Since their invention and subsequent proliferation in the mid-20th century, ballpoint pens have proven to be a versatile art medium for professional artists as well as amateur doodlers. Ballpoint pen artwork created over the years have been favourably compared to art created using traditional art mediums. Low cost, availability, and portability are cited by practitioners as qualities which make this common writing tool a convenient, alternative art supply.
Ballpoint pen enthusiasts find the pens particularly handy for quick sketch work. Some artists use them within mixed-media works, while others use them solely as their medium-of-choice. The medium is not without limitations; colour availability and sensitivity of ink to light are among concerns of ballpoint pen artists. The internet now provides a broad forum for artists to
promote their own ballpoint creations, and since its inception ballpoint pen art websites have flourished, showcasing the artwork and offering information of the usage of ballpoint pens as an art medium.
Some of the most famous artists of the 20th century have utilized ballpoint pens to some extent during their careers. Andy Warhol and Alberto Giacometti both used ballpoints within their artwork in the 1950s. Cy Twombly exhibited small ballpoint drawings in the 1970s.
Another early example of the creative prospects with which ballpoint pens are connected, the popular Spirograph included coloured ballpoints (black, blue, red, green) as part of its boxed set. The holes positioned on a Spirograph’s “gears” were, at that time, reportedly sized to accommodate tips of the fine-point pens provided. The mass-marketing of Spirograph in America, ballpoints included, coincided with the advent of 1960s psychedelic culture.
Techniques and Effects
Ballpoint pens require little or no preparation. The immediacy allowed by ballpoints makes the pens ideal for quick sketches, convenient while traveling, and appealing to artists for whom sudden creative urges cannot be side-tracked by logistics or lengthy preparation time. For artists whose Interests necessitate precision line-work, ballpoints are an obvious attraction; ballpoint pens allow for sharp lines not as effectively executed using a brush. Aside from standard ball-point sizes of fine or medium, the points of some pens are manufactured at multiple point-sizes—some in series with point-sizes ranging from 0.5 to 1.6mm—allowing for broader applications.
Effects not generally associated with ballpoint pens can be achieved. Traditional pen-and-ink techniques such as stippling and cross-hatching can be used to create half-tones or the illusion of form and volume. Skilful integration of existing colours can create an illusion of colours which do not actually exist. Finely applied, the resulting imagery has been mistaken for
airbrushed artwork and photography, causing a reaction of disbelief which artist Lennie Mace refers to as the “Wow Factor”. Watercolour washes are applied by some artists in conjunction with the pen-work. Directly mixed on the drawing surface, watercolour causes the ballpoint ink to bleed, creating additional effects.
Drawbacks in Ballpoint Art
Using ballpoint pens to create artwork poses various concerns for the artist. Ballpoints are not known for providing many colour options; standard black, blue, red and green inks are the most common colours available.
Because of a reliance on gravity to coat the ball with ink, ballpoint pens must be held upright in order to properly dispense the ink; also “blobbing” of ink on the drawing surface and “skipping” of ink-flow require consideration when using ballpoint pens for artistic purposes.
Mistakes pose greater risks to ballpoint artists; once a line is drawn, it generally cannot be erased. Ballpoint artists may consider this irreversibility somewhat unnerving, but some face the challenge as a test of skill. Ballpoint artist James Mylne has described the required level of focus as meditative. Pens with erasers and erasable ink have been manufactured, but only in black and blue inks, and with very different characteristics than normal inks.
A ballpoint pen doodle of a shark drawn in 1991 by British artist Damien Hirst sold for £4,664 at a London auction in 2012.