Graphic Pens vs. Fountain Pens

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Which do you normally use: the humble graphic pen or the fancy fountain pen? I’ll be the first to admit that it’s often difficult to choose between the two, so in this blog post, I’ll be comparing them side-by-side, and see exactly which one pulls ahead!

All About the Line

Perhaps the first and most obvious difference is the line quality. Graphic pens write quite smoothly, as their nibs are usually made of either plastic or fine fibre. Their tips are also at a fixed width, so they produce the same line thickness throughout. 

This means that most artists need to have at least 2-3 different pens in order to get any line variation, or go over the same line a few times to get a thicker line.

In contrast, the nibs on fountain pens are made of metal, and can flex – literally! Putting more pressure causes the nib’s tines to separate slightly (or more depending on the type of nib), thus producing a thicker line.

With practised control, you can get a smooth transition between thicker and thinner lines, which creates a different feeling in your linework (which we’ll explore later). The only downside is that the extra pressure you need to use might end up causing the nib to dig quite deeply into your paper, or make the drawing/writing experience feel “scratchier”.

Practical Differences - Graphic Pen

On more basic differences, graphic pens often have archival ink that’s pigment-based, which means the ink is waterproof and fade-proof. This makes them really good to pair with watercolours, since you can paint over your lines without fear of your lines bleeding or washing away!

In terms of reusability, most fineliners are disposable, though some can last for a very long time if kept well. Often, it’s the nib that wears out before the ink runs out! There are a special few fineliners that are designed so that the ink can be refilled, but in most cases, a dried-out fineliner is thrown out.

Practical Differences - Fountain Pen

In contrast, most fountain pen inks are dye-based, which makes them easy to wash away. Good for preventing the nib from clogging, but not so good to paint over! So if you still want to use a fountain pen with your watercolour paints, you’ll need to do your linework after painting.

Tip: There are some pigment-based inks for fountain pens, which are water-resistant but have a higher chance of clogging your fountain pen if it’s not cleaned regularly.

They’re also not as bright or shiny as dye-based inks, but they can be used with watercolours! The ink may still smear though, or bleed if it’s not completely dry before painting on top.

Fountain pens are designed to last for generations, especially if they’re used, cleaned, and maintained properly. In fact, the oldest known fountain pen is still around after a few centuries!

They’re also made to be refillable, either with an ink cartridge (which is disposable) or an ink converter (which is like a cartridge but with some sort of mechanism that makes it refillable).

You can also freely swap out the ink you use, whether it’s in terms of brand, colour, or chemical make-up. Nibs also come in different widths and flexibility, so you can even switch the nib itself to suit your writing experience, or to change it out if the previous one has rusted (though nibs and pens must fit each other to work).

This makes fountain pens a bit more finicky and expensive than graphic pens, though they’re more environmentally-friendly and last for a very long time.

Setting the Framework

One last comparison to make is in terms of the atmosphere created by the different pens.

For the image above, I’ve done a quick illustration on the left using graphic pens (05 and 02 size), with the main outlines done using the thicker pen and the lighter and more delicate shading lines with a thinner pen.

In contrast, the image on the right is the same illustration but done using a fountain pen. Can you spot the differences?

I find that the illustration done using graphic pens is bolder and more cartoon or comic-like, while the one done in the fountain pen has a more delicate quality and is more manga-like.

Once you take a step back, they’re actually not that different. Perhaps a fountain pen with a more flexible nib will make a more noticeable difference, but otherwise, the notes above are the main difference I can spot in terms of the evoked atmosphere. 

Final Thoughts

A painting’s linework is like an initial “frame” for your work to go in. If you want it to be loud and bold, go for graphic pens with a thicker line width. For a more delicate framework, you can use the fountain pen with its varying line width. For a very delicate, almost sketchy (or scratchy) feel, use graphic pens that have a very thin line width.

Or perhaps, after trying both, you can just go with whichever you like more in terms of the user experience. The graphic pen is cheaper, and more convenient to use and to travel with since you don’t need to refill the ink or worry about cleaning it. The ink also dries a lot faster and is definitely waterproof, so your drawing will last longer, too. 

The fountain pen is good for short trips, and for when you want smoother line variations. Some even treat it more as an heirloom or keepsake, as one pen can contain a lot of history - especially if it’s been passed down by a grandparent or an even older ancestor!

You can also try out many different inks and colours without feeling confined to one colour, plus some inks can be rather special by having a different colour sheen than its base colour, or even have different opacity levels depending on how much pressure you exert on your pen.

Regardless, I don’t think one type of pen is necessarily “better” than another! So you may be like me and use both types of pens, or you may have a strong preference for one.

Either way, I hope this blog post has helped enlighten you on these pens’ differences, so you can make a more informed decision the next time you want to add linework to your painting.

Do you prefer using graphic pens or fountain pens? What do you think is the main difference between the two? Let us know in the comments below! Also, for more tips and tricks about art, feel free to subscribe to our email newsletter. We’ll also keep you up to date with new products and workshop releases.

Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy.
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5 Comments

  • Also, there are fountsin pens with brush nibs. The one I have is Japanese and has a nib made of hairs like a regular paint brush. It uses carbon black ink cartridges for good water resistance and it delivers line variation just like a paint brush.

    Just think of the drawings and calligraphy you could produce with one of those. ;)
    ———
    Etchr Lab replied:
    Great insight, Mary! The possibilities are indeed endless! 🧡

    Mary on
  • Very constructive article thank you. I was about to take the plunge into using foundation pens but now I will hold back as the convenience factor is important to me .
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    Etchr Lab replied:
    Glad to have helped you with your decision, Dave! We hope this helps you in your art-making journey 😊

    Dave Robinson New Zealand on
  • I am a fountain pen expert and I teach urban sketchers and other artists how to use, fill, clean and maintain these wonderful writing instruments. They are not finicky if you choose a good quality pen. And they can produce way more line variations with a Fude nib which was made for calligraphy and is well loved by artists. Micron and other disposable pens create a huge amount of non-recyclable garbage. So if artists learn how to use fountain pens they will be very happy with all of the great art you can make! Thanks for your post. Btw I would love to do a segment about fountain pens on Etchr!
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    Etchr Lab replied:
    These are great insights, Eileen! Thank you so much for sharing them and we’re glad you enjoyed this blog post! 🧡

    Eileen on
  • Great article and I love the illustration.
    Given the choice, I will choose what is best for the environment and go with refillable.
    I am currently experimenting with Carbon Ink and Noodler’s Bullet-proof inks and liking them so far.
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    Etchr Lab replied:
    Great choices, Lori! We hope you’re having fun with your inks and creating more art as you go! 🧡

    LJTews on
  • Well covered article! I would add a neat fountain pen trick: if you want a finer line, flip the pen around and draw with the backside of the nib. You’ll be working against the nib flex, so the line will only get thinner with pressure.
    ———
    Etchr Lab replied:
    Great tip, Pedro! Definitely a hack any artist would be keen to know 👌🧡

    Pedro Loureiro on

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