Ah the humble dip pen. In our techno-obsessive culture, the image of someone writing or drawing with an old-school metal point pen, dipped in a well of ink might seem like something right out of a Charles Dickens story.
Felt markers and technical pens all have their place, but there is nothing like the directness of a steel-tipped pen dipped in ink and drawn across a nice smooth paper. It’s visceral, severe. It’s also perhaps the single most verstile tool in a cartoonist’s arsenal, which explains why after over 200 hundred years, they continue to be so popular.
The dip pen has certain advantages over a fountain pen. It can use waterproof, pigmented, particle-and-binder-based inks, such as India ink, drawing ink, and acrylic inks—each of which would destroy a fountain pen by clogging it—and the traditional iron gall ink, which can corrode fountain pens. Dip pens are also more sensitive to variations of pressure and speed, producing a line that naturally varies in thickness; and they can also produce a finer line than any fountain pen.
There is a wide range of exchangeable nibs for dip pens, so different types of lines and effects can be created. The nibs and handles are far cheaper than most fountain pens, and allow color changes much more easily.
A dip pen, or specifically, a steel pen nib, was essentialy an industrialized replacement for a quill pen. It was the precursor of the fountain pen. It works under the same principle of those ancient writing instruments: Ink is introduced into the hollow area under the pen (Usually by dipping in ink.) and held in place by capillary action until pressure is applied and the tines split, allowing the ink to travel through the tip onto the paper.
John Mitchell pioneered mass production of steel pens in 1822. His brother William Mitchell later set up his own pen making business. The Mitchell family is credited as being the first manufacturers to use machines to cut pen nibs, which greatly sped up the process. Modern pen nibs are precision machined to exacting specifications to create different types of pens with very specific mark-making qualities.
And so…yay dip pens! They’re messy, the ink has to dry on the paper, and they can even be stubborn about not wanting to work. (Although usually as a result of not being cared for properly) But there is quite simply nothing else like them for drawing comics.
My favorites lately have been the excellent Japanese made nibs.