Where to start with art supplies

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Art supplies. Image courtesy of Mimzy May.

The sheer variety of art supplies that are available can be daunting to the artist who is strapped for cash. For me, entering an arts and crafts store means preparing to wistfully gaze at the aisles and aisles of things I know logically I would rarely – if ever – get any use out of, but gosh if I don’t want them anyway.

Ideally, finding your favorite art supplies would mean getting to try as many as you wanted until you hit upon that perfect tool – but this isn’t quite feasible for those of us with empty pockets.

If this is the case for you, you probably already know you’re in for some hands-off research. Here’s a short overview of a few different traditional art essentials to help you get started!

Erasers

If your traditional process involves any kind of erasable media, you’ll want to keep an eraser handy. There are actually a few varieties of eraser to choose from, but the one I have found best suited to my artistic workflow is the kneaded eraser.

Unlike plastic, gum or rubber erasers, kneaded erasers don’t leave behind a multitude of eraser shavings that you have to stop and brush off your piece. You can also mold them easily to ensure you only erase very small areas if you need, or ply them into a longer roll to lift wide areas at a time.

Because they don’t leave shavings behind, kneaded erasers don’t shrink significantly over time as other erasers do, though they do require cleaning if you use them heavily. To clean a kneaded eraser, all you need is hot water – though it might take a while to get in this weather!

Pencils

The staple of traditional media, almost everyone starts drawing with just a regular pencil and paper. You can draw with any kind of pencil, but some are more suited for different drawings than others. For example, if you’re looking for something to draw your undersketch with and then erase you won’t want the same kind of pencil you’d use to create a piece solely in graphite.

For a strictly graphite piece, it might be tempting to indulge in a set of 6B-6H pencils for the full range of values – with 6B lead being the softest and darkest and 6H the hardest and lightest. However, if you’re strapped for cash or don’t do the majority of your work in graphite, you can get a solid value range with the standard HB.

If your use of pencils is largely limited to sketching with the intent to finish in another medium, you’ll want something that is easier to erase and less intrusive than graphite would be.

For this, Prismacolor’s line of Col-Erase pencils is better suited – or, if you prefer mechanical pencils, you can find colored lead to draw with. I have the Faber-Castell TK-Color lead in 0.5 blue, but I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly – while it erases well, it tends to snap very easily with pressure.

The nice thing about Col-Erase pencils is that in addition to being able to draw and erase in your favorite color, they also work well with other media. You can lay out your sketch in Col-Erase, go over your lines with ink, and then erase the pencil underneath, or you can paint in watercolor right over the top.

In the latter case, you’ll want to use a pencil that matches the temperature of your paint: a red pencil for a warmer-toned piece, for example, or a blue pencil for a cooler-toned piece. This can really help emphasize your tones!

Pens

If you, like me, have a fear of commitment to ink and ink-related media, pens are a great place to start overcoming that fear. Whether you want to line your pencil drawings or start directly in pen, it’s not only possible to do but will help build your line quality.

For sketching in pen, it’s ideal to use a pen that has a lower ink flow, such as a regular ballpoint pen. This makes it easier to get a wider variety of values, from light to dark. For inking a drawing, liners are more preferable.

There are several kinds of liners available, and most work well, making this more a matter of preference. I started with regular black Pilot G2 pens in ultra fine, which do smudge if taking an eraser to the undersketch too soon, before moving to Sakura Micron Pigma pens in a few different sizes, including their brush-tip pen.

If you’ve never used a brush pen before, they’re excellent for creating expressive lines, allowing you to get a more diverse range of line widths with a single stroke. This can be especially beneficial for pieces you want to be particularly dynamic. Faber-Castell’s Pitt Artist Pen line is another popular option for ink liners – though they tend to run slightly more expensive than Pigma pens.

Markers

My personal favorite way to color, alcohol-based markers are a great way to add vibrant color to your art and simultaneously fulfill your childhood dream of coloring in markers with shades not limited by the Crayola eight-pack.

This is easily the art supply I spend the most on – what you pay for is almost always what you get when it comes to art markers. Markers that have a brush tip will blend the most smoothly and give you more control over how detailed you can get with your coloring, while chisel or bullet tips will be more difficult to blend and work into smaller spaces.

If you aren’t sure whether or not you’ll like working with markers, I would suggest starting with a cheaper brand such as Prismacolor or Windsor-Newton. Both these brands offer a fantastic selection of colors, offer dual-tipped markers with brush tips and bullet or chisel tips on the other ends, and don’t typically leave the noticeably streaky stroke marks you’ll get from lower-quality markers.

Neither of these, however, can be refilled, meaning that once you’ve used up the marker, it’s done. Copic markers – the industry standard for illustration markers (and priced accordingly) – do have ink refills available, as well as tip replacements if you need them.

These markers are the industry standard for a reason: not only can they be refilled, meaning that if you use them a great deal they become much more cost-effective, but they also blend smoothly, don’t tend to streak and come in a range of colors, from soft pastels to deep earth tones. For these reasons, Copic markers are a great investment if you know you’ll get a lot of use out of them.

While this is by no means a comprehensive guide to traditional media, hopefully you now are armed with a little more knowledge and a little more confidence for the next time you end up in an art supply store. Happy arting!

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