Best pens for plotting
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
When we feature plotter art on Generative Hut's Instagram feed, one of the most frequent questions asked is "What pen?". As a user of the Axidraw myself, I've been experimenting with lots of pens over the past year. Let's look at some of my favorite options compatible with this plotter.
The pen holder on the AxiDraw can fit pens up to ⅝ inch (16 mm) in diameter. It's worth knowing that the pen rests on the surface by its own weight which means that the pen holder does not apply significant downward pressure. You can always use a rubber band to force pressure but as a starting point, drawing tools that don't require much pressure are a safer choice.
For designs that require large numbers of lines, and plots that take hours, you need to know your pen won't let you down halfway down the job. I'm all for experiments and happy accidents happen, but when I'm working on a moiré or a contour line plot, key criteria for a good fineliner pen are the ink flow rate and the consistency of flow.
Two different thicknesses for one excellent pen. The liquid ink allows for max speed and the tip is sturdy enough to resist hours of plotting. This is my go-to pen when first plotting a new design with a line thickness sub-millimeter. I mostly plot in black but there is a range of colors available.
For thicker lines, I really enjoy the results from the W&N fineliners range. I use of lot the 1.0mm one, the ink coverage is very reliable and the result is dark and opaque. The nib is quite resistant and I'm usually plotting at high speed without any issue on this pen.
Many plotters can hold pens at a 45-degree angle, which is quite interesting for working with brushes. Indeed the tip can leave strokes of varied thickness as the pen lowers, which is a great way to reduce the "digitalness" of generative art. While traditional brushes would be cumbersome to use with a plotter, there's thankfully a growing number of options for brushes with a cartridge which provides ink for many plots at a time without reloading.
Pentel really nailed it with their Color Brush Pen. They not only have some quite groovy colors, but these brush pens are really great to experiment with. Tweaking plotting speed gives you control over the opacity of your lines, and pen lowering speed can add some lovely marks at the beginning of each stroke.
For next-level experimentation you should consider a set of refillable ink brush pens. These come in a variety of brush sizes and are easy to fill with whatever paint of ink you can think of. I've actually roughened up one of mine to have irregularities on the strokes and it really gives some plots the impression of being hand-drawn.
For thicker lines, I've had a good experience with Molotw's famous One4all markers. The nib is 2mm, and the ink is super opaque, so perfect for high contrast plots like moiré work. They're not as forgiving as the pens listed above, so I usually dial the speed down and prime them before starting to plot, but the result is really eye-catchy.
My final pick is a little bit more experimental. Normally used for graffiti, dripsticks need quite a lot of adjusting to give some controlled results on the Axidraw but it's a lot of fun. I've mainly used the wider nib at high speed to get a dry effect, but there's a lot of ways this could be used...
White on black
When it comes to plotting on dark papers, there are a lot of options out there and it's not easy to find something that works straight out of the box. My new favorite black paper is the Fabriano Black Black, in conjunction with the uni-ball Signo broad white pen. One important point for best results is to make sure there's enough downwards pressure on the paper. I use a tighter rubber band for these plots than usual. This will eventually wear the servo a bit prematurely but that just gives better results.
The Axidraw is often shown off as a way to mechanically sign documents and write in cursive letters with fancy fountain pens held at 45-degree angle. That's not very generative-arty but I can only agree for the fact that fountain pens are great to play with on the Axidraw. The not-too-pricy TWSBI has a refillable tank that allows me to do lots of experimentation with different inks. I like the medium nib for doing some deep moire patterns.
Here are my most trusted pens, brushes, and markers. At the end of the day, it's all about finding what works best for the kind of generative art you want to create. I'm constantly buying new pens and trying new settings. Curious to know what pen you use, and what pen you think should make the list?
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