Have you ever flipped through a super thick art supplies catalog and felt surprised at the huge number of drawing tools out there? Have you ever felt confused or overwhelmed at the massive variety of art materials, drawing materials, drawing paper and other surfaces available? Have you asked yourself, “How do I choose drawing tools for beginners? What about quality? Should I go for high-quality, professional quality, or student grade? Can I get what I need for less? Why is there so much product out there?
There are so many different kinds of pencils, paint, eraser, brush, pastels, pens and other materials. How do I pick what is good for me? How will I know? What do I want? It’s all so new…maybe I should go to the art supply store to shop for drawing supplies…
I’ve been there. Let’s dig into this topic and see if we can answer these questions.
I started drawing! Yay! Now what?
Congratulations! You’re on your way and that’s good, so keep drawing! Draw daily and keep learning the fundamentals of art. Now that you’ve begun, it’s a matter of maintaining your will to continue and finding resources that work for you. Let’s introduce some essential drawing materials and art materials that will serve your art education journey.
The Purpose of Art Materials
The purpose of all drawing materials, and paint, is to make a mark. The purpose of each mark is to help us express our stories. Other art materials, such as paper and canvas, are the places our stories live in the world.
Drawing Tools for Beginners
The tools & materials I’ve listed here are structured with a focus on the art fundamentals, and based on my recommended Top 5 Art Fundamentals for Beginners.
1. Graphite Pencil set or Lead Holder & Leads
Standard medium 12 pencil sets will contain several grades of graphite pencils, usually 4H to 6B. A full range set, from 9H to 9B, contains 24 pencils and offers a broader tonal range. For more information on pencil grades, check out my post All About Drawing Pencils: Graphite Pencil Scale Explained.
Another drawing option is a lead holder with several grades of graphite leads. Using a lead holder means less of the graphite stick is wasted. I prefer lead holders over drawing pencils because I find them to be more reliable, efficient, and longer lasting.
Drawing pencils and pencil sets are the least expensive route for starting your art materials toolbox. A set of 12 medium graphite pencils (4H-6B) has a price of about $18, and a more expansive set of 24 (9H to 9B) goes for about $35.
The price of a lead holder runs about $9 – $18 depending on the type and brand. I’ve always used a Staedtler lead holder, which runs about $12. A selection of lead grades goes for $40 to $192 depending on the number of lead grades you purchase and the lead count for each grade (packs of 2 or 12). The initial cost for the lead holder and leads is higher but balances out a bit by lasting much longer.
Access to the full range of tones, from lightest (9H) to darkest (9B), is extremely valuable–especially when you are training to see and control tones. This is true for any graded pencils, including charcoal pencils.
2. Sharpeners & Pointers: Pencil Sharpener, Lead Pointer, X-Acto Knife, and Sandpaper Pointers
Crisp lines, small shapes and details require materials that can be sharpened to points or edges. Sharpening requires pencil sharpeners, lead pointers, and X-Acto knives. Sandpaper pointers help achieve an extra sharp point or crisp flat edge after sharpening, but are more of a useful sharpening accessory.
All pencil sharpeners are not created equal. Having tried several over the years, I can say two things with confidence:
1) Those little pencil sharpeners that come with most drawing pencil sets are almost always crappy and useless, and
2) Nearly every German-made pencil sharper or lead pointer I have ever used has worked beautifully with minimal lead breakage or waste.
Once you find a pencil sharpener that works for you, stick with it (and get a backup). Reliable sharpening tools contribute to a smooth workflow by keeping your pencils sharp without breaking or splitting.
Unfortunately, trial and error is still the best way to discover which pencil sharpener best suits you. The two pencil sharpener brands I’ve used for years now are KUM and Dahle. Both are German made, and I find they work best and are of excellent quality. I have the KUM Ellipse pencil sharpener and the Dahle Canister pencil sharpener. For more pencil sharpener options, check out the Blick. Amazon is another option; the search there cast a much wider net, so results are broader, but there are a few products that look promising.
X-Acto Knife and Sandpaper Pointer: A Reliable Backup
As important as it is to have a reliable sharpener, it’s just as necessary to have a reliable backup sharpener. An X-Acto knife with a fresh blade is an inexpensive and easily accessible backup that always works, and you can find them at your local art supply stores and websites, such as Blick, as well as big box stores such as Home Depot, Walmart, and Target.
Using the X-Acto knife to sharpen your pencils allows you to choose how much of the graphite core is exposed, and how you sharpen it. Pair an X-Acto knife with a Sandpaper Pointer (or a sheet of low grit sandpaper) to have more control and customization of the point of your pencils rather than being beholden to the specs of your other sharpener(s). Having each option for sharpening allows for more flexibility and variety in your mark making and workflow.
When a lead holder and graphite sticks (or “leads”) are your choice, a lead pointer is the necessary sharpening tool. While a pencil sharpener must cut and sharpen the wood casing around the graphite as well as the graphite core, lead pointers need only bring the graphite stick itself to a point—without breaking the stick, of course. Lead sizes range from 2 mm up to 5.6 mm, so be sure to choose the pointer(s) that fit your tool(s).
I didn’t like the Staedtler Mars because its design was not smooth enough to prevent frequent breaks of my lead, and I found this extremely annoying and wasteful. Then I discovered “The Gedess” and it’s great! Interestingly, both brands are German made. It’s possible they’ve improved, or that the one I had was a dud. Who knows? Still, “The Gedess” works exceptionally well, never failing and rarely breaking my leads.
I definitely recommend “The Gedess” lead pointer, but it is more difficult to find. I have found it in two places: CultPens & Amazon (via a third-party seller). The most expansive list of lead pointers I have found so far comes from Cult Pens. They are a UK-based company, so factor in currency conversion and shipping when making purchases. I ordered two Gedess lead pointers from them years ago and both still work perfectly.
3. Erasers: Kneaded, Mechanical, Mars Plastic, & Pink Pearl
We all love “happy accidents”, but most of the time what we get are regular “oopsie” marks that need correcting, which makes having a few types of eraser helpful. I use three kinds: a kneaded eraser, a mechanical eraser, and a Mars Plastic eraser. Creating different types of drawings, on different surfaces, with different materials necessitates a bit of variety in how we lift, lighten, adjust, or remove our marks.
A kneaded eraser can be used for lifting media off a surface to lighten an area or erasing to remove a mark almost completely. I say “almost” because how well the kneaded eraser removes a mark depends on how dark the mark is and how much pressure was used to lay it down. A very dark mark pressed deeply into the surface will not be completely removed with a kneaded eraser.
Mars Plastic Eraser
While very versatile, kneaded erasers are not my tool of choice for heavy duty erasing. To erase a large area completely, I turn to my Mars Plastic eraser. It’s big and sturdy enough to cover a large area, but soft and effective enough to remove the marks without tearing up my surface. Mars Plastic erasers can also be cut or trimmed with an X-Acto knife to achieve an edge or a point.
Sometimes an area calls for smaller, more precise mark editing or removal. Kneaded erasers can be great for this because they can be shaped in whatever way you want. Its malleability, however, means it is not firm and cannot keep a point for long. A mechanical eraser works great for erasing with more precision. It pairs well with an eraser shield, and can also be cut with an X-Acto knife to achieve a sharper point or more crisp edge.
Pink Pearl Erasers
Pink Pearl erasers work great for erasing on most surfaces. Similar to the Mars Plastic, it’s a good everyday work horse type of eraser but there are a couple of caveats. In my experience, the Pink Pearl erasers can often leave unwanted, pink “ghost” marks behind after erasing. It’s like next level eraser poop, and often can’t be removed—which is very irritating since the point of using it was to remove an unwanted mark.
Additionally, a heavy hand and excessive erasing can mean wear and tear for your surface, so keep that in mind. Still, Pink Pearl erasers are quite durable, so I still recommend having one.
4. Lithographic Crayon or China Marker
While practicing gesture drawing in art school, I found myself looking for a less messy alternative to charcoal pencils and charcoal and Conte sticks. A schoolmate recommended I try Lithographic Crayons, and I’m glad I listened. Lithographic crayons are great! They have all the benefits of a stick tool with much less mess, apply smoothly, and are not easily smudged.
I find them ideal for figure drawing because they’re comfortable, versatile, and help me from stay away from small details while sketching because they don’t naturally come to sharp point. Lithographic crayons come in six degrees of hardness: Extra Soft, Soft, Medium, Hard, Extra Hard, and Copal.
China Markers offer a similar feel to lithographic crayons, though “Marker” seems a bit of misnomer to me as it’s more a cross between a colored pencil and a crayon in its consistency. If you appreciate a tool with smooth application and no smudging, give china markers a try. The only slightly annoying thing about china markers is the peeling mechanism, by which you expose more of the tool by pulling the inserted string, which cuts the paper covering and allows you to peel it away .
Sometimes the string becomes too long and gets in the way of drawing, or becomes detached completely and makes it difficult to pull more of the paper covering away. Keeping an X-Acto knife or scissors in your pencils toolbox is enough to remedy these minor irritations and get you back to drawing.
5. Col-Erase Colored Pencils
As we progress through our art fundamental studies, we come to a point where our practice needs the help of color. I am not a fan of diving deeply into colors early on, but when we practice Perspective it becomes necessary to have multiple colors to work with because perspective drawing yields a lot of lines on a page.
All those construction lines get confusing when they are all the same tone and graphite grey color, so having a set of Col-Erase pencils, or regular colored pencils, is amazingly helpful. Col-Erase pencils are an erasable type of colored pencil made by Prismacolor, and they are especially useful for perspective, layouts, and design. So, when you’re drawing construction lines to practice forms in perspective, you’ll be able to tell which lines go to what forms without all the eye crossing and hair tearing.
Regular sets of Crayola or generic brand of colored pencils work fine, but they cannot be completely erased. Still, the point of using colored pencils is to have clarity during construction. Erasing ability is helpful, but not essential. If you already have some colored pencils in your toolbox, get those used up first. It will give you a feel for the materials, assist in your practice, and give you an excuse to buy new ones 😉
6. 18” or 24” Ruler
A straight edge tool is more often necessary for technical drawing and design, such as Perspective. Once you’re familiar with how perspective works, your eye becomes trained to see when the perspective is off in a drawing—or so I’ve been told. I haven’t yet managed to develop this skilled and magical sight, but it sounds awesome. Practically speaking it’s extremely helpful. I’ve had the perspective of more than one drawing or painting corrected because I had instructors or schoolmates who could “see” my funky perspective.
Even when I develop this awesome skill, I will still need the assistance of a ruler, the horizon line, and vanishing points to make adjustments. Construction lines can get wildly long and go off the page, which is why I suggest using an 18”or 24” ruler rather than the standard twelve inch.
7. Fixative spray
When we finish work that we want to preserve, we must seal or “fix” it with fixative
spray so our work is protected from smudging, erasing, and yellowing. Fixative spray is a transparent protective coating that dries to a uniform finish (matte or glossy) without yellowing. Fixative sprays are available for charcoal, pencil, and pastel drawings. These spray fixatives must be applied in several coats and tend to have a strong smell, so I highly recommend applying them outside. Once the spray is dry, your work (and your nose) should be protected.
Surfaces: Art Materials to Draw On
1. Sketchbooks (with at least one having toned paper)
Sketching is our bread and butter. We must think on paper to pull out and develop our ideas before they are ready to be taken to finish. A sketchbook is not only a working space. For me it’s a place to make a colossal mess in pursuit of the art I want to create, as well as a repository for jotted down notes, thoughts, and ideas. Primarily it’s another tool for our expression and learning, so it is important to choose one you are comfortable with.
For example, I prefer hardbound sketchbooks to spiral-bound. I like my pages to stay put in my sketchbook, so spiral-bound or perforated page sketchbooks don’t work for me because I find loose or falling out pages irritating.
A toned paper sketchbook is useful for practicing with tones and values, and is a nice change of pace from blank white paper. Toned sketch paper most often comes in grey or tan, but the idea works the same regardless of color. Using different colored construction paper would work too.
Toned paper has a visible fibrous texture to it, and, for me, drawing on it adds a certain comfort to my process—like the space is a ready-made supportive presence, or background, for my sketches. I guess I find a toned surface more welcoming.
2. Pad of toned paper
I recommend a pad of toned paper for the same reasons I think a sketchbook of toned paper is important. With a larger pad of toned paper, you can complete larger drawings (portraits, illustrations, figure drawings, etc.) with all the benefits of a toned surface.
3. Newsprint Pads, Printer Paper, Mixed Media Pads, & Drawing Paper
Let’s talk about papers to draw on!
Newsprint is a great work horse surface. It’s inexpensive, durable, and works with any dry media tool. I prefer using newsprint for all my gesture drawing short pose practice, and I particularly like the Blick Studio Newsprint Pads. They are available in a variety of sizes (9”x12”, 12”x18”, 18”x24”, and 24”x36”), three of which are available in both 50 and 100 sheet counts.
Newsprint is ideal for practice and is meant to hold dry media such as pencil, charcoal, pastel, and ballpoint pen. Wet media does not hold up well on Newsprint–it’s not thick enough to hold much moisture, so bleeding and tearing happen quite easily.
Pen and ink and markers are amazing to practice with, especially with gesture drawing, so having another surface option here matters. Printer paper is cheap, easily accessible, and will hold marker and pen and ink much better than newsprint. Printer paper is loose, and stacks of it can be challenging (and weighty) to store. You may find binding it in some way, with staples or a three-ring binder, to make a DIY sketchbook helpful.
Mixed Media Paper
For more versatility with easier storage Mixed Media paper is a good choice. The sheet count is limited (30 to 60 sheets) and the cost a little higher, but for that you get a surface that will hold both dry and wet media such as watercolor, pastels, pencil, collage, and pen and ink. Mixed media paper is a good addition to any surfaces repertoire that you’ll want to have on hand. It adds variety to your toolbox, and is one of the best options for experimenting with other materials like paint, charcoal, pens, and more.
Practice isn’t all sketches. Finished pieces, such as still lives, figure drawings, and illustrations are also part of our practice, and for this type of work I recommend using Drawing paper. Drawing paper is usually off-white with a uniform surface, and will accept any dry media, marker, pen and ink, and light washes. Drawing paper can be used for sketches, but given the sheet count and cost I recommend keeping your use of it to “finished” work.
Must Have vs. Nice to Have
The most important thing to remember is your purpose. What is it that you’re working to learn and do? There are many different artist materials out there–certainly far more than we will ever need at one time–so focus on choosing those that support the work you’re making now.
I encourage you to choose materials that support your current goals without getting distracted by the multitude of other shiny supplies out there. Your future self, your wallet, and your storage space will thank you.
Simple Essentials for Digital Practice
For practicing most of the art fundamentals, the materials I have listed so far will take you far. For a few of them, like Light and Color, a digital painting app is extremely helpful.
Here is my list of tools and materials for digital practice:
1. Working device (desktop computer, laptop, or tablet)
2. Drawing tablet (without display) or tablet compatible stylus
3. Digital Painting application
Please forgive how super generic this list is. The area of digital tools is quite large and involved, so it would be too much to delve into here. Every aspect of your digital setup must be based on what works best for your artwork and also your budget. Thankfully, these days most of what we need (powerful video cards, plenty of storage space, quality screen resolution, pressure sensitivity, etc.) come standard with most computers and devices. To make this a bit more helpful I found some sites with additional information:
My focus is to be a helpful resource for your art journey, so I’m focusing my writing on all the aspects of how we make art. For now, I best serve you by pointing you in the direction of others who’ve already covered the best currently available digital resources.
Working digitally is a more forgiving (and less frustrating) way of studying Light than using traditional paints and brushes because it allows us to practice without needing to mix tones and colors manually. I find color theory is much less complex than it seems, but color mixing with traditional media is far more challenging than you’d expect. So, noticeably absent from my list are painting supplies, and that is intentional.
Learning must be done at a sustainable pace with digestible pieces of information spread out along the way. Introducing colors and brushwork too early can be distracting, overwhelming, and detrimental to our study of the other fundamentals, and it is absolutely essential that we have a firm grasp of line, form, and tones first.
Get that Mileage
We are makers, builders, creators, and storytellers. The best way to pull out our visions is to think on paper. No matter how you end up filling out your art supplies, the most important thing you can do with them is to sketch.
Sketch, sketch, sketch, and sketch some more! Sketch. Every. Single. Day. Draw and draw until you’ve filled your sketchbook. Then get another sketchbook and fill that, too. Don’t know what to draw? Start with the Fundamentals and Forms!
No matter where you are now, you will reach your goal. All you must do is breathe, believe, and draw. You got this 😉