The resources listed below are wonderful, but there's also a newer version of my favorite sketching & painting tools located here. Happy sketching & painting!
Because the learning process never stops, I am constantly trying new sketching tools and techniques. In the hopes that what I've discovered may help you also, I've comprised a list of what I constantly use and recommend.
I try to keep my supplies to a minimum and usually make choices based on weight and portability. I’m also pretty frugal, so I’ll be happy to share where I splurge and where I skimp. I've written before about the importance of quality over quantity, and I still live by that.
Since everyone is so different in their artistic tastes, talents, styles, and preferred subject matters, you may love some of the tools I use and hate others. That’s more than okay— it’s great!
Art is all about exploration, so maybe my list will encourage you to explore different tools and techniques. And feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments at the end of the post. I'd love to know what you love! So in no particular order, here are my current favs...
Note: This list was last updated in March 2017. I'm currently working on an update to this article that will be published January 2018. In the meantime, if you have any questions, feel free to leave me a comment. Thanks!
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Favorite Watercolor Brushes (Splurge!)
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices of available brushes, and the good ones can be crazy expensive. Thankfully, brushes can last for decades with care. Synthetic brushes are usually more budget-friendly, but (IMO) nothing beats a good sable. I prefer short-handled for portability.
My current everyday favorites brushes are:
- Isabey Red Sable - I have the #3 Rigger and think there is nothing better for painting grasses, hair, or tiny tree branches. I also have two of Isabey's pocket brushes. If I were rich, I would buy many more Isabey brushes. I'm not, so I highly recommend...
- Loew Cornell Golden Taklon Series - These brushes fall into the bargain bin price range but perform extremely well. I use them constantly, and my full review is at the link.
- Blick’s Master Kolinsky Sable - Not cheap but more affordable than a lot of sables on the market, these brushes have performed extremely well for me. Probably my favorite sable for the price!
- In the field, I often use a Pentel Aquash brush. After a bit of practice, I now get pretty good results with it. They hold a ton of water and eliminate the need for a separate water container.
Favorite Watercolors (Splurge!)
When it comes to watercolors, I've found that most of the good stuff works extremely well. Most of the budget stuff does not. If you'd like more information on various brands, I've compared three of the top artist-grade manufacturers here.
The photo above showcases the current colors in my palette, and I share a complete list of these colors along with a free, downloadable mixing chart at my post here.
The best advice I can give you with watercolors is to build your palette slowly.
I highly recommend avoiding watercolor sets which often contain a lot of colors you may never use. Instead, start with single pigment colors (like these four colors) and build your own palette with tried and true colors of your choosing.
It helps to learn some basic color mixing strategies and gather a bit of knowledge about pigment properties (e.g. staining vs nonstaining, opaque vs transparent). This information will help keep your colors and your spending to a minimum. However, when in doubt just pick colors you like. Since I mainly do nature journaling, my palette leans toward more muted colors.
Favorite Sketchbooks (Splurge & Scrimp)
Since I use both pen and watercolor, I’ve had plenty of struggles with sketchbook papers. Watercolor usually works best on a paper that pen does not, and vise versa. I’ve had to make some compromises but that’s okay and part of the process.
Scrimp sketchbook: For field sketching, I often use Strathmore's Visual Journal with 140 lb watercolor paper. It opens 180-degrees and has a very stiff backboard which makes it easy to hold while sketching. It's also very affordable, so I feel comfortable using it for rough sketches with no worries that I'm blowing through expensive paper.
Splurge a bit sketchbook: I really love Pentalic's Aqua Journal for more studied sketches. So far, it is the best sketchbook I have found for both pen and watercolor. (See my review here.) I use the Aqua Journal for my birding journal and everyday sketchbook.
As far as watercolor paper goes, I wouldn't scrimp. Poor watercolor papers are not worth even their pittance price.
My theory is that the more time I spend working on a paper, the better it needs to be.
For example, if I plan to do a landscape painting, I splurge. If I’m going to be practicing 5-second sketches, I grab a budget-friendly paper. You can find more sketchbook reviews by scrolling through the posts here.
Favorite Pencils & Pens (Skimp unless...)
Thankfully, a pen and pencil are two sketching tools that barely cost anything. I recommend a fine point fountain pen and a No 2 pencil to sketch with, and that’s about it! However, there are a few other tools I enjoy using and may be worth investing in:
- Water-soluble pencils - I like that the lines fade when I add watercolor so no eraser is needed, and these are also great for value sketches.
- Sakura Pigma Micron Pens - Microns are lightweight to carry, the ink withstands crazy amounts of water without budging, they come in a variety of tips sizes and colors, and they last for a long time. Good stuff, but bad for our earth. I've since switched to alternatives.
- Fountain Pens - I highly recommend Lamy fountain pens. The Safari and Al-Star are fairly affordable, extremely durable, and easy to use and maintain. They are workhorses in the field, and the nibs and inks are easily interchangeable. Plus, they look pretty in my pocket! I use waterproof De Atramentis document inks.
- Dip nibs/calligraphy pens - These are crazy fun to write and sketch with but not necessary and may require a bit of practice before you master them. Still, I love calligraphy! If you aren't ready to commit, see this post for easy lettering ideas!
More Favorite Sketching Tools (Skimp!)
Below are a few more recommended sketching tools that I know and love, but almost anything may be substituted instead, so don't stress the small stuff.
- Eraser - I use a Staedtler Mars plastic eraser when I need some serious pencil marks GONE. It's a powerhouse, but for a more delicate eraser that is gentler on watercolor, try a Factis Black.
- Unmentionables - Well, I suppose technically these are mentionables because I'm mentioning them, but about the only other supplies that I use daily are water, paper towels and/or a rag, and a sponge when watercolor painting.
Curious about the materials used for these sketches? Here they are...
- Lamy Al-Star fountain pen with an EF nib
- De Atramentis Document Ink in black
- #8 round brush
- Stillman & Birn Alpha Sketchbook
- The unmentionables
And that's it! See, it doesn't take much to make art. For recommended places to shop for all of these supplies, see my resource page.