Sunday, March 29, 2015

Epic Pen Search and Discovery, Part 11 (Conclusion): My Dorothy Moment

3/19/15 Diamine Chocolate Brown ink, Sailor fude pen,
Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook (Sketched from photo.
Until I sketched Dorothy, I had no idea she wore so much eye
makeup, including false lashes, for a little girl from Kansas.)
(This is part of a multi-post series about my search for the ultimate variable-line-width fountain pen. To read other posts in the series, choose “Epic Pen Search” in the label cloud at right, below.) 

Remember this scene from the end of The Wizard of Oz? The wizard’s balloon, which was supposed to be Dorothy’s ride out of Oz, has just floated off without her (no thanks to Toto). Then Glinda informs her that Dorothy has had the ability to take herself back home all along – but she had to learn this for herself. Dorothy muses on her learnings:

“Well, I think that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. And that it’s that - if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with. Is that right?”

Glinda confirms that she is right, and then with a tap-tap-tap of her ruby slippers, Dorothy takes herself back to black-and-white Kansas.

1/16/15 Private Reserve Velvet Black ink, Petit1 pen, VanGogh watercolors,
Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook
My old faithful Sailor fude – the one I found myself comparing to all other pens I tried and reviewed – has been in my backyard (and in my bag) for the Epic’s duration, patiently waiting for me to return. Indeed, I often reached for it when another pen I was experimenting with frustrated me. Has it been my grail all along?

I still curse the Sailor fude’s poorly posting cap (and the ugly piece of tape I adhere to the pen’s tail end to keep the trim ring from getting stuck inside) – even as I’ve use it nearly daily for the past couple of years. I like it so much that I have several, and recently the oldest has gotten scratchy. (Could it be wearing out?)

12/28/14 Private Reserve Velvet Black ink, Petit1 pen, S&B Alpha
If I just splurge on the 21kt gold version – the “mother of all fude nibs” that I’ve been lusting after for months – will that take care of my yearning (not to mention the posting issue)? An essential difference between the gold version and the inexpensive stainless steel one is that the latter is bent at a sharp angle, while the gold one I tested at the L.A.Pen Show is gradually curved, which enables beautiful transitions in line width. It seems to be everything I love about my old fude – but better.

Mostly. My only disappointment in its performance was that it seemed scratchier than I would have expected. Could that scratchiness be polished away with some judicious fine-tuning by’s John Mottishaw, who inspects, tests and optimizes every pen (to the customer’s requests) before shipping it?

I’m counting on it. My order has been placed. Now I just have to wait patiently for the next several months for the nib to be made! (Sadly, the legendary Sailor nibmaster Nagahara-san passed away on March 11.)

(Updated 4/26/15: The grail has arrived!)

In the meantime, like Dorothy, I’m pondering all that I’ve learned from my epic journey:

1. The “grail” doesn’t have to be one single pen. I obviously had it in my head that finding one perfect pen was the ideal. But I’ve come to accept that it’s OK to favor more than one variable-line-width nib, using each to do what it does best. For example, based on the pens I’ve reviewed in this series, a combination of the Sailor fude plus either the Platinum music nib or the Franklin-Christoph music nib might be a grail pairing – the fude taking care of the thin-to-thicker range and the music nib taking care of the mid-to-thickest range.

2. I used to think that a wide-ranging flexible nib would be the perfect sketching pen, responding to the hand’s intuitive changes of pressure to regulate the line width. In some hands, that must be true, but not in mine. As much as I love the Pilot Falcon nib’s flexiness, sketching with a flex doesn’t come intuitively to me. Strange as it seems, tilting the angle or direction of the nib (as is done with almost all the other nibs I tried) feels more intuitive and responsive.

Writing samples made with Sailor fude nib.
3. More than almost any other sketching tool or material, fountain pen nib preferences are highly personal and idiosyncratic. I knew this before my Epic began, but my belief was reinforced by my research. Although I can usually count on others’ evaluations about the general quality of a pen, how it behaves in my hand while sketching is all about me. An urban sketcher whose work I admire, Teoh Yi Chie (better known online as Parka), recently compared nine pens, all with fude nibs, in an interesting and informative video. I’ve tried nearly all of those same nibs, and my conclusions were exactly the opposite.

4. Let’s face it: I love fountain pens. Obviously, I’m very picky about what I sketch with, but I’m far less discriminating about what I write with. Other than the ones from eBay that I trashed, I’ll probably keep all the pens I tested, because even though none turned out to be the grail for sketching, every one is a delight for writing.

5. I found that the looser, more confident and more expressive I allow my sketching line to be, the more a variable-line-width pen can do for me. If I am unsure, tightly clutching my pen and trying to draw with small, tentative marks, no type of pen nib will turn those marks into flowing, confident lines. On the other hand, if I put the pen to the page and draw as if I know what I’m doing, almost any pen will produce a more beautiful line.

1/3/15 Private Reserve Velvet Black ink, Sailor fude pen, Stillman &
Birn Gamma sketchbook (antelope sketched from photo)
6. Perhaps the most delightful lesson learned was confirming how much I enjoy using the line as a sketching element. All the sketches I produced to experiment with various pens taught me this. Early in my urban sketching life, I saw the pen line as nothing more than a coloring-book outline that would be immediately filled in with watercolor. Fairly quickly I realized that color can’t compensate for a weak drawing, so I started focusing on making better renderings. Eventually I learned that a strong sketch incorporates many other important elements – composition, value, shape – and my goal is to put all of them into practice simultaneously with each sketch. But through it all, I’ve come to a greater appreciation for the line on its own – and the potential expressiveness of variable-line-width nibs is what has brought me here.

It’s a good place to end my Epic Search and Discovery. Thanks for coming along!

(Just in case it’s not obvious, unlike many blogs that review fountain pens, my blog has no sponsors or affiliates. Every pen I mention here was purchased by me at retail price.)

My trusty Sailor fude nib pens. . . there's no place like home!


  1. Much to ponder in this post and I agree with most of it. I'm more of a fan of the Falcon than you seem to be but then that's probably because I enjoy a fine line. I find the Sailor fude (the green one) to be as klunky as you describe but the black, more conventionally-shaped version has become a 'go to' pen for me.

    Like you, I love line. Watercolors without line don't interest me much. It always seems like something is missing, or I"m looking through the bottom of a coke bottle :-) Also, without line there's no reason to use my pens and without using my pens it's just not as much fun to sketch.

    Cheers --- Larry

  2. I have two fountain pens, both Lamy Safaris, and I'm happy with both. I'm also happy with my assortment (which is growing by leaps and bounds) of regular ink pens. I have so many that I lose track of why I like a particular one. I can't imagine testing as many pens as you have...and still not having one holy grail. The good thing is we don't have to choose just one!

  3. This was a wonderful series! Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. Hi Tina .... I just discovered your sketching pen series today ... and read them all! What a treat. Such a big world of pens out there. I long used Hunt's fine and flexible dip pen before I discovered fountain pens. Once into fountain pens I had a Richard Binder customize a flexible nib for me. It has a lot of flex but most of the flex doesn't show up when I'm sketching. I realized when I was using the dip pen's full flex I'd be working carefully, not quick sketching. ....So I've basically accepted my quick sketching line will be fairly uniform ... but I have the flex when I want it.

    I think I'd so a little crazy using a pen that draws a thin line one way and a thicker one the other way -- like those music pen points.

    The nib, the pen, the ink, and the paper .... so many elements!

    Thank you for a wonderful journey through your efforts.

    1. Thanks for reading the series, Elva! The pen world is huge and dizzying, but I love wandering around in it! ;-)

      - Tina


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