Monday, July 5, 2010

The Right Tools: Technical Pens

I'm a very "painterly" illustrator. When I use a brush, I like to make lots of short, quick, overlapping strokes. Each one stands out, giving the finished product a distinct texture.


To many people this texture is a good thing. It makes the work look creative, spontaneous and artistic. But it also means I can't paint a straight line to save my life. It's nearly impossible freehand, and brush bristles are too floppy to use a straightedge or template. Plus, because brushed lines get wider or narrower as you apply or release pressure, the line weight is nearly uncontrollable. That's just on a flat, 2-dimensional surface. It's even tougher on the curved body of a model.

Fortunately, there are tools to make the task easier. Disposable technical pens are among my favorites.


The same things that make disposable technical pens useful to architects, illustrators and draftsmen make them useful for miniature painters too:
  • Uniform line weight - No matter how hard you press the line never gets wider or narrower (within reason. It is possible to destroy the tip if you press hard enough). Pens come in several different thicknesses, usually expressed as a fraction of an inch or a fraction of a millimeter (it varies by the brand). The pens in the picture above are .01 and .03 inches wide. My favorite two widths for miniature painting are .01 and .005 inches.
  • Edge-friendly - Because ink only flows out of the very tips of these pens, you can press them up against the edge of a ruler (or any other hard edge, like the edge of an armor plate or the ridge that runs around a Space Marine's shoulder pad) without worrying that the ink will bleed onto the wrong surface.
  • Waterproof - Not all pens are waterproof, but many of them are. Just look for the appropriate label.
  • Fade-resistant - The ink should last just as long as the paint you apply with a brush. Most technical pens are archival, but be sure to look for the label.
  • Archival - The ink won't react and discolor other paints. You can also paint over the ink without it bleeding through If you've ever had a graphite pencil sketch ruin a light-colored painting, you know how important this can be. Again, look for pens that are labeled "archival".
So far, I've found at 5 great uses for technical pens. An experienced or creative painter can probably find many more.
  • A .005 inch pen is great for tiny lettering lettering and freehand line work.
  • The same pen is also useful for sketching out freehand details before you start.
  • With a flexible plastic template you can trace perfect circles, squares or triangles directly onto your model. Or you can use the edge of that template to trace straight lines.
  • A .005 or .01 inch pen also woks well for tracing the edges of armor plates or any other raised or recessed detail.
  • A quick touch with the tip of a .005 inch pen draws a beautiful pupil in the tiny eyes of a model. If a simple touch doesn't deposit enough ink, try touching the model and twisting the tip back and forth a few degrees.
For $20-30, you can also buy refillable metal-tipped technical pens. They require a good deal of maintenance, cleaning and proper storage to work properly. And until you get used to them they may be much less reliable than their disposable counterparts. Their metal tips may also damage acrylic paint, especially if it isn't fully cured. I'd recommend starting with the disposable variety, and upgrading once you've had some practice.

On the plus side, you can load refillable pens with any color of ink. Disposable pens are more like Model T's. You can have any color you want, as long as it's black.
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