I use brush pens for all my comics inking. Heresy for some folks in my studio, who swear by the superiority of a Windsor Newton series 7 brush. For my own purposes, I've found that brush pens give me all the control I need, whether it's down to small details in the distance or making a consistent panel border.
Not all brush pens are created equal, though. There are some that promise the moon with their high price tags, and some that are so bargain-bin cheap that you'd automatically disregard them as a serious tool. And there are some that work unexpectedly well for things they were never meant to do.
Across my adventures with brush pens, there are two features I've required: brush bristle tips as opposed to a felt marker tip and the ability to fill a pen with my own ink. I hate throwing away all the plastic cartridges, and I hate buying them. Once I have a brush pen in hand, I'm also looking for two performance qualities: consistent flow of ink over long spans (many brush pens don't put out enough ink for quick lines over long spans, resulting in an unwanted dry-brush effect) and a fine tip that allows control over detail work.
For ink, I've used non-waterproof Sakura India Ink which flows like a madman, and Rapidograph Ultradraw waterproof ink, which is just runny enough to flow through these brush pens at the rate I require.
As to where to buy these things, if you can't find them at your local store (quite possible for some of them), check out www.jetpens.com for more brush pen madness than anyone can handle.
So, now that we know what we're looking for, here's a quick rundown on my experience with various makes and models:
Sailor Profit Brush Pen:
We begin with a sad tale. When I first fired this one up, I thought I'd found my special inking someone, and given its cost (around $35-40 bucks), that was a relief. I was able to buy a refill cartridge for it, so that satisfied my requirement even though it typically uses its own disposables. The flow was great- I could make a fast line across a 15 inch span with no loss of line integrity, and the feel of the bristles on the paper was very firm and sharp... at first.
Alas, the dream was not meant to be. After only one day of comics inking, I noticed a profound (yes, I said profound) drop off in the brush point's sharpness. I washed the thing out, hoping, praying that a buildup of ink on the bristles had spread them out, but no. After only one day of work, the synthetic bristles had actually worn themselves into a dull, useless nub. Goodbye sharpness. Goodbye special inking someone.
Pentel Pocket Brush Pen:
This one has the distinction of being the only non-refillable (at least to my knowledge) brush pen in my roundup. You can buy cartridges for it, so it is refillable in that sense, but there's no using your own ink, and you have to throw away the plastic and kill the dolphins, and no one wants to kill the dolphins. Except... Most of these pens do come from Japan.
I bought it because it is on the less expensive side and a few people hailed it as the Holy Grail of brush pens. It's proven a useful tool for conventions and on-the-go situations where being extra-fastidious is desired. It has a fairly good point. The problem is the flow. Even in shorter lines, unless I'm inking at a snail's pace, the dreaded dry brush effect rears its head. Dry brush has its place, so if you're looking for a tool that can provide that consistently, here you are! It may also be a fit for people who work very small, and don't need the flow. But you know I be needing my flow.
Pentel Waterbrush Pen:
This is the first of two waterbrush pens I've used, and here is where we get into a tool that was not designed to do what it can actually do very well. Waterbrush pens are usually found in the watercolor section of your local art supply, and you would normally load them with watercolor washes or straight water, both of which you might slurp up or squeeze out with the fabulous pressure-sensitive reservoir. The fact that manufacturers assume you're going to want a whole array of these for color work means (along with their no-frills plastic construction) that they are cheap. Like, 5-10 bucks a pop cheap. Or less.
Does this price point make them less durable? Less precise? Less flow-riffic than their higher-priced brush pen cousins? The happy answer is NAY!
Both the Pentel and Kuretake waterbrush pens are capable of terrific flow. Sometimes too terrific. It takes some getting used to, but once you figure out a good strategy for managing the flow of ink, you can really go to town with one of these. They are also very durable. I used a couple of these in various point sizes (another nice feature of waterbrush pens) to ink the entirety of my first graphic novel, and they're still going strong. Not bad for 5 bucks a pop.
Kuretake Waterbrush Pen:
Good performance and value, as above. I have not used the Kuretake as extensively as the Pentel, but it shows no signs of losing its point.
The Kuretake bristles are slightly softer and finer than the Pentel's, so if you have a lighter touch, this one could give you very fine detail. I'm pretty ham-fisted, so I generally prefer the Pentel. In all, they're very similar.
One thing to note: This pen was sold under another brand name on the packaging when I bought it, but on closer inspection, I found the Kuretake name embossed on the reservoir. I don't recall the other brand name, but you can probably find it any place that sells Kuretake brush pens.
Kuretake No. 13 Fountain Hair Brush Pen - Sable tip option
Feeling flush? Here's a lovely brush pen that performs very well and makes you pay for it. At some point, I decided that the lure of a genuine sable tipped brush pen was too much, and I had to make it mine. I did go the cheapest route I could- I bought the synthetic bristle body, then the sable tip as an accessory, along with a compatible refill cartridge. Brush pen heaven!!!
So when all is said and done, does the sable tip do wonders?
It is very, very precise. The feel of the bristles on the page is very similar to the Kuretake waterbrush pen- slightly soft, but sharp. The flow is not quite up to the Pentel, but it still makes a fast, long line without drying out.
At the end of the day, though? With the sable tip, this one costs ten times as much as the Pentel waterbrush pen, and is less of a workhorse. I find myself going back to the Pentel because it just keeps chugging along with a much fatter portion of ink in its reservoir, and thus, I work faster. So while I dearly love this brush pen for its precision, the least-expensive item on the list still edges it out in light of my personal process.
I hope this uber-nerd moment ends up being helpful to someone. If anyone has other models they love, let me know, and I'll give them a whirl! Though it may take a while for my brush pen budget to recover after that last one.