Materials - What to Buy

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Drawing Materials

  • HB, 2B, 4B, 6B, 9B pencils or 6B Graphite Stick or a medium stick of willow charcoal
  • craft knife for sharpening pencils
  • kneadable eraser
  • 4 large bulldog clips or a roll of masking tape
  • A2 drawing paper - cartridge or similar; plenty of scrap paper
  • drawing board

holding your knife

Sharpening pencils - use a sharp knife rather than rotary sharpener. Hold the pencil in your left hand, point away from your body. Guide the knife with a thumb on the back of it and shave the wood away to reveal the lead, then shape the lead to a good working length. Thick leads can be shaved flat on one side to shade large areas of a drawing quickly.

Pencils are a stick of graphite mixed with clay in a wooden holder. Varying the proportions makes the lead (early pencils used lead instead of graphite) harder or softer, and pencils are graded accordingly. Take care not to drop pencils on a hard surface; this will shatter the lead, making the pencil useless.

  • HB is a good all-purpose pencil.
  • 6H pencil is very hard; it makes a faint line, but retains its point well. Used for drafting, layout, precision work. (Remember: H is for Hard)
  • 6B is very soft; makes a thick, black line. Used for sketching, shading, outlining. Will not retain its point, but can be sharpened to make a variety of lines. Softer pencils up to 9B are available from art suppliers. (Remember - B is for Black)
  • 3B is good for general sketching.

Graphite sticks are thick pencils without the wood, and are graded in the same way as pencils. They are probably easier to use, not requiring sharpening so often. Extra-thick graphite sticks are also available.

Charcoal It looks like a burnt stick; it is a burnt stick. It is probably the earliest material used by the first artist and itís still hard to beat. Charcoal is made by burning willow twigs or vines in the absence of air so that they carbonize rather than bursting into flame. Willow charcoal comes in sticks of three different sizes - fine, medium and thick. The only difference is the diameter of the stick; fine sticks may be useful for details and fine lines, thicker sticks are excellent for covering a large area of paper quickly and easier to hold (you will spend a lot of your time picking up your charcoal from the floor).
Willow charcoal makes a powdery mark on paper that can easily be smudged or erased. Compressed charcoal is powdered charcoal compressed into a stick like a pastel. It gives a beautiful, dense velvety black but is difficult to erase.

Kneadable (putty) Eraser can be rolled or kneaded to shape to lift off very precise areas of pencil or charcoal. Use a dabbing or rolling motion rather than rubbing, which will smudge. After long use the eraser will become clogged with charcoal dust and will no longer work; it must then be discarded. A kneadable eraser will also work with graphite pencils.

Erasers Any good-quality pencil eraser will do to erase pencil drawings, but over-use of an eraser is not encouraged. It is better to work over the drawing until the lines are right then re-draw it. Using an eraser may damage the surface of the paper, leaving it rough and spoiling the effect of the finished work. This is a serious problem if watercolour washes are to be used on the page. Work up your drawing on separate paper then trace the finished design onto watercolour paper. Always use a kneadable eraser to remove pencil lines from watercolour paper.

Bulldog Clips are used to attach your drawing paper to a drawing board. They will need to be as big as possible to hold it securely. You may prefer to use masking tape.

Miss Barsham says
NEVER stick drawing pins into a drawing board
NEVER use it as a cutting board.

Drawing Paper There are many different papers available, and the only way to discover which ones you really like is to try them out. To begin with, however, a pad of cartridge paper is adequate for drawing in pencil or charcoal. Avoid very cheap paper with a shiny surface (e.g. photocopying paper) as it will not take charcoal well. Buy A2 size paper, or larger; anything smaller will cramp your drawing. An excellent, comparatively inexpensive general-purpose paper is the blue-covered "Como" brand pad, which is suitable for all drawing mediums and for watercolour or acrylic painting; unless you want to use oil paint, you will not need to buy any other paper. (Oil painters see note on oil painting paper, below)

Drawing Board There are various drawing boards for sale, most of which are heavy and expensive, but may be just what you want in your studio. For general purposes, however, your board need only be a piece of Masonite or craft board cut slightly larger than your drawing paper. Cardboard is not suitable as it is not rigid enough; plywood and chipboard do not generally have a smooth enough surface. Your board must be thick enough not to bend, and be quite smooth. If using a board that has been painted make sure all brush-strokes have been sanded out. Even tiny nicks or lumps (like bits of sticky tape or blobs of paint) on a drawing board can show up in your drawing, so always have two or three sheets of paper under your page.


Coloured Drawing

  • drawing board, bulldog clips or masking tape, kneadable eraser (see above)
  • coloured pencils
  • small set of chalk pastels (not oil pastels)
  • drawing paper
  • bristle brush (e.g. old oil painting brush)
  • old towel
  • clean rags

Coloured Pencils are not just for primary school. They are a convenient and expressive medium favoured by designers and illustrators. They should be sharpened and cared for in the same way as blacklead pencils - the only difference is that the graphite "lead" is replaced with various pigments mixed with wax binder. The better the quality, the more intense the colours and the smoother the application. Different brands are harder or softer; good quality pencils can be bought individually, so you can buy one or two of different brands to decide which you prefer. Soft pencils are good for colouring large areas; hard ones will hold a point well, and are good for fine detail. The drawing below is in coloured pencil.

Soft, or Chalk Pastels, are sticks of pigment with just enough gum arabic to keep them together. When rubbed on an abrasive surface they leave a layer of pigment and many layers of different colours can be built up. Pastels are very simple to use because of their immediacy; they can be smudged together, colours can be mixed, and a broad range of effects can be achieved. A basic set of twelve colours is plenty to begin with.

An old oil-painting brush is very useful for blending pastels or for dusting off excess pigment when revising part of a pastel painting.

Place a towel on the floor under your easel. When you drop your pastels (as you inevitably will) this will stop them shattering on a hard floor or rolling under awkward bits of furniture. It will also protect your carpet from pastel dust. You may need a very large towel.

Oil pastels contain wax and linseed oil to stop them smudging. This makes it difficult to mix colours together and limits the range of effects possible. However, they are very cheap, come in vivid colours and can produce some striking pictures. Artistís quality oil pastels are much softer and have more intense colours than cheaper brands.

Drawing Paper suitable for pastels must have plenty of tooth, or roughness, to hold the pigment. Cartridge paper can be used, but is too smooth for good results. Pads of pastel paper in various colours are available and very useful, but it is easier to begin on white paper. The blue-covered Como pads are a good, inexpensive paper for beginners. You can buy single sheets of many different papers; the best thing to do is try out as wide a variety as possible and decide which you prefer. Extreme artists use wet-and-dry sandpaper, which is lovely to work on but they go through a lot of pastels.


Colour Mixing

  • ruler
  • compass
  • eraser
  • clean rags
  • watercolour brushes - sizes 10 and 16
  • several A2 size sheets paper
  • watercolour palette or several old saucers
  • small tubes of gouache paint (not acrylic): white, red, blue, and yellow

Ruler, compass, eraser - you only need the standard primary school variety. Borrow a compass from your childís maths set; you probably won't need it again.

Watercolour Brushes - good quality brushes are essential. All watercolourists dream of incredibly expensive pure sable brushes, but these are not necessary when youíre starting out. N.A.M. series 700 synthetic brushes are ideal, and there are some excellent nylon (Taklon) brushes available. The sizes given here are only a guide; you need not have exactly these sizes so long as you have one large brush and a smaller one.
When you gently bend the hairs of a good brush they will spring upright again as soon as you release them, and when wet will come to a fine point, no matter how large the brush. Soft, floppy mop-like brushes are occasionally used for other techniques, but not for the exercises you will be beginning with.
Paint brushes are graded by number, the smaller the number the smaller the brush. Buy the largest brush you can afford (probably a size 16) and a smaller one. The ideal range would be sizes 1, 4, 8, 16, but if you can only afford one get a size 16.
Larger brushes are easier to use, even for surprisingly fine lines, as they will hold more paint than a very fine brush and it will flow through the hairs more easily.

Caring for watercolour brushes
Always make sure you wash all traces of paint out of the brush when you finish work for the day. Swish it backwards and forwards in water and wipe it on the side of the water container then dry it on a clean rag. Donít swirl a brush round and round in the water as this can tangle the hairs.
When carrying or storing brushes make sure the hairs are protected. Keep them in a rigid container or in a rolled brush carrier. It is depressing to find the hairs of your brushes splayed or curled over when you take them out to paint. I find a split-bamboo table mat makes a good carrier for brushes; just roll them up in it, taking care not to catch the hair between the strips of mat. The handles may protrude below the bottom of the roll, but that doesn't matter so long as the business end is protected.

Miss Barsham says
NEVER leave a paintbrush standing in a jar of water.
NEVER ďscrubĒ with a watercolour brush or thump it up and down on the bottom of the water jar; the hairs will become matted and ruin it forever.

Watercolour paper (300 gsm): The notes about pastel paper apply here, too. There is a mind-boggling variety of watercolour papers on the market. You can buy blocks and pads of watercolour paper and you can buy individual sheets. For gouache, your Como pad is as good as anything. GSM is the unit used in measuring the thickness of paper - 300 gsm means it weighs 300 grams per square meter. Photocopying paper is 80 or 90 gsm.

Watercolour Palette or several old saucers. Plastic watercolour palettes are very cheap. Even cheaper are ice-block trays. You probably have some lurking in the back of a cupboard. Or you can pick them up for 50Ę from an Op Shop. Make sure theyíre white; coloured ones will make it too hard to see what colours you are mixing. For gouache you can also use a flat palette - a plastic plate, the lid off an ice-cream container (white, of course) or a piece of white Laminex will do. There is no such thing as a palette that is too big; every palette is too small.

Gouache (pronounced goo-arsh) is similar to the poster paint you may have used at school. It is very easy to use and favoured by designers and commercial artists.
Gouache and watercolour paints both consist of pigment bound with gum arabic which softens in water then hardens again when the water evaporates, and remains water-soluble. Watercolour is designed for thin, transparent washes, and the pigment is ground extremely finely. Gouache is designed to be used in big, opaque blocks of colour. The pigment is not ground so finely, and ďfillersĒ have been added to some colours to make them a bit thicker and cover the paper better. Gouache is generally cheaper than watercolour and much more forgiving. You need only four tubes of paint to start with - red, yellow, blue and white. You will discover you have a choice of several of each of these colours - choose whichever you like best when you look at the range.

Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is a relatively new material, developed in the 1940s. The pigment is bound in a synthetic polymer which dries indissolubly. Artistsí quality acrylic paint comes in the same range of colours as oil paints and can be used in the same manner, but is thinned with water rather than oil or turpentine. This is one advantage; another is that it can be used on almost any surface, paper, canvas, board etc. with a minimum of preparation. It handles in a similar way to gouache (see above) and dries almost as quickly, but a drawback is that once it dries on the palette you have to mix up a new batch if you need that particular colour again.

Because they do not require volatile solvents, acrylic paints are often used in preference to oils, particularly in painting classes conducted in a confined space. The lessons learned in using acrylic apply equally well to oil paint, and the equipment required is just the same - brushes, palette knife, rags. You can use oil sketch paper or heavy drawing paper, and will need only one container, for water.

Although you can mix acrylic paint with your brush, it is better to use a palette knife - see the note in the oil painting section below. You will probably find a large, flat palette similar to that used for oil painting (see below) easiest for acrylic painting. To overcome the problem of mixed colours drying too quickly on your palette, make a wet palette. Use a paper palette or a large piece of greaseproof paper resting on a folded wet towel in a flat tray (large flat baking trays or kitty litter trays are good). This will keep your mixed colour moist and usable for much longer.

There is a range of different additives you can buy to modify the handling behaviour of acrylic paint - retardants will slow the drying time, allowing you to blend colours and keeping the paint on your palette usable for longer, and various gels let you build up impasto. Experiment with these to find out what you can do with them.


Oil Painting

  • A2 pad oil sketch paper
  • canvas board (approx. 40cm x 60cm)
  • turpentine
  • dipper (for clean turps as painting medium)
  • large screw-top jar (for used turpentine and brush washing)
  • oil painting brushes - bristle 1 each flat - sizes 2, 4, 6 & 12 (minimum - others optional)
  • palette knife (preferably not plastic)
  • palette (any flat, solvent-proof white surface)
  • tubes of oil paint: titanium white, red, blue, yellow

Canvas board This is a piece of cardboard with canvas glued on one side. Although the cardboard tends to buckle, canvas boards have the advantage of being ready to paint on with no further preparation. You can also buy pads or individual sheets of oil-painting paper, which is excellent for practising colour mixing and for your painting exercises.

Turpentine is used both for thinning paint and for cleaning paintbrushes. Pure turpentine is preferable to mineral turpentine, mainly because it smells better, or you may prefer the odourless solvent available from artists suppliers. Don't get talked into buying cute little bottles of expensive solvents or painting medium; you will need at least a litre of turpentine for some serious brush washing. Use of other mediums is beyond the scope of these notes, but you can introduce them as and when required.

Dipper A dipper is a small container for clean turps or other painting medium. You can buy cute little ones to clip onto the edge of a palette, but they are generally too small to dip your biggest brushes in. Once you begin to find out how you want to paint, you may find one useful. Itís cheaper and easier to use a small cat-food or baked bean tin. Make sure itís thoroughly clean and dry and youíve hammered down any sharp edges your tin-opener may have left.

Large screw-top jar or a 600 ml capacity enamel bowl (for used turpentine and brush washing). If you are attending painting classes you will need both; the bowl to wash your brush in while painting, and the jar in which to carry your dirty turpentine home again. You can use a large jam tin instead of a bowl. See the note above concerning edges.

Oil painting brushes Once again, buy good quality brushes. Cheap oil painting brushes are too soft and the bristles begin to curl and spread after the first use, or, worse still, fall out. Oil painting brushes are more robust than watercolour brushes, but should always be cleaned well after use and carried and stored with care. Watercolour brushes can be used for oil painting, but will not survive very long, and once you have used them for oil paint they can never again be used for watercolour. Round oil painting brushes are available, but I generally find the flat ones are more useful- a good range is at least one each of sizes 2, 4, 6 & 10 . You should, however, try using a round brush; you may like it. Oil painting brushes are numbered in the same way as watercolour brushes - small number = small brush.

This is a painting knife

This is a palette knife

Palette knife A palette knife is used to mix paint on the palette. It looks like a small spatula, with a flexible metal blade which may or may not have a zig-zag bend in it. You need a palette knife with a reasonably large blade. A painting knife has a diamond-shaped blade with a slender stem. To all intents and purposes they are interchangeable, but a palette knife is stronger. Painting knives are designed for putting paint on canvas and the blade will snap easily if roughly handled. Plastic palette knives are incredibly cheap, but generally brittle and seldom survive their first painting. Lately, however, there have been some better ones around that seem to be more flexible and last longer. You might find plastic palette knives better if mixing acrylic paint on a "wet" palette (see above).
I like to use two palette knives; you can use a palette knife and an old kitchen knife to scrape paint off the palette knife (cooks will know what I mean).

Palette an oil painting palette must be flat as you mix up large quantities of paint. It must also be large - the absolute minimum size is 30cm square. There is no such thing as a palette that is too big. Any flat, solvent-proof white surface is good. A piece of white Laminex or Perspex is ideal; many students buy cheap glass cutting boards which will do, but are generally a bit small. If you buy one with roses or dolphins on it you will find the back is plain white and a nice smooth surface for mixing paint. The little plastic feet come off easily, and with energetic application of a paint scraper so does the picture, if you can be bothered. If you buy a craft-wood palette you may have to rub plenty of raw linseed oil (from your hardware shop) into it before use or you will find it absorbs the oil out of your paint, and it can be difficult judging your colour mixtures on the brown surface. The tiny little oval palette you see in pictures is practically useless. Donít even accept one as a gift. In an absolute emergency you can open out an empty milk carton and use that, but you will find it frustratingly small and it will slide around on the table. The same goes for the disposable paper palettes you can buy, although they can be handy and you can have several in use at once.

Oil paint You need red, yellow, blue and white, as with gouache. Artists quality oil paints are preferable, but well-known brands of student quality colours can be used. The main difference is that student colours contain more fillers so the colours arenít so intense. The expensive part of paint is the pigment. Oil paints are labelled with a number from one to four. Series One pigments are the cheapest, and include ochres and earth colours; Series Four pigments are the most expensive and include all the really good colours. Avoid boxed sets of oil paints with tiny little tubes like watercolours. They are a waste of money as you will use an entire tube full of paint in about four brush-strokes, and will have to buy a larger tube of white before you even start.
You will eventually need to buy more colours than those above, but at the start it is easier and less confusing to limit your colours to three (plus white). Only buy ready mixed colours if you are sure you need them. Mixed colours are produced by mixing two or more different pigments together; it is better to buy the basic colours and mix your own.
Good quality oil paints will have a code consisting of letters and numbers on the label. The letters indicate the colour of the pigment, eg. PY = yellow; PG = green, PR = red, PW = white and so on. The number is an international code indicating precisely which pigment has been used.

Newspapers and rags are indispensible when oil painting. You are forever having to wipe your brush; itís a good idea to have plenty of newspaper under your palette, not only to protect table/benchtops, but to give your brush a quick wipe as you go along. You will need both rags and paper when cleaning up at the end of the session.


An easel can be improvised by leaning your drawing board against a wall (stand it on a small table) or the back of a chair. Donít buy an easel until you decide what medium you will be using; if you decide to work in watercolour or draw in pen and ink you may not need one at all. If you want to use oil paint you will need one large enough to take stretched canvases of various sizes; if you want to work outdoors you may need to get a folding one with telescopic legs, like the one on the left. Delicate little wooden easels with attached paint-boxes are usually too flimsy to be of much use. Those painting miniatures (any painting less than 15 cm x 21 cm, i.e. A5 size) might use a small easel that stands on the table-top, but this is not usually satisfactory for larger oil paintings. An easel needs to be robust and hold your painting or drawing firmly without falling over or collapsing at the wrong moment. Take your time and choose the one that best suits your purposes.


Other Materials

Some things you may find handy as you go on are

  • conté sticks
  • felt-tip pens
  • pen and nib
  • drafting pens and fountain pens
  • ink

Conté is similar to pastel, but a bit harder. It comes in a nice variety of browns and greys and is beautiful for drawing. It behaves very much like charcoal, but the reddish colour is softer and very attractive. You can get some good effects on light brown paper; use white conté to put in highlights at the end.

Felt-tip pens come in different thicknesses - Pilot and Artline are the most common brands, and you can get a very fine point. They are excellent for quick sketches and can be used in conjunction with washes instead of using a pen and nib, but be aware that not all inks are waterproof.
Ballpoint pens are similarly useful and very cheap; always draw with a black pen. The disadvantage of both felt-tip and ball-point pens is that most are not very light-fast, so unless you keep your drawings in the dark you will find they begin to fade surprisingly rapidly. With some pens you will notice the difference after a couple of weeks in bright sunlight. A more serious disadvantage is that after several years the ink may begin to bleed right through the paper and spread into a blur instead of a crisp line. For this reason, you should never use a ball-point pen to write on the back of valuable photographs.

Pen and nib - another old but still excellent drawing implement. A soft nib is easier to use than a very stiff one. After you have been using one for a while it gradually wears to suit your individual style. The trick when using a nib pen is not to put any weight on it; dip it into the ink just as far as the top of the little hole in the middle, then let it glide across the page. Take care of nibs; they are easily damaged and itís annoying when a disaster befalls your favourite and you have to break in a new one.
Chinese ink and brush set
An old-fashioned fountain pen is nice for drawing, but you have the same trouble with impermanent ink. Putting Indian ink or other drawing inks in most fountain pens clogs them up and ruins them. Drafting pens are designed to take these inks, and are useful if you can be bothered cleaning them. They make a regular, mechanical line that is difficult to vary, but are splendid for very precise work.

Ink comes in many varieties. Indian ink is permanent, waterproof and light-fast and is the most commonly used. There are shellac-based drawing inks in a range of colours, and there are some good acrylic based black drawing inks as well as the special inks designed for use in drafting pens. Chinese ink comes in a solid block. To use it you need a ceramic palette or a special ink-stone. You can buy boxed sets containing ink, stone, brush rests, an ink pot, goat hair brushes and several sheets of rice paper. Put a few drops of water on the inkstone then rub the end of the ink block on it. Add a few more drops of water as needed. The longer you work the ink block on the stone the more intensely black will the ink gathering at the end of the stone become. All inks can be diluted with water to produce lighter tones.


A viewfinder is a simple, handy gadget you can make yourself. It is no more complicated than a couple of L-shaped pieces of cardboard held together with paper clips or re-usable adhesive. It is used to isolate part of a subject from its surroundings, making it simpler to work out a composition. By moving the pieces of cardboard you can adjust the window to match the proportions of your drawing paper or canvas.

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