What are Gel Pens – Everything you wanted to know – answered!

What are Gel Pens

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Gel pens are like every other pen that is based on ink being pushed down to a ball by gravity except that the ‘ink’ is pigment (the stuff that makes the ink colored) suspended in water. In simpler terms, it’s pigment in water. So what you say? Well, Gel Pen ink also has a higher viscosity compared to normal pen ink. This means the ink flows through more freely and easily. And it means the ink is much thicker and opaque so that means it can write over other inks and colors and not only that, you can use a Gel Pen to write on shiny surfaces. Have you ever tried to write on a shiny birthday card with a ballpoint pen or felt tip pen?

That’s right, they smudge off or the ink struggles to stick to the paper, but a Gel Pen will write on that type of surface without breaking a sweat.

The high viscosity ink also means that you may run out of ink much faster than a normal pen. This is because you will have more ink flowing out of the pen as you write.

Also, Gel pen ink has a higher ratio of pigment to water compared to other pens. This means you get more color in your ink making it vibrant.

Best Gel Pens for Coloring

How do Gel Pens Work?

So that little tube you see that is full of ink, is mostly pigment (the color) some water (to keep the pigment wet) and the chemical stuff that makes the gel pen a gel pen and this stuff is called biopolymers.

Biopolymers are basically a type of oil/plastic and it’s also commonly known as polyacrylate thickeners, xanthan gum and tragacanth gum. I believe this is to ensure the ball at the end of the pen stays lubricated and helps the ball to roll around and not dry out.

So in fact, Gel pens are a mixture of water and oil based ink once it comes out the end of the pen.

The mixture of oil and water is the reason why many Gel Pen inks are waterproof once dry and fade resistant, so they make great pens for artists who wish to take advantage of the huge range of colors that they come in.

This also makes them good for archival purposes.

Now what I didn’t know and I found out while researching Gel Pens is that Sakura (which make other awesome pigment based pens that i use for drawing – Sakura Micron Pigma pens) were the first company to make and sell Gel Pens way back in 1984.

What is the difference between Gel Pens, Ballpoint Pens and Felt Tip Pens

You can easily be confused when comparing Gel Pens with Ballpoint pens as they are based on the same type of pen design.

The only difference between a Gel Pen and a Ballpoint pen is in the ink itself.

As I mentioned in the first section of this post, Gel Pens use pigment mixed in water with some gel chemical (the chemical used in Gel Pen ink is safe by the way).

Ballpoint pens (also known as a Biro after its inventor) use an ink that is made from 4 main ingredients:

  1. A Dye – this is what give the ink its color.
  2. Alcohol – this keeps the dye liquid so that it will flow down into the ballpoint tip.
  3. Oleic Acid – this is used to lubricate the ball at the tip of the pen. Despite it being called an ‘acid’ it is quite safe on skin and it won’t poison you in the amount found in pens.
  4. Alkyl Alkanolamide – this is the stuff that helps the ink stick to the paper before the ink dries on the paper.

Alcohol will also make the ink dry much faster than water based pens. This means the ink won’t smudge as easily (but it can still smudge if you touch the ink while it’s in that drying phase).

Unlike Gel Pens though, ballpoint pens have low viscosity. This means less ink will flow through to the tip while you write or draw which means that your ballpoint pen will actually last longer than a Gel Pen.

But remember, you will have a harder time using a ballpoint pen on shinier paper or cardboard.

Felt tip pens are quite different when compared to both Gel Pens and Ballpoint pens. They are basically markers with a finer tip.

I quite like felt tip pens, especially when I draw cartoon type drawings but lately i’ve moved on to Sakura Pigma pens.

Felt tip pens do not use a rollerball or ball at the tip of the pen to help distribute the ink. They use what is called a “Felt tip” (mind blown right?).

This felt tip soaks up the ink from within the reservoir in the pen and as you write or draw it distributes the ink on to the paper.

What in the felt tip ink? Basically it is pigment, alcohol or water and that is it. If you have a chemical degree (I don’t) you can view what it is made from here.

One thing I do know, is that water based felt tip pens and markers are safe on skin.

What are Gel Pens good for?

Gel Pens are good for many applications. They are good for every day writing and because they are high flowing they tend to be easier to write with, needing less pressure on the surface to actually get any ink out.

If you have any pain in your fingers or hands when writing you should try gel pens.

The main reason I came across gel pens was when my wife would get our daughter to draw on birthday cards. I had never really put any thought into birthday card message permanence and I only knew to avoid using a felt tip pen as the ink would pool and smudge and wipe away.

I would always use a ballpoint pen or my trusty Posca markers when creating cards of any occasion (especially the one printed on shiny card stock).

So back to my daughter and birthday cards. My wife always pulls out her trusty packet of gel pens that come in 24 colors and asks our daughter to draw something beautiful.

Our daughter also loved the fact that many gel pens come with tiny glitter particles in the pigment so her writing and drawings pop out of the page.

What I noticed is that gel pens work a little like colored markers but the colors seem more vibrant. They tend to dry well and once dry they do not smear.

So we let the cards stay somewhere safe while the water in the ink dries out and then so does any oil residue. What is left is a vibrant colored ink that sticks to the surface. Even on shiny cardstock.

Do Gel Pens smear?

Gel pens will only smear in the short amount of time from when the ink leaves the pen and just before the gel ink is completely dry.

Once the ink is dry, gel pens will not smear. Unlike felt tip pens and even some ballpoint pens (as oil based inks will take longer to dry than water based as oils need to oxidise in the air to dry rather than dry out like water).

Do Gel Pens last long?

Gel Pens will last a long time if they are taken care of, and stored properly. If you leave the pens out in direct sunlight they will dry out inside the pen. Once you have finished using your gel pens, put them back in the case or packet they came in and store them flat, out of direct sunlight.

We have had our good set of gel pens for 2 years now and they work today as the day we purchased them.

When it comes to usage, Gel pens will probably not last as long as a normal pen or marker. The reason is as mentioned earlier, in that the ink contains more pigment to water ratio which makes the ink thicker.

Why do Gel Pens run out of ink so fast?

The ink is also high flowing (viscous) so you will end up using more per square inch than a normal ballpoint pen or felt tip pen or marker.

Do Gel Pens dry out?

Yes, gel pens do dry out if they are not looked after or stored properly. Store them in a packet or pencil case, out of direct sunlight. Ensure the lids are replaced properly after use.

How to revive Gel Pens

The easiest thing to do to fix Gel pens that won’t write, is to follow the tips on this eHow article as it explains it simply.

How to store Gel Pens

Store Gel pens in the packet they came in from the manufacturer. If you do not have this packet any longer then I suggest you use a good quality pencil case.

Store the gel pens out of direct sunlight.

Ensure the lids are replaced properly after use.

Do this and your pens will last a long time.

Where to buy Gel Pens

If you think you would like to buy some Gel Pens and try them out then maybe you would like to check out my other post where I looked into the best gel pens you can get. This post covers gel pens for coloring but you can follow the link to Amazon and see what other types of Gel Pens you can purchase.

The image below is clickable and will send you to Amazon. It came out as the best in my research on Gel Pens, ticking all the boxes as an artist using Gel pens for drawing. Please note, I earn a small commission from every qualifying sale and it will not cost you an extra cent.

Smart Color Art 140 Colors Gel Pens Set Gel Pen for Adult Coloring Books Drawing Painting Writing


I was skeptical when I first came across gel pens. I thought they were tools for children to draw nice pictures with glittery ink.

After using them myself I have come to appreciate their opaque ink qualities, their permanence and ease of use.

They are fantastic to color in, in place of markers and they will not cause paper to rip or tear as you would with water based colored markers.

Buy a set if you don’t have one yet and find out for yourself.

If you found this post useful, please share or link to it so others may benefit as well. If you have any questions or have any suggestions to add to this article, feel free to drop me a message via Instagram or on the Contact Us page on this website.

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Joe Colella - Chief Wasted Talent
Joe Colella – Chief Wasted Talent

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