It's been almost a year since I acquired an Axidraw pen plotter and began plotting my generative spirograph art!
I have experimented with a lot of pens with my Axidraw since (don't ask me how much I spent on pens in the past year!) If you are looking for info on setting up an Axidraw, and different pens, then keep reading.
Setting Up the Axidraw
The Axidraw pen plotter comes mostly ready to go. I mounted my Axidraw to a thick piece of MDF board, as it happened to be what was lying around. Since MDF warps over time, going with a thicker board minimizes the issue. The MDF board is nice and smooth for drawing! On the MDF, I used the Axidraw to draw a line for where various sized prints should be placed - the main corner is for any print 10 X 10 inches and smaller in size.
I drew by hand a line for where a 14 by 14 inch piece of paper should be placed. My designs are all square, so the max design I draw is on a 14 by 14 inch paper where the design is 11 by 11 inches in the center. My version of the Axidraw can print up to A3 in size (roughly 11 by 17 inches.)
With this setup, the Axidraw legs do overlap 14 inch paper, so I use 3d printed cylinders that raise the legs of the Axidraw If you want to replicate this setup, you can use nylon washers/spacers to raise the height of the pen plotter legs.
I use artist's tape to temporarily attach my paper to the MDF board as it comes off the paper cleanly (although you need to be gentle) and can be reused. Mostly I went this route as I have a ton of artist's tape on hand!
Running the Axidraw
I use Inkscape (an open source and free vector software similar to Illustrator) to send my drawings to the Axidraw to plot. There is an Axidraw plugin for Inkscape that includes a hatch-fill option if you want to shade in solid areas (especially handy for decorative text.) However, there are also command line tools for running the Axidraw as well.
I create my generative designs from a Processing sketch that generates a PDF file. I use Illustrator to clean up the designs, and separate out sections of the designs into separate layers if I want to do a multicolor print. I prefer to generate separate Illustrator files for each layer. I also find Illustrator helpful for testing what the designs will look like at different print sizes, varying line thicknesses, pen colors and so on.
Pen Height and the Axidraw
For the sake of consistency, and my sanity, I have a little 3d printed doo-dad that I use so that I am always placing my pens at the same height above the paper. You can find the 3d model at the end of this blog post!
My Favorite Pens: Gelly Roll Pens (Also the Most Evil to Work With)
My favorite pens to use are gelly roll pens. They are also the most frustrating and difficult. Ink flow from these pens is inconsistent. Quality varies - sometimes I get a batch that are quite old where ink flow is weak, other times, the pens arrive with the ink gushing out of them (equally disappointing!)
To work with these pens, I have a 3d printed doo-dad that goes on top of the pens (model can be downloaded at the end of the blog post!) A little extra weight works wonders with these pens to fix the consistency issues. Most of the times, I run these pens pretty slowly for best results (and as to not have to do a second pass).
Since the ink on these pens gathers after placing the pen in the Axidraw pen holder, I rest the pens on a piece of cardboard at the pen height. When the Axidraw runs, the pen drags on the cardboard which gets rid of the ink blob before the pen is placed on the paper to draw.
If for some reason, the pen skips sections of the design, I will copy out those areas in Illustrator, save as a new file, and do a second pass (making sure to leave the pen where it is while I am making the new file!) Sometimes I lift up the pen as the Axidraw is running, and only place it down in the areas that are skipped.
For designs with white ink on black paper, I like Medium Gelly Roll Pens (08). This is also a great thickness for metallic gelly roll pens. Gelly roll pens are great for hatch fill shading, so pretty! For the most part, I find the thinner gelly roll pens (fine thickness, 06) are terrible to work with.
Other Go-To Pens: Micron and Copic Multiliners
Pens with much more consistent ink flow include any Micron pen (available in a multitude of thicknesses and colors!) These pens can often be used for multiple prints and bought in multipacks so they are economical.
If you need a very thin pen, I find Copic multiliner in their 03 thickness to be amazing, but these pens don't last long and may be only good for 1-3 prints (so they are a little pricey to work with, I buy in bulk for a discount.) I experimented with Copic SP pens which are the refillable version of the multiliner, you are limited with ink color options and the pen nibs wear down quickly.
Other Pen Ideas for Experimenting
Here is a round up of some additional pens I would recommend playing with:
Stabilo fineliner pens: very pretty colors, cheap price point (relatively speaking) but if you have areas of a design that overlap, markers will rip up your paper. Also, if you try to do a multicolor print and areas of your design overlap, there are some interesting color bleeds that will happen with these pens.
Staedtler triplus fineliner pens: another nice option with pretty colors, and if you like the look of markers, a good choice! Nicer than Stabilo pens but more expensive.
Copic drawing pen: a fun fountain pen option that doesn't require buying a metal fountain pen with different nibs and dealing with ink cartridges.
Staedtler Pigment Liner: Available in a variety of thicknesses, a great marker option for rich black prints (limited in colors I believe!)
LePen Marvy Uchida Fine Line Marker: another marker option, but a fineliner! Limited but pretty color selection available. LePen also offers additional technical pens you can try experimenting with!
Traditional Fountain pens: fun to experiment with, but you will need to change the Axidraw pen holder (tedious!) and I found the ink cartridges ran out fast. Great though for getting line thickness variation.
Pens I have yet to explore include metallic Pentel pens and sharpies!
Where to Buy Pens
Jet Pens: based in the bay area, great selection of pens with test photos so you can see an example of the pen ink color.
Blick Art Materials: good selection especially if you want to test pens at a brick and mortar location. Free online shipping option is a little slow. Good prices and bulk discounts.
Amazon: your mileage will vary, I have gotten packs of pens from Amazon that seemed old where ink flow was poor, and packs of pens that seemed just great. Best option if you need a pen quickly and they often have multipacks of pens available for purchase.
Michael's: I haven't gotten a poor batch of pens from Michael's, in-store selection is awful though, stick to purchasing online and load up on the discounts.
As you buy pens, especially with gelly rolls, make a note of the quality when they arrive (if they seem old, or new), to determine whether to reorder from that source. Don't be afraid to send back pens that are old and dried up!
What Paper Do I Use?
My paper of choice is paper by French Paper Co, which is great if you want to buy paper in bulk supply (made in USA!)
If you are interested in replicating my pen workflow, you can download the 3d models I reference below.
Pen Height Tool: place your pen on the top of the various heights of this doo-dad while securing your pen to the pen holder.
Gelly Roll Weight: secure this weight to the top of the gelly roll pen, add pennies as needed (0-3 needed most of the time.) Don't add too much weight! You can modify this model if you don't have access to US pennies, or if you want to use it on a different pen. Feel free to contact me for the original Fusion file to modify.
All Axidraw All the Time
But what if you want to learn more?! Check out these additional blog posts:
Pet Portrait Art: Experimenting with the SquiggleCam App
CMYK: Process Color Experiments and my Axidraw
Favorite Pens for Axidraw, Plus How to Make Multiple Color Plots!
Dirt Alley Design was founded just off a dirt alley in San Francisco in December of 2016 by artist Michelle Chandra. Inspired by the beauty of street grids, Michelle invented maze maps in which she transforms street grids into mazes. In 2019, she began a new project - generative spirograph prints created with code and drawn with a pen plotter. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @dirtalleydesign where she posts new spirograph designs daily