If you admire someone’s work, you want to know how they did it. Perhaps there’s a magic formula only the pro’s know. Maybe it’s the kit? If only you knew what to buy.
It certainly helps to have a starting point and I’ll tell you what I use, I have no secrets. That said, please bear in mind that it’s my personal kit and an ever-evolving list and yours will be too.
- What pencils do you use?
- What paper do you use?
- What erasers do you use?
- What easel do you use?
- What sharpeners do you use?
- What blenders do you use?
- Useful odds and ends
Before we start can I just say, please don’t skimp on materials. Drawing is the cheapest art form out there and the outlay is so modest, cutting corners to save a few pennies is a false economy.
If you want to check out my work, flip to my Gallery and take a look. Everything you see was drawn with a combination of the kit listed below.
The older pieces like ‘Jumbo Family’ and ‘Tiger in the Grass’ were drawn using Derwent Graphic pencils but some years later I introduced a finer technique using Pentel mechanical pencils. Look at ‘Heat and Dust’ and ‘Kindred Spirits’ and note the difference.
Now let’s jump in and discuss my recommended tools.
What pencils do you use?
Derwent Graphite Pencils
It’s the first question I’m asked. Enthusiasts are obsessed with pencil grades as if that alone holds the key to success.
It’s not quite that simple.
They want to know the grades without realizing that the grading system is not universal.
An HB in one brand is not the same as an HB in another. The tones are different.
When I answer the question, I’m referring to Derwent Graphic pencils.
So why Derwent? No particular reason.
I initially chose Derwent pencils because they were a good brand and made in Britain. I was supporting British jobs that’s all.
You can use any leading brand you like, the trick is to stick with one brand and get used to them.
After a while, the grades will become second nature and you’ll know which grade does what.
My usual selection includes a 9H, 4H, 2H, HB, B, and 3B.
I seldom require anything else. In fact, I rarely use the Derwent ‘B’s’ anymore. Instead, I use the Pentel mechanical pencils for the darker tones.
It’s worth mentioning that the softer grades of graphite tend not to be compatible with the softer Pentel polymer leads.
They don’t blend easily. The surface becomes greasy.
Perhaps the only surprise in my list might be my inclusion of a 9H but it’s very useful.
The lead is so hard that it leaves a barely noticeable mark. Held lightly and at an angle, it removes the whiteness from the paper and can be applied over other grades without losing any detail.
It’s also a handy tool should you decide to score the paper. Scoring is a technique I rarely use nowadays, it’s a high-risk technique to make a super sharp line.
For example, if you wish to draw the cats whiskers, you can draw them using the 9H.
The point is so hard you score the surface of the paper as you press down. This must be done at the preliminary outline stage.
Later on, as you shade, your pencil will glide over the groove and leave a crisp sharp line.
It’s brilliant when it works, and irreparable mess when it doesn’t.
I’ve largely abandoned the method in favor of using a battery eraser.
Pentel Mechanical Pencils.
Many of my drawings in recent years have been drawn, almost exclusively, with Pentel propelling pencils.
They offer me so much control, I can draw insane detail. That’s both a plus and a minus.
Now I can draw the wrinkles inside the wrinkles with absolute precision. The major drawback is its harder to draw fast and loose.
I use 0.3mm leads with grades 4H, 2H, HB, B, and 2B.
The smallest 0.3mm leads only go as dark as 2B but I seldom wish or need to go any darker.
It takes some time to get used to drawing with mechanicals, the leads snap easily, but I love using them. The polymer (not graphite) glides smoothly over the paper and is as easy to erase and as permanent as normal pencils.
I suppose the only hiccup is the initial outlay. Good quality propelling pencils are pricey.
You can start with cheaper ones and upgrade slowly. That’s what I did.
You will need a set of 5, one pencil holder for each grade. By default, the initial purchase will have HB leads supplied so you can empty them into one pencil holder and fill the rest with 2B, B, 2H, and 4H, refills.
I buy the refills online as my local stationers and art suppliers seldom stock the whole range.
I order more B’s than H’s. I get through them quicker.
Make sure you have at least one pencil supplied with a spare fine wire. You’ll need it for cleaning the end nozzle. Without one, you will have a devil of a time removing the broken leads when they get stuck.
In theory, your pencil holders will last for years but I do tend to drop mine quite often. The nibs are delicate and once they’re damaged they’re useless, you’ll have to buy another one.
As with graphite grades, the mechanical leads are not universal either. Stick with one recognized brand and you can’t go wrong.
What paper do you use?
Daler-Rowney Heavyweight Cartridge
Your choice of paper will change over time. You’ll be as happy as Larry with your favorite brand until one day you find an alternative and boom, it’s out with the old and in with the new.
Presently I use Daler-Rowney heavyweight cartridge paper. It’s not a pure white, its a very soft off-white, which is more pleasing to my eye.
My paper of choice until a few years ago was a creamier cartridge but the paper tint scanned as a light grey. I loved the warmth it gave my originals but it was a hassle for my printing company.
It meant I needed a skilled technician to remove the background grey without losing the subtlety of my original drawing.
I’m better off now.
The Daler paper also has a slight tooth which enables me to create various textures. My blacks are richer while my lights remain smooth. I love the way the grain gives the darks an extra ‘zing’, which might otherwise appear as flat and boring.
I get a more pronounced grain when I draw on a harder surface. At the moment I’m using a sheet of acrylic as a drawing board but you can use the smooth side of a sheet of hardboard. It’s very cheap.
When you draw on a softer surface, for instance with a sheet of paper underneath, the tooth will be much less pronounced. Bear that in mind if you want to make a grainier effect.
What erasers do you use?
I use 4 types of erasers, all for different reasons.
1. A Winsor and Newton Putty Eraser
I have noticed that both get significantly softer and easier to ‘squish’ as the temperature rises. When it’s cold outside they are barely kneadable at all.
Recently I bought a Faber-Castell putty eraser which was much softer and remains malleable even in cooler conditions.
I use a putty eraser as a genera- purpose tool. Of course, I sometimes need it to correct mistakes, but it’s also good for cleaning up the background, dashing out larger areas and lifting-out non-critical highlights.
A good example of its use as a drawing aid can be found in ‘Tiger in the Grass’. The out-of-focus effect was done with a putty eraser.
I use them less and less for precision erasing. There are other more effective ways.
2. A Jakar Battery Eraser
This little tool was a gamechanger for me. Now I wouldn’t be without it.
It gives me absolute control over my work. There are very few mistakes I can’t correct and no limit to the detail I can create.
If you are not familiar with these gadgets it’s a handheld battery-powered eraser ‘pen which spins a small rubber insert at very high speed.
If you sharpen the nib to a point using sandpaper, it’s possible to draw the finest white lines imaginable. Now I can dot-in the highlight of an eye, stuff up, pencil over the mistake, and do it all over again.
Before I found this gadget it was almost impossible to restore the white of the paper. Now its a breeze.
I use the cheapest battery eraser on the market. It’s made by Jakar and costs about $5 – $6 (£4 – £4.50). I tried the Derwent model but I found it lacking.
The Jakar eraser pen is very basic. You press the button and it spins. There are no settings, controls, or choice of rubber nibs. It’s a comfy size and feels nice to hold.
Pity the colors are so revolting but you can’t have everything.
There are fancier mains operated models but I can’t see why I would need one. A battery-powered eraser is perfect for me as I draw mostly outside. Plus if I need a new one, it costs next to nothing.
If you don’t use one yourself, I urge you to try one out. Remember to buy plenty of spare rubber tips. You get through them quickly.
3. A Tombo Mono Zero Eraser Pen
This is an extruded piece of rubber held within a plastic pen and works like a propelling pencil.
I use the Tombo mono zero which is the thinnest eraser of the range and I use it to erase finer lines.
I can make crisp clean lines with a sharp edge and remove gradations of ‘lead’ with a blunter nib. It’s useful for simulating fur.
Take a look at ‘Baby on Board’ as a good example. The wavy hair effect was achieved after drawing a darker base and progressively ‘lifting’ out the lines with a Tombo.
If I need a sharp edge I slice the nib with a blade.
4. Blu-Tack Poster Putty
Last but by no means least, I use Blu-Tack extensively. This is very handy stuff indeed.
I don’t use it to rub out exactly, I use it more to dab at the paper which lifts off the ‘lead’.
Blu-Tack is far more effective than a putty eraser at removing targeted areas of your drawing. It kneads better, to a finer point and ‘lifts’ off more.
I use it constantly in my drawing process. The newer the Blu-Tack the cleaner the ‘lift’. I keep some stumps of older and greyer Blu-Tack precisely because they lift less. The erasing is more subtle.
Another great trick is to roll a knob of Blu-Tack across some shading. The random patterns it creates can look amazing. Try it for rock textures or tree bark.
What easel do you use?
I love my easel. Its a lightweight aluminum field easel made by Frank Herring and sons here in the UK.
- It’s portable
I’ve had my current easel for the last 10 years and the earlier model for 10 years before that.
I particularly like the broad U-shaped backrest which holds my drawing board firmly in place. It’s much more stable than the standard field easels you see with a central bar.
The Herring easel is also super lightweight at only 1.4kg. It’s perfect for use outdoors. The frame is sturdy which means on breezy days you can anchor it with a center weight if needs be. I simply hang a heavy bag from the middle slide bar.
Uneven ground is no problem. The legs fully adjustable and so too is the positioning of the backrest.
You can use it upright, as a table, or any angle in between. Whatever floats your boat. I use it everywhere, indoors and out. When it’s not in use, I fold it up and store it out of the way.
On top of all that, there are custom accessories available too, such as the 12inch (30cm) and 18inch (45cm) extension bars and a large paint/pencil tray.
The Versatile Easel is a winner and I’m surprised it’s not used more widely.
What sharpeners do you use?
What can you say about sharpening a pencil?
More than you think but please, NEVER at a dinner party.
Cheap standard pencil sharpener
Of course, go and buy a cheap sharpener, why not? As long as the blade is sharp they do the job. If you want to buy something fancier, go for it. There is no right or wrong.
A Craft Knife
Some people prefer to use a craft knife because they like to draw with a longer lead. This is practical for harder grades, less so for the softer ones.
Be sure to slice at a shallow angle along the shaft by starting well back from the top, and avoid cutting at a steeper angle nearer the tip. It doesn’t work as well.
Be careful and use a new blade, its easy to misjudge the whittle. That’s a phrase I never thought I’d say. Where’s my life going?
Broken leads are a pain. Occasionally your pencil will be shattered along its entire length.
If you are fed up with wasting whole pencils that way (or you’re a tight-arse!) super-glue the leads back in to save yourself the hassle of getting new ones.
Believe it or not, mechanical pencils will need sharpening too.
Get yourself the finest sandpaper. I use ‘Wet and Dry’ which is a fine-tooth sanding paper.
I cut it into strips and tack it to my drawing board.
It’s used for both types of pencils but for different reasons.
I use it with my graphite pencils to maintain a sharp needlepoint and with my mechanical pencils to make a beveled edge
I resharpen my graphite pencils with a simple twist on the sandpaper after every few strokes. I do it on auto-pilot, it’s become a habit, like a reflex action.
By contrast, I swipe my mechanical pencils diagonally across the sandpaper.
The sloping nib acts in two ways. The flat plane is good for even shading, while the top edge is razor-sharp for the finest imaginable lines.
That’s everything you probably never wanted to know about sharpening a pencil.
What blenders do you use?
I don’t use blenders half as much as I should. I tend to bog myself down by perfectionist cross-hatching that serves no real purpose at all. Why do I do that to myself?
Feather Blending Brush
I have a fan brush for blending the softest of greys in larger areas. The hair is so soft and the effect so subtle, that it can be difficult to gauge the effect. Sometimes it’s only when you rub something out that all becomes apparent.
Darker tones can be built up in layers.
Tortillions and Stumps
A paper stump is the chunkier version and suitable for smudging larger areas while a tortillion is much thinner and used for more controlled blending.
My personal style of drawing has evolved towards too much detail so in an attempt to switch mindsets I have recently tried to change my approach and started to blend more.
My last few drawings have been sketchier and my best attempt so far is ‘Best Foot Forward’.
I cross-hatched less precisely this time, cut down on detail and ‘smudged’ some of the harder edges. It has a good sense of movement and more atmosphere than most of my previous work.
I wouldn’t call my newer style free and easy, I’d say it’s more contrived spontaneity, but I’m getting there.
It didn’t take me so long to draw either, which is a Godsend.
I seldom use my fingers. If I do, I might use the tip of my little finger here and there. I’m frightened of leaving a greasy mark. Besides, it’s easy to overdo it. Your carefully crafted drawing can quickly turn into a smudged dog’s dinner.
Useful odds and ends
I work outside and in front of the public most of the time, so I could lose my work in any number of ways. To limit the chance of disaster I cover my drawing in a clear A3 cellophane wrapper called a Cello bag. They are the peel and seal type, mostly used to display prints and cards.
I slip my drawing inside, Blu-Tack it to my drawing board and cut out a hole where I intend to draw.
This works for me because my work is meticulous and slow and I can concentrate on one area at a time.
The advantages are many,
- It stops your hand from smudging the paper,
- It’s transparent so both you and the public can see the whole picture,
- It guards against people thoughtlessly touching the drawing,
- Prevents you from squashing insects on the paper,
- Saves the day when you feel the first drops of rain.
Simple idea eh?
A Mahl Stick ( ..a what?)
The name for an artist’s armrest is a mahl stick. It’s a pole with a padded ball on top.
You don’t need a fancy one, I use a long ruler or you could use a piece of dowel.
I use one because I mostly work upright from an easel. I need a support to steady my hand and prevent my hand from smudging the paper. I lean the ruler on the top edge of my drawing board and rest my hand away from the surface.
A Pencil Extender
Why throw away short pencils when you can use them to the last stump? For a few pennies, you can get a pencil extender and save a quarter of every pencil. Buy 4 get one free!
In my efforts to over-do things, I make use of a 5x magnifying glass called a loupe.
I saw a guy in Thailand using one of these things many years ago and thought I’d try one out myself. I’ve been using one ever since. It’s the main reason my work has become so detailed. I can see far too much.
It saves me from having to enlarge the image. I can hold the loupe over a 6 x 4 photo in one hand while I’m drawing with the other.
Just be careful using it on a sunny day. I’ve set fire to my photo more than once!
Buy only the best art materials from any leading brand. Choose one and stick with it.
There’s no need to go on a spending spree, buy only what you need.
Think about re-supplies, can you easily replace your kit? There is nothing worse than buying a box set only to realize that individual replacements are hard to find.
Above all practice, practice, practice.
- Make art
- Make mistakes
- Do it again
- Get better
Experiment and have fun.
Has this guide has been useful? Did I miss anything out? Have a question? Let me know, I value your feedback.