Everything you need to know about gel pens

A person wearing a cream top writing in a leather notebook with a black gel pen

Gel pens are a popular choice for many writers and artists, thanks to their wide range of brightly-coloured, opaque inks and versatility. Gel pens are also undeniably quick to write with, which holds enormous appeal in this fast-paced, digital age.

Let’s explore what gel pens are and how they work, their origins, and how you can refill them — before discussing gel pen art and outlining how to choose the best gel pens on the market today.

What is a gel pen?

If you’ve never used one, you may be wondering: ‘what is a gel pen?’

Similar to rollerball and ballpoint pens due to the mechanism inside, the gel pen stands apart because of its viscous ink that produces a delightfully smooth flow.

The ink is composed of powdered pigments in a water-based gel, resulting in a delightfully opaque line on the page.

This pen type offers a more comprehensive range of ink colours than other types, delivering enviably high colour saturation and lending itself perfectly to art, journalling, colouring, and notetaking.

In addition, only a few pens offer tips as fine as are available with gel pens.

How does a gel pen work?

As mentioned above, gel pens work similarly to ballpoint and rollerball pens.

Simply put, gel pen ink is in contact with a tiny metal ball inside the pen’s tip, leaving the ball half coated in ink.

As the pen’s tip moves across the page, the ball is in constant motion, depositing a clean, smooth line of ink on the paper.

A short history of the gel pen

So, how did the gel pen come to be? As outlined in more detail below, its conception occurred in the 1980s.


The Japanese stationery company, Sakura — a brand synonymous with the gel pen — invented this pen type in the early 1980s.

The rollerball was invented in Japan around a decade earlier, and Sakura set to work creating a  writing tool that offered the fluidity of the rollerball but with the ability to write on any paper.

Sakura patented the gel pen in Japan in 1982. The following year, the company patented it in the USA.

The first two gel pens released on sale were the Sakura Ballsign and the Sakura Pigma Micron.


In 1988, Sakura launched the Gelly Roll pen, which delivered a brand-new aesthetic and a wealth of fresh, attractive ink colours.

The current day

The Gelly Roll pushed gel pens into the mainstream, and they’ve been prevalent ever since. Incredibly, the Gelly Roll is still on sale over 30 years after its initial release and is now available in a wide range of effects, including metallic, fluorescent, and glittery.

A row of gel pens, each a different, bright colour

How to refill a gel pen

Gel pens will run out of ink at some point — especially as they put the ink down on the page faster than other pen types.

When this happens, you’ll need to buy a gel pen refill. Make sure you research and choose the right branded or universal refills, as the incorrect ones may not fit inside the casing or provide the required quality.

Replacing the refill is as simple as removing the original refill and placing the new one inside.

If your gel pen still has ink inside but isn’t writing, revival can be simple. Just place the bottom half of the refill in a cup of hot (not boiling) water for 15 minutes. Then, dry the refill and test it somewhere discreet until it’s back to normal.

Gel pen art

If you’re an artist or creative, gel pens are an excellent addition to your stationery stash.

Creating unique gel pen drawings is fun, whether you like to doodle or make detailed works of art.

If you enjoy calming your mind with an adult colouring book, you can use gel pens to create unexpected effects through techniques such as blending, crosshatching, and painting. Sparkly, 3D and opalescent gel pen options provide further texture and interest.

The ink may dry slowly, but it won’t bleed through the pages of your colouring book — or any other paper, for that matter.

The best gel pens

When you wish to buy the best gel pen on the market, you can test a few brands and models to find the ones that best suit you, your budget, and your handwriting or art style.

As colour is such a key attraction for gel pens, we’d recommend anyone new to them to purchase a gel pen set with a selection of colours.

If you wish to purchase a high-quality tool for writing purposes, you can’t go wrong with the Parker Jotter gel pen. Expertly crafted from stainless steel and featuring the polished arrowhead clip instantly recognisable as Parker’s, this gel pen is an everyday writing treat.


If you enjoy understanding pen types and how they work, you’ll enjoy reading our beginner’s guide to rollerball pens.

Lucy is our lead editor and has been passionate about stationery since childhood. She has a particular fondness for rollerball and calligraphy pens and is a keen advocate of snail mail.

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