Tools of the Trade

Sometimes the question, “What tools do you use?”, gets a bad rap. However it actually is a great question. If you walk into an art store there are a plethora of different types of pens, brushes, paints, etc. Today we would like to give some clarity as to what materials we feel are essential, which are nice to have, and those we feel are not necessary. We’ll geek out over the tools we love and share advice as to what you should get, what you may want to steer clear of, and why.

Today we are going to answer these questions:

What are the tools, the programs, and the apps that we use to create the art that we do?

What is not essential, what is nice to have, and what is essential?

Traditional Tools:

Jake: The last book he did was ALL digital. However, that is not the norm, usually he uses traditional at some point in the process. The sketchbook is where a lot of the traditional work happens for him but, a lot of times in the process he will go back and forth from digital to traditional at some point.

Jake’s Traditional Toolset:
Sketchbook, pencil, and a pen.

The reason these tools are so important is that they don’t have to be charged or plugged in. You can carry them wherever you go. You can use them to jot down ideas, to work on a character design or a composition that you are trying to figure out. A sketchbook is absolutely essential. If you don’t have one, this is something you should reconsider.

Jake used to work on loose sheets of paper, and that’s fine and all, however, sometimes he would lose an illustration or a drawing, or it was always hard to organize them by date. But now all of his sketchbooks are dated and kept in a drawer and are organized in order. Keeping a sketchbook makes it easy to organize your drawings.

The Moleskines Cahier Sketchbook

What type of sketchbook should you use? It all comes down to what type of paper you like to use. Jake has used a lot of different sketchbooks but his favorite is the Moleskine Cahier extra large plain journal, they are flimsy, and the paper is just good enough to keep his pencil, ink, and marker markings in place, they don’t smudge too much. It’s nice because with this particular sketchbook it doesn’t feel too precious, it feels like a good workbook where it doesn’t feel like every drawing has to be pretty but you can do nicer drawings in there if you want to.

PrismaColor Col-Erase Pencils

For a sketching pencil Jake wants something that works well with ink and doesn’t smudge with his hand, and the Prismacolor Col-Erase pencils are perfect. He takes an exacto knife with him in his tool bag for sharpening them, or a pencil sharpener in the studio. He likes the orange or vermillions, or the reds, they are nice because the ink stands out in contrast to the pencil while you can highlight things with the red or you can draw lightly and the ink will really stand out.


Some sort of technical pen is essential. They are great for taking notes, a 0.3-0.8, maybe a 0.5 is good for jotting things down or doing quick loose sketches. Copic Multiliner 0.5 Pen.

Brush pens are great for going from thin to thick in one stroke, they are a tool that you can use to bust out a really nice drawing or illustration very fast. Jake’s favorite right now is the Copic Gasenfude.

Will’s Traditional Toolset: nothing is essential. Only the traditional aesthetic is.

Lee’s Traditional Toolset:

Sketchbook/portable workbook.

Mechanical pencil. There is nothing worse than trying to draw with a dull pencil. It’s a visceral experience, almost like scraping nails on a chalkboard.

Loves drawing on cold pressed watercolor paper. If you don’t sharpen your pencil it hurts your nice line quality. The mechanical pencil gets rid of that. Lee likes to use the .05 basic size.

Moleskine Cover Sketch Album, Plain

It’s a new experience when you have a horizontal sketchbook rather than a more narrow workspace. The wide one is awesome too.

There is another watercolor sketchbook that Lee likes.

Nice to Have: Lee likes to make a sketchbook with the paper he will use in the studio. Then when you work on your final piece it is just a one to one translation and you know already how i the paper feels because you’re using the same paper. In watercolor the paper is everything, you can use cheap brushes or paint but the paper dictates everything.

M Graham Watercolor Paints Great for use in the sketchbook and in the studio. The reason is because it is really easy to reuse the paint, if he just sprays some water on it with a spritzer it comes back like he just poured it out. This is great for when you are traveling.

Winsor and Newton are great but they don’t rewet very well. This is the brand typically everyone buys when getting started and then when they try and make a portable sketchbook it doesn’t really work because the paint doesn’t rewet or come back

Watercolor Pencils

Watercolor pencils are great, and Lee uses them a lot mixed with the watercolor. The difference between that and a regular pencil is that once the surface is wet a lot of color is released, you can even draw on wet paper. He’ll paint and draw right into the wet and it’s great.

Lee’s Favorite Prismacolor Col-Erase pencils: Tuskan Red or Indigo. Feels that other colors are too saturated.

Beat up Dip Pen

Reason for beat up is there is some oil on the nib from the factory., wash them with vinegar and water, or dish soap. Don’t use a lighter, it will ruin your pen. Dip pens are like guitars, there is something special about them when they are older.

Chip Brush

The worst, low quality bristle brush from Michaels, or at Home Depot.

Lee buys them for 59 cents, 79 cents, then he runs them over with his car or scrapes them on the sidewalk, you can get strokes with them that you can’t get any other way. They can make beautiful strokes like Chinese calligraphy or smooth washes. You don’t need a $100, $200 brush, people buy these expensive brushes for watercolor but they are unnecessary.

Lee uses the same things for studio painting but then has a couple more essential things:

The Incredible Art Board. That plasticy board that you can staple into. Lee has no patience for prep work, he wants to be painting, not sanding something. With watercolor, you have to tape it down to the board and wet it. He just puts the paper down on the board and then just staples it, the board can take staples over and over again. He has had the same board for 7 years. He’ll put the drawing down, wet it, and then staple it, and then just start painting it right there. From the time he had the idea to the time he can be painting is only 5 minutes, so very fast.

Liquitex White Acrylic Ink In combination with the dip pen. It’s great because it’s fully opaque and it’s great to get that full opaque white. If you’re a purist you’re probably cringing but Lee’s not a purist and mixes everything in there. You can get things back to white and you can paint watercolors on top of it because it’s an acrylic base.

Gouache Paints: Lee doesn’t love gouache, but uses it to add little opaque details back on top of the watercolor.

Gesso, also uses this to paint on top of the painting to get it back to white and then paints on top of it.

Paper Canson Montval: Cheap student grade paper, has a medium to a lot of sizing which means the water color doesn’t go into the paper too much, so you can do some cool effects with it. But it can be hard to work with, it depends on your style.

Yeah, and that’s it! Haha, it sounds like a lot, but it is really only 10-11 things. Lee uses all of these in his studio and he has a more condensed list for travel. He can create almost any painting using these materials.

A Word About Quality

Will doesn’t work traditionally right now. But when he was teaching at the university, he had students who were using materials that could barely be called a brush or paper.

There are times where you can cut corners and there are times that you can’t.

With oil and acrylics paint there is Winsor and Newton: The Galleria Brand which like a lot of other paints is “student grade.” It’s watered down and doesn’t have as much pigment in it, so if you want to create thick impasto textures you just can’t do it. The same goes with brushes, if you want to make a graceful line, some brushes just can’t do it because they just are not the right brush.

Higher end synthetic brushes are what Will would use a lot.

In terms of paper there were students who would use low weight paper instead of heavy weight paper because it was cheaper. If the cheaper paper gives you the results you are looking for that is great. But if spending a little bit more on the nicer paper would make a difference in the quality of your work, in those cases it’s worth it to do that.

Sometimes students would tell Will, “I just can’t do what you are doing.” Will would reply, “I couldn’t do it either if I was using your equipment, so you have to forego a latte or something..”

A really good teacher can help you know what supplies you actually need. With traditional mediums you are dealing with physical properties. Going into an art store can be overwhelming because there are so many options. A good teacher can simplify that and help you know what you should get.

For example quinacridone magenta and alizarin crimson look the same. When you mix them with white or any other color they don’t mix the same. The quinacridone becomes really vibrant, and the alizarin, on the other hand, becomes quite dull.

Jake had a friend at Blue Sky who said that as an artist you have to budget as if you are poor, except with art supplies you need to switch mindsets and act like you’re a millionaire to get good tools. Maybe you need to make sacrifices to get the tools that you need.

Traditional Non-Essentials:

Millions of paints: all designed to separate you from your money. You only need a few and you can mix them to get the colors you need. Here are some of our color pallets that we use:

Will’s Color Pallette List: It’s on the intro page for his Smooth Blends with Acrylics- Dry Brush Technique Class.

Lee’s mom was taking a watercolor class and he was 3,000 miles away and couldn’t help, but she came home after the first day with a list of 21 different paints the teacher wanted her to get. Lee doesn’t know what he would do with 21 paints, let alone a beginner.

With just a dash of a color you can make almost any of those colors.

Using a small number of paints is great because when you make a body of work, and you used the same 5-7 pigments for all of them it will give all of your work a harmony because they are all made of the same pigments.

Electronic drawing desk: a sweet addition to Lee’s studio. Can raise or lower it to meet his needs. If he is using a big canvas he can lower it to be at hand level instead of having to flip it upside down like he used to. He got his for $350-$375 on Craig’s list, but it’s a couple thousand dollar  table at retail.

Pencil Sharpener: Jake uses the Panasonic Autostop KP77N. It looks like it’s from an 80’s office, because it was. It sharpens pencils at such an angle that it is sharper than anything more modern. The engine is industrial strength.

Full Set of Copic Markers. Anything from 50-150, usually there are colors you can’t get with watercolors, really nice bright sharp colors, you can lay them in quick and you don’t have to let them dry.

Compact Watercolor Set with a Watercolor Pen.

When traveling and want to get a full range of color.

It’s the equivalent of 50 markers in the size of a large wallet. It has these watercolor biscuits. The pen has water in the handle so you can flush color out when you want a new one and you can mix colors in the tray.

Pair this with a brush pen or pen that is waterproof.

6 pack carrier of your favorite soft drink, use that to carry around your markers, has a handle and everything!

Digital Tools

What’s the most essential tool?

A Computer, with a cintiq monitor hooked up to it, iPad Pro, Apple Pencil, Photoshop, and Procreate.

Will loves the iPad Pro. It changed everything. You can work anywhere on this thing. But he feels that it works as well for taking things all the way to finish like a Cintiq can. He likes the Wacom Cintiq, but doesn’t like drawing on a tablet where your image and where you are drawing are different places. The hand eye coordination is tricky.

However there are some artists, like Jed Henry and Jim Madsen who prefer the tablets.

But if he had to pick one between the Cintiq or the iPad, he would choose the Cintiq and Photoshop. There are other ones but that’s what Will likes to use. With the Cintiq you are tethered to the office. The reason Will loves the iPad is because you can be at home and Procreate has new tools like Liquify.

However, If you are a student don’t go to digital right away. If you are a beginner, or an up and coming artist. Then start with traditional and learn from your mistakes more. Digital, with all of the editing tools, can make it hard to develop your process. Unless you go into it purposefully choose to limit your tools.The problem that most students have is that when they start a drawing or painting digitally they might come out with something that they like but they can’t reproduce because the amount of tools and steps that went into it was so vast. Then when they try and do anything traditionally they flounder.

Procreate is great and made for the iPad.

Will does all of his initial thumbnails, sketches, and finished sketches in Procreate. He starts the process for getting them ready to paint. If he is going to do his color style then he will export it and paint it with Photoshop and the Cintiq. If he does his pencil crosshatch style then he will export it and do some quick color in Photoshop.

Will has the luxury of having both.

Lee uses the same things as will, but uses Astopad which turns his iPad into another monitor when hooked to his computer, and he can use photoshop on his iPad.

Jake finally got an iPad as his end of the year gift to himself. Now he has done more drawing at home than he has in a couple years, it’s so nice to be able to sit on the couch and do a nice finished piece. Was up until midnight drawing without even knowing it.

Can’t recommend this new version of the iPad enough.

Essentials for Jake: Photoshop on some sort of computer. He prefers Mac’s. He spent a lot of time for a couple of years on the phone trying to fix his old Windows computer. Now with his Mac he hasn’t had to worry about that.

A Cintiq paired with a computer is so essential.

There is this designer that Jake follows, and he had to save up enough money to get a computer. And so he went up to Alaska and worked at a resort scrubbing dishes and saved all he could to get the computer setup that he needed and that is what got him started.

Nice to Have: the iPad.

Essential: Epson Scanner. If you want to work traditionally and bring things into Photoshop.

Nice to Have: Good studio printer. The printer is something both Lee and Jake use quite a bit for professional work, making prints, and Lee uses it for taking sketches from his sketchbook and then he lowers the opacity and then blows it up and prints it on watercolor paper. It is so important to take the magic of the sketch into the final.

You can buy things used! People usually take good care of these things. Lee’s laptop was used, Will’s Wacom was used and he’s had it for 9 years with no problems. Wacom is having this problem where they made their products so good that they aren’t breaking fast enough.

Jake: iPad pro or Cintiq computer combo? The latter, the Cintiq computer combo. That’s where all of his professional work happens. It needs to be able to save and store all of those files.

An iPad is designed to last 3-4 years and the computer Cintiq combo should last a long time.

The Cintiq, Photoshop, computer combo is the standard. This is the grouping that will serve the most people the best. Will did a review on a cheaper non Wacom drawing pad and it felt like a first car vs a sports car when compared to the quality of a Cintiq.

With all of that said, you should be able to draw and create with anything. For a costume design class Lee brought in his son’s 64 pack of Crayola’s and did demos using those. You don’t want to be tied down to your magic pen. These essential things are nice to have but the important part is the art.

We use all of this technology but it is all about the image and the art. It’s what’s in your head.

It’s not the tools but then again it is the tools. There are nuances that you can only achieve with certain tools.  


Jake Parker: Instagram: @jakeparker, Youtube: JakeParker44

Will Terry: Instagram: @willterryart, Youtube: WillTerryArt

Lee White: Instagram: @leewhiteillo

Alex Sugg:

Tanner Garlick: Instagram: @tannergarlick

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