Most artists become kids in a candy store when entering an art supply store, especially a new store that they've yet to explore. Every tool is a toy to be played with, but we often end up with drawers and boxes full of tools that just don't fit the bill. Not only does this get expensive, but it's discouraging to consistently pull mediocre results from everything you try. A beginner artist doesn't have to spend a lot of money to get decent quality tools, as I've covered in my Materials and Techniques series ( Part I, II, and III).
Tastes and needs vary from artist to artist, and a look into an artist's tool kit can reveal a lot about the owner (Pan, Heidi, Sarah, myself). Some artists sketch with a blue pencil, some use a non photo blue marker, some sketch in graphite, some in ink, not one of these tools is the 'best' for sketching, but the artist's choice is the result of trial and effort in finding a material that works for them. I'm not suggesting that one pencil is the end all be all pencil, or that you should use mechanical pencils over wooden pencils, although I've done plenty of material reviews in the past if you're looking for some additional guidance (links here)
|Just a small section of the MANY sketchbooks available at the Dick Blick store that's just opened on Broughton Street (guess where I went todaayyy!)|
Your sketchbook is your workhorse, and it needs to be something that you'll use every day. A lot of people purchase a pretty, hardcover sketchbook with blindingly white paper as their first sketchbook, and it never gets used because they're too intimidated to 'mess it up'.
|Image via BN.com|
A sketchbook isn't supposed to be filled with perfect illustrations, it's the place where you doodle, take notes, try new things, and make mistakes. I use Strathmore's near bottom of the line (yellow cover, 200 series) 9"x12" spiral top sketchbooks for a number of reasons- they're relatively cheap, I have no problem filling them up, and I really like that top spiral as it gives me more page real estate.
|Image via www.dickblick.com|
In the past, I used two sketchbooks at a time- a small 5"x8" that fit in my purse, and a larger sketchbook, but I noticed that all of my figure work was drawn to fit the restrictions of the 5"x8", and that I had trouble working larger. Now I just use a larger sketchbook all the time, and haul it around with me without worrying about it fitting in my purse.
If you don't like the very cheap sketchbooks, there are several other options that are less intimidating than a Barnes and Noble sketchbook. Target sells Moleskin now, and though I'm not a fan (they're too floppy, the paper is thin, ink takes forever to dry), I know a lot of artists swear by that brand.
|Image via www.amazon.com|
A lot of high school art programs assign the black hardbound sketchbooks, so there must be perks about using them, but I've always found them a bit cumbersome and fussy.
|Image via www.amazon.com|
Another option is to simply use a ream of copy paper to sketch on, triple hole punch it, and put it in a binder. Copy paper is fairly cheap (about $10 for a ream, and office supply stores often offer deals) and there's little fear of ruining something nice with an ugly sketch. If you don't like how a drawing is turning out, you simply don't have to include it in your binder.
|Just a small sample of the wide array of mechanical pencils, lead holders, and leads available to you.|
|My own, brand new, portfolio style pencil case full of sketching supplies.|
Your sketching tool is nearly as important as your sketchbook, and for many, the sketching begins in pencil. There are several options available, so I'm going to break it down under two major headings- Wooden and Mechanical.
For many, our first experience with a pencil is with a wooden pencil. Wooden pencils come in a variety of lead hardnesses as well as colors. They're very easy to find, and are usually extremely cheap since they're so common. Most artists have at least one wooden pencil in their sketching kit. Wooden pencils have a fairly gestural line and can cover large areas quickly and efficiently. There are several drawbacks to wooden pencils that may lead you to eventually reconsider using one for the majority of your work- the lead may break halfway inside the pencil, rendering most of it worthless, lead snaps fairly easily at the tip, lead pencils grow dull quickly and need to be resharpened, sharpening can create a mess, and it may not be an ideal travel companion in your bag. For more information about wooden pencils, please visit here.
Lead Hardness Scale
|Image via: Pencils.com|
Colored Pencils for Sketching
Many people enjoy loose sketching using colored pencils. There are plenty to choose from, but two popular choices are non-photo blue (typically used for underdrawing, often pencilled over using graphite, or directly inked over) and a plain ol' black colored pencil, which gives a lovely smokey black line similar to a 6B lead with far less smudging.
|Non-photo blue allows the artist to drop the blue while keeping the dark graphite lines by use of Photoshop magic. Image.|
Wooden Pencil Accessories
- Pencil sharpener or knife
- Pencil Extender
- Pencil Grips
|A pencil sharpened using an X-acto blade to carve away the excess wood doesn't have as sharp a tip as a pencil sharpened in a conventional sharpener.|
|This sharpener, made by Faber-Castell, is great, as it can sharpen two sizes of pencil, and has a special sharpener for colored pencils, which tend to snap in normal pencil sharpeners.|
|A pencil extender is great for extracting that last little nubbin of pencil, but extenders like this are really hard to draw with, as the tightening ring gets in the way of the grip.|
Pencil grips are great if holding a pencil for long periods of time creates handstrain for you, or if you're trying to retrain yourself into better pencil position. There's a wide variety of grips available, from the hard, unforgiving sort teachers stash in their prize boxes to the super soft kind that really spare your hand. What's important is knowing that a pencil grip can be a very personal thing, so don't assume one size fits all, find one that works for your hand.
|Kum pencil grips are the best I've ever tried. Image|
|And these are some of the worst I've ever owned. Even as a 1st grader, I knew they were colorful bad news. Image|
Mechanical PencilsMechanical pencils include automatic pencils and lead holders, and range in price from about $1 to $30, and are nearly as easy to find as wooden pencils. They come in a variety of sizes (.3-.9 for automatic pencils, lead holders are about 1mm) and a variety of lead hardnesses and colors, although these are harder to find than what's available for wooden pencils. Although you probably should not invest in an expensive mechanical pencil until you know you prefer working with this tool, I've had great success with nearly all of Pentel's Graph Gear series.
Automatic Mechanical Pencils
Automatic Mechanical pencils have gotten a bit of a bad rap- unlike wooden pencils, there's little flex, mechanical pencils tend to produce a very lifeless line, and they can be difficult to sketch with as the tiny lead sizes break when too much stress is applied. Personally, I prefer using mechanical pencils for most of my work as the convenience trumps the mechanical pencil's flaws.
|Dollar store variety mechanical pencils. You get what you pay for. Image|
|A step up- mechanical pencils easily available at your local Wal-mart. These are Pentel, and Pentel makes decent mechanical pencils, so they probably aren't a bad choice. Image|
|This is my personal choice. They're a bit heavier than the usual mechanical pencil, but well weighted, and the tip retracts when you press the clip. They're fairly pricey, but last forever. Image|
Lead holders are fairly different from mechanical pencils. Their mechanism is much simpler than an automatic mechanical pencil.
|A lead holder has a pretty simple grasping mechanism. You push the back, it pushes the grasping mechanism forward, expanding it. You let go, it retracts. This is how the lead is held in place. Image|
Lead holders graphite is much larger than the graphite for an automatic mechanical pencil, and if you prefer a sharper tip, you may need to buy a special sharpener separately.
Both automatic mechanical pencils and lead holders can hold a wide variety of leads in their designated size, ranging from several grades of lead hardness to colored leads. Sanford Turquoise makes a line of non photo blue lead-holder leads, and there are several brands of non-photo blue mechanical pencil lead in a variety of sizes available from Japan.
A few good art supply sites:
Jetpens-The site I order my non photo blue leads from
No one is perfect, and your erasers should be an important part of your sketching arsenal. There's a wide variety of erasers to choose from including rubber (like Pink Pearl or school erasers, far left), gum (often called an 'art eraser', tan, middle) kneaded (far right, grey), ink (sand embedded) and white plastic (all over). Each is particularly well suited for certain tasks, but I rely nearly entirely on white plastic erasers.
For the purposes of this post, I'm going to focus entirely on the white plastic eraser, as it can handle nearly any task a comic artist can throw at it, and comes in a variety of styles besides the rectangular hunk of white plastic.
If you find the standard size white eraser difficult to do detail work, then you're in luck, as white erasers come in a variety of styles and shapes.
You may remember these erasers from your elementary school days. If your mother was anything like mine, your pencil bag was stuffed with these, as the erasers that came standard with most wooden pencils are pretty crummy. These things are pretty great- Pentel's white plastic erasers aren't too hard and won't just skid across graphite, and the eraser can be sharpened to a point to do detailed work. These things are pretty common, available in the stationary section of most Targets, Walmarts, and many art supply stores. There's little need for waste, as you can even buy refills for the holder.
If you're looking for something smaller, Tombow's Mono Zero may fit the bill. It comes in two sizes- 2.3mm and 2.5x5mm. Both are pretty tiny, and great for detail work. While the erasers aren't quite as nice as the usual Mono plastic erasers, they're still pretty decent, and worth having in your arsenal.
|Image- Please check out his blog, it's fantastic.|
I realize that many beginning artists can't afford a drafting table, and even if they could, they might not have the dedicated space for one. I have a drafting table that I rarely use because I far prefer to work on the floor.
|Hyup, I look like a little kid.|
A lapboard or a table board is a great start. The board featured in the above photo is made by Alvin, it has retractable legs and can be adjusted to sit at different heights. Although it's been designed for use on an existing table, I prefer to work on the floor, where it works just fine.
I also use an actual lapboard, which goes with me pretty much anywhere I'm going to be working on comic pages.
The sort of lapboard that's popular in Sequential Art these days is little bigger than the page itself (11"x17"), and mine is 17"x17", which I greatly prefer. I've had it since highschool, and this size suits me perfectly. It's big enough to allow me to turn the paper easily, it's small enough to be portable, and the clips hold pages very securely. It has traveled with me to school, on trips back to Louisiana, and to conventions, and seems little worse for the wear.
These sorts of lapboards are pretty easy to find, most art stores carry them as do many hobby stores like Michaels and Hobby Lobby. They're fairly inexpensive, and last a long time, although the really large ones can become unweildy and may warp over time.
Also beneficial when utilizing a clipboard are the clips themselves. Many clipboards come with clips:
The PaperFor years, I drew my comics on sketchbook paper in pencil and ballpoint pen and wondered why it didn't look like the manga I read. In highschool, I upgraded to cardstock and Sharpie markers, and still wondered why my results were so poor, why my paper yellowed and my inks turned grey. The reason is simple:
None of these materials are archival.
You can draw your comics with whatever you like, on whatever you like, because the great thing about comics is that it's not limited by the medium used. There are woodblock print comics (title) and there are painted comics (title), there are comics that are just pencils that've had the contrast bumped up, and comics that are entirely digital, drawn with mouse or drawn with tablet.
However, if you like having physical original pieces, if drawing on real paper with real ink is satisfying to you in a way that no other media can be, you want something that's going to last the test of time, something that's archival.
These days, I draw my roughs on typing paper (because that doesn't need to last the test of time) and doing my inks on Bristol board. There are plenty of brands to choose from, from Canson's Fanboy line of premeasured comic boards (and strips!) to Strathmore's Sequential Art Board, in a range of finishes (Vellum, the roughest, Semi-Smooth, Smooth, and Plate the smoothest) and grades (200 series, which is $11 for 24 sheets all the way to 500 series, which is about $21 for 24 sheets depending where you shop).
I don't have much experience with the different grades of paper, as I strictly use the 500 series (I have heard anything lower has less than predictable results), but I am familiar with the finishes. I currently use Semi Smooth for traditional inking (brush and nib, mainly brush) and Plate for tech pen and fude pen inking.
Vellum has a rough surface, similar to watercolor paper. It takes graphite well, and produces beautiful drybrush effect with traditional brush. It can be extremely rough on technical pen and fude pen, even potentially ruining the tip. I have had poor results trying to use it for watercolor, as the water just pools.
Semi smooth is smoother than vellum, and produces very passable drybrush, but isn't too rough for nib or tech pen. It's a good middle of the road choice for general traditional inking.
Smooth is a bit too smooth for good drybrush, and a bit too rough for the sort of techpen work I enjoy doing.
Plate is the smoothest of all, and has a clay finish. It is very hard to do decent drybrush on plate, and nib tends to cut the surface, causing spider-webbing. It works well for technical pen, and I use it for Copic work, allowing my original inks to dry overnight, otherwise the ink may smear when Copic ink is applied on top.
I've done a few paper tests in the past, both paper commercial available in the US and a couple brands of manga paper, but neither are extensive.
Liquid InksThere are quite a few nice liquid inks available in the US, including Winsor Newton's India ink, FW Acrylic Ink (I don't recommend this with nib, as it tends to dry and clog) and Bombay India Ink.
There's a variety of inking implements to choose from. Nib and brush can be very daunting to beginners, and do require some practice before proficiency, but tech pen, brush pen, and fude pen can be much more forgiving.
Techpens are felt tipped pens (fairly similar to the felt tipped markers that many of us first became familiar with in kindergarden) and are the first inking tool many young artists use. Many artists are familiar with the ubiquitous Sakura Micron:
|A wide variety of pens to choose from (Dick Blick store, Savannah, GA)|
Sakura Microns aren't the only available tech pens however. There's a variety of brands available both overseas and in the US including Copic Multiliners, Zig Millinium pens, Alvin Penstix, and Faber Castel Pitt Pens, all of which come in different sizes.
|The Copic Multiliner. Image|
|A sampling of the variety of tips available on Copic Multiliners Image|
I happen to own an assortment of both types of Multiliner, and I can safely say that I greatly prefer the Multiliner SP to the regular Multiliner.
|Multiliner SP's also come in a wide range of beautiful, Copic Marker safe colors. Image|
|The necessary supplies for an ink cartridge change or a change of nib. Left to right: Nib/cartridge removal tool, Copic Multiliner SP, replacement ink cartridge, replacement nib.|
In the past, I've found Zig Millennium technical pens at Walmart in the scrapbooking section
|The nib looks very similar to Copic Multiliners, doesn't it? Image|
Faber Castell's foray into the technical pen arena, the Pitt Pen, is a popular choice in the Sequential Art department at SCAD.
Rapidographs are a less popular form of tech pen, that is fairly similiar to a gel rollar ball pen in that the nib is metal and the sheath is metal. These pens can be very tricky for a beginner to use, and can still be frustrating for an experienced artist as they require regular maintenance, can clog often, and require careful cleaning.
The BrushpenTechpens may be convienant, but when used alone, tend to give a very lifeless lineweight. This may be what you're after (it's used extensively in animation, and Moebius utilized it to great effect), but if you'd like more dynamism in your lineart, you should consider adopting other tools.
I'm going to divide brushpens into two categories: bristle tips and felt or rubber tips.
|If you look closely, you can see the brush on the right has individual bristles, hence 'bristle tipped'. Image|
Bristle tipped brushpens have individual bristles similar to an actual brush, and are capable of producing very nice lines. For the beginner, the Pentel Pocket Brush is an affordable, easy to care for start that comes highly recommended.
|A fresh Pocket Brush before the cartridges have been installed, which would stain the tip black. Image|
Akashiya also makes a brushpen that I'm fond of that features a natural bamboo body and natural bristles.
I won't say much more about these brushpens here, as I've tested and reviewed several in the past.
Just because you have a good bristle tipped brushpen in your arsenal doesn't mean you don't need a couple decent felt tipped brushpens as well. I have yet to do a formal test of the larger felt tipped contenders (including felt tipped brush pens made by Copic, Pitt Pen, Micron, and others) I have done a fude pen test in the past. For those not in the know, fude pens (or sign pens) have flexable rubber tips. I've already written a post lauding the virtues of a good fude pen, and many other comic artists have added one to their arsenal as well.
|Pitt Pen (Big Brush) Copic Multiliner Medium Brush (I was hoping it'd be like the Copic Sketch's Super Brush, with nice flex and snap, but I was disappointed) a Pitt Pen Medium Brush, an Akashiya Brushpen, and a Kuretake Fudegokochi fude pen.|
|When selecting a brushpen, go for one with good snap. Out of these, the Akashiya natural bristle brush, the Copic Multiliner, and the fude pen all have nice snap, with the fude pen having the nicest snap and pulling the finest line.|
There are many types of nibs available at relatively low prices- calligraphy nibs, ruling nibs, drawing nibs, mapping nibs, a variety of quills. Not all nibs or quills will fit into one holder, but fortunately both are inexpensive enough that you can afford to play around.
If you're looking for a little primer, I have one posted here, although it's far from complete and there are no decorative nibs within the ranks.
The main thing about nibs is that they require a lot of patience both in drying time (you'll have to stop often to let ink dry before continuing) and in actual drawing time (using nib alone is very time consuming).
|An old toothbrush can be useful for the splatter technique, a white china marker can be used for drawing smoke, two types of nib holder, a brush, and a sumi brush..|
I'm no expert in using a brush, and I still have a lot to learn. Inking with a brush can be a very rewarding experience, but it's also very expensive. A Winsor-Newton Series 7 brush in a size 1 (what I ink with) runs about $23.00 at full price.
A poor brush will yield poor results (unless you're doing drybrush, but that's another story), so I recommend curtailing your brush inking adventures until you can afford to make the investment.
It is said that it is a poor artist that blames his tools for his shortcomings, but you should not expect cheap materials to yield expensive results. For an aspiring artist, there are plenty of mid-range art supplies that yield very acceptable results, and often a little investment can have a long term payoff.