More than any other post on this blog, this one is an archive to keep track of what I like and don’t like to use, what plays nicely with my work style and what frustrates me. I’ll keep this traditional because although I have an iPad Pro that’s excellent for digital clean-up and minor corrections, at least 80% of my workflow remains analogue. I’ll probably do another post dedicated to my favourite apps on the iPad, but that’s for another day.
Conte a Paris sticks. Can’t figure out how to get the accent sign above the letter e! Excuse me. Conte sticks were invented in 18th century France as a response to the shortage in graphite due to war. They’re made of some graphite/ charcoal component mixed with kaolin clay, and this particular French brand makes them in a range of up to 48 colours. They’re very chalky, and provide a lot of feedback that some might call scratchy, but with enough energy behind the strokes these are lovely tools to use. They’re not as powdery and dusty as regular soft pastels or charcoal but are far more blendable than graphite. Their pencil versions of conte are also pretty good.
Faber-Castell Polychromos PITT Pastels (36 Set). They’re very nice. Not much to say besides that, really. Can be used to cover large areas but it’s tedious; best for semi- detailed sketches or pieces where colour is important. Compatible with Conte sticks; good range of mark making between the two.
Mungyo Gallery Soft Pastels. They are so… rubbish. OK OK maybe I just don’t know how to properly use really soft pastels but the level of control these provide is abysmal and you can’t go over the top with a thinner point for details so I fail to see the purpose of them really.
Steadtler Mars Lumograph & Faber- 9000 Series Graphite Pencils. Both great options, with strong break resistant leads and pleasant to work with. Steadtler grades run just a tad darker, creamier, and softer than the FC’s but both are nice to use. I use the Mars 4b 2mm leads in my Steadtler clutch pencil which works very well- if I had to pick a desert island sketching tool this would probably be it.
Rotring Rapid Pro 0.5. I love my mechanical pencils, and this one is among the mechanical pencil royalty. Delve into any hobby and you’ll find products of so many tiers and ranges, and this is especially true for stationary, writing and art materials. The Rapid Pro isn’t cheap; it cost my mum Rs. 2,000 to buy it for me as a going away present when I started my first job as a storyboard artist in Bombay. It’s all metal, smart and black and matte, with a very finely knurled grip section. It’s my go to for smaller scale sketches where accuracy, reliability, and details are more crucial than experimental expressive stuff, though it is of course possible to be expressive in nearly any medium. I’ve tried so many 0.5 pencils, and although many are good, none feel so brilliant at first touch than this one. It’s like the Firebolt of mechanical pencils… Expensive, but easily outclasses cheaper options. Honorable mentions go to the Derwent Precision pencil.
Pentel GraphGear 1000 0.7 mm. Another top of the range mechanical pencil, and with an excellent and well deserved reputation in sketching circles. It is used by one of my favourite artists- Mr. Marc Taro Holmes- in his urban watercolour sketches. Actually I’m not sure whether the sketch below was done with this or the Rotring; there’s not much difference between the two and it comes down to what type of lead and paper you use. I find the Pentel slightly better for brainstorming and preparatory sketches.
Tombow Fude Brush Pen (Hard) & Zebra Fude Brush Pen (Super Fine). These were a great find. They have fibre tips like thin markers, but hold their shape pretty well. Their ink is black and waterproof, and best of all is the lovely organic line variation you get, making them excellent for on- site cafe sketches. Next to the Mars clutch pencil, this is also one of the most versatile sketching tools. The Tombow is cheaper and easily available in India but the Zebra is ever so slightly blacker, and firmer. This makes the Tombow great for ‘disposable’ sketches and the Zebra better for client work. Having said that, the Tombows are great too, and it isn’t much of a difference either way. They go very well with water-based markers or Copics.
Platinum Carbon Pen, Platinum Preppy Fountain Pen & Platinum Cool Fountain Pen. Odd names aside, these fountain pens are a brilliant choice for ink sketching. Unlike fineliners they don’t wear down, and are refillable, so they’ll give decades of good use if taken care of. The Preppy is cheap enough to be considered disposable and comes in a good range of nib sizes. The Carbon Pen is specially designed to accommodate Platinum’s Carbon ink, a very black, waterproof, lightfast ink that’s groundbreaking for ink sketches. The Cool is slightly more expensive, their basic mid range model, and the steel nib is sharp and good for sketching on the right paper. The thing with fountain pens is always finding the right paper- they’re very fussy, unlike the disposable Zebra and Tombow pens which will work well on just about any surface.
Copic Markers. They’re awesome! The hype is real! But unfortunately they’re also MADLY expensive, hard to find, and come in so many incredible colours that choosing which ones to buy becomes agony. I can’t afford the sets, but individually own some Warm Greys which are just wonderful for sketches, and some skin/ sepia/ brown tones. Of every drawing or painting tool I have ever laid hands upon, these demand spontaneity and confidence more than any other. Rapid strokes laid down upon paper to confidently indicate tone and shadows- that’s what these are for. They’re very much sketching tools, not painting tools. They also bleed through most kinds of papers, so it’s best to have some scrap paper beneath the page you’re working on. They’re also alcohol based which means they’re compatible with water- based fountain pen inks- they won’t run and smear and muddy ink lines.
Fineliners. Fineliners of all brands seem to preform similarly, in my experience. The Staedtler Pigment liners are great, though a bit expensive. The Faber-Castell Eco ones are great too, and the Uni Pin ones get the job done at a lower price point. Kuretake’s ZIG Millenium pens are good, too. But if I had to pick one brand, it would be the Copic Multiliners. There’s a cheaper disposable variant and the metal bodied, refillable versions that I have. Because they’re expensive, I only keep 2 sizes; 0.25 mm and 0.35. Really, between them, my fineliner needs are fulfilled. They go very well with Copic markers (naturally) but also mechanical pencils. Their ink isn’t nearly as black as Platinum’s Carbon ink, though, but they’re more convenient to use while traveling, etc.
Watercolours. It’s one medium I want to be good with so badly but it’s slow going; I just don’t have the same affinity with them as I do with inks or dry media. Nevertheless they’re capable of such beautiful rendering that I can’t give up on them- and they’re one of the least messy and easiest to clean traditional painting mediums. I used Sakura Koi colours, which are quite nice and good value, but don’t compare with my Sennelier tin which is professional grade and very vibrant.
Dip Pens & Inks. Dip pens are lovely to use. You can either get the more practical wooden handled one, with interchangeable flex nibs, or a fancy feather quill. I have both and the fancy quill is much harder to draw with. These are ideally used with drawing inks- India ink and other pigmented inks. The Japanese G nib is gorgeous for Western style linework too, flexible without being hard to control. Kuretake makes a very nice ink as well, that goes well with Copic markers (it’s not waterproof). Winsor & Newton inks are truly beautiful, too. For sketching and linework dip pens blow even the most expensive fountain pens out of the water.
Charcoals (Sticks, Compressed, & Pencils). Lovely and blendy, soft and smudgy- how could anybody not like charcoal? Vine and willow woods both make smooth charcoal sticks that can be easily lifted with a kneaded eraser. The compressed variety is less crumbly and better for details, but much harder to erase. The pencils are quite nice- I’ve only ever used Royal & Langnickel (which were terrible and kept breaking) and Derwent (which are much nicer). Derwent also make tinted charcoal pencils in a range of muted earthy tones which look very interesting, and big blocks of charcoal in a tin which also seem cool. Great medium for portraits and figure drawings, and the very earliest stages of a concept sketch. Good compatibility with pastels and Conte.
SKETCHBOOKS & PAPERS:
Sketchbooks are a very personal choice. Even minute differences in paper texture, thickness, quality and colour can affect the sketching experience. There are very few drawing tools that are actually flat out bad, but many that work badly with the wrong kind of paper. As for paper, there’s no right or wrong- people can have very strong preferences or no preference at all. For me, all the traditional good quality sketchbooks usually disappoint because the rough texture make it difficult to do details. I usually am captivated by the details of a subject first, and then go into sketching the stuff around those details. I also have a feather light touch with pencils when I start drawing, which isn’t possible with rough paper because light touches just granulate on the paper and erode the line quality. Nor do I like bristol board or ‘plate’ finishes for use with either pencil or ink, so it’s been very difficult for me to find sketchbooks that really fit my needs.
The mypaperclip notebooks, a local Indian brand, make cheap softcover A4 notebooks with blank ivory pages that are perfect for my kind of rapid pencil sketching. The paper is smooth enough to show off pencil lines almost as if they were ink lines, and blocking in tones with the flat side of the pencil results in even, smooth coverage. There’s no grain here to speak of, but nor does it have that icky polar white smoothness of a plate finish. The sketchbook is by far my favourite when it comes to quick sketches in pencil- handy, affordable, and easily available. The paper is terrible for inks or washes, but for ideating makes a great ‘rough’ sketchbook (I know all sketchbooks are supposed to be rough but…oh well.)
Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media Journal
This is a beautiful book. It’s 100% cotton fiber, which makes it extremely high quality and well suited to watercolours, which work like a dream on this paper. It can take practically every medium without protest, including multiple washes and marks and erasure. The binding is top notch, and the cover is hard and tough and good looking, making for an all round brilliant sketchbook. It’s the only proper sketchbook I own that I keep reaching out for, but there’s also a sense of pressure to do more finished work in it because of the high quality, price, and low availability here in Delhi. (I got mine from France).
Stillman & Birn Gamma Sketchbook A4
This particular book has a nice creamy/ ivory tint to the pages, which go wonderfully with warm toned ink lines in sepia or brown. The finish is traditional vellum, which means details are harder to render and pencil linework is compromised. But these minor discomforts are more than made up for by the way it handles ink, and the effect you get by selectively smudging dry media. They’re not cheap, but they’re thankfully easily available in India. The binding is excellent, and the cover is tough and protective. You also get a fair number of pages, making it good value for money.
Maruman Mnemosyne Blank A4
This is a beautiful book of the kind and quality I haven’t seen in India anywhere. Spiral bound, with a rigid plastic front cover and cardboard back, it has the silkiest white paper I’ve ever seen in a notebook. It’s writing paper, meant for use with pens and ink, and fountain pens really shine on this paper. I initially got it for sketching but it’s since become an all purpose writing and planning journal, one that I also sketch in from time to time. Because of the silky finish, it isn’t great for pencil- but better than bristol board, and and mechanical pencils do OK for detailed sketches. Thin as it is, the page will take a light wash if you want to bleed ink lines or even add a bit of watercolour. It’ll buckle but won’t disintegrate. This paper is a dream for Copic and ink sketches. Again, low availability in India means I’m more precious about using it up than I should be.
Stillman and Birn Zeta
Personally I think a lot of the hype surrounding supposedly high quality art materials is just that- hype- and you’d be best served by just experimenting and seeing what works for you. I’ve seen art stores in Europe carrying brands of sketchbooks and tools I’ve never heard about, but that looked fascinating. Stillman and Birn, like Strathmore, is a well known American brand of art papers and books, and they claim to have a sketchbook for every need. Their Gamma series is their standard sketchbook paper in ivory vellum finish, but in my experience it’s just like every other rough textured sketchbook paper I’ve tried. Granted, the ivory colour is nice and the paper handles ink rather better than most standard sketchbooks. But beyond that, it really isn’t anything special and despite what the manufacturers say, it will not accept even a light wash of water. But their Zeta sketchbooks are worth a look. Though they have that too slick plate white finish that makes pencils squeak, they’re still fairly useable with graphite and quite good with ink. At something like 25 sheets per book they’re expensive, but each sheet is incredibly tough and even Copic marks don’t bleed through. Because of how smooth the finish is, watercolours look odd, with very hard, discernible edges, but they can be used.