For the last several years, my family and I have volunteered with a sea turtle and coastal conservancy group. It has been an amazing experience, and volunteering has really opened my eyes to the amount of disposable plastics floating around (literally!) in our environment.
To do my part to help the situation, I have slowly attempted to reduce and even eliminate the purchase and use of disposable packaging— plastic or otherwise. Being a sketcher, one of the first alternatives I looked for was a replacement for disposable pens.
I immediately entered the world of refillable pens and fell in love. Oh fountain pen, where have you been all my life?!? Seriously. When it comes to sketching and lettering, old school had it best:
Nothing performs better than a non-disposable pen.
These types of pens aren't crafted solely for mass production or convenience but are crafted specifically for performance when writing and drawing. Because of this, they are a joy to use.
I have a natural bent toward the less-is-more philosophy, so I have never have owned dozens of gel pens, markers, etc. I am also not a collector, so when it comes to sketching tools, I keep the less-is-more mentality firmly in place. I have found that a handful of pens will work for most needs.
There is a small learning curve with non-disposable pens — it may take a few tries to find a pen that fits your hand and writing style — and there is a small bit of care and upkeep involved, but I've found that both are minimal. Below are several recommended refillable pen options that I think are super easy to use and maintain, and all work great for lettering and sketching.
Psst... want to know what to do with your old disposables? Send them to The Pen Guy!
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I own a small assortment of affordable fountain pens with a variety of nibs and carry at least one with me everywhere. Sketching with a decent fountain pen is a dream, and the choices of inks and nibs are almost endless! You can even find fountain pens with brush "nibs" and all types of other options.
It may take trying a few different brands of pens to find a feel and weight that you enjoy using. (My absolute favorite is Lamy's Al-Star. I own five!) The most eco-friendly pens will allow you to skip the disposable ink cartridge and use a refillable converter or have an option to fill ink directly into the barrel.
If you only want one great pen for both sketching and lettering, I recommend starting with a fountain pen. See my resource page for more on fountain pens and where to shop.
Husband gave me his old set of technical pens that he had leftover from his college days, and I absolutely love them for lettering! These pens have quickly replaced my onetime favorite Pigma Micron pens.
I have much better control with these pens and they perform way better than any disposables I have ever tried. Their points range from extremely fine (and I mean EXTREMELY) to beautifully thick. Plus, I love that I can fill them with a variety of inks. I use the same inks in my technical pens that I use in my fountain pens and have never had an issue.
I find technical pens very easy to use and maintain, and it is possible that more recently manufactured ones are even better. Yes, they are pricey, but so are Microns, and you only need one or two technical pens to get started. Over the long haul, buying the real deal will eventually save you money. I highly recommend them!
Dip pens are the best thing ever for calligraphy style lettering, but I even use them for basic handwriting. Many artists also sketch with dip pens and enjoy the line variation. I even know artists who carry dip pens into the field, but I haven't been that brave yet!
I prefer what is commonly called pointed flex nibs because I like the line weight variety, but other styles (e.g. rounded, squared, etc) are also useful and may be easier for many beginners. Dip pens may require a bit of practice before you are completely comfortable using them, but they are super affordable to get started, and maintenance and clean up are a breeze.
If you are interested in trying a pointed nib, start with one of the G nibs and either a straight or oblique holder. That and a bottle of ink are all you need! Visit my John Neal Bookseller page to see a list of some of my favorite nibs, inks, and tools.