Evaporating ink and fountain pens

I thought I was imagining it – an empty pen – I was so sure I had inked it just a few days before. Cleaned it, re-inked it, again it dried out. Rinse and repeat. Several times. Several pens. So, I set up an experiment. Every fountain pen I own: all cleaned, all fully filled, all left in the same drawer for a month.

The bad ones:

  • Hero 86
  • Lamy Safari
  • Noodlers Nib Creaper
  • Noodlers Ahab (two of them)
  • Pilot Kakuno
  • Pilot Prera
  • Zinhao x750 (two of those as well)

The keepers:

  • Platinum Preppy
  • Rotring ArtPen
  • TWSBI Eco

Granted, good or bad, my pens are all from the modest end of the fountain pen spectrum, but it appears that cost has nothing to do with the problem – the two Pilots weren’t cheap, a humble Platinum Preppy is a bargain. (And it’s a available with an almost needle-like 0.2 nib… Just saying.)

The manufacturers and resellers don’t take this issue seriously. Neither are standing behind the product they sell. It matters, really matters, because good ink is expensive. Telling me I should keep my pen empty unless I want to use it straight away doesn’t cut it. These aren’t collector-pens or vintage pens but modern ones made with modern materials. I expect to be able to have them inked up and ready to go.

That Pilot Kakuno is marketed for kids. A beginners pen. It dries out to leave a totally empty cartridge within a week. Whatever the reason, it’s going to leave an entire generation, and their parents (and the aunty who bought the kid the pen), thinking fountain pens are unreliable. What were Pilot thinking?

The evaporation isn’t limited to plastic pens: the Zinhao are metal. (Very cheap on eBay but they otherwise seem well made. I bought them intending to replace their nibs with the flexible ones from the Ahabs. Won’t bother now.) That’s useful information because I can hereby quit daydreaming about getting a metal Pilot Falcon, never mind the lovely soft nib, until it’s proven (by someone else) that they don’t evaporate the ink as fast as their plastic pens do.

I don’t think I’m a fountain pen geek – I just love pen and ink. I use my pens. Or rather, I used to use them. There are nine which will be cleaned up and stashed away. Useless. It doesn’t leave me with much.

To ease the disappointment I’ve ordered a Platinum Plaisir in Gunmetal Grey. It’s just a metal Preppy. When it gets here I’m going to fill it with my very favourite Noodlers Lexington Grey ink. Now, I hear someone muttering that Noodlers ink isn’t expensive. Well, it is here and far too much of mine has ended up dried up and washed down the drain, along with so much of so many others. Damned shame. Not happy.

Pen and ink





Update: I’ve changed my mind on this pen after some testing.

The choice in art materials in Western Australia is limited and what can be found is costly. The small market is dominated by a few chain stores which doesn’t encourage competition or variety. Getting anything from elsewhere is limited by the crappy exchange rate and outrageous postal charges. (Especially so, given how slow and unreliable it is – things just disappear into Australia Post and that’s the end of that… and it takes so long ordinarily that you don’t even know you have a problem until you’ve waited 6 weeks or more. Sigh.) And no, that equation is not balanced by higher wages, we simply go without.

Therefore I was so blown away to see a fountain pen with a converter at Officeworks – I did the only sane thing – mentally crossed as much as I could off my grocery list – and bought it! No matter, I learned to cook from my war-years grandmother who could feed a family very well with very little. (Seriously, the best steak is the cheapest kind – preparing it her way makes it more tender than the most expensive.) The pen on offer was a Pilot Prera with a medium nib and the C-50 twist converter. Delighted.

Sadly their ink offerings were more normal – they have Quink in blue, Quink in black , or getting REALLY creative: Quink in blue-black. Since I have no interest in making my subjects looks like Smurfs I had no difficulty controlling that much excitement. Instead, I made the trek to the Big Smoke to see what T.Sharp and Co might have in stock and found a tiny bottle of liquid deliciousness: J.Herbin’s ‘Cacao de Bresil’. In Perth. Oh, my. Life is looking up.

Munsell tutorials on video

Paul Foxton, from Learning to See, has released two video tutorials over the past month. Each one features a beautiful little flower painting, is hands-on practical, self-contained and easy to follow. Which would I recommend? Both!

They are available at Gumroad for “pay what you want”. I will add that the suggested $10+ is a bargain. Be generous.

Time’s Unfolding: A Flower Painting Demonstration

Paul Foxton's video tutorial "Time's Unfolding"

Time’s Unfolding, the first of the two tutorials demonstrates a flower painting from setup to finish, covering everything from sight-size, grid-assisted drawing to value control and the thoughts behind the motif. What I like about the way Paul teaches is his way of breaking down complex ideas into practical steps that can be applied to any subject. (He’s a master at skipping the mumbo-jumbo. A rare skill.)

The point he really nails in this one is that it’s about slowing down and taking the time to look (with the aid of a few simple, home-made tools to help figure out what you’re looking at).

Secret Treasure: A Munsell Painting Demonstration

Paul Foxton's video "Secret Treasure"

The second video, Secret Treasure: A Munsell Painting Demonstration, builds on the first, and as the title says, is much more about what Munsell is and how it can be used to assist in making a painting. It begins with a practical guide to describing and analysing colour, before using Munsell as a tool to mix and match the colours needed to make a particular painting.

The delicate transitions in his little flower motif are exquisite, but the point he makes is that matching them it isn’t rocket-science, it’s about taking care in comparing one patch of colour to the next. Munsell is used to describe the differences between each mix very clearly in terms of hue, value and chroma. Again, no mumbo-jumbo, it’s about learning to see the variations and use them.

I’ve been using and writing about Munsell studies since 2007 (my ‘colour theory’ category should find most of them), but Paul’s video is a much easier way to learn!

Graphite blocks

I was really keen to try Artgraf’s watersoluble graphite in a tin when I saw it on a YouTube video recently. Unfortunately the price here, with a poor exchange rate plus ludicrous postage costs to Western Australia made it prohibitively expensive.

So instead, I did the only sensible thing and tried to make some. I came up with two versions – using stuff I already had on hand.

Home made graphite blockVersion one used Cretacolor Graphite Powder mixed with a little gum arabic. I used about a tablespoon of the graphite and added the gum arabic a few drops at a time until it mixed to a stiff paste. I used a flat palette knife to mix it on a glass palette, then scooped it into an empty lipgloss container. I left it to dry with the lid off which took about 4 days (it’s winter here and my studio is cold). It was a bit messy but clean up was easy with a couple of baby wipes. The result: works really well!

Home made graphite block

The second kind used a couple of watersoluble graphite crayons – el cheapo Mont Marte – because that’s what I happened to have. (If you try making some do make sure your brand of crayons are the watersoluble kind – not all of them are.) I cut the crayons to fit the container and squeezed them in to fill it. I  could have used it straight away like that, it worked fine. Instead, I chopped the tiny leftover pieces of crayon quite finely, stuffed them into the gaps and added a little water to try to melt them into the spaces. Silly me, I was trying to make mine look as pretty as a bought one! Not necessary. I left it with the lid off to dry too.

Either method is recommended. The first made a paler tint than the second  – think 2H vs 8B in graphite terms – so I can see myself using both together in the same drawing.

If I could buy a proper Artgraph tin at a reasonable price locally I would do so in a heartbeat, until then: very happy.


Drawing board upgrade

Inspired by the pinboard on the wall, I upgraded my drawing board by gluing a piece of pinboard on it. There will be no more bulldog clips to get in the way of the painting at this easel!

drawing board using pins instead of clips

The softboard/firebreboard/whatever glues down with PVA and can be cut with a Stanley knife. I glued first, weighed it down with books overnight and trimmed it once fully dry. A quick sanding of the edges to tidy up. No more tape, blutack or bulldog clips and it’s a very nice surface under both paper and unstretched canvas. (And I can still turn it around and use the MDF side anyway.)

I’m attaching canvas or paper with the simplest dressmaking pins, like so, because I paint right in around them.

drawing board pins closeup

Home made plywood palette

I took a little time off painting to make something. This is shaped to fit me and be both bigger and lighter than anything I could buy (that I could afford, anyway). I had forgotten how much I enjoy making. See, all that time studying sculpture wasn’t totally wasted.

homemade plywood palette
Home made palette

It’s made from two pieces of 3ply laminated together to prevent it warping, so it should last a long time (or until I can find even thinner plywood to make an even lighter one.) The most difficult part was making a cardboard template that felt just right. Then cutting and sanding to make sure there are no sharp edges. I gave mine a coating of linseed oil to get it started but that isn’t strictly necessary because it will develop a patina from the oil paints as it is used. It is almost dry… I am feeling like a kid on Xmas eve. Kudos to Ron Francis for the instructions.

My first go with it felt strange but good. Untethered from my the glass tabletop palette, plus no underdrawing and no pre-mixed colours – such unaccustomed freedom. All I need now is a beret.

Painting of a plaster bust
Diana, oil on unstretched canvas, 30x40cm

No more sticky acrylic lids!

Someone asked about coping with the lids of acrylic jars that stick. It’s not surprising that they do that since the basic stuff does promise to stick anything… read about it on any jar of acrylic gel medium!

My solution is cling wrap (Saran wrap in the US?) – just a small length folded in half so it’s a couple of layers – put it over the jar then screw the lid on. Works a treat, lasts a long time.

Cling wrap to prevent sticky acrylic lids on jars of paint

Steering wheel easel goes viral

OutdoorPainter Magazine website

Almost! When I posted a few pictures of my steering wheel easel online I was hoping to encourage other Australian plein air painters and sketchers to keep at it through the winter. I hadn’t counted on it escaping overseas to find people wanting to make them as far away as the United States and Europe.

First up, James Gurney mentioned it. (Yes, that is the James Gurney who wrote Dinotopia. If you’re not following his art blog you should be!)

Then Plein Air Today, the enewsletter sent out by Plein Air Magazine, published an extended article. You can subscribe to the newsletter and read their story on the Outdoor Painter website.

I’m delighted, hopefully lots more people will find it a little easier get outside to draw and actually do it. 🙂


Instant diffusion

Something important that I learned while visiting Adelaide was that the enormous windows in Hans Heysen’s studio are ground glass not clear. Nora’s, on the same property, are white washed to get a similar diffuse effect.

Heysen's studio


Hans Heysen’s studio

Gobsmacked at the soft quality of their light I just fixed mine with a couple of rolls of Plain Frost Window Film from the hardware store. Less than $35 all up for my glass doorway. What a difference! From glaring light to gorgeous in an hour. Now to move my easel…

Instant diffuse light

Instant diffuse light