Walking Through the Witches

People ask me sometimes about ballpoint pen and how I use it in my drawings.  They’ll say that when they use it, it smears or gets discolored.  And I say, “that’s because no one in their right mind should be using ballpoint pen.”  But I can’t help it–that’s what I like.  It’s what I’ve ALWAYS liked, and what I’m most comfortable with.  It’s cheap, portable, easy to find, easy to carry.

But it does have a couple of issues.

Don’t be scared, though!  When I was younger, information was a lot harder to find, and I was about the only one I ever knew that drew with a PEN.  Nowadays, there are TONS of fine artists that use ballpoint (sometimes they call it “biro”), and do some AMAZING work.  I don’t know what they go through, but here are some things I’ve learned…


I’ve learned that I like ballpoints.  Not gels, not rollerballs, not ink pens.  BALLPOINTS.  Believe it or not, there’s a difference.  Nothing fancy, either–I’ve tried the expensive ones, and they’re nice, but for my work, they’re not gritty enough.  Plain ol’ Bics work best for me…but I’ll use anything in a pinch.


I call it “glurping” or “glumping,” or whatever.  It’s that blob of ink that sometimes comes out when you’re drawing, that can smear up your whole picture.  Early on, I’d be happily drawing and OH NO MY WHOLE DRAWING IS RUINED!!!  I know of one artist who uses his finger to wipe the pen every few strokes.  I use my shirt….or whatever dark fabric thing is closest.  Which is why, if you look all over my house, and on every shirt I own, you will most likely see little constellations of pen dots on my right front shoulders.  As I draw, every couple of minutes, I instinctively wipe my pen on my shirt in a little twist.  Sure, there is absolutely a better way to do this that was not so messy on my clothes.  I could use a napkin.  But I don’t.


I use ballpoint sketches as sort of a skeleton, because I like the pen marks to show through a little.  If I watercolor on top, I get this nice blend of ink and pen.  If I use acrylics, you still get to see the great lines, but with painting more on top.  BUT IF YOU VARNISH, no matter HOW MUCH acrylic paint I have on top of my pen lines, the pen will SHOW THROUGH.  And it turns sort of a purplish color.  I’ve tried different varnishes, and I always get the same result.  I usually like the look, but if it’s TOO discolored, I wait for the varnish to dry and paint in acrylic back on top of it.  Varnish THAT, and you’re good to go.  Waste of time?  Yes.  Draw my undercoat in pencil instead, then?   NEVER EVER EVER. Don’t know why.

So here’s a typical project:  Awhile back, my art friend Aaron McMillan (@mcmillankid on Instagram) and I challenged each other to draw Meryl Streep.  I wanted to draw both versions of her witch from “Into The Woods.”

I usually start with the eyes and work my way out.  I’ve mentioned before that there are many ways to measure faces to get proper proportions, and while I did my time with that in art school, I prefer to just wing it, because I like the wonky look.


My drawings are made up of very soft lines using varied pressure and crosshatching.  I noticed once, while drawing, that I sort of blur my eyes to see the values and tones as I’m shading…which might explain my terrible eyesight.  (Thankfully I’m near-sighted, so I’d still be able to draw in a post-apocalyptic world if I broke my glasses…but I’d be useless spotting anyone more than 10 feet away.  …I have to think about these things.)

2-good witch

Once the sketch is done, I usually use watercolor or acrylic, but for this one, I challenged myself to use markers (since Aaron uses them a lot).  Several people use Copics, but I prefer Prismacolor Premiere Brush Tips for no real reason, other than that I’m comfortable with them, and I love them.

Now this is where people who try this often get freaked out, because pens do freaky things…

3-adding color

AAAUUUGH it’s PURPLE!!    Yeah, using markers on top of ballpoint pen is a little freaky because it instantly turns purple.  This can weird you out at first, and make you think you’ve ruined the whole thing.  But be patient!  All is not lost!  Keep going…

I get my darker markers out to shade, and the purple discoloration is already starting to settle down a bit as it soaks into the page…


And now by the time I’ve blended my darks with my lights, the purple tone is almost as faded as a bad dream in the daytime.

5-smoother colors

So here’s what it looks like, flat without much highlights.  I have the ballpoint skeleton underneath, and I like the quickness of the markers–you can blend solid colors very quickly with darker shadows, and the marker soaking into the page does the rest.  So here it is all flat, and ready for the next step…

6-final flat color

Highlights!  Here I like to use white acrylic paint (although I’ve used white colored pencil in a pinch) to add highlights to everything to make it pop a little more.


I like to find the “hot spots” of white, and blend them into the background color.


And there ya go!


The main point is not to get freaked out.  I teach our daughter that there’s no real way to “mess up.”   If you can’t fix it with ink or paint, you can always pretend you did it on purpose.  🙂

Don’t be afraid to mess up.  Just open that sketchbook and DO IT.  The worse that could happen is that you learn something.  So good luck with all your artistic experiments!

78 responses

  1. Ballpoint is fun. I haven’t used it for many years though. You’ve inspired me to try it again. Thanks!

    1. I hope you enjoy it! Thank you!

  2. Those last few sentences are great advice that every artist needs to read (and hear) every now and then!

  3. Lovely work and I love the look of ballpoints and find myself drawing with them more and more often. I also love your crosshatching, something I am still learning to do properly. Great post!

  4. LOVE this – the process is wonderful to see – amazing work!! 🙂

  5. Beautiful drawing. Interesting instruction. I enjoyed your post very much.

  6. I love the way you express things through drawings. Keep it up. 🙂

  7. Really cool! Post love your work

  8. Great post! Good job making your point!

  9. Reblogged this on julecat10242005 and commented:
    Very good read!!

  10. I’m not an artist,nor do I understand the basics of art. Ballpoints for me are for putting together the abc’s I learnt in school and that’s the best I can get…
    You are such a huge inspiration for the un-artistic lot.. I’m gonna try and draw an apple with a ballpoint today 😁😁🍎
    Loadsa love from India..

    1. Ah, thank you so very much! 🙂

  11. Reblogged this on Big Red Carpet Nursing and commented:
    Imagine: a talented artist whose tool of choice is a cheap ballpoint pen!

  12. Great post and wonderfully explained. Thank you.

  13. Lovely work 🙂


  14. I remember my eldest son drawing like this, he started with a bic now he uses fineliners, now he is grown up his passion for creative drawing has never changed although he does experiment other methods nowadays. He now is an accomplished tattoo artist and I think anyone who can put pen to paper in such a way to be very fascinating and intriguing. Your work is lovely. Wish I could draw!

    1. Thank you so very much!

  15. Beautiful work and an article which offers great insights, thank you!

  16. Awesome!! Super like fr ur advice on a ballpoint pen!!!

  17. That’s some really cool advice for upcoming artists! 🙂 Amazing work!

  18. Wow, this looks super beautiful and awesome! 🙂

  19. picturespaintingsandotherscribblings | Reply

    there’s a pen I use to work with for years. I used it a lot for rendering back then, I think it could be handy for you. “Kurecolors”

  20. Amazing awesome! And some great work that’s inspiring to become a artist

  21. Wonderful drawings! I’m glad to know you here as I also use ballpoint pen for my drawings. Please feel free to visit mine with the link below. Thank you! 🙂 https://heathercai.wordpress.com/category/little-arts/

  22. Thanks for sharing this! I really enjoy working with ballpoint also. I really enjoyed watching your work progress while I read too!

  23. Very well done … and congrats on Freshly Pressed.

  24. Great job! I am rubbish with ballpoint so I always admire those who know how to use them efficiently!

  25. lovely post and holy bat, that pic turned out beautiful!!

  26. Commendable work !! 🙂

  27. Absolutely beautiful drawings!

  28. I’m learning to draw. Complete beginner here. Just found your blog. I say you just got one more reader, mate.

    1. Thank you so much, best of luck to you!

  29. very cool…are those your images on your background??

  30. I also love your crosshatching, something I am still learning to do properly

  31. I like ur blog by the way

  32. Lovely tips! Glad I found this post 😀

  33. Greay post!!!

  34. I like your drawings

  35. I also draw using a ballpoint pen and we call it ball pen in the Philippines. Almost all the pages of my notebook during high school has drawings using a ball pen Lol.

    1. Thank you! Mine too, until I got older and thought I needed “fancier” supplies. And then I got a little older, and realized I enjoyed the old ballpoints!

  36. This was so fun to read! I’m terrified of a blank page. My brushes, markers, paints, assorted sundries, surround me, anxious, I’m certain, to know what medium will hit the paper first. I’m anxious too…thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Thanks so much–it’s hard to get over a blank page, but you just have to jump in…so best to you!

  37. hmm okity does ill have to try that 🙂

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