As a watercolour painter, most of my preparatory drawings/sketches are made in watercolour, but every so often I work in monochrome, with ink, in an A5 or A6 sketchbook. It is useful for studying tone without the added complication of colour and good for developing confident mark making because there is no room for error.

There are numerous implements which can be used to make marks using ink, but I prefer to sketch and draw rather than create a finished work. I can doodle in a sketchbook for hours, filling page after page, something I just don’t do with pencil and watercolour, mainly because I see watercolour as painting (work) and ink as playing and experimenting. The tools I like to use not only have to be portable enough to fit in my pocket, but most importantly must be things which I enjoy using, rather than purely functional.

Drawing pens

My preference is for a fountain pen with good ink flow and a flexible nib. The flexibility means that by varying the pressure on the nib I can obtain a little variation in the line width, giving the drawing a bit more character. I have four such pens, but my current favourite is something called a Noodler’s Konrad. It has a flexible steel nib and quite a large capacity for holding ink. It is made by a small American company. I’m not sure if it’s available in the UK but a similar pen, the Noodler’s Ahab, is available online from Pure Pens. 

The one disadvantage of using fountain pens in my opinion is that they must be used with fountain pen ink and not acrylic or pigment inks which will clog up and ruin the pen. I only use dip pens, reed pens, sticks etc with these inks and normally on studio paintings rather than sketchbook drawings.

An alternative to using a fountain pen is a uni-ball AIR (available from most stationery suppliers). It’s a ball pen but uses a kind of fountain pen ink. There is even a small amount of line variation to be gained.

Fountain pens: I chose these pens specifically for my drawing. They all have quite a flexible nib which allow for some variety in line width. Top to bottom: Noodler’s Konrad; Noodler’s Ahab; Parker Slimfold and Conway Stewart 107.

Slate quarry, a slate quarry in North Wales drawn with the Noodler’s Konrad flex pen, demonstrating the amount of line variation and character which can be achieved with one pen.

Brush pens

I have two Pentel Colour Brushes. They are relatively inexpensive, and the grey ink supplied in the colour brush is particularly nice, but I have chosen to refill them with fountain pen ink (YouTube videos show how to do this). In one I use Diamine Grey Fountain Pen ink and the other Diamine Quartz Black. This ink isn’t waterproof or lightfast and I use it as a base for tonal washes.

I wrote about my homemade Aquash Water Brush in the May 2018 issue. Essentially, it’s a Pentel Aquash Brush but with the brush part replaced with an old sable watercolour brush; perfect for washing a drawing with water. Finally, although I don’t use the Kuretake ‘Sable’ Brush Pen (supplied with black ink cartridges) very often, it is nonetheless a delight and capable of creating the smallest, delicate lines to thick characterful marks. Available on Amazon, search for Kuretake DW140-50. Ink refill cartridges are also available.

Brush pens, top to bottom: Pentel Colour Brush filled with Diamine Quartz Black fountain pen ink; Pentel Colour Brush filled with Diamine Grey fountain pen ink; Kuretake ‘Sable’ Brush Pen DM140-50; my homemade/ modified Pentel Sable Aquash brush.

Brush pen landscape: I used the three brush pens and the Aquash brush in this drawing. A wet-in-wet watercolour technique helped to convey the misty feeling. I used several layers and it soaked the paper which remarkably held together very well.


I like to use a black waterproof ink in the pen and even though fountain pen inks are not generally lightfast or archival, there are a couple of brands making a lightfast/waterproof ink, ie Noodler’s. The American company, who make the Konrad and Ahab fountain pens, also manufacture a range of black waterproof inks. I use their ‘Bullet-proof Black’ which is available in the UK from Pure Pens (same as the Ahab fountain pen). There is also Rohrer & Klingner sketch ink – Lotte is a good alternative and available from The Writing Desk and Amazon.

In the colour brush pens I have refilled one with Diamine Grey Fountain Pen ink and the other with Diamine Quartz Black. This ink isn’t waterproof nor lightfast but it’s a good replacement and close to the original ink. Both colours wash out evenly and allow for some subtle tonal work. I purchase the ink online from Cult Pens, but Diamine Inks are widely available in the UK.

The main inks I use for sketching, left to right: Rohrer & Klingner sketch ink Lotte; Noodler’s Black; Noodler’s Black Eel; Diamine Quartz Black; Diamine Grey and Diamine Graphite. The first three are waterproof.

Landscape, a line drawing done on the spot to sketch out the structural elements of the landscape and then adding some tone with the Pentel Brush pens letting the ink drain from the brush to give a scumbling effect. Done very quickly, in no more than ten minutes. Made easy due to the portability of the equipment, convenience and quick drying time of the ink.


I keep separate sketchbooks for ink/monochrome work, and I prefer to use a Clairefontaine sketchbook, 14.8 x 21cm, 96 sheets of 90gsm smooth white paper. Although the paper is quite thin and cockles badly when water is applied, it is quite robust. I use clips to hold the pages and it dries reasonably flat.


My approach to using ink is straightforward in that it must be easy to do. Convenience is the key. The easier it is, the more likely I am to do it and looking through my sketchbooks for this article, I do appear to draw more frequently. With a few lightweight materials which I can take anywhere, it’s nice to go out for a walk and not feel a pressure to be productive. It is still possible to capture the essence of a scene in monochrome and I don’t always want to carry a bag full of sketching kit to do it. Plus, one of the qualities of fountain pen ink is it dries quickly, so I can move from one drawing to another sooner than I could if I was waiting for watercolour to dry.

Something I only do in ink is draw buildings and urban scenes, but I also find the structural elements of the landscape especially appealing, for example, street furniture, walls, fences. Whatever I do though, I take the same approach, whether it’s working on the spot, from photographs or imagination/memory. I draw directly on the paper, without pencil guidelines, trying to incorporate varying line widths, even using the nib in reverse to obtain really thin lines and introduce a bit of character. A piece of advice which I don’t necessarily follow, especially outdoors, is to take a little time to consider each mark and be confident with the line. There is little room for error; mistakes must be embraced and can add to the feel of the sketch/drawing.

Once I have the basis of an image, I will add tonal marks or shapes with the brush pens, almost as if I were adding watercolour washes. A surprising range of subtlety can be achieved because the ink supply to the brush pen is controlled by squeezing the barrel of the pen making it possible to obtain wet, dark areas, or a scumbling effect as the ink supply to the brush diminishes. Furthermore, by using the Aquash brush over the ink even greater tonal variety is possible. 

I sometimes expand on the monochromatic concept by adding colour with pens, biro, pencil and watercolour but I have only touched the surface of what can be achieved, so I would recommend looking at as many other artists’ work as you can. The Urban Sketching community is one place to start and someone who immediately springs to mind is Rolf Schroeter, his blog is at: There is also regular The Artist contributor Ian Sidaway, of course, whose line blog is a marvel.

David A Parfitt RI worked full-time as a civil servant for 27 years before devoting himself full time to painting in 2007. He was elected a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours in 2011. He won The Neil Meacher Sketching Prize in the RI 200 exhibition (2012), the Frank Herring Award in 2014, the Winsor & Newton Award in 2016 and the Matt Bruce Memorial Award in 2018.

His work has been exhibited in selected exhibitions including the ING Discerning Eye, RI, Royal Society of Marine Artists, Royal Watercolour Society, Royal West of England Academy, Shenzen International Watercolour Biennial, South West Academy, Sunday Times Watercolour Competition, Watercolour International II, Thessaloniki Biennial of Watercolour.

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