Tool talk: Passion of the nibs

I got a kick out of Richard Thompson’s latest blog post about his favorite nib, including its history.

In n earlier post, I’d driveled on at length about my favorite pen nib, the Hunt ##101 Imperial, shown above. I use a dip pen nib every day of my life and am therefor a leetle obsessive about them; a bad one can send me into a funk that poisons the whole household and probably scars my children permanently, but give me a good nib and I sing & dance like Donald O’Connor (which also scars my chi- but, never mind). Nibs can vary in quality within their species. Get 30 nibs of the exact same kind and hold them in your hand; half of ’em are OK-ish, 10 of ’em are decent and 5 are sweet, and, if you’re real lucky, one is immortal, a Nib for the Ages (that adds up to 31, I know, I know). It all depends what you’re after, of course. I’m after one that draws fine lines effortlessly, on edge or square on, upside down even, and does fat lines without spreading out too far and compromising the ink flow. It’s usually immediately apparent how well the nib is going to perform, just by the feel of it dragging on the paper, or the tiny variations in shape of the tines. It’s this finely calibrated nib-sense that makes my wife’s eyes roll audibly in her head if I so much as say the word “nib”.

I think we all get a bit obsessed about a tool of our trade. I actually enjoy reading about them.

What tool in your trade are you obsessed about?

59 thoughts on “Tool talk: Passion of the nibs

  1. In my case, my drawing pencil. I’m forever seeking the next best thing to the discontinued Blackwing 602 & currently draw with a Turquoise 4B (no way I’m paying 30 bucks for a single Blackwing on ebay).

    Until Sanford revives the Blackwing (which doesn’t seem likely), the Turquoise 4B is the only pencil I’ve been happy with.

  2. I still use nibs. Wish I could be as adept with a brush…

    I know what Richard means by the overall diminished quality of pen nibs.

    One of my favorites is the Gillott 170. I started inking with a new one and every time I tried to lay down a line, a huge gob of ink would splat on to my bristol board. After wiping the ink off and taking a real close look at it I discovered that the nib had no slit!

    Richard’s ratio of nib quality is spot on.

    With this group, the post “passion for nips” would probably cause the website to crash!

  3. The only thing I will pencil with is a Blue Prismacolor Col-Erase (Part number: 20044). I buy them buy the box and refuse to use anything else. I worry about them being discontinued someday.

  4. I used to favor a #2 Winsor Newton watercolor brush, but prefer the #2 WC Daler Rowney with a thick pencil-like handle today. It’s much more dexterous for me to use.

  5. I’ve been using nibs on my cartoons recently.

    Lately I’ve been watching those old “Inspector” and the “And & Aardvark” cartoons (anyone remember them?) and noticed that the line-art in those are not clean, pen lines, but rather a skiddish style, a result of using wax pencils on cels. Even though it was probably done that way because of the studio’s low budget (wax pencils are cheap), I thought it looked neat, so I attempted to duplicate the style with nib pens.

  6. Actually Richard’s blog posts about the Imperial (I believe this is his third) prompted me to start experimenting with it, and now I’m hooked.

    Espeicially considering it’s less expensive and more durable than the sable brushes I’d been using.

  7. I’ve run the gamut of different writing implements over the years, trying to find something that works best for my fairly unique drawing situation: Pentel roller balls, Microns, brush pens, Pilot PreciseGrip Bold roller balls, even a Wacom Tablet. But in the end, I’m happiest with a Sharpie.

  8. I used to use Hunts exclusively, but I got frustrated by the poor quality control. I’ve since started using a brush (Windsor Newton 7), and haven’t looked back.

  9. Actually, the DePatie-Freling studio was photocopying the (somewhat) cleaned up animator’s drawings directly onto the cels, thus eliminating the “ink” part of the ink-and-paint department. It was pretty common procedure (pioneered by Disney on “101 Dalmations”, if I remember correctly) until the advent of computers and scanners.

  10. Man fascinating post. I love reading all the different techniques. I use a Zebra brush pen mostly, its a disposable Japanese pen with a pretty decent nib. I eventually want to switch to a real brush and ink though.

  11. John,

    From my understanding the first several “Inspector” and “Pink Panther” shorts used wax pencils. They switched to photocopying later on.

    I got into contact with an animator who worked at DFE early in the studio’s run and he remembered that the cel painting department hated the red wax pencils they had to use to trace over the Panther drawings.

    Ant/Aardvark was definitely xeroxed. In some cartoons you can actually see the pencil guidelines on Aardvark that apparently didn’t get erased enough.

    OK, I’m going off-topic. Carry on.

  12. Somebody in the DC area is selling Panther cels pretty cheaply. I picked up one months ago for something like $10 just to show my daughter what a cel was.

    RE the sharpie: Might be good for quick art, but it’s bad for long-term survival of same as it both fades, and destroys the paper at the same time.

  13. There are three essential tools I use:

    1. Raphael #2 sable brush. Became addicted to them at the Kubert School. I find them better to use than the Windsor Newton Series 7 brushes, and are a bit cheaper (although not by much)

    2. Hunt 102 crow quill. Pretty much standard issue among cartoonists.

    3. Speedball B-6 for lettering. Was turned on to this by Hy Eisman, and nothing else compares.

    I have a small Cintiq, but all I ever use it for is to color. I can’t get used to drawing on it, and I like having an original to sell, especially now when $$$ is tight.

  14. I obsess about the Speedball FB-6 for lettering, which sucks because I don’t think they make them any more.

    I was stuck on the Hunt 512 for a long time, using it son Spooner, until a friend in Japan sent me a Zebra G, which I like a lot. I used it for inking some comic strips last week. Both are so flexible, a lot of folks thought I was using a brush.

    I’ve been using the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, though, for the past two years. It has held up after literally thousands of drawings. An amazing instrument.

  15. I would say I ink with a Gillott 303 and a Hunt 102, but what I actually do is curse in a stream-of-consciousness style at said nibs while stabbing furiously at the page, eventually beating it into submission… at which point I reach for the white out.

  16. I like a #1 Scharff Fine Line 3000 sable brush for expressive strokes. I just started using my old kohinoor art pens recently after having discovered Noodler’s ink. The Heart of Darkness ink is good. It came with a free fountain pen that makes great fine crosshatching or detail marks. The two art pens have medium and thick qualities from my filing on the points, so I have a selection of pens now that I can cover a lot of ground with. I was using those Pitt pens which are nice but very uniform. Which is cool, too.

    I am impressed with all the varying methods mentioned here and to which each artist is absolutely married to.

  17. Sparky Schulz told me he had always preferred on particular brand of nib (I forget which kind.) When he learned that the manufacturer was going out of business he bought out their entire inventory of several thousand.

    The man was a genius beyond cartooning.

  18. I have one other tool of the trade that I’m obsessed about, I only pencil/ink on Chromacolour 23lb Pro Grade Plus animation paper. I’m left-handed & discovered brush pen ink dries on contact (eliminating the risk of smearing). I highly recommend this paper for fellow ‘southpaws’.

  19. Sparky bought out the entire remaining stock of Esterbrook radio 914’s. I told this story to a niece a few years back and she contacted Jeannie Schulz and had 3 sent to her and she gave them to me for a xmas present. I primarily use a 905 esterbrook radio and hunt B6 to letter.

  20. Comics poll cheating and ballot box stuffing goes on without check in our industry and editors continue to make decisions based on these fixed results, and here we sit, giggling over pen nibs. Cartoonists are so pathetic.

  21. The future of comics and cartooning is the web…that’s pretty much a given. The only way we will all make money through that porthole is when content becomes something you pay for. We now are raising a generation of content consumers who think everything should be free because it is on the web. I live for the day when the internet is a pay to view venue. Until that happens we will collectively watch as our industry slowly but surely evaporates into oblivion.

  22. If the internet becomes a pay-per-view venue, the only ones making money will be the Comcasts, while the content suppliers (us) make pennies.

  23. Include this final instruction, Wiley: “To whom may be carrying on with NON SEQUITUR…keep it bland, keep it simple, keep it inoffensive…ride under the radar and you’ll have a job forever!”

  24. “the only ones making money will be the Comcasts, while the content suppliers (us) make pennies.”

    I DREAM of making pennies!

  25. >>>If the internet becomes a pay-per-view venue, the only ones making money will be the Comcasts, while the content suppliers (us) make pennies.

    You mean like now?

  26. Sorry, guys. Just trying to be provocative. I apologize for my impertinence. Please go back to your nib discussion

    Incidently, CVS and WALGREENS provides a fine line of felt tips and other pens. Modern technology has made them better and more reliable than old-fashioned nibs. From what I see, most cartoonist don’t make use of the unique aspects that these nibs provide so you’re better off just using cheapie pens. They are easier to use and maintain.

  27. Editorial cartoons: Daily deadlines required I learn to use the Wacom tablet. I still do a sketch on paper, scan it and draw on screen. It was a little like signing for a UPS package and learning another language at first. But now me bibliotecca soy muy fluentamente, por favor.

    Everything else: I do something like the method described above: pencil sketch (garden variety #2), when it’s right I draw over sketch (no erasing, I like the mistakes) w/ a soft 4B, photocopy it on water color paper (you need a good copier w/ light/dark adjustments), drymount it onto board (bought one years ago), paint it an voila, you got yourself a “Lumberjack”.

    *I just proof-read this and don’t think I insulted anyone other than maybe Lumberjacks.

  28. I have to add that the obvious exception is Richard Thompson. Now there’s a guy who knows how drag a nib!

  29. Stromoski…the internet isn’t pay-per-view yet…but it will be…we’ll be charged each time we log on. And I think that may be a good thing…drive us all back to print

  30. “The future of comics and cartooning is the web?”

    If that were true, something would have happened by now. There’s nothing to indicate it will ever happen. It’s been fifteen years since comics first began appearing on the web. Once the internet, like everything else, became dominated by corporations, comics have gotten lost in the vast sea of billions of web pages.

    I think comic strip cartoonists can take a lesson from comic book cartoonists. They play a more proactive role in their industry and are seeing the success from it. The comic book conventions and small press expos continue to grow and wield influence. Graphic novels are the most important and popular form of comics today. How do we transfer those principals to the funny pages?

    Honestly, the most creative and proactive thing I’ve seen a comic strip cartoonist do in my lifetime is what Tom Gammill has been doing on YouTube. Cartoonists are supposed to be the creative ones, not the syndicate people or newspaper editors, and creativity is required to solve the comics crisis.

    People have given up on print and it’s becoming a self-fulfilled prophecy.

  31. I disagree Mark. i think the internet will become like cable tv. There will be free content (which will be drek) and You can subscribe for various packages for a monthly or yearly fee which allows you access to a variety of premium content. Content providers will charge a fee for premium content.

    A model for this already exists. Jaquie Lawson has an e-greeting site that brings in multi-millions of dollars a year. you pay a nominal annual fee ($12) and have unlimited access to her content (120 high quality greeting e-card animations). I imagine comic sites evolving into this…as newspapers go the way of buggy whips, readers will pay $12 a year for 120 of their favorite features animated or not. Multiply that by the millions of world wide internet users and you have a whole new ballgame. No one has figured out the model just yet, but I guarantee it will happen.Or something close to it.

  32. 90% of everything I ink is done with a Windsow Newton #1 sable brush. The rest is done with a Kuretake brush pen. (Norm, I think you gave me that recommendation) I tried the brush pen for several months and found that it just didn’t give me the fine line I was looking for, so I went back to the brush. For really really large black areas I just hold my breath and use one of those intoxicating wide sharpies. My ink of choice is Speedball. Of all the inks I’ve tried, it’s the most permanent, not only on paper, but also on carpet, clothing, pets, etc…

  33. If anyone was offended by you today, Mark, then they need to be thinned from the herd.

    Now fetch me another beer.

  34. Wiley:
    All the great cartoonists alive today are dead. Except for the ones that are still alive. But, so many of them are dead, that the ones that are still alive are dying to be like the ones that are dead. Some would kill for it.—to paraphrase Yogi Berra.

    Oh, for blue-line drafts, I have recently discovered Koh-I-Noor Progresso solid color pencil ( no wood ). Much easier to keep sharp and fine. Just don’t drop ’em. They break fast on hard surfaces.

  35. Cartoonists can obsess over tools of the trade and actually geek out over nibs…and I have it twice as bad. I play guitar and I geek out over pickups, amps, pedals, settings, brand of guitars, etc.

    I love nibs but never had the patience for waiting on something to dry. I always erase the No. 2 pencil marks and that’s not good for that type of ink. This impatience and daily deadlines has me using the most simple and cheapest of items.

  36. Rick, I could be wrong, but I really don’t see a lot of people paying subscriptions for comics over the internet. I think eventually a comics website will come out with a similar business model as youtube or facebook, ie ad based revenue. (Nothing on the net these days is “free”, we pay for it by being inundated with advertisements.) If they were to work out a revenue sharing plan with the creators it would be a pretty viable alternative to syndication and newsprint. I think this could be the future of comics.

    Now if any of you are tech savvy enough to do all that, please get started. LOL

  37. I love reading about cartoonists and their passion for tools. We spend all day every day with this stuff, no wonder we get obsessive.

    I use and love the Gillott #303… and yes, manufacturing doesn’t seem to be what it used to be, so I order them in lots of 100 so that I don’t mind throwing the bad ones away. And a good one makes for a very happy day of drawing… and a cartoonist who is easier to live with.

    I gave up on nibs for lettering, though. The line width was just too inconsistent. If a Micron is good enough for Borgman, it’s good enough for me. And like him, I discovered that if you hold it the same way every day, it gets a little bit of a wedge that adds “life” to the letters.

    I love the low tech side of cartooning. Creates a nice balance in my day.

  38. I’m partial to an old stick, preferably sunbleached, and a nice smooth stretch of sand. The weather doesn’t matter. Otherwise I have these fabulous steel nibs that I managed to get 4 boxes of, in High School, the boxes were in their original wrappers, 144 nibs a box, unopened since about 1935. The nibs are classified as “702 SCHOOL MEDIUM” by the Esterbrook Pen Company, Camden, N.J. I’m down to my last box. Of course, they don’t make them anymore. I’m sure my school threw the rest of the boxes in the trash.Oh, well….

  39. … If they were to work out a revenue sharing plan with the creators it would be a pretty viable alternative to syndication and newsprint. I think this could be the future of comics.

    Now if any of you are tech savvy enough to do all that, please get started. LOL

    I hope Alan won’t think I’m just plugging my site, but if you go to the link in my name and scroll down the right sidebar to ‘Proposal’ and click on that link, you’ll see my pitch along these lines. I’m doing animation, but I think it could apply to any cartoon.

    I’m building off the model that Seth MacFarlane is using for his Google ad-based cartoon. A lot of people seem to think this business model is ‘the future’ so wish me luck. I’ve only just started to contact ad networks, nothing to report yet.

  40. Application is still one step removed. The final product is slave to the surface.
    I formerly used expensive Bristol board, Strathmore.
    Not any more, I went cheaper and better.

    I secured a supply of pebbly/variegated board that is now defunct that herblock used. Great with wax pencil for shading. Not so good for straight lines…lettering. I actually made word balloons on other paper, cut them out with thread scissors, then displayed them on the toon with rubber cement!

    For effect, I have taken the paper and purposefully wrinkled it profusely before inking. Makes it look old.

  41. Plugging is inappropriate.

    Dang, I was afraid of that. LOL

    But back on subject. I use points and polygons which are then multi-shifted, sub-patched, colored, and lit to be rendered into pixels. Lots and lots of pixels.

    “If you’re the inker then you’re just tracing.” – paraphrased from Chasing Amy

  42. I, too, like the tools that I use— having worked with many, many kinds of pens, pencils, inks, paper, and programs. But every time I get frustrated when one of my “chosen” favorites screws up or doesn’t perform like it is supposed to, I’m reminded of one of my other facts of life.
    As a professional drummer, many times I go to a gig (mainly festivals, or when we are opening for someone else) and have to play on the drum set that has been provided for me. I can customize it a little with my own cymbals, snare, and pedal, but I’m pretty much stuck with what is there, and I am expected to make the same sweet music as if I were playing my own mid-60’s Slingerland four piece.
    My point is that all of us could, if we HAD to, produce the same wonderful cartoons using a stick and some yak dung.
    The idea is at least as important as the way we get it across.
    And do to the current state of affairs with the cartooning business, I am in the market for some good grade yak dung….

  43. The old fashioned pen nibs need to be prepped before using them. They are coated with oil to prevent rusting and this must be taken off. I use a match to burn off the oils. Also, they usually need some light sanding with a very fine grit sandpaper to get them to glide smoothy across the paper.

    If you miss these steps, you will hate nibs…

  44. Thank you all for the discussion. I am a newbie cartoonist and need all the help I can get. I am using autodesk sketchbook and a Wacom tablet.


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