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I like that scene in Mona Lisa Smile where Julia Robert’s character wryly announces “it’s art!” to counter an objection about what made art worthy. I think of that scene when I hear someone express that they’d like to be able to draw but then promptly proclaim that they’re “not an artist”—as if there’s a formal process for being granted permission to create things.
Art supplies can seem really intimidating, so it’s helpful to have a starting point for tools. Here’s a micro-look into some of my illustration utensils.
1.) stainless steel ruler—non-slip, 24 inches
2.) erasing shield
3.) pencil extender
4.) pencil sharpeners (multiple sizes)
5.) stainless steel ruler—non-slip, 12 inches
6.) sandpaper lead pointer
8.) stainless steel ruler—non-slip, 6 inches
9.) eraser pencil
10.) kneadable eraser
11.) extra soft, white eraser
12.) conté crayons
13.) click eraser
14.) fine point ink pens
15.) drafting and illustration template—geometric shapes
16.) fineliner marker ink pens
17.) pencil variety
18.) mechanical pencil refills (various sizes and hardnesses)
19.) vine charcoal
20.) Pocket Color Wheel
21.) woodless graphite pencil
22.) mechanical pencils (various sizes)
23.) pocket sketchbook
24.) drafting and illustration template—circles
There are probably better and worse approaches to drawing tools (and there are definitely some higher tech things in my studio than these), but these are my go-to tools for basic drawing. Mostly my purpose in this post is to demystify what artists do and how they do it. As with any skill, it takes time, it takes being intentional, and it takes lots and lots of trial and error. Don’t be discouraged if you have more scrapped drafts than finished pieces. That’s totally, completely normal and expected—no matter how long you do this.
Skip to each section if you want to learn more about how/why I use each of these tools.
PENCILS and NON-INK DRAWING UTENSILS
(22) Mechanical pencils are my drawing workhorses. A lot things really determine whether a utensil might be a good one to use for drawing—how it fits in your hand, how it drags (or doesn’t) on paper, the thickness of the tip, the hardness or softness of the graphite, and so on. The day I first started drawing with a .03 graphite pencil was a revelation. That may sound trite, but it’s not. Most of my pencils are .05, but the .03 that I have has become my go-to drawing pencil for a lot of things.
(19) Vine charcoal—this is the stuff from your high school or college drawing class. Using it is one of those things that’s good to have in your general drawing repertoire, but it’s usefulness to you will depend on your project and your preference.
(18) Mechanical refills come in various hardnesses just like wood pencils do. If you favor using a mechanical pencil, always have a variety on hand.
(17) To start, I’d recommend getting a basic set of drawing pencils with a range of the graphite grading scales. It seems confusing, but basically “B” denotes “black” because it leaves more graphite behind. “H” denotes “hard.” “F” means the graphite can sharpen to a very fine point. The higher the designated number, the more amplified it’s respective letter becomes. This site has a great breakdown of the scales. Basic sketch sets range in price as well as type of pencils included. Over time you might realize that you prefer using certain pencil hardnesses over others, so start with the basics and branch out as you gain familiarity. Additionally, woodless graphite pencils (21) are also nice in that the entire pencil is graphite, meaning more surface area can be utilized for drawing.
(12) Conté crayons are a denser composite material which offer more control than charcoal or pastels. Don’t let the name deceive you; they aren’t waxy like a child’s crayon. I’m not sure how to describe them other than to say they offer more controlled drawing than charcoal or dry pastels but without the greasiness of oil pastels.
(3) A pencil extender may seem like a novelty, but I’ve been surprised just how useful it’s been for standard wooded and colored pencils. It won’t work with all your pencils, but it can be a handy gadget to have around when you need it.
(14 & 16) Never underestimate a great pen. Also, you’ll be surprised what makes and where you’ll find a great pen. I’ve had a couple surprisingly great, fluid ink pens come from those promotional/freebie pens every home somehow accumulates. I do want to make a distinction though. For artwork that you’re wanting to be archival quality, you want to be intentional about the type of ink you use. For drawings that you’re scanning and then piecing together digitally, that makes less of a difference. I avoid ballpoint ink pens because they have a tendency to sometimes make impressions in the paper and their ink tends to shine once scanned, which creates more work to digitally even out the visual depth/darkness of the ink. For fine-point work, I like the precise point and the multiple options that Pigma Micron pens have. Thicker marking pens are great for making bolder lines or for filling in larger areas. It’s a good idea to store your designated art pens horizontally (to keep the ink flowing properly) and also away from any utility pens in your home to reserve their use strictly for illustration.
SKETCHBOOKS and PAPER
I have a pocket-size, Moleskin sketchbook (23) for toting around—it’s really nice. I also have various sizes of larger, spiral-bound sketchbooks that I use specifically for recording ideas. They’re all really nice (and there are definitely some higher-end sketchbooks (and paper stocks) out there than what I use). Frankly though, when I need to do some down-and-dirty process sketches while trying to work through an idea, I want a sketchbook that doesn’t feel precious—something that won’t make me feel like my rough sketches are wasting the paper. I want something that I could back my car over a few times and still feel pretty “whatever” about it. That brings me to paper stocks.
For textural illustrations or drawings that will be framed, I prefer using something with some tooth. When paper says it’s “cold press,” there’s more texture, making it more porous for whatever medium you’re using; alternately, “hot press” means your paper will be smoother and less porous. Paper with some texture is wonderful for doing watercolor drawings or paintings as well as for using graphite, chalk, conté crayon, pastels, etc.
However, I have some praise for an unlikely hero. Regular, 8 1/2 x 11 office paper is cheap, readily available, bright white, fairly untextured, very portable, and it fits easily inside a standard scanner, making it pretty perfect for digitally layering different drawings together. I might go through several variations and versions of one design or sketch. Since all of those versions are for purpose of entering into a digital environment, none of them requires a precious hardcopy that needs to be archival quality. (Also, it’s incredibly easy to drop a stack of standard printer paper into the recycle bin because there’s no need to remove any awkward sketchbook binding first.)
RULERS, REFERENCES, and TEMPLATES
(1, 5, 8) I like using stainless steel rulers because they have a crisp edge, they’re far less likely to get rough or warped edges from use, they don’t rust, and they make a great straight-edge if I need to use my X-Acto knife to cut custom designs. Having multiple sizes helps to match the ruler to the size of the project being handled. The upside of a non-slip cork back is that the ruler stays put; the downside is that it leaves a space between the actual ruler and your paper, so you need to be careful how you line up and angle your pencil when drawing a line as to keep your drawn lines consistent. The upside generally outweighs the downside to me (especially if I’m using an X-Acto knife because slice wounds are surprisingly deep…), but it can also be a good idea to have a plain, old plastic ruler like the kind in the school supplies section.
(20) The Pocket Color Wheel is handy reference for color relationships, values, hues, tints, and shades for mixing paint or simply selecting your color palette.
(24 & 15) Drafting and illustration templates are great for making symmetrical shapes, especially partial ones. For instance, drawing an eye, you might want the iris and pupil to be perfectly round, but that can be difficult or impossible to freehand particularly since most of the time the full iris isn’t completely exposed. The crosshairs help you to see where shapes line up spatially through the translucent template, then you trace the shape.
ERASING, BLENDING, and SHARPENING
(2) Erasing shields are especially useful for erasing highlights while preserving the rest of the design (think of light reflecting on an eye, lips, or even something reflective like glass).
(4) Just like a good set of knives can last you a while, a quality pencil sharpener will go farther than whatever the back-to-school section has to offer. Consider having sharpeners with more than one size option as well as additional sharpeners dedicated to different utensils. There are plenty of fancier sharpeners than I have, but since much of what I do starts with a mechanical pencil, a simple sharpener servers me well enough most of the time. The blades can also be replaced vs. ditching the whole sharpener.
(6) Sandpaper lead pointers are one of those things that are nice to have, but you could also accomplish the same thing with a sheet of very fine sandpaper from the hardware store. The former is easier to tote around that the latter though.
(7) I prefer rolled paper tortillons over densely wound blending stumps. Whereas blending stumps are often more inclined to do a “barbell” effect where your starting and stopping points end out a little darker than your stroke, tortillons are easier (for me anyway) to get a more subtle blending result. This is purely opinion; in a room full of artists, you could probably start a civil war over which is ideal.
(9) Eraser pencils are an excellent means of getting a very precise eraser point. Since you’re sharpening eraser though, use a sharpener with a sharp blade on it. Consider keeping one sharpener reserved just for your eraser pencils.
(10) A kneadable eraser is a drawing prerequisite. It’s like the Slinky of the eraser world. Alright, it can’t walk down stairs, but it’s flexible and resilient enough to be shaped and reshaped for whatever erasing surface you need. To keep mine lasting longer, I store whichever one I’m currently using in a tiny plastic bag (like the kind I use to store beads) or container. Properly cared for, kneadable erasers can last a long time, but eventually they can dry out. Everything from absorbing too much graphite, being exposed to air too long, or even absorbing the oil on your hands can cause your kneadable eraser to dry out.
(11) For large erasers, I prefer extra soft, white erasers over the hard, pink kind. Again, this is one left for debate per personal preference.
(13) For a more controlled eraser point that isn’t as fine as an eraser pencil, I like to use a clickable, soft, white eraser like the kind in office supply stores. [Update: I’ve since started using this one as well and really like it!]
* Not pictured / Honorable mention:
Graphite powder is great for darkening large areas of space without the eyesore of unintended graphite shine from excessive pencil pressure/use.
Bag erasers are one of those tools that are great but with some conditions. For erasing or even lightening large areas of a lightly rendered drawing area, they’re great. For trying to erase areas that were rendered with a medium to hard pressure, they’re not as useful as a soft, white eraser.
A typesetter’s ruler is a clear ruler with inches, point sizes, pica, leading, and type size—great for drawing type or doing lettering of any kind.
Alright, artists and designers—what are your favorite art case basics?