favorite art tools: low-tech & old school

Once I have an illustration completed, I print out a few copies including one on card stock so that I can test out its “colorability” and have a little fun. I try to image people with different skill levels and how they may (or may not) struggle with some of the tiny spaces, the daunting larger spaces, and whether or not the lines are too think or thin. I also want to see how the illustration will look once it is colored.

I found that I really enjoy working with watercolor pencils. My daughter has a gorgeous set of Copic markers, and though I am temped to use them, I always grab my watercolor pencils. My favorites are those made by Caran D’Ache (the Museum Aquarelle series), Faber-Castell’s Albrecht Durer pencils, Prismacolor, Derwent (including the Inktense line), and last but certainly not least, what’s left of the old set of Staedtler Aquarelle watercolor pencils I picked up in South Africa back in the 80s. The Staedtler’s chronicled my time in the Kalahari (but that’s a story for another time).


Insect illustration with watercolor pencils, swatches, and a water brush

What I like about watercolor pencils is their versatility and ability to blend and layer color. I recently started using Pentel Aquash and Kurtake water brushes and plan to order a few others (including the new Derwent water brushes) to see which work best for me. It seems that many brands (like Jim Holtz, Mudder, Ohuhu, etc.) seem to be made by the same manufacturer (then branded out from there) but I am not sure.

At any rate, the water brushes work well for me and there is a high level of control when using water to blend colors. The paper I print my illustrations on (currently Georgia-Pacific Image Plus premium 110 lb card stock) does not become too saturated, and I can work in some pretty tight spaces. Blending larger spaces is a little more challenging, but if I saturate my brush with a little pigment and use that to blend what I’ve already colored, I can achieve decent coverage over larger areas.

I also find that going over areas I have used watercolor pigments with colored pencils helps me add more depth and more refined detail. I use a variety of brands when it comes to colored pencils. Prismacolor Premiers are a solid go-to, and I really love Faber-Castell’s Polychromos pencils. Bruynseel pencils lay down a nice rich coat of colors as do the Caran d’Ache Pablo and Luminance pencils. They are divine! For final layers (and sharper detail work) I rely on the Tombow Irojiten, Prismacolor Verithin, and Derwent Studio colored pencils. They are a little harder but help set my final layers. I do not own full sets of any of these pencils but instead, pick them up in stores when a certain color catches my eye, or I order them through Blick as needed.

Is anyone else in love with the Caran d’Ache white Luminance pencil? I don’t think I could live without it when it comes to highlights. Does anyone have a white pencil that works better? I’d love to know, and am always interested in trying new brands.

A few other favorite tools? I can’t be without my set of Isograph technical pens and pencils, and my small ring binder jammed full of color swatches in various groupings. I keep adding to the swatch mayhem. Vellum and Bristol paper, watercolor paper, Faber-Castell PITT pens and Sakura Micron pens (they seem to be all over the house), tape (any and all kinds–and that goes for erasures, too) and a few Ott-Lite lamps. And I have become attached to the pencil case I ordered to replace all the tin boxes my pencils originally came in. Love the tin boxes, but I’m more organized now and there is less clanging around and spillage. If you have kids, pets, and are prone to clumsiness, you know what I am talking about.

If anyone is inclined to share some of their favorite old school, low-tech art tools, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. My favorite high tech tools can be found in this post.


My oddly organized swatch book – I keep everything in a small ring binder so I can easily add pages, move them around, and pull them out as needed.