Having drawn my entire life, the process of sketching is a fundamental method in the way I consider design. Many architects and artists believe it is foundational to the way we think. (Check out US Modernist Radio, Episode 3 for more insights on this.)
Since I am often asked about this, I wanted to post the detailed specifications of my three basic sketch tools and how I use them.
Moleskine Sketchbook, Large
I used a Moleskin Sketchbook the first time in 2005 and never looked back. The pages are super heavy (100 lb) which prevents even the heaviest of inks from bleeding through or even being noticable on the opposite side. I was previously a one-side only sketcher, but this notebook is the first one with pages so heavy and card-like that the other side is truly invisible. This one feature doubled the useful number of pages and the potential size of my sketches, because…
Opposing face sketching on this half-size notebook (despite Moleskine calling it “Large”) presents a Letter size sketching surface. That’s large enough for plenty of exploration while still keeping the notebook small to carry in any situation. But what about the binding down the middle that usually gets in the way in most sketchbooks?
The Moleskine binds adjacent pages so that there is only a tiny seam down the middle. No matter if it is the first page or the last, opposing pages are almost perfectly flat and present little visual or textural barrier between the two faces.
The paper is also pH balanced so it won’t fade lines or change color, and is supposed to be archival quality for decades, even centuries. (My oldest is only 10 years, but I can see zero change in it.)
Corners are very slightly rounded so there are no dog ears.
Each sketchbook has a bookmark and a separate elastic closure band on the edge to keep it from coming open in transit. This is ideal to help keep loose items inside, too. (For fun, I keep four-leaf clovers I find at the page current when found, and also keep a few business cards loose inside the back cover for quick retrieval.) I sometimes use the elastic band as a bookmark so I can quickly open and close the book to the current page. Then the bookmark can be for some important page prior. There is also a pocket in the back for holding additional flat items in which I simply keep a few more business cards.
The binder is black. I use a silver permanent marker to write the year of completion on the binding so I can reach for the right one on a shelf for reference.
Make sure you get the “Sketchbook” model. It has a pale blue/lavender packaging wrap. I mistakenly purchased the more common green-wrapped “Notebook” at an office store once and the pages are only half as thick and bleed. They don’t lie as flat either, although the paper is a tad whiter. Online, you can find these for about $15, but usually higher in stores and airports.
The only improvement I would ever want to make on the Sketchbook is a page color that is more white. The pale cream color looks nostalgic and is close enough to white that it doesn’t bother me. But I’d prefer true white if I could have it.
Hero 616 Fountain Pen
Forget the fancy prestigious $500 gold nib pens available at the local art or office supply store. Hero are terrific pens that are super cheap and refillable. They have been made in China for decades and have an arrow-shaped clip similar to another popular pen manufacturer.
You can find packs of 10 in three colors on Amazon sometimes for about $7.00. At that price, you won’t care if you damage or loose one, can have extra sitting around, and you won’t worry about somebody else using it. (Just make sure they understand the extreme potential for getting ink on themselves!) The friction of a chromed steel nib on paper is not as silky smooth as a gold one, but smooth nonetheless. I actually like the little bit of friction because it feels more like a pencil. In combination with the smooth Moleskine Sketchbook paper, I think it is a great balance.
These pens are bulletproof. About once a year I drop mine directly on their nib on concrete and asphalt at job sites with zero effect. I literally pick them up and keep writing. I do a lot of construction observation and often have to write through water dropplets from rain, snow, and very dusty conditions. They also do well across pressurization changes, such as when traveling by airplane. Literally, I have yet to have one leak or stop working.
These pens have great qualities for sketching. They allow great flow of ink for blobby dots and stippling. They also perform that special feat of a fountain pen where a thinner line (maybe 0.13mm for you old ink drafter types) can be created by rotating the pen almost vertically, perpendicular to the paper. At a typical writing angle with average pressure it will produce a thin line (about 0.25mm), and with pressure a medium one (maybe up to 0.35-0.45mm). Two pens in one!
I often correct with Bic Wite-Out pens on trash paper (never the sketchbook!) and impatiently plow through fresh puddles with my Hero. Hasn’t clogged yet.
All the parts are easily maintained and inter-changeable. These pens use a plastic squeezable refill reservoir. It is large and gives you plenty of notice before it runs out which is a good feature. Mine typically lasts about a month.
I prefer this method of refill over purchased cartridges for several reasons. First, its much cheaper. It’s also easier to keep enough ink around and you’re never tied to the availability of a proprietary cartridge. Refillable reservoirs are also typically a bit larger. But the best reason to like using ink in a bottle is that you get to choose the ink…
Noodler’s Ink, Blue-Black
Noodler’s ink is a very special ink designed for art and fountain pens. It is pH neutral, which should match your writing paper (like the Moleskine above) if you care for it to be around longer than a year or two. It is also smear resistant a few seconds. This would be a distinct advantage for a left-hander.
It is also waterproof! Yes, that one feature means that once absorbed into the paper, it isn’t susceptible to bleeding or running if accidentally pelted with rain. In fact, if you get a watercolor Moleskin, you can draw with your Hero + Noodler’s and use water color washes over the top with zero run. (I actually do this.) Note that India Ink is also a formulation of ink that becomes waterproof upon drying. BUT, India Ink does not have the lubricants that Noodler specially formulated for fountain pens. India Ink will clog a pen in hours. Noodler’s can stay in the pen for ages without any of the qualities changing.
I have always like a very dark but non-black ink color to distinguish original lines in drawings and signatures from photocopies. The Noodler’s Blue-black is very nearly black but the very slight blue cast gives it this plus a lot of character. I think this color actually makes the ink appear darker than pure black. It jumps off the page. And in a stack of contractor pay applications, I can always tell which of my signatures is wet and which are copies. (Forged?!)
Noodler has lots of other color selections. Most designers don’t need a lot of colors, but they do want great looking colors. All of Noodler’s colors are designer type colors, plenty of subtle shades to choose. I once wanted to get other colors of ink, maybe a red and rich blue. But I now prefer to draw only with blue-black and use washes and other mediums to achieve any color effects I might be going for.
Although the bottle is about $13 it will last years. In fact, I discovered Noodler’s about 2011 and STILL have half the bottle left (six Moleskine sketchbooks worth). Maybe encourage colleagues to buy different colors and share around?
You can make a huge mess re-filling a fountain pen if you like, but I prefer not to. Below is my method. It takes two minutes and makes no mess if you just use a little common sense. Here’s what I do, often in nice white shirts:
- Refill at an empty sink with some clear counter space for room to work. The one small risk is dropping the pen with ink, the splatter dots will be everywhere!
- Fold a fresh paper towel square once and put the ink bottle on it right next to the sink. This can catch drips, although I’ve honestly never dripped on it. It also provides a little traction so the glass bottle doesn’t slide.
- Have a second paper towel ready to wipe the pen.
- Unscrew and remove the pen barrel cover and open the ink bottle.
- Holding the pen by the reservoir squeeze button, dip the pen barely into the ink and squeeze the button 6-8 times and release.
- Turn on the sink water. Carefully move the pen over to dip the nib, pointed down, into the stream for a split second. The goal is to simply wash off the ink on the outside of barrel.
- Write a line with the nib on the paper towel to quickly draw out any ink at the tip that might be slightly diluted by the bath water. Dry the outside of the pen, being careful not to get any ink on your skin.
- Done! Wash the inside of the pen cap if you want. Make sure to dry it out with a twisted corner of paper towel so any remaining water in the cap doesn’t become a soggy inked mess all over the barrel.
I’ve not had a single system failure in the four years I’ve been using Moleskine + Hero + Noodler’s. This includes many plane flights, packing in travel bags, dropped pens, dusty conditions, rain, snow, drawing through Wite-Out, etc. Literally all the pens I’ve used in five years are still functioning, and I worry less about writing instruments than I ever have.
The sketchbook allows for Letter sized sketches, is small and portable, allows for quality drawings, and has a lot of nice little refined features. The pen and ink combination is great for spreading lots of ink in with a variety of line qualities, is waterproof, acid-free archival quality, quick drying, and very inexpensive.
Just like architecture, the tricks are in the details and the specifications. I hope sharing my tools might be useful to someone exploring the same. Please leave comments below or contact me if you have any questions or comments.