Fineliners are among the most popular artist pens, available from many retailers and quite affordable too. They come in a variety of colours if you know where to look, and there are even high-end refillable ones for those who are committed.

Many professional comic artists use fineliners. They’re also ideal for beginners because the hard felt nib means that the line width doesn’t change. This allows the beginner to focus on line placement without worrying about how their grip on the pen changes the line quality.

Line placement and line quality are often good to learn separately. A good thing to do if you just bought a pack of fineliners is to make little swatches of each size.

The set that I have comes with sizes 0.05, 0.1, 0.3, and 0.5, in addition to a “brush” which is still a felt tip pen. However, the felt is soft and pointed and behaves similarly to a brush. I find the felt brushes to be somewhat worthless because they’re trying to be two things at once.

If you want a felt tip pen, just use a regular felt tip pen. If you want a brush pen, use one with actual bristles instead of the fuzzy frayed line the felt will produce.

Fineliner pens are often used to outline drawings that will be coloured some other way, but they are also quite good for doing entire drawings. Try drawing two spheres, shading one of them by stippling and the other by crosshatching.

When stippling, make sure not to press too hard or allow the pen to skip and make a line. When hatching, there are no hard and fast rules, but consider the contour of the object, and keep the style consistent within the object so that it doesn’t look choppy or flat.

One good use of the fineliner is to draw the contour of objects and see how simply you can render something and maintain the recognizable silhouette. Trees are good to do this with because it forces you to observe the geometric forms of the tree, and see what is essential for making the tree look like a tree.

Trees can look like chaotic jumbles of branches. You don’t need to draw that much to make a tree look like a tree.

By gently hatching in one direction, you can simulate tree bark and add shading at the same time! Don’t press too hard or go too slowly. Real tree bark is a bit random.

Here I have shaded the tree branches with hatching. I wanted to keep the simple silhouette while adding some dimension.

In retrospect, I realize it would have looked much better if I had done tighter hatching with the smallest pen and indicated more contour of the branches inside the outline. I’m sharing this with you anyway to show you that it’s okay and to experiment and show the world your messier results.

My main warning with fineliners is that since the line quality is consistent with them, you run the risk of making a drawing look static and lifeless. If you work too slowly or focus so tightly on the little details, you forget how the picture looks as a whole.

These are both very common beginner habits that are not necessarily mistakes because they’re a natural part of learning to make lines, but it is important to develop some confidence in your lines and put some life into the picture.

If you did the pine tree drawing exercise (which I hope you did, and I hope you improved upon my concept), try drawing the same tree but in under three minutes. This forces you to be decisive with your lines.

The tree will have lots of imperfections, but that’s what makes it look real. Wouldn’t you agree this tree looks nicer than the other one? It’s not so finished but it’s not so stiff.

Even if fineliners don’t become your pen of choice, they’re still important to practice with, because balancing precision and liveliness is something you’ll have to do with any media. Experiment with different widths and colours until you find something you like.

The same drawing coloured the same way can look drastically different with sepia or dark purple lines than it does with black lines, so play around until you like it. Practice stippling and hatching until you know what you like for what sort of application, and soon you will know what to do for any drawing.

If your journey is like mine, you might soon discover you prefer brushes and dip pens over fineliners, but fineliners have fewer moving parts so they’re a good classic pen to fall back on.

Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator and graphic novelist based in Minnesota. She specializes in all things cozy and calm, but adds humor where she can. When she isn’t drawing, she enjoys playing musical instruments, but you’re more likely to see her staring at some silly tree or something. 

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