frequently than it is to figure out how to cope with the well of darkness now blooming in the center of your page. Hold the pen over the bottle and give it a few light shakes after dipping it. You’ll usually get a nice round drop of ink to roll off. Let it.

4) Do an ink test. Keep a scrap of paper near your elbow. Every time you dip your pen, draw a few lines on it. This helps work out excess ink and any paper fibers that might have become stuck between the tines (or any fabric fibers, from your penwiper). I use my watercolor blotting paper and make little sketches, adding a few lines each time I dip.

5) Watch your pressure. It’s easy to get carried away with those nice, smooth, malleable lines. Absolutely do test each new nib out before using it on a larger piece of work. Get used to how much pressure takes you how far. Make some ink blots, figure out how hard, or light, or at what angle this particular nib makes them.

There you have it, some dip pen basics. I know a lot of people who have switched to brushes or brush pens for inking, which of course work great as well. For me, though, nothing will ever quite match the tactility of line achieved with a stainless steel nib.

EDIT: Apparently, those are not hawksquills I work with but, rather, a map liner. Or something else similar! It’s embarrassing that I’ve used pens for so long, and know the formal names for all of their anatomy, but I still do not know exactly what I’m working with. Except for crowsquill, I know it was crowsquill that (I thought) was giving me all of that trouble. Many thanks to my mate Evan, who corrected me.

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