A couple of years a ago I got interested in drawing with dip pen nibs again, specifically the vintage versions. There’s a few of the same ones that are still in production today and I’m sure they’re fine, but the original pre-WW2 nibs were largely hand-produced by women (and that will be a fascinating story for another post) and were the same ones used by famous artists of the past.
It turns out that there are a LOT of vintage nibs still available, mostly through Etsy and ebay, so one is supporting small business folks by buying from them. Often, secondhand buyers will find a box or more of nibs and other hand writing supplies in the back of a drawer in a desk they’ve bought at an estate sale or auction. Sometimes they know what they’ve got and sometimes not.
However, not only can it take some patient searching, but it takes time to learn which nibs various artists used back in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. But I’m going to help you with that. The best resource I’ve found is old pen and ink instruction books, almost all of which include recommended nibs for artists. I’ve collected nineteen books and have also found some of them as downloadable pdfs on archive.org. Search “pen and ink” or “pen and ink drawing”. A future post will be a bibliography of those books.
It turns out there’s a lot of overlap with two brands that almost everyone lists…Gillott and Esterbrook, followed sometimes by Hunt. And that narrows it down quite a bit. It also helps that all three companies made and promoted nibs made specifically for artists. Esterbrook even named their range the Art &Drafting nibs. Other clues are nibs described as “mapping” or “lithographic”. Those tend to be very fine and flexible so should be handled with care and a light touch.
At the top is a set of all the best art nibs from England and the USA. From left to right: Hunt 100, Hunt 103, Hunt 22, Gillott 170, Gillott 291, Gillott 303, Gillott 404, Esterbrook 354, Esterbrook 355, Esterbrook 62 (crowquill). This is a set that I’m selling on Etsy, If you’re interested the listing is here. There are also sets for beginners, intermediate and advanced pen artists and writers, plus a couple “grab bags” of nibs from a variety of countries.
Other sources for vintage nibs that I’ve purchased from are Pendamonium (all vintage), John Neal Booksellers and Paper & Ink Arts (the latter two sell mostly new nibs but sometimes they have vintage nibs at good prices, so are worth checking).
Once you’ve bought some nibs, how to get started? Last week I posted some beginner exercises from various pen and ink instruction books. And below is what I do as new nibs arrive. I have fourteen pages like this (yes, I’ve bought a LOT of different nibs). I use the same paper, Strathmore 300 vellum bristol, and the same ink, the excellent Platinum Carbon black ink.
I also do quick freehand drawings from my photos to see how well they actually draw. Beyond the “official” artists’ nibs I’ve found that many are perfectly nice for sketching.
I hope this will be useful in helping you get started. If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments!