Musings about different forms of creation, including drawing, painting, photography and music.

About the difficulty of portraits

posted Sep 15, 2015, 12:59 AM by Juan Jose Garcia-Ripoll   [ updated Sep 15, 2015, 1:01 AM ]

It has always puzzled me the difficulty of drawing faces. This difficulty lays on two fronts:
  • It lays on the draftsman. The person drawing is affected by serious psicological constraints by which the brain tends to give more relevance to certain aspects of the face (eyes, mouth, ears, etc) and this added relevance translates into a disproportionate size in our perceptions.
  • It lays also on the person "reading" the drawing. This person does not have any information about who is the subject of the drawing and thus must complete what the artist has placed on the paper. This lack of context is completed by the brain, who searches for the extra information on the places it finds the most relevant: eyes, mouth, proportions, etc.
The situation is worsened when you choose a medium that does not have the same expressive power as a photograph. Ink and line drawing has a lesser choice of tones, which translates in a smaller range of shadows. We could compensate this by drawing stronger lines, contours and delimiting shapes, but then the problem is that this would clash against the spectator's perceptions, who expects female portraits to be softer, and which appreciates lines as more aggressive than patches of colors and shadow.

I write all this because I have been surprised by certain "failures" in the last week. These failures are, with some hindsight, well understood. First of all, those portraits were drawn from photographs, which implies some distortions that are accepted in pictures, but become stranger in drawings. Those are distortions due to the lenses, proximity of subject, etc, and the brain accepts them in pictures because they are compensated by the extra information available in other aspects, such as color, shadows, context, etc.

Second, people's faces are more similar than we get to believe. I showed the two portraits below to some people. They recognized the person in the second case, not in the first one. If you compare the pictures, which were drawn in A5, you will notice that the differences were nevver larger than a couple of milimiters in shape: center of the pupilis, right cheek, height of lips. Another important aspect is tone: the darkness of the hair makes a dramatic change and can change the context of our interpretation dramatically. Finally, the removal of lines on the nose, cheek shadows, crow's legs, etc, seems to make it more agreeable with our expectations.

After this, it is no surprise to me that women can so dramatically alter their appearance with a minimal application of makeup

La Residencia de Estudiantes

posted Aug 17, 2015, 1:11 AM by Juan Jose Garcia-Ripoll   [ updated Aug 17, 2015, 1:12 AM ]

If you visit our research group at the Spanish Research Council campus in Serrano Street, you will visit also a place with a rather old history of struggles to foster science and education in Madrid. Parts of this complex are buildings from the Junta de Ampliación de Estudios, an institution created at the beginning of the XX century, and which was led by Nobel Prize winner Prof. Ramón y Cajal.

While the JAE was closed shortly after the Civil War, the buildings of that complex still remain. Among them, you should visit the Residencia de Estudiantes (Students' Residence), a kind of "college" where great artists such as Dalí and Garcia Lorca resided for a period of their lives. Nowadays the Residencia acts as a museum, a center for cultural activities ranging from concerts to seminars, and also a place for short-term and long-term accommodation which we recommend if you do not about so much as luxury as much as about character, natural environment, historical relevance and quietness.

My modest drawing below is a sketch of the Transatlantic building from the Residencia, which was so called because of the high balconies that offer a wonderful view to the Natural Science Museum and core of Madrid.

15-08-16 Residencia Estudiantes Madrid

Spanish vintage flex pen?

posted Aug 16, 2015, 8:14 AM by Juan Jose Garcia-Ripoll   [ updated Aug 16, 2015, 8:15 AM ]

I found this little gem of a vintage pen that needs some restoration work. The pen is probably made of celluloid, it is a self-filler and needs a new sac to hold the ink, but the most amazing of it is the nib. It is a flex nib, very soft and rather springy, that goes from fine to broad easily and without effort. It is so soft that out of the five pens I found in the shop only this one had an intact nib,

See these two write / drawing samples:

The nib is hard to read. I believe it says "Pluma STYB", which would be a Spanish brand. However, I have yet to confirm this. If you know better, let me know. I am really looking forward to fixing it and using it for some drawings.

Frankenpen: Camlin Rego + Gillot 303

posted Aug 16, 2015, 8:01 AM by Juan Jose Garcia-Ripoll   [ updated Aug 16, 2015, 8:02 AM ]

Today was a day for experimentation and I tried both something stupid and amazing. Inspired by this video, I searched among the least used pens that I had and among the dip pens that I like and found that the Gillot 303 nib fits exactly on top of the Camlin Rego feed. Getting both together is easy, but getting it to work is not:
  • For some reason, while I had prepared the nib for India ink, heating it to remove oil, the fountain pen ink refused to run. I had to burn the nib with a match candle to fix it.
  • You have to find the perfect distance between the end of the feed and the beginning of the nib. Otherwise ink stops and does not reach the tip.
  • The feed has to be enlarged a bit. Take a knife and deepen the channels that you will see. I also added two sideways channels to let ink flow to the sides of the nib.
The outcomewas great. It takes some time and fiddling to get the ink started but then the Frankenpen works nicely with a smooth line variation. It is also wet, so be careful not to shake the pen, as drops may fall on the paper. And finally, and most important: remove the nib before capping the pen I did not realize that the Camlin cap is too short (well it is not, but the inside of it is) and the nib broke when trying to close the pen.

I leave you with some pictures:

Testing fountain pens for tone & value creation

posted Aug 9, 2015, 12:41 PM by Juan Jose Garcia-Ripoll   [ updated Aug 10, 2015, 11:02 AM ]

In my struggle of learning how to properly draw with pen and ink, I keep looking for the right tools and the right methods, which is kind of hard when you do not have a proper tutor or teacher. Lacking this, the best help is always practice, combining real sketches with other exercises from "Pen and Ink Rendering" by Guptill. These exercises include both training straight and curved lines and also tone building.

What is tone or "value" building? Pens are typically monochromatic and pen drawings as I like to learn them involve only one color. Lacking the option of more colors, the only option is to build gray tones by mixing the dark color of the ink with the white color of the paper until the appropriate balance is reached. This can be done in many different ways, such as drawing parallel lines, or crossing lines at different angles (hatching) or drawing free strokes. And man, this is hard without the right tool!

Hatching with different fountain pens

The picture above shows similar exercises performed with five of the pens that I use most: from left to right, Tachikawa School G, Rotring Art Pen EF, Dilli Flex Nib, Platinum Preppy 0.2 EF, and Guanleming 193 Fude Nib.The spacing between lines is either regular or gradated, and sometimes (bottom lines) I reversed the pen, drawing upside down to try differnt thicknesses. In doing these exercises some things are very obvious:
  • Some pen sizes are more useful for stability in line traces. The Rotring is quite good for that and it is so good that sometimes (upper lines) I have to fake some trembling to make the lines less conspicuous (after all we want to build tones, not lines)
  • Some pens are extremely thin, such as the Preppy. The line is very consistent and it is great for building different tones and drawing detail. However, building large dark areas with it is tricky and does not look too good.
  • The Rotring Art Pen, while European-style EF, is quite thick and consistent in its thickness. This produces very expressive lines but makes it harder to achieve tone gradation. Despite this, I am achieving good effects by drawing in larger formats.
  • There are nibs that offer a very good compromise. The Dilli Flex Nib from Fountain Pen Revolution is a very inexpensive tool that draws all the way from thin lines to thicker and darker ones. If you go for such a flex nib, you should probably look for a larger body for better balance, though.
  • Fude pens also offer great line width variability and are very useful for filling darker areas or accenting small lines, but are hard to master, as the line width is not obtained by pressure but by angle (the examples above were drawn at about 80 degrees). This said, they are so cheap in Ebay that you should have one to play around.
The good news is that, except for some particular cases, there are only very subtle differences in between many of the thinner nibs (Tachikawa School G, Dilli Flex Nib, Platinum Preppy, Pilot Penmanship, etc), so if you try to follow the same route as I do, you are very well off with any of those inexpensive pens.

The photo above is a test that I conducted some days ago. Today I completed it with the Pilot Penmanship and two dip pens that are considered "standard" in pen and ink rendering, the Gillot 303 and 404. The picture looks uglier because the wetness of the India ink curled the paper I used, which is just copy paper. The purpose of this last test is to become confident that I am using the right tools to achieve the effects that are shown in the pen and ink bible and in other references I am reading, such as Gregg's notes. I must say I am very happy about its outcome: it means one can do nice work with very simple, very inexpensive and available tools.

Hatching images with various fountain pens

Staedler Mars Matic 700 (Refillable technical pen)

posted May 3, 2015, 3:11 PM by Juan Jose Garcia-Ripoll   [ updated May 3, 2015, 3:15 PM ]

One of the things I always wanted to try is combining watercolor and ink. This has many applications, from beautiful sketches (See Russell Stutler's page for paradigmatic examples), to illustrations. Eventually I will try to do this with fountain pens, but until those pens arrive to my mailbox and I find time for testing them, I have the possibility of using a very old friend of mine: the Staedler pen.

Staedler Mars Matic is a technical pen which I used at high school to learn technical drawing (you know, plans, designs, etc, everything with rule and paper). Technical drawings have very precise linewidth specifications which is the reason why this kind of pens are callibrated to produce consistent lines... provided you use them right! Drawing with technical pens is quite different from the fountain pen experience, as they tend to be used with an almost 90 degrees angle, more controlled motions, and in general less improvisation.

On the other hand, the ink that these beasts use is waterproof and can be combine with watercolors, as I will show below. Note, however, that the fact that this ink is waterproof also means it is hard to clean: the pens must be cleaned regularly, specially between loads. This sometimes can be done with warm water and soap, but if you forget the pens for a long time, cleaning the thinnest pens may lead to serious damages, as I learnt recently (I lost the 0.2 and 0.4mm pens a few weeks ago).

Below I show a picture of the pen as you uncap it. Notice the fine head, with a metallic tube at the end of hit. That is the tube through which the ink comes out. Inside the tube there is a fine needle attached to a metallic weight. Pressing at the tip of the tube causes the needle and the weight to move upwards, allowing the ink to flow freely but with a controlled width. Capillarity also prevents the accumulation of too much ink, but you have to move the pen slowly to get consistent lines.

Staedler Mars Matic pen

The pen does not admit cartridges. Instead, it has a plastic ink deposit that has to be refilled with an eyedropper-like bottle. The ink is permanent but quite fluid, and a single load lasts for quite a long time, which is great. On the other hand there are only a couple of colors available (black and red) and I do not believe other types of inks can be used with these pens (please correct me if I am wrong).

Pen refill and ink brand

Given all these limitations it is nevertheless fun to draw with them -- perhaps also because of some sentimental attachment that brings me back to younger times. Below I show a picture I made for my nephew, to exemplify this. The picture was sketched with pencil and then drawn over with the Staedler Mars matic. The reason is that, as I said before, these pens are not good for sketching but excel on producing consistent lines, which is easy once you have a pencil sketch. On top of this I applied watercolor (sorry, nothing fancy, I am not an expert), and then drew again to get mor eintense blacks and emphasize the original contours and shadows. Overall, a lot of fun!

Drawing with watercolor and Staedler Mars Matic 700

Rotring Art Pen EF Review

posted Apr 30, 2015, 2:37 PM by Juan Jose Garcia-Ripoll   [ updated May 1, 2015, 12:47 AM ]

I have an objective of doing at least one sketch a day, let it be an exercise from Pen & Ink Techniques, a copy of one of Alphonso Dunn's examples, or something more free and arty. So far it has not been such a struggle. Quite on the contrary, it proves a nice motivation to wake up earlier and go sit at my favourite coffee place with the morning espresso, a sketch book and a pen of choice. Some days I even manage two!
Sketch with Rotring Art Pen
Sketch of a tree with Rotring Art Pen
In working out these daily exercises, I have come to realize the importance of having the right tools. Drawing with ink we have very little expression tools: ink and lines. You may fill regions with ink or with patterns, and a good control of these patterns is essential to provide sensations of volume, texture, light and darkness. Thin pens are great for textures, thicker pens (and perhaps a waterbrush) for shawdows and filling, etc, etc. However, many of those possibilities are not if the underlying medium or the tool fails. Examples of this:
  • A faulty pen, such as the Tachikawa I mentioned, can be scratchy, breaking your lines.
  • The pen may be too dry, or not start, or skip, in which case your patterns will really look bad: you are unable to produce continuous lines, parallel lines, etc.
  • The pen may be too wet, leaving too much ink which darkens or burns the drawing, or leaving blobs of ink that spoil your work.
  • The paper may be too rough, producing unsharp lines.
  • A too rough paper, or a paper that is too satinated, may produce skipping.
  • ...
I am finding all of these problems, none of which is really exclusive of fountain pens but also show up with ballpens, and I am learning a lot in the process. In particular right now I have settled for these little notebooks from Tiger. The notebook is cheap, just 1 euro, and it so so small that it also becomes very discrete. Small sketches are also less intimidating and help me feel more at ease when in the street.. Finally, the paper is buttery smooth, making the pen start accurately, but dries fast and takes a lot of ink, which is great for the drawings above.
Tiger notebook with Rotring Art Pen

I am trying both the Tachikawa School G and the Rotring Art Pen in this notebook. The Rotring is a drawing and writing foutain pen that apparently has been discontinued but which is still sold by many online shops, including Amazon. The ArtPen is a long, but very well balanced pen, made of plastic with a steel nib. It is sold in many nib sizes, and the EF in mine means Extra-Fine nib, referring to refers to the very thin line quality that it can produce. The nib is very solid and rigid, but produces a great variety o flines depending on pressure, inclination and speed of your drawing.

Rotring Art Pen
On the hand, the pen feels more like a brush than like a pen. It is terribly smooth, with a uniform and consistent flow of ink almost before touching the paper. The Rotring Ink is quite special, very dark and very thick, and sometimes this hinders the ink flow, forcing us to restart the pen by pressing harder or writing elsewhere. The intensity of the ink may feel intimidating, because strokes are harder to correct and shadows and hatchings are also harder to produce accurately, but I feel this is just a matter of practice and not a limitation of the pen itself. In any case, and just for the fun of it, I have order some other inks and a piston converter to test lighter colors, closer to graphite, to better compare the performance of the pen with the Tachikawa School G.

From an earlier review and from the sketches above you may see the thinness and expressivenes of the lines that the Rotring ArtPen produces.
Review of lines of the Rotring Art Pen

Rotring Ink can be washed
The ink, while thick and dark, is still water-based and can be used for very nice shade effects: using a small brush with very little water, you can spread the ink of a stroke in all directions. Depending on the amount of water and how far you spread the ink, you may vary the intensity of the resulting gray color -- which in the Rotring Ink has a nice reddish tone.


I love this pen very much. I bought it before the Japanese pen and I have been using it longer. It was thus my first drawing pen and the one that moved me into sketching, after I had long drooled over blogs and videos. The pen is not without faults. Either the ink or the nib tend to fail on me at times, specially on unforgiving papers with too much tooth, or too greasy, in which the pen skips. Restarting it by drawing elsewhere solves the problem. Further tests with other inks should reveal the actual cause of this.

On the other hand, while the pen does not produce hair-thin lines, they are thin enough even for very small notebooks (1/2 A5 shown above), allowing for lots of detail, specially when you turn the pen upside down and work with its finer side. The pen is also rather affordable and promises to take well other thick inks, such as permanent inks, though I have not tried this yet.

Please comment or provide feedback at the Fountain Pen Network post which I started on this topic.

More Tachikawa School-G sketches

posted Apr 26, 2015, 11:30 AM by Juan Jose Garcia-Ripoll   [ updated Apr 26, 2015, 11:35 AM ]

Following up on my earlier review of the Tachikawa fountain pen for fine Manga drawing, I have continued using it on my daily drawing exercises. The sample below, about half an A5 paper, is an exercise taken from the "Pen and Ink Techniques", by Frank Lohan.

Pen and Ink Techniques is a book on ink and line drawing that I am using to learn about shading, hatching and other techniques. The book works through exercises, some of which are commented highlighting the choices, the techniques used and how to best implement different ideas. Quite nice, though also quite brief!

I am working through the examples and in doing that, found that some of the finest shading techniques, and also for some textures, it would be nice to have the finest pen possible -- here the Tachikawa fulfills the role perfectly. At this point of my tests, though, I am wondering how much of this is due to the pen (which is not very wet) or due to the ink (which is quite thick and has a graphite-like color that adds up nicely). I suspect the best way to learn about this is to try new inks in other pens!

Art fountain pen: Tachikawa School-G (review & fix)

posted Apr 25, 2015, 1:00 AM by Juan Jose Garcia-Ripoll   [ updated Apr 26, 2015, 12:23 AM ]

In the last months I have rediscovered the pleasure of drawing and sketching, assisted by tools that I normally had disregarded by those tasks, such as my conference notebooks, rollerbals and, more recently, some fountain pens that I have been collecting. These are right now my preferred tools for both writing and drawing.

Fountain pens are great because they sit in a comfortable niche between technical pens and rollerballs, with a consistent linewidth, and more expressive tools, such as ink brush pens. They can be carried anywhere and, if you use a converter (i.e. an adapter to reload the pen from a bottle of ink) they are quite cost-effective.

Unfortunately, most shops and retailers I know are focused around expensive pens, collectible items, luxurious items and calligraphy, and not so much on their artistic potential. When reading in designer forums, many ink and comic artists prefer to use technical one-use pens, Copics, or other tools that I am not interested in, and only a few entries in the blogosphere seem to deal with sketching uses.

Despite this, there are references around to cheap fountain pens that have been routinely used for drawing, such as the Rotring ArtPen, the Tachikawa School G, the Hero fude pens, etc. Since I have some of those and I am now using them to re-learn drawing, I am posting here some of my findings, in case someone finds them useful. It is an amateurish work and also work in progress, as I will still be searching and trying new pens in the coming months.

I begin with the Tachikawa School G, a relatively inexpensive pen that looks like a disposable rollerball in its plastic design. It comes with one standard size cartridge that contains a waterproof ink which does seem quite thick. The pen is advertised as useful for Manga, which seems like a good start. I ordered it via Amazon and got it one week later in a nice package with two extra cartridges, all together under $20.

Initial fixes

The pen looks cheap'o, and indeed it is, but it also feels good on my small hands, which are used to Pilots and other cheap writing devices. I plugged the cartridge into the nib and started scribbling. The result was thin, straight and consistent lines, very similar in color and precision to those of a 0.2 mechanical pencil. I was astonished by that, but after one page of test strokes and hatching, which seemed too thin and too volatile to be true, the ink stopped running.

Further research revealed some problems: The point was scratching the paper, which was of moderate quality but not problematic for other pens. The scrathing caused threads to enter the nib, mix with the ink (which dries super-fast) and clog it. Dripping the pen in water helped momentarily, revealing what should be the actual linewidth of the pen, but it stopped working again for the same reasons.

Fortunately for us the internet is full of solutions. One is this: take a simple grinding paper, very fine one, such as 2000, and cut a small piece. Drip the paper in some water and start writing circles with the pen. Write a couple of circles or eights; go back to a normal paper and test. Again and again, always softly, always keeping the grinding paper soft and trying different angles. This smooths the pen, restoring it to its ideal state, and removing imperfections that were not detected in the fabrication process or quality assurance control (after all it is a very cheap pen). Some people will argue that 2000 is to coarse, but that's all I have and I routinely use it to polish my nails before playing guitar, so it is really not that bad. In any case, if you are worried, you can wear off the paper first by scratching one piece of paper against another until it feels smoother.

Tachikawa School G nib

Finally working

Fixing the nib as explained above was not traumatic at all for the pen. The nib itself is very fine and quality controls for such a cheap pen cannot be that good: I just got a bad sample. Once the nib was smoothed, however, I got a very nice working pen that produces the right kind of line for my purposes.

Below I show some line samples of the Tachikawa School G, a rollerbal pen from the inexpensive brand Muji, and my loved Rotring ArtPen EF, which I have been using for the past month. The nib drawing shows the direction of the pen when sketching and the "inverted" sample means that we put the pen upside down and write with the back of the nib to get a finer line.

Tachikawa School G line tests, with other pens
As seen in this picture, the line width of the Tachikawa pen seems to vary between 0.8 and something like 0.3, depending on how we press and orient the nib. This is great for drawing, though a bit more flexing would be even more useful.

The ultra-fine marks when drawing upside down are as fine as a 0.2 mechanical pencil, and you may even get them finer by pressing less. This is good for fine detail, early sketches and creating softer shadings.
Line samples of the Tachikawa School G and the Rotring Art Pen EF
Apart from the pen, one should pay attention to the ink. The different flow of the ink in the paper creates marked differences between the School-G and the Rotring, which you can seen through the "feathering" of the horizontal lines in this medium-grain paper of the Rotring; not so much feathering in the School G, which looks sharper.

Tachikawa School G waterproof test
The School G's ink is waterproof as advertised, provided that you wait long enough for it to dry. I have tested it by smudging the paper later on with a brush and some water. Compare the effect in the Rotring ink (which I love for shading drawings) with that of the School G. The fact that the lines remain sharp and clear is a plus for using this pen in sketches that also involve watercolors.

Finally, a simple sketch that shows the amazingly fine lines that this pen is capable of. Note that the picture is 1/2 of an A5 paper. The lines are so thin that they match those of the finest pencils I have owned.
Sample sketch with Tachikawa School G


Overall, I am now happy with this tool and hope to see how it evolves. The finer lines are very useful, specially because I had been so far limited by the Rotring's ArtPen darker tones, even in simple learning exercies for hatching, shading, etc.

On the other hand, to be fair, while the pen is fine, both in the literal and in the figurative sense,  somehow the ink does not cooperate well with it, which is the biggest annoyance. I keep it in my drawing kit and I am combining it with the Rotring, but I always have to remember testing the pen in a separate paper to see whether it needs to be restarted --which you do by dipping the nib in some water and doing some random initial lines elsewere.

If you wish to comment or provide some feedback on this review, please do so at the Fountain Pen Network post I started there

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