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It's been well over a year since I acquired an AxiDraw pen plotter and began plotting my generative 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. Many of my designs are 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! I like the thinnest artist tape (1/4 an inch, although 1/2 an inch is good too!) Lots of people use magnets though instead!
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 quite inconsistent! However, I have found that the metallic gold gelly roll pens, and white gelly roll pens in medium thickness work well with the AxiDraw pen plotter.
There is also an ultimate pack of 74 Gelly Roll Pens, which I first used starting out, and still use as a reference for all the color options available! Other fun options include Moonlight Gelly Roll pens which will fluoresce under UV light, packs of shades of grey!
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. Keep in mind that you may get blobs each time the pen lifts off the paper and sets back down! In many of my spirograph-ish designs, this blob ends up being hidden under many other lines but in some designs, it does give away that the design was drawn with the plotter (which you may or may not like!)
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!)
Gelly roll pens are also great for hatch fill shading, so pretty! For the most part, I find the thinner gelly roll pens (fine thickness) are terrible to work with.
Other Go-To Pens: Micron and Copic Multiliners
Pens with much more consistent ink flow include any Sakura Micron pen. These pens can often be used for multiple prints and bought in multipacks!
I recommend grabbing an assorted pack to try out these pens at all the different available line widths. You can also estimate what your design will look like at different line widths in Inkscape or Illustrator beforehand to help decide on which pen line width!
The squiggle portrait pictured above was drawn using a Sakura Micron PN Pen in Burgundy! Sakura Micron also has very thin pens available for fineline designs (Black 005, also available as a 6 pack of assorted colors, and even thinner - Black 003!)
Another amazing fineline pens are Copic Multiliners, you can get a 9-piece set to test all the different line widths from Amazon. Le Pen Technical Drawing Pens are also great pens for fine line designs (spirograph-ish design above drawn with the Le Pen Technical Pens!) Fineline pens often don't last long and may be only good for 1-3 prints. These pens need to be used within 6 months to a year!
I experimented with the Copic SP pens which are the refillable version of the Copic Multiliner, but as you are limited with ink color options and the pen nibs wear down quickly, I don't recommend them!
Other Pen Ideas for Experimenting
Here is a round up of some additional pens I recommend playing with starting out:
Stabilo fineliner pens: very pretty colors, affordable price point (relatively speaking) but if you have areas of a design that overlap, markers can be unforgiving and may rip up your paper. These pens are great for all of your CMYK needs (although they are not guaranteed as lightfast!) For CMYK colors - use azure, pink and yellow.
Staedtler Triplus Fineliner pens: another nice option with pretty colors, and if you like the look of markers, a good choice! Also most likely not lightfast!
Staedtler Pigment Liners: Available in a variety of thicknesses, a great marker option for rich black prints. Permanent, lightfast and waterproof. Also great for CMYK prints (use light blue, fuschia and yellow available from Jet Pens!)
LePen Marvy Uchida Fine Line Marker: another marker option, but a fineliner! Limited but pretty color selection available.
Lamy Safari Fountain Pen: Just say no to disposable pens! Lamy Safari fountain pens play nice with the AxiDraw pen plotter. Available in a variety of line widths (although fountain pens will always be thicker than the thinnest fineliner markers!) Recommend Extra Fine Nib or Fine Nib for all your plotting needs (just note, some inks won't flow well with the Extra Fine Nib for plotting!)
Where to Buy Pens
Amazon: Go-to option if you need a pen quickly, they also often have multipacks of pens available for purchase.
Blick Art Materials: broad selection of pens, they have most everything and you can test pens at their stores. Bulk discounts available and 30 day returns available.
Jet Pens: based in the SF Bay Area, great selection of pens with test photos so you can see an example of the pen ink color. Unhappy with your purchase? You will have 30 days to return unused product!
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!
I highly recommend purchasing from companies that will accept returns within 30 days in case the pens you receive are not working or you don't like them for whatever reason (the companies listed above do accept returns but check with each company for their policy!) When starting out, you may end up putting in a big pen order and you don't want to get stuck with a bunch of dud pens!
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 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.
Creative Code Resources
Not sure what to draw?! Whether you are a seasoned programmer or new to code art, check out these books on creative coding to get you started:
- Generative Art by Matt Pearson
- Generative Design by Benedikt Gross (p5.js version, processing version)
- Form + Code by Casey Reas
- The Nature of Code by Dan Shiffman
- Learning Processing by Dan Shiffman
- Code as Creative Medium by Golan Levin
- Getting Started with Processing.py by Allison Parish
- Getting Started with p5.js by Lauren McCarthy
- Processing by Casey Reas
- Getting Started with Processing by Casey Reas
How to Find SVGS to Draw With a Plotter
Below are online resources where you can either download or make an SVG you can then draw with your pen plotter!
- SquiggleCam app by Maks Surguy - converts image to squiggle drawing
- Flow Lines by Maks Surguy
- Drawing Bots
- Observable HQ Notebooks such as this one by Lionel Raddison
- Plotter Files - download SVGs from well known artists to draw with your plotter!
Have additional questions, or ideas for a blog post topics you would like to see covered?! Feel free to DM me on Instagram @dirtallydesign, or leave a comment!
All Generative Art, All the Time
But what if you want to learn more?! Check out these additional blog posts:
- How to Watercolor Paint with a Robotic Drawing Machine
- Should You Buy an Axidraw Pen Plotter?
- How to Generative Art
- 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 - geometry art created with code and drawn with a pen plotter. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @dirtalleydesign where she posts new spirograph designs daily