Ballpoint Doodling

Me and ballpoint pens go way back.  I love them.

When I was younger, I carried a ballpoint pen and a sketchbook wherever I went.  I liked ballpoint because I was too clumsy for pencil–I didn’t like that I could accidentally smear what I’d drawn in pencil with a single careless arm motion, because that’s how clumsy I am.  I pressed too hard for pencil, and still didn’t like the coverage it gave.  And I didn’t like the scratchy feeling of rough pencil or charcoal or pastel on paper.

So ballpoint it was.  In college, it was implied that ballpoint pen was NOT an art medium.  That it was a tool for writing, not drawing.  So I tried my hardest to master other tools, only to retreat back into the comforts of my room after classes, with my trusty old ballpoint pen and sketchbook at the end of the day.

Over time, I learned to sketch pretty comfortably with pen–to ease up and add pressure where I needed it.  I got more comfortable with accepting that pen was my very favorite tool, fine arts be damned.  I drew in ballpoint pen so much, that  after tons and tons of practice, I could get a fairly good and smooth sketch that people often mistook for pencil.  Primarily, I sketched in black ballpoint–plain ol’ Bic or Papermate pen.


After awhile, I started adding color and shading and highlights in either watercolor or acrylics.  I used the black ballpoint as a sort of underdrawing.  I like the sketchy feel, seeing the structure underneath.  Sometimes I paint on top pretty monochromatically…


And other times, I nearly completely covered the initial sketch with acrylic…


But it just doesn’t feel like me whenever I’ve tried leaving out the ballpoint pen.

Did you know there are different types of pens?  There are inky smooth rollerballs and spotty ol’ gel pens… but it took me YEARS to realize that the ones I like to sketch with are “officially” called BALLPOINT pens.  Easy enough, right?

Ages ago, I hadn’t heard of anyone using ballpoint as a fine art medium.  I was a little uncomfortable with the fact that it was my medium of choice (but not enough to give it up).  Ballpoint quality was so bad that the paper I used would yellow around my drawing, or the pen would turn purple or blue.  These days, I’ve seen TONS of artists creating wonderful, beautiful things with pen.  There’s the hyperrealistic work of Samuel Silva, the amazingly smooth work of James Mylne,  and ballpoint pen art cheerleader Jerry Stith, who has EXTENSIVE resources on ballpoints and art.  (Those are only a few–there are also a ton more, a few of them listed here).

But one of my VERY favorite ballpoint pen artists is Jim Rugg, whose work is both amazingly realistic at times, and also hilariously funny (like this Divine Wonder Woman, and this Playboy Barbie).  He has a sense of humor about his work that I can appreciate.  He enjoys drawing, and it shows…but he doesn’t seem to take himself so gosh-darn seriously.

I used to think it would be awesome if ballpoints came in tons of other colors…but when my mom sent me a set of Ink Joy colored pens a few years back, I thought they were awesome, but I wasn’t sure how to make them work for me.  My work wasn’t as detailed and realistic as those other artists who had mastered the ballpoint pen.

Until a few months ago, inspired again by Jim Rugg’s work, I realized I could still do my own wonky style while using the colored ballpoints…and I gave it a try.

The first one was Napoleon Dynamite (which I realize I’ve posted before)…


I moved on to other fun faces I enjoy….Like the drag artist, Divine:


This scene with Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction:

pulp fiction

And this character from the movie Delicatessen (Myla helped me with the hands):


Since then, I’ve had a lot of fun, really playing with building color.

The process (for me) starts with laying a basic foundation, usually in orange, and building up the reds for color in the cheeks, nose, lips and eyes.  (I still think my technique is  a little soft–I’m hoping to get a little more bold with the color and text)


Then I build up with the brown for darker areas.


And it isn’t just a one-shot kinda thing–I keep those three or four pens handy, and switch around between them all, building up colors, adding colors in another area.  I like this whole process, because there is PLENTY of wiggle room to get the shapes right.  If something’s off, and you’ve started lightly enough, you can adjust it by the time you start really building up the darks.


And the final doodle:  Leeloo (Milla Jovovitch) from the movie the Fifth Element:


Funny thing about ballpoints, though, is that they glurp.  Those blobs of ink on her face and in the background?  Those are glurps.  I don’t mind them all THAT much, but they’re a little tough to work around sometimes (I don’t even know HOW those other guys keep the glurps away).  To avoid the glurp as best I can, I am constantly wiping the ballpoint pen (which I SHOULD do on a napkin, but I don’t, so if you were to look very closely, most of my clothes contain a cluster of small dots, usually on my right shoulder or pants, from twisting the glurp off of the pen before drawing).  Still, glurps happen…and that’s okay.  They’ve kind of grown on me, even.  Gives them a bit of gritty character.

“Goodbye Sweetie” (In-progress, from Dr. Who):

goodbye sweetie

Professor McGonagall, in progress, from Harry Potter:


With darker skin, the process is pretty much the same, except that you can use even more of a variety of colors to really build up the skin tones.  (Again, I still think I’m too soft in this area.  I’m working on filling out more of the white space)

RubyRhod from Fifth Element:

ruby rhod

Recently, because of a long-standing back problem that has been misdiagnosed for SEVERAL years, I have begun a series of injections to help with what they’re now calling “spondyloarthritis.”  (Which, from what I understand, just means “chronic localized sacroiliatic pain that we can’t figure out and don’t really know how to treat.”)  This means I need to sit at their offices for at least THREE hours, attached to a IV tube full of mutant medications and such.

Ohhh.  Fun.

…Except, wait?  Three HOURS?  In a lounge chair by myself?  While Myla’s happily occupied at school or daycare?  And I can bring my sketchbook and headphones??  Wait.  Wait a minute.   This might not be so bad after all…

Jack Black in Nacho Libre:


Nicholas Cage as “H.I.” from Raising Arizona:


Awhile back, PaperMate InkJoy was the only colored ballpoint pen set I knew of.  Then I learned that my favorite ballpoints, Bic, came out with the Cristal color pack. Woohoo!  But the other day, while looking for some replacements should something tragic potentially happen to my newly beloved pens (as I often fear, once I begin to love a medium), I came across the PaperMate Profile.…and I was SUPER excited to find out that the 12-pack has a sort of GRAYISH MIDNIGHT BLUE…which allowed me to simulate one of my favorite colors of all time:  Payne’s Gray!!!   (it’s a sort of midnight-bluish gray)  Not such a big deal for many people, I’m sure, but very VERY exciting for me!

little guy

So I’ve become quite fond of my colored ballpoint pens!  And I’m having a WHOLE lot of fun building up shapes.  It definitely requires a different sort of thought process than just drawing in straight black ballpoint pen.  Still, I think I could cover more of the white area.  It just takes getting over the timidity of a new medium.  But I love it.

So whatever you enjoy, no matter how timid you may be about it, just rock it.  Own it.  Make it yours.  Because the things that make us different are the EXACT same things that make us special.

I once met a very well-known artist who asked me what medium I worked in, and when I quietly said, “ballpoint pen,” he asked (with honest curiosity), after a long pause, “Um…is that even archival?”  I was sort of hesitant to respond, washed over instantly in self-doubt–until I realized with full confidence that I don’t CARE.  I enjoy it, I am comfortable with it.  And the important thing is this:  I AM STILL LEARNING.

26 responses

  1. Can i just say . . . . . You are completely and utterly awesome!
    I am a trained illustrator. I have 2 degrees in it! . . . . and doubt myself every single second of every single day. I don’t draw anywhere near enough, as the doubt sets in and I put my pens down for weeks.
    I am inspired every single time I read your posts. You are ace!
    Please keep posting, you are more inspiring than any teacher I’ve ever had.

    1. Oh wow! Thank you so much! The strange thing for me is, there has never been any primary doubt about creating the art itself, any more than there is a doubt that there is a nose on my face. It’s such an integral part of me (doodling, I mean), and the greatest thing about it is that it doesn’t need ANYONE’s approval! It just IS, no matter what medium you give it. Once you trust that, and lean on it, it becomes as comfy as your own arm. I think the difficult part is when we start comparing ourselves to other people–that’s when MY own doubts start sneaking in. And there’s no sense in that! There are so many wonderful people and wonderful artists that there’s PLENTY of room to rock your own style. Thank you so much for your comments!

  2. These are amazing! I wish I had the confidence to sketch straight in ballpoint, but I make so many mistakes, I always reach for the pencil first…

    Glad you’ve found a silver lining for the meds sessions – enjoy, if that doesn’t sound too awful when talking about IV chemicals!

    1. The best way to do it is to just jump in and do it! Worst that happens is you toss the paper, right? Or, if you need water wings at first, you can do a quick outline in pencil and then give the ol’ ballpoints a try. And thank you! Doodling during the infusions has actually become a comforting, relaxing, almost even “welcome” time…:)

  3. Just when I think I couldn’t possibly love your artwork more, you go and show me this! Phenomenal! Truly brilliant artistry! That Divine is just that, DIVINE!
    My Dad worked for the Dept. of Corrections, and the artwork that those inmates could create with Bics was amazing! Nothing compared to your talent, but still super neat to realize it was “just a Bic”. And then when you go and add all that color! So brilliant!

    1. Ahhh, thank you so much! I saw the documentary “I Am Divine,” and had to give her the ol’ college try. She was a fun one to do. And what a great story about your dad! I’ve seen some of those prison-style doodles before (from people coming in & out of various tattoos shops I used to work), and some of them are pretty darn good! Plus, I think it’s awesome for anyone to put their thoughts and images on paper.

  4. I work in plain old ballpoint too. 🙂 A lot of my old sketchbooks are filled with the yellowing paper around that ink, but I drew them, and the ink wasn’t archival, but I scanned most of them and have them archived that way besides just in my sketchbooks. I figure at least I went ahead and drew something, where if I’d needed to pull out paints or whatnot I might not have. So I’m with you; whatever medium makes you happy and keeps you drawing is good. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing these; I thought I was one of the few who enjoyed ball point pen drawing!

    1. DO you?!?!? That’s so cool. Yup, back in the ol’ school days (I’m “older,” as our daughter says), I didn’t have access to a scanner, but I make a point to scan most of the newer stuff. High five for ballpoint pens! Woohoo!

  5. Love working in ballpoint! Great post, chronicling your ballpoint adventures! I am intensely inspired by all the radness!

    1. Thank you so very much!

  6. I think I’ve always used ballpoint. It just feels more intuitive to me. My favorite are papermates–bottom of the line 40 for $2 blacks–and then I found out they make them in purple, green, orange, blue, and red!
    This was years ago.
    I splurged and bought myself several hundred dollars worth of copic markers and I noticed my ink began to run with the markers!
    So after some research, I found this ‘Hybrid Technica’ archival ink by Pentel! It’s a ballpoint that comes in several sizes and the ink is pigment based, so it’ll last a good long time! Plus, once it’s dry, it doesn’t run when I color on it with markers!
    I’m nowhere near as good as you, but I has similar difficulties finding pens that were good for my purposes, so I wanted to share.
    I’m gonna check out that colored set you mentioned as well.
    Great post, Thanks!

    1. That’s awesome! Another high five for ballpoint pens!! Yup, it wasn’t until recently I found other people actually turning ballpoints into an art form, and started looking up info on the fine-tuning they’ve been doing to make that happen, and the wealth of resources that are out there now! I’ll definitely have to look up that Pentel pen!! Definitely know the pain of it changing color and bleeding with markers (my Prismacolors)!
      Thanks for sharing!

  7. I am always excited when I get to visit your space and read something new. Thanks for always inspiring me to be brave about who I am.

    1. Oh that’s such a great feeling to hear that! Thank you for sharing! It’s an honor to be part of someone’s bravery!

  8. Biro! Biro!

    I really like this Australian guy Laith McGregor who does some pretty impressive biro beards:

    And Andrea Joseph makes some pretty beautiful biro things too!

    We are all very excited about your book arriving in our house 🙂


  9. YOU are AMAZING!!!! Always love reading your posts. Made me realise I was too serious to be fun and have fun. But it’s not too late is it? Ok now how is all these related to your post. Very little I suppose but this is what I’ve been meaning to say for a long long time!

    Take care and may your long sessions at the clinic be as pleasant as they can be.


    1. Thank you SO much! Yep, and as “carefree” as I thought I was, it was the experience drawing with our kid that really made me realize how seriously I was taking myself, too. I still have to learn that. So it’s DEFINITELY not too late! Grab a pen (or whatever you want to try) and DO IT!!! 🙂 Thank you so much!

  10. I love the drawings in this post. I have to say you’ve inspired me to put a little sketchbook in my purse and get my doodle on. I’ve worried in the past too much about how it “turns out” or is it “good” and now I don’t care. I just draw and if I like it great – and if not – oh well. I found a couple gems here and there. I’m glad that you’re making best of your IV time – at least we get to enjoy the good art that comes from it!

    Can’t tell you again how much we love the books and goodies! Keep rockin’ the art creative mama!

  11. Your artwork is absolutely gorgeous and inspiring. You make me want to start drawing in ballpoint! Thanks so much for sharing your work!

  12. your work is AMAZING!! 😀 ❤

  13. I love your work. I think it’s fantastic! Ballpoint ink pens are my absolute favorite medium to work in, also. It feels more permanent than pencil; and I also have the issue with smearing it, too, which I agree is frustrating. My favorite pens are Pentel RSVP, but they have a smaller range of colors. I also really enjoy PaperMate’s Profile pens because they sketch so smoothly. They do tend to “glurp” (I love that term!) a lot if you don’t keep wiping off the excess, though.

    You may already know this, but PaperMate’s gel pens and the Pilot G-2 pens (especially these) give an interesting light-watercolor-wash effect if you add a little water to the drawing after you’ve laid it down. I love playing around with that technique, but have a ways to go before mastering either method.

    Great post!

  14. Your work is inspiring and I love reading your posts! They are so fun! I usually sketch in pencil, but you’ve made me want to give pens a try. I had bought a set of colored pens a few years to try, but didn’t find that they flowed well. Will try the ones you mentioned or the ones mentioned by Pixygiggles or Ensis.

    Good luck with the meds and looking forward to seeing what you create while being infused!

  15. wonderful art (as always), interesting commentary and a really helpful tutorial to ball point pens sort of thingy; I am so glad I found this blog! Personally I only really use ballpoint pens if I can’t find a fine-liner but I always wished to be able to use them like this.

  16. Elizabeth Young | Reply

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! For your soulful, playful, and absolutely transformative posts!

    Your amazing book arrived last week. More joy! Thank you for listening to everyone who suggested that you make a book. How easy it could have been for you to not do it. You are available to your talent, you are available to your intuitive and playful nature. Because it comes more readily to you it is easy to minimize how special your talents are and your ability to let go from anticipated outcomes. Please do not minimize how special you are and how special your relationship to your daughter is.

    Thank you!

    I am sorry to learn about your unknown known back problem….

    Fondly, Elizabeth in Vermont

  17. I so enjoyed reading your Post and the illustrations are fabulous.

  18. Ballpoint pens are just so useful! These portraits are just fantastic too!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: