What Do You Need to Get Started with Pen and Ink Illustration?

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If you're anything like me (and if you're reading this blog, we probably have things in common!), you have a lot of interests that you'd love to turn into full-blown hobbies. There's so much to see and do in this world, it's hard to know where to start!

Of course, budget can be a limiting factor. 😂 Often the biggest limiting factor! I'd make ceramics and alcohol ink pieces and oil paintings and all sorts of stuff if I ever won that lottery I don't play...

Since that's the case for most of us, it can feel like hitting the jackpot when you discover a hobby that DOESN'T cost an arm and a leg to get started. And I'm here to let you know - pen and ink is one of those unicorn hobbies!

You can of course use pen and ink for calligraphy, which is probably where your mind went first. However, the medium is perfect for illustration as well. Those signature up- and downstrokes created by flexible nibs, so often relegated to the calligraphy on invitations and thank you cards, also happen to create beautiful contrast and movement in your drawings. Better yet, the flexible nature of illustration lets you hide any shaky lines or ink blots that might creep into your drawing as you learn and experiment.

So what is the bare minimum needed to get this hobby underway?

You really don't need much! To begin practicing with pen and ink, you need:

  • A straight pen
  • A flexible nib
  • Ink
  • Smooth paper
  • A scrap of cotton cloth

All told, picking up everything on this list costs me around $20. Not so bad, right?

To make sure you know exactly what you're looking for, let's look at each one in turn:

A straight pen

This is the piece of the pen you hold. I specify "straight" because you do not need to worry about getting an oblique pen for illustration - those aren't as complicated to use as they look, but they really aren't necessary for much beyond the really formal, slanted calligraphy.

Note: When you're washing off your ink after you're done with drawing, make sure you've removed the nib from the straight pen. The clasp at the top that holds the nib will rust and eventually render the pen useless if it gets/stays wet.

A flexible nib

There are a ton to choose from and they're pretty much all affordable. I recommend the Nikko G for beginners because it's nice and sturdy and has a nice ink flow. It's not SUPER flexible, but it's flexible enough that you'll get those beautiful contrasting strokes.


I've talked in depth about inks in a previous post, but suffice it to say, you only need one bottle of an ink that suits your needs. I like to keep a few different colors around, some waterproof and some not, but I only invested in the collection after I got started and realized how much I liked the medium. For someone just diving in, I recommend either a sumi ink (not waterproof) or Ziller ink (waterproof). 

Smooth paper

This is probably the most important material - if you're going to splurge on one single item for this hobby, make it the paper! Your paper can make or break your practice or drawing because anything too fibrous will catch the nib and send it in all sorts of directions. I've been there, so I can tell you from experience that it's super frustrating.

Depending on the type of project you're working on, though, you still don't have to spend a ton. If you're working on a piece that you intend to frame or otherwise display, I recommend Strathmore Bristol Smooth Surface - it's nice and heavy and great for pen and ink projects. If you're just practicing though, and you don't need the fancy art paper, HP's Premium 32 lb printer paper is also nice and smooth. I use it when I'm doing calligraphy drills.

A scrap of cotton cloth

You literally don't need to spend anything on this - just chop up an old t-shirt! I keep a cotton scrap around to wipe off my nib from time to time, especially if I'm getting up to grab a snack or water or anything. Leaving ink to dry on the nib will clog it up, so just swipe it down with the cloth before you shift gears to keep it working as good as new.

Where do I find all these materials?

For obvious reasons, I love shopping small. I get my pens, nibs, and inks from The Postman's Knock. You can also find those same supplies at places like Paper and Ink Arts, Blick Art Supplies, etc. I usually grab the Strathmore paper at either Blick or Michael's, and the HP Premium paper can typically be found wherever you buy your printer paper. Pretty much everything is also on Amazon, although I personally have been weaning myself off of that habit. 😆

What's next?

So what do you do once you have all your supplies? Start drawing, of course! You can dive in on your own and experiment to your heart's content. Or, if you'd like a little more guidance and some pointers throughout the learning process, you're in luck: I recently launched a Skillshare class called Botanical Illustration with Pen and Ink: Shapes, Texture, and Depth. The class gives you really manageable steps for learning how to handle the dip pen and create beautiful illustrations with it. You'll draw like a pro in no time!

Bonus! If you follow the link above, you'll get 14 free days of Skillshare Premium, which gives you access to ALL the amazing classes on that platform.

If you have any questions about the materials or process, just give me a shout!

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