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 a first generation iPad Pro that I often use for finishing and clean ups, most of my workflow is analogue. I’m giving ratings for all of them but obviously different tools serve different purposes so high points across the board isn’t what I’m looking for.
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. I have the regular chalk sketching sticks, but it’d be nice to try their pencils too sometime.
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.
Texture: 8.5/ 10
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.
Blendability: 15/10 (No control over layering, etc.)
Detailing: -100/ 10. 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.
Detailing: 9/ 10
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. Wonderfully complements my Steadtler Mars 2mm 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.
Blendability: 3.5/ 10
Detailing: 9.5/ 10
Texture: 3.5/ 10
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.
Sketchability: 10/10 (These pens were made for lively sketches)
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.
Blendability: 6/10 (Non Carbon ink can be bled with water for tonal variation)
Detailing: 10/10 (The Carbon Pen has an ultra- fine nib)
TWSBI Eco Fountain Pen. The TWSBI arrived with a dry, scratchy nib. I didn’t give up on it, though, inking it up with Pelikan’s Brilliant Brown ink and then Diamine’s Sepia and using it until the flow improved, and it became a decent pen. It’s more or less on par with Platinum’s Cool fountain pen, though not quite as reliable as that one. I’ve grown very fond of it for ink sketches.
Sketchability: 8/10 (TWSBI)
Blendability: 7/10 (Can get some great washes with quality ink)
Texture: 7/10 (Can layer up ink strokes and hatch for texture).
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.
Texture: 10/10 (Copics have a very unique silky looking texture with a bit of grain, that many cheaper brands have tried and failed to mimic).
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 I just can’t seem to get it right. Every time I try painting with my Sakura Koi watercolours, or my Kuretake Gansai Tambi set, I end up making a mess. I keep the Koi box on hand because it’s useful for adding a wash of light colour/ texture to pencil or ink sketches, but I don’t know if I should give up trying to learn to paint with them. I’m just so bad with them. I’m not sure if it’s just a lack of skill or something deeper, like a fundamental incompatibility. I’ll give it a few more goes, get until the end of my watercolour pad, and then take a call. My mum reckons you need a lot of patience and restraint to be good with this medium, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that I’m so rubbish at them.
Sketchability: 5/10 (Actually pretty decent when used alongside drawing media)
Blendability: Supposedly 10/10 but 0/10 when I’m using it.
Detailing: See above
Texture: Just absolutely fucking gorgeous 10/10 in more capable hands than mine.
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 the like, but since I only have thinner fountain pen ink available on hand, I usually just use those. Yeah you do have to keep dipping into the ink bottle but on the upside you feel like a Hogwarts student. There are apparently expensive gold nibbed fountain pens that will work like dip pens, but for a cheap entry point, the line quality with a traditional dip pen is phenomenal. Very clean, sharp lines, ink pooling and shading where you press harder- all making for organic looking sketches. I really like Pelikan Brilliant Brown ink, and other good inks I’ve tried include Diamine Sepia, Diamine Ancient Copper, Diamine Chocolate Brown, and Cult Pens Deep Dark Brown. Tried Waterman Havana Brown and it was horrible.
Sketchability: 7/10. They make nice sketchy looking marks but actually because of the fast ink drying time and the limited ink supply on the nib, you have to make quick decisions and execute them rapidly. Personally I rarely use pencils underneath my ink sketches because it messes with the feel of the nib, but that might be a good workaround.
Blendability: 7/10. Most quality fountain pen inks will give a nice wash on good quality paper.
Detailing: 7/10. Sure the nibs are sharp but the ink supply is so variable- you often run out of ink mid stroke- that detailing is better left to a fountain pen or fineliner.
Texture: 7/10. Better than most fountain pens; on par with some of the top end ones (not that I have any to compare with).
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.
Sketchability: 7/10 (It’s a cross between smudging and sketching and erasing)
Detailing: 8/10 (The pencils really help)
Texture: 10/10 (Unique matte dusty texture that’s distinct from graphite because it lacks that greenish gray sheen)
Ballpoint Pen. Sometimes you need something that doesn’t need any caring for, and will work under all circumstances and on any surface. I once got a small gift voucher and spent it on a fancy ballpoint pen that could write in space, in zero gravity, upside down, underwater, and in any temperature. Handy. It’s very reassuring to know that if I ever end up in space or on the ocean bed or in subzero temperatures, I’ll still have a pen that can write.
But in all seriousness, ballpoints work well for thumbnails. They’re good because they’re not good- they force you to get the idea or concept or thumbnail out of your head and onto paper (or I dunno the seabed or something) and not think about how the medium is behaving. You don’t have to worry about keeping them safe, either, and there’s never a dearth of them around. Everyone has the smooth writing ones we get from fairs and promotions and hotels and companies and stuff, but even a very cheap one will still work. I have a telescopic Zebra one that I got as part of a Christmas hamper and I really quite like it.