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Types of Pens: How to Pick a Pen with the Right Ink

Types of Pens: How to Pick a Pen with the Right Ink

Types of Pens: How to Pick a Pen With The Right Ink

There’s more to picking a pen than tip size and looks. The ink inside a pen is what makes it write better on certain papers than others, gives it waterproofness or a quick drying time, or infuses your writing with vivid color. Although the design of the pen tip has a lot to do with how smoothly a pen writes, the ink that flows from the tip is equally as important.

In this guide, we will help you choose the right type of pen—that is, a pen with the right type of ink—by exploring the basics of what pen ink is made of and the impact different formulations have on the ink’s behavior. As non-chemists discussing a technical and complex topic, we will only touch on the broad generalities of ink composition. Still, even a surface-level understanding of ink types should make it easier to pick a pen that’s right for you. Keep reading or watch the video below to learn how to pick a pen that's right for you.

Can You Just Tell Me A Pen That Works?

If all you're looking for is a reliable pen that works on any type of paper, we suggest a ballpoint. The Uni Jetstream is our favorite! It uses low-viscosity ink that allows for effortless flow when writing. It also comes in several body colors and tip sizes ranging from 0.38 mm to 1.0 mm. If you want to learn more about specific ink compositions and their advantages, keep reading.

What Ink Should I Use?

If you don’t want to read the whole guide, this table is a good place to start. The first column lists characteristics you may want in an ink. The second column lists ink types that often have those characteristics.

Bear in mind that this table only lists correlations. Not all representatives of the suggested ink types will have the characteristics you’re looking for, but they are more likely to have them.

Screenshot of left-hand navigation facets from a product category page, showing options for Ink Composition, Water-Resistant, and Ink Characteristics.
You can find pens and inks with specific characteristics or compositions by using the navigation facets on our website.
If you are looking for a specific ink characteristic or composition, you can use the facets on our website to quickly find what you are looking for. These are listed on the left-hand side of all of our product category pages.
If you want a pen with ink that is:Try these ink compositions:
Waterproof or water resistantOil-based ink, alcohol-based ink, pigment-based ink
SmoothLiquid water-based ink (rollerball and fountain pen ink), gel ink
Able to write on almost any paperOil-based ink, alcohol-based ink
VibrantDye-based ink
Deeply and intensely coloredPigment-based ink
Available in many colorsDye-based ink
Water solubleDye-based ink, water-based ink (rollerball and fountain pen ink)
Lightfast, fade resistantPigment-based ink
Archival*Pigment-based ink
Permanent*Oil-based ink, alcohol-based ink, pigment-based ink
Quick dryingOil-based ink, alcohol-based ink, some specialized gel inks
OpaquePigment-based ink
TransparentDye-based ink

*There is no standard definition of what “permanent” or “archival” means for an ink. See our Glossary for more information.

What Is Ink Made Of?
Graphic showing ink colorant, vehicle, and additives.
Inks are made of colorant combined with a vehicle and various additives.
Fundamentally, all inks are made of color that is dissolved or suspended in a vehicle (also called a solvent or carrying medium) that delivers that color to the paper. Inks also contain several additives that fine-tune their performance. For example, manufacturers may use surfactants to give an ink the right surface tension to flow reliably through a pen, binders to help deposited color stick to the paper once the vehicle evaporates, and preservatives to prevent mold.

These ingredients are then combined in a specific way to ensure that the ink has the correct characteristics. Just like bread and pizza dough contain similar ingredients but turn out differently when baked, inks made with similar components can have different characteristics depending on how they are treated during the mixing process. Ink manufacturers are extremely protective of their proprietary formulas, so we aren’t able to use the specifics of their ingredients or mixing processes to inform our ink choices. We do, however, usually know the two basic components of the ink: the vehicle and the colorant. Despite all the complexity and variability that the other elements of the ink introduce, this information gives us valuable clues about how the ink is likely to behave.

Ink Vehicles
Water-Based Inks
A selection of water-based pens, caps off, pointing at wavy lines drawn by these pens.
Water-based inks are used in a wide variety of pens. Pens and inks shown: Ohto Fude Ball Rollerball Pen, Sakura Gelly Roll Classic Gel Pen, Tombow Dual Brush Pen, and J. Herbin Perle Noire Ink.
Water is an extremely common ink vehicle. Pens intended for writing are especially likely to use water-based ink, although there are also plenty of water-based art pens. Water-based inks can be colored with dyes or pigments and have a wide range of characteristics depending on the other additives in the ink. They are often thought of as having poor water resistance but can be water resistant or even waterproof. Water-based inks with good water resistance are usually colored with pigments.

Water-based inks include:

Oil-Based Inks and Alcohol-Based Inks
A selection of oil-based and alcohol-based  pens, caps off, pointing at wavy lines drawn by these pens.
Oil-based and alcohol-based inks are chemically very similar. Pens and inks shown: Uni Jetstream Standard Ballpoint Pen, Copic Marker, Sharpie Permanent Marker - Ultra Fine Point, and Sakura Pen-Touch Paint Marker.
Although they’re spoken of as distinct categories, there are no consistent differences between oil-based and alcohol-based inks either chemically or in terms of their performance.

In general, oil- and alcohol-based pens contain both alcohols and oils. They may be colored with dyes or pigments and are typically water resistant or waterproof. They are also able to write on slick surfaces better and with a more reasonable drying time than water-based inks.

The counterpoint to this benefit is that the oil- and alcohol-based inks used in markers spread out on regular paper, making wide lines that are hard to control. They may also have a strong smell that makes them unpleasant to use for long periods.

Given these similarities, what a particular pen is called has more to do with what the manufacturer wants to emphasize about its characteristics than an actual distinction in its composition. Markers labeled as alcohol based are often intended for art. They blend easily, produce consistent color, and dry quickly. Markers labeled as oil based are typically marketed as multi-surface or permanent markers, with the emphasis placed on the durability and versatility of their marks.

Ballpoint pens, although they fall into the same general category, behave differently from their marker cousins. They do not have the strong smell that is typically associated with oil-based and alcohol-based markers, and their thick ink prevents their writing from spreading out on paper the way that thinner marker ink does.

Oil- and alcohol-based inks include:

Ink Colorant Types
Dye-Based Inks
A selection of dye-based pens, caps off, pointing at wavy lines drawn by these pens.
Dyes are colorants that completely dissolve in the liquid they are mixed with. Just like salt and sugar disappear when stirred into water but make their presence known by making it taste salty or sweet, dyes color the ink vehicle but cannot be distinguished from it once they are mixed together. Dyes are the most common type of colorant used in inks. They are generally cheaper than pigments, are available in many colors, and can produce very bright hues. Most dye-based inks are neither lightfast nor waterproof, so they’re best for writing and art that doesn’t need to last a long time.

Dye-based inks are often also less opaque than pigment-based inks. This can make the color appear less intense, but this is not usually a problem for writing. If you use dye-based inks for art, their relative transparency may allow for watercolor-esque effects. Dye-based fountain pen inks are unlikely to clog pens but particularly strong dyes can cause staining.

Dye-based inks include:

Pigment-Based Inks
A selection of pigment-based pens, caps off, pointing at wavy lines drawn by these pens.
Pigment-based inks are more likely to be waterproof. Pens and inks shown: Sakura Pigma Micron Pen - Size 02, Faber-Castell PITT Artist Pen, Uni-ball Air Rollerball Pen, and Platinum Carbon Ink - Black.
Pigments are tiny particles of colored material, such as certain minerals. Although the pigments used in pen ink are far too small to see with the naked eye, they are much bigger than dye particles and do not dissolve when mixed into a liquid. Instead, the pigment particles disperse throughout the carrying medium and give it color in the same way that mud churned up by a fast-moving river turns it yellow or brown.

Just like mud mixed in water, pigments can build up and clog small spaces they pass through, or settle out of their carrying medium over time. Pigments used in pen inks are extremely fine to allow them to pass smoothly through pen tips and feeds. Fountain pen users should clean out pigment-based inks more frequently, but other types of pens don’t need extra maintenance. There isn’t usually much risk of pigments settling out of pen inks due to how they are formulated, but storing pigment-based pens sideways or tip up minimizes the chance of the pigments becoming concentrated near the tip and potentially causing clogs.

Pigment-based inks are not available in as many colors as dye-based inks, but they are more likely to be lightfast and waterproof. Because the pigment particles block the light, pigment-based inks are usually more opaque than dye-based inks. Pigment-based inks may also appear to be “deeper” or more intensely colored even though dye-based inks are usually available in brighter hues.

Pigment-based inks include:

Ink Composition by Pen Type
“Ball Pens”

Ballpoint pens, rollerball pens, and gel pens all share the same ink delivery mechanism. A small, revolving ball in the tip of the pen picks up the ink and deposits it onto the paper as it rotates. All pens of this type are sometimes called “ball pens” or even “ballpoint pens” or “rollerball pens,” but these last two terms usually indicate ball pens that use oil-based ink and liquid ink, respectively.

Two ballpoint pens with writing samples that have been brushed over with water.
Low-viscosity and standard ballpoint pens with water-resistance tests. Pens shown: Uni Jetstream Standard Ballpoint Pen (low viscosity) and Zebra F-301 Stainless Steel Retractable Ballpoint Pen (standard).
Standard ballpoint ink is thick and paste-like. This means that less ink comes out with each stroke of the pen, which has two main benefits: there is virtually no chance of the ink bleeding through the page, and refills last longer than those of non-ballpoint pens. Ballpoint inks’ thickness also requires people to press harder to write. This can cause hand strain over long periods of writing.

Although it’s generally referred to as oil-based, the carrier in ballpoint ink is usually an alcohol such as benzyl alcohol or phenoxyethanol. This is why alcohol helps remove ballpoint ink stains. Most ballpoint pens are water resistant and write well on glossy paper, such as receipts and the backs of credit cards.

The alcohols in ballpoint ink also help it dry quickly, which makes it a good fit for left-handed writers. It can still smear, however. Many ballpoint inks are prone to building up on the pen’s rotating ball and depositing occasional “blobs” of ink that take longer to dry.

The color in ballpoint ink usually comes from dyes. If you’re wondering where the “oil-based” categorization comes from, it may be a reference to the fatty acids used in ballpoint ink. Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats and oils and allow the ball to rotate smoothly in the tip of the pen without getting gummed up by the ink.

Low-viscosity ballpoint pens contain ink that has been formulated to be thinner, or less viscous, than standard ballpoint ink. They feel smoother to write with and are less prone to generating blobs. You could think of this as a modern update to ballpoint ink, as the basic ink components remain the same. Manufacturers guard these formulas closely, so we can’t be precise about what elements are changed to achieve this smoother ink. Some low-viscosity ballpoint inks are “fortified” with pigments to give them a deeper hue than dyes would provide on their own. The popular Uni Jetstream is an example of this.

Two rollerball pens with writing samples that have been brushed over with water.
Rollerball pens with water-resistance tests. Pens shown: Ohto Fude Ball Rollerball Pen and Stabilo Bl@ck Rollerball Pen.
Categorizing rollerball pens is tricky. Many people, ourselves included, use “rollerball” to refer specifically to a pen that uses liquid, water-based ink. However, some people use it in a more general sense to refer to both rollerball and gel pens. The Kaweco Sport Gel Roller Pen is an example of a “rollerball” pen that is actually a gel pen. To add to the confusion, many pen manufacturers do not specify the ink formulation of their rollerball pens, so there’s no way to tell whether they are liquid-ink rollerballs or gel pens aside from the writing feel. Still, liquid-ink rollerball pens often have a distinctive feel that sets them apart from gel pens.

Since they dispense liquid, water-based ink, writing with rollerball pens requires very little pressure. This makes them a good fit for people who suffer from hand strain. However, rollerball pens have more feedback than ballpoints or gel pens because the thin ink provides less lubrication between the pen tip, ball, and paper. Larger tip sizes feel smoother. Rollerball pens also make wider lines than ballpoint or gel pens because their wet ink spreads out more on the paper. Rollerballs are most often dye based and not permanent, but some, like Uni-ball rollerballs, are colored with pigments for greater staying power.

Although rollerball ink and fountain pen ink are superficially similar, most rollerballs are not designed to use fountain pen ink. The Monteverde Engage One Touch and J. Herbin Refillable Rollerball Pens are two exceptions.

Two gel pens with writing samples that have been brushed over with water.
Gel pens with water-resistance tests. Pens shown: Sakura Gelly Roll Classic Gel Pen and Pentel EnerGel RTX Gel Pen.
Gel pens were only invented by Sakura in the ‘80s, but in that short time they’ve become incredibly popular. The defining characteristic of gel pen ink is that it is a thixotropic gel. “Thixotropic” means that the ink is solid when at rest but becomes liquid when it experiences a shearing force, such as when the ball in the tip of the pen rotates and moves the gel. The ink flows onto the page in its liquid state, where it solidifies again since it is left at rest. This prevents gel ink from sinking as deeply into the page as rollerball ink and makes it less vulnerable to feathering and bleedthrough.

Gel pen ink is almost always water based and colored with pigments. Many gel pens inks are water resistant or waterproof, and they are known for their rich colors. There are some dye-based gel inks, but these are less likely to be waterproof.

Gel pens are often quite smooth, although some pens come in very small tip sizes that can produce significant feedback. They are good for everyday writing but may smear on receipts and other glossy papers. Left-handed writers may prefer smaller tip sizes or specially formulated quick-drying gel pens to prevent smudges. In addition, many gel pens are available in a wide range of colors and finishes that makes them ideal for crafting and color-coding.

Unlike the ball pens we discussed above, knowing whether a marker is a fineliner or brush pen does not tell you what kind of ink it uses. Instead, markers are often categorized by the kinds of tips they have or by how they are intended to be used. Oil- and alcohol-based markers are more likely to be categorized based on their ink’s specific formulation or use, with names like multi-surface marker, permanent marker, art marker, and paint marker. These names are descriptive, and it’s common for a marker to fit in more than one category.

Most markers have fiber or plastic tips, but they can look and perform very differently depending on the shape of the tip, its size, how it is made, and the type of ink it is paired with. In this guide, we will count all marker-like pens as markers, including fineliners, bullet-tip markers, brush pens, paint pens, and similar writing instruments.

Two water-based markers with writing samples that have been brushed over with water.
Pigment-based and dye-based water-based markers with water-resistance tests. Pens shown: Sakura Pigma Micron Pen - Size 02 (pigment based) and Tombow Dual Brush Pen (dye based).
Water-based markers are extremely common. They typically work best on paper and are meant for drawing, lettering, and everyday writing. These markers are usually differentiated based on the style of their tips as fineliners, bullet-tipped markers, and brush pens without there being a significant difference in their ink. Most water-based markers are colored with dyes and come in several colors. This makes them a popular choice for color-coding, crafting, and art. They may either be water soluble, like watercolor brush pens, or waterproof.

It is difficult to make pigments small enough to pass through porous marker tips without clogging, but some water-based markers are colored with pigments. The Sakura Pigma and Faber-Castell PITT pen series are excellent examples of this. They are fully waterproof and ideal for use with water-based media for art.

The fluid in a paint pen could be called either ink or paint, but using “paint” generally signifies a thicker, more opaque fluid than the ink found in typical pens. This thick ink often doesn’t stay homogenous when the pen is left to sit, which is why many paint markers need to be shaken before use. A small ball inside the marker helps mix the paint more effectively. Paint pen ink dries more slowly than other inks due to its thickness.

Paint pens may be water based or formulated with oil and alcohol. Both versions can usually be used on paper or other surfaces, but oil-based paint pens may work better on a greater variety of surfaces. Water-based paint pens can typically be wiped from non-porous surfaces with water, which makes them a good choice for temporary applications like writing cafe menus or signs on windows. Oil-based paint pens require more effort to remove, so they’re a better choice for projects that need to last for a longer period of time.

Most oil- and alcohol-based markers write reasonably well on non-porous surfaces, such as plastic and coated paper. Markers that are specifically marketed as multi-surface markers are formulated to make clean marks on several different surfaces but may not work well on regular paper. Each marker’s performance on any particular surface will vary according to its specific formula.

The types of surfaces that these markers can write on range from cloth and plastic leftover containers for “name markers” intended for labeling all the way through ceramic, leather, and rubber for markers intended for crafting and making art on non-paper surfaces. Some multi-surface markers have specialized finishes, such as the Molotow Liquid Chrome Marker, which is mirror-shiny when dry.

Permanent markers are usually waterproof. Some may also be lightfast, abrasion-resistant, and less likely to degrade from the passage of time, but since there is no objective standard for what counts as a permanent marker, this is by no means guaranteed. Each pen manufacturer has their own definition of ink permanence, which they may not state explicitly. Permanent markers are known for having a strong smell. This reputation may be partly due to the fact that they used to be made with a carrier called xylene, but current formulas usually use alcohols to reduce the fumes the inks give off. Permanent markers are generally colored with pigments and contain resins to help the ink stick to the writing surface.
Two art markers with writing samples that have been brushed over with water.
Alcohol- and oil-based art markers with water-resistance tests. Pens shown: Copic Marker and Uni Pin Pen - Oil-Based.
Art markers that are described as alcohol based typically blend easily and have a semi-transparent quality that allows artists to achieve beautiful layering effects. They are usually used on paper but will bleed through, so it’s best to put an extra sheet or protective piece of plastic under the paper you are working on. Although they do smell, alcohol-based markers may not smell as strongly as markers that are described as oil based.

The most famous examples of alcohol-based art markers are Copics, which get their brilliant colors from dyes. Alcohol- and dye-based art markers are great for making colorful, short-lived sketches and art intended for reproduction. The colors will degrade over time because the dyes are not lightfast.

Some markers that are intended for art are described as oil-based rather than alcohol-based. These are usually fineliners and bullet-tipped markers that come in a limited range of colors. Because they make wide lines on regular paper, they are more often used on less-absorbent surfaces like vellum.

We’ve written extensively about different types of fountain pen inks, so we won’t get into too much detail here. See our Beginner's Guide to Fountain Pen Inks for more details, and visit the extensive Fountain Pen Ink section of our blog to learn more about specific ink-related topics.

Most fountain pen inks are dye based and easy to clean from pens. They come in many colors and are usually highly water soluble. This makes them acutely vulnerable to spills, but water-soluble fountain pen inks can also be used in art to make beautiful ink washes. There are a few exceptions that are more waterproof, such as Noodler’s Bulletproof Fountain Pen Inks. These are specially formulated to bind to the cellulose in paper so that they remain legible when exposed to water.
Some fountain pen inks are made with pigments. These are more likely to be water resistant or waterproof, but you do need to be more careful to clean your pen regularly to prevent the ink from drying out in your pen and clogging the feed with pigment particles. Pigment-based ink that does dry out in a pen is very difficult to remove. Pigment-based fountain pen inks are available in several colors, but the selection is much smaller than that for dye-based fountain pen inks.
Iron gall inks are made with a mixture of iron salts and tannic acids, which is usually obtained from oak galls. After you write with the ink, the iron oxidizes and darkens to make a water-resistant ink. Iron gall ink was historically the primary ink used in Europe, but it fell out of favor because the recipes used at the time would corrode pens’ metal parts due to their acidity. Modern iron gall inks are much less acidic and are safe for use in fountain pens. Although it is unlikely that a modern iron gall ink will damage a fountain pen, frequent cleaning is an easy way to mitigate any risk to your pen.

Just about any ink could be used as a dip pen ink, but inks that are specifically sold as dip pen inks are often made with pigments and contain binders that can damage fountain pens. These inks are usually thicker than fountain pen inks and may contain larger pigment or glitter particles that will clog the inner workings of fountain pens.

India ink is a pigment ink that is known for its deep blackness, waterproofness, and glossy finish. It is one of the oldest kinds of ink in the world and originated in China, which is why it is sometimes called “China ink.” It gained its common English name due to the fact that it came to Europe from India. Black India ink is colored with carbon, which historically would have often been lampblack (soot from burning lamps) or ivory black (char from burning bones or ivory).

India ink usually contains a resin called shellac. This helps the pigment stick to the paper, resist water, and gives the dried ink a shiny look. India ink is particularly well-suited for art due to its ability to stay crisp and dark when used with water-based media. Although traditional India ink was only black, some India inks are now available in other colors.

Acrylic dip pen inks are technically water-based pigment inks, but they are quite different from other water-based inks. They are made with an emulsion of acrylic as their binder. This is essentially liquid plastic. Although they can be thinned with water during use, they become thoroughly waterproof once dry. The elasticity of the acrylic helps the ink resist cracking and it is highly resistant to physical damage. Acrylic inks are also lightfast, so they are a good choice for work you want to last.
How We Approach Research & Testing

Our writers draw on their personal expertise, consult our in-house subject matter experts, and do extensive research to make our guides as accurate and comprehensive as possible. We then test every finding that makes it through the research stage. Only the techniques and tools whose performance we personally confirm make it into our guides as recommendations.


Picking the perfect pen can be tricky, but if you start with the ink—what characteristics you need from it, how it needs to behave on the page, and what writing feel you prefer—it’s much easier to narrow down other factors like design and tip size. If you’d like to learn more about specific pens, inks, and recommendations for specific use cases, you can find much more information in our Guides. If you’ve already found your perfect pen body but it comes with lackluster ink, or if you just need a refill, our Ultimate Guide to Pen Refills will help you find a great ink that works in your pen.