Friday, August 05, 2016

Back to School Art Supplies Special

Shopping for school supplies, especially art supplies can be daunting and confusing, especially if your child is already a little artist.  You don't want to send them off with something that's going to be immediately stolen or confiscated, but you don't want their school supplies to hinder their development as an artist either.

Last year, I wrote a series of posts and review exploring affordable art supplies from Walmart and Target.  I held them up to my stringent standards, and found many that exceeded expectations.  Those reviews were from the perspective as an artist who had once been a teenager living in a podunk town with no budget, the products tested and suggested below are for parents who wish to nurture their child's creative spirit, and feature mainly products from Walmart and Target.

Below are just a few shots of the school supply section in the Luling, Louisiana Walmart.  Keep in mind, this is a small Walmart in a small southern town (my hometown, actually), and your selection may be much larger than this.  Design wise, I found the layout confusing- all those yellow cardboard boxes blend together as one, the whole shelf reads as Crayola.

But if you take a moment to explore, you'll discover hidden gems, like the Prismacolor pencils (a 24 pack) for4 $19.93- less than a dollar a pencil.  While these color pencils are not for your elementary school student, they are a wonderful present to a driven middle or highschooler who enjoys art.

There's also a bounty of markers in a variety of sizes.

Including a way too tempting 100 color box of Crayola Supertips.  The largest I've previously seen is 50.  I could not ascertain as to whether or not this box included duplicate colors (although Mom figured there might be two blacks in there), but I really hope Crayola finally added their Multicultural Colors to the Supertip lineup and formula.  If you have this pack and can send photos and swatches, please do!

A decent selection of sketchbooks.

And loads of accessories from scissors to cases to rulers to whiteboard crayons (does any student actually need whiteboard crayons for class?)

It was my mother, a veteran teacher of 25 years, and a special needs tutor for 20, who suggested I use my expertise in art supplies to recommend a list of favorite affordable student grade supplies for aspiring young artists heading back to classes.  We were browsing Walmart and happened to detour into the school supplies, a favorite section of mine this time of year, and I was immediately taken with the suggestion.  Her hope was that I could put some of my Affordable Art Supply reviews to good use, but things got a little out of hand as I found new supplies to test as well.  She has made so many generous suggestions, offered so much help and insight in this post, that she deserves a co-writer credit. 

My own art education is a bit less concentrated- two internships at two vastly different schools- one inner city with no budget, the other a charter school stealing the lion's share of funding from the other.  A stint helping out at my alma mater high school with talented art teenagers.  Numerous panels at convention and while at SCAD.  A few library visits.  Countless hours at conventions, helping teenagers with their portfolios, introducing them to new supplies, trying to stoke a passion for art.  The Youtube channel.  And seven years of writing for this blog.  While I may not have a BA in Arts Education, I do have a master degree in Fine Art, and a passion for education.  Hopefully together we have a list of supplies and suggestions that will help you or your little one(s) start the school year off on the right track- ready to make lots of art!

It's a little bit late for many Back to School shoppers, but I hope you find it helpful, and I hope you share it with others who might enjoy it as well. 

For most young artists, the basics are fine- crayons, markers, color pencils.  You might want to spring for the larger packs- I have very fond memories of my mother allowing me to bring my 46 pack of Crayolas to school, with favorites such as periwinkle, salmon, and sea foam green still holding sway over my heart.  Although Crayola markers are not a substitute for the alcohol markers you see online, there's plenty that can be done with them, especially Crayola Supertips.

Recommended Products:


Crayola Super Tip Markers
Up and Up Washable Super Tip Markers
Prismacolor Pencils or Crayola Color Pencils (more on that below)
Crayola Twistables

For older kids:

Sakura Koi Watercolors (pan)

Pencils (Mechanical)

Pentel Hi Polymer Eraser
Pentel Hi Polymer Lead
Pentel Clic Erase
Pentel Icy (In this review)
Pentel Side FX (In this review)
Papermate Comfortmate Ultra (in this review)

For Lineart

Sharpie Pen
Papermate Flair (waterbased)
Staedtler Triplus (waterbased)

Cheap page protectors in a binder (to preserve drawings)
Clear plastic ruler (almost any type is ok, make sure it has inches and centimeters.  I liked the type with three holes that I could store in my binder)
UCreate SketchBook
Casemate Sketch Diary
Canson Mixed Media Paper

NOTE:  Check the bottom of this post for a link to my specially selected Amazon A store, to help you purchase these supplies in one stop.  Your purchase using my links help to fund future blog posts.

To Avoid:

Crayola's larger markers, intended for younger children, cannot be used as watercolor markers
Crayola Watercolors, or any children's  grade watercolors, for children above elementary school
Permanent markers such as Sharpie (for lineart and for in class use, as these will be confiscated)
Pink Pearl Eraser
Decorative Erasers
Stiff pencil grips
Cra-Z-Art Supplies (formerly Rose Art)
Case Mate Permanent Markers (most of the ones tested were borderline dry right after purchase)

Of course, every year, school supply companies like Crayola, Fiskers, and Pentel up the ante and add new products to their lineup.  I couldn't resist picking up a few new things to test and comment on.   Not all of these will make it to this post, but I do intend to at least mention all at some point in the near future.

Tested in this post:

Crayola Erasable Pencils
Casemate Sketch Diary
Liquid Mark washable markers
Bostitch Paper Sharpener
Casemate Permanent Markers
Pentel Icy
Pentel Side FX
Papermate Comfort Mate Ultra
Staedtler Color Pencils

Crayola Erasable Pencils

Mom discovered these Crayola Erasable color pencils while we were browsing the color pencil area of the school supply section.  I thought they were intriguing- as a really little kid, I would sometimes outline or 'ink' with a black color pencil, and mistakes could not be easily erased.  I could definitely see the value of erasable color pencils, and wanted to give them a shot.

I knew that Erasable Crayolas had a lot of potential for disappointment for an adult illustrator, so I tried to keep an open mind, and see them as I would have two decades ago.

Unable to resist temptation, I also picked up a set of Staedtler color pencils to add to my little collection.  The Prismacolor 24 pack was purchased from the Luling Walmart in June, as was the 36 pack of Crayolas.  I figured back to school shoppers might appreciate me going over all four.

Many artists including comic artists, illustrators, and animators use erasable colored leads for their construction and under drawings.

Erasing Test

Side By Side Comparison: Crayola Original, Crayola Erasable, Prismacolor pencils, Staedtler Color Pencils

Staedtler is the most scratchy of the color pencils swatched today- very waxy

Crayola original and Prismacolor go down very smoothly, nice pigment load

Erasable does not lay down as much color as original Crayola, and feels sticky and gummy, frustrating to work with.

Of all the color pencils, the Erasables erase the most cleanly, leaving very little  to no color on the paper.  All colors tested perform well.   I have not yet tested the erasers on these pencils, I used a fairly stiff Mono eraser.

All colors seem to erase equally well.

Erasables as Sketching Pencils

The Sky Blue Erasable is gummy and the pencil seems to stick to the paper while I draw, making it difficult to sketch smooth lines.  Large chunks of lead are left on the paper, reminiscent of crayons from my youth.  Pencil dulls very quickly.

Erasables leave a fair amount of schmutz on the paper, similar to wax based crayons.

Fairly easy to draw on top of.   Graphite hasn't smeared when both are erased together.  By the time I got to the red sketch, I was pretty used to how the Erasables handle.  Given how cleanly they erase even with graphite on top, I'd still recommend these as sketching pencils.

Yellow photographs more obvious than it is in reality.

Erases cleanly with graphite on top, making this a great candidate for using for construction drawings.

With Inks

Sketching in wooden pencil is a skill I utilize mainly for warmups and unfinished noodles- these sketches tend to be looser for me.  For sketches I plan on inking, I use a mechanical pencil with graphite or non photo blue lead, so messing around with these Erasables was an interesting experiment. 

 I thought the pencils might be too waxy to ink over, but so far this doesn't seem to be an issue.  I'm inking on the Canson Mixed Media which is fairly textured but designed to handle multimedia from pencils to light watercolors.

Although these pencils leave deposits, it didn't really affect my ability to ink, and these little waxy bits could be brushed away with a drafting brush (or the side of your clean hand, these pencils don't smear too much).

Erasables as Coloring Pencils

Too gummy to be pleasant to use, requires a lot of pressure to try and get an even layer of color, very low pigment load.   I really cannot recommend using these to color.  The erasability is a neat perk, but not particularly useful for coloring applications, and that feature makes these color pencils frustrating to use.  I would not purchase these as my child's sole color pencil option.

The Verdict

This might be an accessible option to kids and teens who see artists use non photo blue or other colored leads online, and want to give it a try.

Better Alternatives for Adding Color

Crayola Original Color Pencils (36 Pencils, Cardboard Box)

Fairly soft and decent blendability.  Colors seem to tend towards desaturated- not too many skintones, so young artists will need to mix their own.

Prismacolor Premier (24 Pencils, Tin Case)

Very blendable and soft.  Very rich pigment laydown.  These are like butter compared to the Crayolas, but are much more expensive.  These are a great introduction to artist grade pencil colors, and are quite popular amongst artists and illustrators.  You can find the 24 piece tin at Walmart, and the price ($19.93) is very fair.

Staedtler (48 Pieces, Cardboard Case)

These triangular color pencils are German and unlike the Crayolas and the Prismacolors, do not include color information on the barrel.  These pencils are very hard and waxy, and might be frustrating for younger artists looking to cover large areas.

The Verdict

For younger artists, a big pack of Crayola color pencils is a great introduction to colored art, but for middle and highschool students, the Prismacolors are an excellent transition towards adult art supplies.

Bostitch Ratcheting Sharpener

For young artists, the right pencil sharpener can make a huge difference, especially with expensive color pencils like Prismacolors, which are prone to breakage in the wrong sharpener.  The Bostitch Ratcheting Sharpener reminds me of another ratcheting sharpener I've used in the past, and since the sharpener doesn't require full rotations to sharpen pencils, may be easier for small hands to use.

Very similar to another ratcheting sharpener sold through Jetpens, which broke after initial use.  I enjoyed the ratcheting mechanism and found it easy to use.

Has a lead length guide for sharp and blunted tip.  The blunted tip may be more suitable for color pencils.

This sharpener make it a little difficult to remove broken lead bits, but if you insert a pencil and gently ratchet towards you, you can remove broken leads. 

Can even sharpen the triangular Staedtler pencils.

Mechanical Pencils

For mechanical pencils you should go for comfort over what LOOKS like a draftsperson or illustrator would use.  Skip cute for art or heavy use, it will wreck your hand.  I recommend you go for HB as B smears easily.  You want something refillable with a soft grip, because after a long day of drawing, the inside of your finger will ache if you don't use a grip.  Go ahead and purchase lead refills when you purchase the pencil- you'll need them. 

Dont rely on the eraser included on your pencil, go ahead and pick up a white vinyl eraser, like the recommended Pentel Hi Polymer.  Skip the Pink Pearl, and all decorative erasers.

Pentel Icy over Crayola Sky Blue Erasable
The Icy is lightweight, and the ribbed grip design is fairly novel when it comes to pencil grips.  There's a fair amount of give to the grip, and the grip doesn't add undue bulk to the pencil, making it ideal for little hands.  Pentel Icy mechanical pencils come in a variety of colors- I picked up the teal and black pack and right behind it were purple and pink.  The Icy does not come with spare erasers, and the eraser blocks the lead feed (although back half of pencil can be pulled off for refills).  Back is pushed to advance lead, so there is no side advancement getting in the way of drawing and writing.  A clip allows you to attack this pencil to your notebook.

Papermate Comfort Ultra
Another light mechanical pencil.  The grip has less give than the Icy, but still fairly soft and forgiving.  About the same size in the hand as the Icy, feels more substantial in a good way, so may be a better choice for older kids.
Like the Icy, this pencil features a back advancement, and you feed lead into the pencil by removing the eraser.  The Papermate Comfort Ultra came with additional lead and a small tube of replacement erasers.

Pentel Side FX
Twist up, extra long eraser, side advancement sometimes get in the way (see Clearpoint Mechanical Pencil review:
I found the Side FX, recommended to me by my mother based on my younger brother's years of use, to be large but comfortable, with the grip in the perfect location for me.  The side advancement did not get in my way at all.  The grip is the least squishy of the three tested and has small bumps rather than ridges.

The Verdict

All three pencils tested were excellent options with decent grips designed to protect your hands from the rigors of extended use.  All three came with two pencils per package, and the Papermate Comfort Ultra came with spare leads and spare erasers, should you opt to use the included eraser.

Casemate Sketch Diary and Canson Mixed Media Sketchbook

Materials tested inside:
Permanent markers (Casemate and Sharpie)
Pencil Colors mentioned above

Casemate Sketch Diary

There were several sketchbooks in the school supply section, but most had very thin paper, almost like printer paper.  The Casemate had the thickest paper, so I opted to give it a shot.   I've reviewed another Walmart sketchbook, the UCreate Sketchbook, as part of the Affordable Art Supply series

The paper has a nice weight and a decent texture, making it fine for drawing.  The spiral binding is double looped, which can catch on things in your bag, but is less likely to tear up the inside of your bag, unlike single wire binding.  The cover is thin plastic with a pocket- you could insert your own art inside and switch it out if you liked.  The pages are perforated, but don't seem prone to falling out.

Canson Mixed Media Sketchbook

Mixed Media paper is heavier than regular sketchbook paper, and is designed to handle wet as well as dry media.  Mixed media should be able to handle color pencils, certain types of markers, or light watercolor applications.

If you or your young artist is looking to experiment with a variety of art supplies, mixed media pads are the way to go, as many techniques will not work on sketchbook paper.  Canson Mixed Media pads are affordable, available at a wide variety of places (including Walmart, where I purchased mine), and have perforated pages, so you can remove your pieces if you wish.

The Shopping List

Other School Supply Tricks:

For decorating binders, skip traditional Sharpies and go for oil based paint pens.  Many brands make them including Sharpie, and they tend to be more opaque.  You can also use waterbased POSCA markers or acrylic markers like Liquitex or Montana.

Oil based markers are perfect for writing your name on non porous ceramic surfaces- you just need to bake them.  Permanent markers like Bic Mark Its and Sharpies are alcohol based, and can be cleaned off with rubbing alcohol.

Paint an old fashioned lunchbox with chalkboard paint, write your child's name on it with white acrylic marker, and decorate with colorful chalk pens.  The acrylic won't wash off, and the child can customize their lunchbox.