Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching and shading

Bic biroBic biro for different types of shading techniques

There are so many reasons I decided to work with ballpoint pen. In the beginning I started with graphite and then progressed to white and black charcoal pencil, but as time went on I started exploring the potentials of a ballpoint pen and how to use it as an art instrument. There are lots of reasons why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching and shading. One of the reason is the fact that it doesn’t smudge easily.

The major issue I had with pencil was that it smudges a lot and makes your work a bit untidy, and you have to use fixative after you are done. Another issue I had with pencil was lack of availability. There were just few stores that sell art supplies where I live. Also the price of a set of nice charcoal pencils and graphite is much more expensive compared to ballpoint pen. 

That moment when you have a commissioned work and you find out you are out of art supplies. Only to find out you can’t get good art supplies around. It can be pretty frustrating. The truth is that I use both pencil and ballpoint pen to shade depending on the occasion, but if I’ll choose, It’s ball pen all the way. Ball pen is ideal, and guess what? it’s cheap. If you haven’t seen a ballpoint pen before, well, this is how it looks like:


How it works


The ball carrier
The ball carrier and the ball
Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching and shading
The internal structure of a ballpoint pen

The ballpoint pen is made up of 3 major components:

  1. The Ink supply tube: This is the reservoir that holds the ink
  2. The ball carrier: Just as the name implies, the ball carrier holds the ball and directs the ink to the ball
  3. The ball: The ball bring the ink in contact with the surface.

When pressure is applied on a paper with the ball, the ink flows  through gravity from the ink supply tube and move to the ball carrier. Then the ball rolls and deliver it to the paper. So the more you apply pressure the more the ink comes out. Ballpoint pen are very sensitive to pressures and it automatically refreshes at each stroke of the pen. So if you want light shade, you apply less pressure and if you want dark tones you apply more pressure. Drawing and shading with ballpoint pen has to do with applying the right amount of pressure to give you the right tone you desire. Artists who understand these are able to take advantage of it. It takes a lot of control to master it. Practice makes perfect.

Pros and cons of ballpoint pen

Is it better to draw with pen or pencil? If you are still asking that question, well these are the advantages. The truth is that everything has advantage and disadvantage. It’s left for you to weigh both to make your decision. But first of all, let us talk about the reasons why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching and shading.

The Pros:

  1. It’s very cheap and affordable
  2. It’s easily accessible, you can find it in any book shop.
  3. You don’t need fixative, because it doesn’t smudge easily.
  4. It doesn’t need sharpening.
  5. It makes your work look very neat and presentable.
  6. Ballpoint pen has good grip on paper than pencil

The cons:

Apart from the fact that ball pen has amazing benefits, it also has few set-backs.

  1. You can’t erase it
  2. It can smudge and stain your hand if you try to rub it.
  3. You need gravity for you to use it. It means you cannot draw with it on a vertical drawing board. You need to place your drawing board horizontally.
  4. You cant draw broad strokes.
  5. It can over-flow and stain your work if you apply too much pressure.

The good news is that there are ways you can prevent some of the stated cons above.

  1. To prevent mistakes, when you shade you should start from very faint tones and gradually move to darker tones. With that it’s easier to correct mistake without actually having a need to erase.
  2. To prevent smudging and stains, you should have different ballpoint pen for different tones. This is because the more pressure you apply the darker the tone and the easier it is for ink to over-flow.
  3. Don’t scrub your hands on your work until it’s dry.

Ballpoint pen drawing techniques and shading technique

Shading actually makes your work looks realistic. It can turn a flat work into an amazing 3D art. There are different shading techniques. What you want to draw can also affect the type of shading technique you will use. Here are some tips:

  • When you are shading you should hold your pen diagonally and shade with the side of the ballpoint pen tip.
  • Have a tissue paper or a paper that you use to clean the tip ballpoint pen  so the excess ink don’t stain.
  • Have a very good pressure control. This one of the keys of mastering ballpoint pen shading. Learn how to make very nice light strokes and thick strokes.

They are different shading techniques that goes well with pencil (since the pencil can smudge and blend) but for ballpoint pen, they are techniques that are recommended since you can’t make broad strokes. Most of the time you can combine various type of shading techniques to get what you want. These are different type of shading techniques you can use for pen.

  • Hatching:

This involves the use of straight parallel lines to make tone values, either vertical, horizontal or diagonal lines. This is known as the basic of them all. When making these lines you don’t need ruler, use your free hands.

Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching and shading


  • Cross-Hatching:

This is the use of straight parallel vertical and horizontal lines to make tone values. Cross hatching is like hatching only that the lines cross.

Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching and shading


  • Stippling:

This is the use of tiny dots to make tone values. It involves  making use of cluster dots to make tone values. The more cluster the dots are the darker the value vice versa.  It’s fun but very tedious. The dots should be precise and not like tadpoles.

Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching and shading
  • Diverse hatching:

This is like the elder brother to cross-hatching. This is the use of straight parallel horizontal, vertical and opposite facing diagonal lines to make tones. It’s like cross hatching with diagonal lines. This is actually one of my favorite. I use diverse hatching 7o% of most of my ballpoint pen arts.

Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching and shading
Diverse hatching
  • Circularism:

Just as the name implies, it’s the use of circles to make shade. It is a type of shading where tonal values are made moving your pen is a circular motion to achieve value. If you want a light shade, then give spaces between or lighten the strokes and vice-versa. circularism can be use to make skin texture and hair texture.

Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching and shading


  • Scribbling:

This technique seem similar to circularism only that scribbling doesn’t really have a defined pattern. It looks like drawing in a hurry. Scribbling can give professional touch to your work.

Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching and shading


These are like the basic shading techniques you should know and master. It can really come in handy when you are drawing a portrait. Sometimes it requires you combining more than one shading technique to get what you want. Below is one of my old ballpoint pen art:

Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching and shading- art by otian peter

In this picture i actually combined stippling, circularism, diverse hatching, hatching and scribbling. You can actually make pretty nice portraits with ballpoint pen.

Click here to learn how to shade a portrait with ball point pen.

The best ballpoint pen for sketching and shading

There have been so many questions about the best ballpoint pen for sketching and shading. There are many ballpoint pen out there to choose from. You might ask, “how do I get the right ballpoint pen?” Well, some times it’s hard to tell the best ballpoint pen to use for your work. I recommend bic ballpoint pen. I have been using bic for years now to do my art and it’s working fine for me

The Colour of ballpoint pen to Use

Initially I had issues with the colour of pen to use. I started with the old blue bic ballpoint pen because it’s darker and nice on white paper, but now it’s difficult to get that exact nice navy blue colour from bic pen these days. If you want to use black, you can, black is cool. But if it’s blue, go for the darker blue.

To shade light tones with the dark blue all you need to do is to reduce the pressure and you’ll be fine.

Drawing and shading might not be easy at first with pen, just keep practicing and you will improve. When I decided to choose pen I started like this:

Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching and shading - by otian peter

Then after some practice i improved  :

Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching and shading - by otian peter

Nothing is impossible fellas. If this is your first time, don’t get too hard on your self, take a step at a time. You can  start with simple object like cups, jugs,  buckets bowls etc. And with time you can draw human portraits. Remember the more you practice the more you’ll master it and become more confident with ballpoint pen. Goodluck!




3 thoughts on “Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching and shading”

  1. Pingback: Ball pen Art: How to draw a portrait using ball pen

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