Art supplies Drawing

Testing Sepia Pens, Sepia Inks for Washes, and Graphite Pencils

Palace Hotel with ink wash
Higgins Calligraphy Ink wash added to Palace Hotel sketch

Yesterday I tested some sepia drawing pens and bottled sepia inks to see which I preferred and did the same with an assortment of graphite pencils. To start the process I added some sepia ink washes to last week’s sketch from the Palace Hotel in San Francisco and like it much better now.

The pens I tested were all permanent, waterproof and lightfast:

  • Copic Multiliner SP.03 which I used in the sketch above
  • Micron Pigma .01 (my former favorite pen)
  • Pitt Artist Pens with various sized nibs including a brush pen.

My favorite was the Copic Multiliner SP .03 because of the way the ink and point just glide across the paper, the wide comfortable pen barrel, and the rich sepia color. Because it’s aluminum, refillable and has a replaceable tip, the Copic Muliliner is the most expensive of the three (around $7.00) and I can only get it via mail order which is annoying.

My second favorite was the Pitt Artist Pen with the “S” (superfine) tip. The Pitts are much more readily available in my local art stores and much less expensive (around $2.00). They have a somewhat wide comfortable barrel and a smooth feel when sketching.

The Sakura Micron Pigma .01, my former favorite, now seems a bit sharp and scratchy, but does offer more control because of the finer line. The barrel is narrower which makes it less comfortable to hold for long periods. It’s reasonably priced (around $2.25) and a good pen.

Traditional sepia ink is made from cuttlefish bladders(!) and mixed with a waterproof shellac base for a transparent waterproof satin finish.

The inks I tested were:

  • Higgins Sepia Calligraphy Ink (label says “non-waterproof” but provides no information regarding permanence).  A beautiful warm color that flows beautifully straight or when mixed with water in washes. It is my favorite of the three, but I’m concerned about it’s archival qualities. I’ve sent the company a request for more information and will update this post when I receive it. Since it was recommended to me by an artist I trust who uses it in her fine art, ink and wash work I will continue to use it for now. It comes in a sad, unattractive, square plastic bottle with little self-esteem, and is without an eye-dropper lid.

[update 8/29/2009: Higgins Inks have been purchased by ChartPak and I was able to speak to the delightful woman in charge of their laboratory where the inks are formulated and tested. I was told that this line of inks is considered “student grade” and that testing is still underway (since it’s a new product to their company). However she was able to tell me that the colorants for this ink are dyes rather than pigments so while the ink bonds “permanently” with the paper, the colors are probably not lightfast and would be subject to fading or changing color. ]

  • FW Acrylic Artists Ink (label says “water resistant, permanent, highly lightfast”). Ugly chalky dark brown that didn’t work well as a wash, got blotchy and almost seemed sedimentary. It’s made using the same pigments that are in paints, so it’s basically very thin acrylic paint designed to be used in pens. This was the only one of the three with an eye dropper built into the lid and comes in a glass bottle.
  • Winsor & Newton Calligraphy Ink (label says “non waterproof, lightfast”).  It was OK. It’s more traditionally sepia colored than the Higgins ink. I think I could make it work, but preferred the Higgins. It comes in a glass bottle without an eye-dropper lid.

Here is the test page on which I drew with the Copic Multiliner and then added washes of pure ink and ink mixed with water from each of the three bottled inks.

Copic Multiliner and Inks (click to enlarge)

On the following page I drew with the Pitt Artist Pens, including the Brush Tip, S, F, and M tips and to match the color, used the Winsor & Newton Calligraphy Ink for the washes. I liked the Pitt S (for Super-Fine I think) and thought all of them were pretty nice. At the bottom of the same page I used the Micron Pigma sepia .01 and the Higgins ink since they seemed a good pairing.

Ink-test: Pitt Pens, Micron Pigma
Ink-test: Pitt Pens, Micron Pigma (click to enlarge)

I decided to finally simplify my huge collection of pencils, graphite sticks, mechancal pencils and lead holders and pick one all purpose graphite pencil and one all purpose mechanical pencil. Although I have a full range of drawing pencils from super hard to super soft, I never work in that kind of detail with pencils and they’re just cluttering up my workspace. In the end I settled on these two for my in-studio and in-sketchbag all purpose pencils:

  • Generals Draughting Pencil went from light to dark easily without getting smeary and erased cleanly with a plastic eraser. I’ll use this one for sketching and planning in the studio, and for doing value studies in the field. (Close second: Sanford Draughting Pencil but it was a little softer/darker, making it more difficult to get a very light shade and it was smearier to erase.)
  • Papermate Ph.D. 0.5m HB#2 Mechanical Pencil. The Papermate Ph.D. has a super comfy barrel that has a rubbery, wide triangular shape “endorsed by physical therapists.” This one is especially good for drawing light outlines before inking or painting in watercolor, although care must be taken to avoid embossing soft paper with the fine point. (Close second: Papermate Titanium .05 Mechanical Pencil. It wasn’t as comfortable and it was harder to get a nice dark.) I like using mechanical pencils because it’s handy having the lead and eraser in one unit.

Here is my test of the top contenders:

Pencil tests
Pencil tests (click to enlarge)

10 replies on “Testing Sepia Pens, Sepia Inks for Washes, and Graphite Pencils”

Yep! Reading blogs and seeing all the cool stuff people use has cost me soooo much money. But I would never have known about half of the wonderful stuff I use now otherwise. Jana


All this is very helpful! Thank you. I too am fussing about trying to simplify my sketching bag. I have added a General’s Sketch and Wash graphite pencil (several of them) to my bag and LOVE it. Have you tried that? I use it and then a water brush to blend and do washes. I have also loved Tombow’s water soluble pens for years. These are not refillable but they do last a long time and have a thinner nib on one end and brush on the other. I also use this pen with a water brush for blending and washes. They are hard to buy separately but if you search around you can find them that way.

I am curious…are all the pens you mention refillable? The Pitt pens I currently use are not refillable (I don’t think they are). Also when you talk about “ink washes” I am not clear how you are doing them. Are these washes done with a brush? If so are you using a water brush?


Hi Ginny, The only pens that are refillable that I’ve tried so far are the Copics. The rest are disposable. What I was doing with ink washes is put some ink in a couple of little palette cup thingees and then adding more or less water to each so that I’ve got a couple of different values of ink mixed with water. Then I’m using a regular paintbrush to apply the washes. I also happen to have a water brush which I’ve filled with ink that I sometimes carry with me when I go sketching, but that’s not what I was using in these sketches.

I so have a few of those General sketch and wash graphite pencils and have used them for figure drawing and enjoyed the results. Jana


Oh my goodness, you have tested all of them, and I thank you. I love sepia, but only have a micron pen in that color. I have some ink, but its upstairs and I am too lazy to check to see. It’s for calligraphy – which I don’t do – but I’ve used it for sketching with a crow quill. I bow down to how energetic you have been this summer.


You remind me to go shopping and get some good bottles of ink. The ones I have have dried out! You can get some wonderful results with them, unexpected shapes, etc.
I like your painting of the building in the post above but wondered why you didn’t sketch the bikies. You would have made an impression on them if you did!


Hi Wendy, Thanks for writing. The reason I didn’t stay to sketch was that the place just felt creepy. Normally I would have been excited about the interesting people to draw, but there was just something about the place that made me feel like I wanted to leave as quickly as possible. It’s not that it was dangerous, just kind of depressing.



Hi! I was doing some research on sepia pens and I stumbled on your blog, and I loved it! Great tips (and beautiful drawings, too!) And I was wondering if you had any tips/techniques for drawing with sepia pens? I got the Faber Castell ones as a gift, and since I’m not used to drawing with anything that’s not pencil, I’m a bit lost…
Thanks! 🙂


Hi Clara, There are many books on drawing with pens. My favorite, and the one that got me started drawing in ink instead of pencil is Danny Gregory’s Creative License. I highly recommend it. It will give you what you need to feel free enough to let go of the eraser. As far as drawing with sepia pens, it’s the same as drawing with any color ink. Let me know if you get Creative License and what you think of it. Have fun! Jana


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