At the risk of succumbing to a blog and media cliché, I couldn’t resist counting down a “best of” list for the year. So here is my list of top 10 art tools and supplies for 2012 (except for No. 1, the numbering does not necessarily indicate a ranking of importance):
10. Stillman & Birn Gamma and Alpha series sketchbooks (not pictured – the solid black covers made the photo too dark). I started my first S&B Alpha in February, and it took me a while to warm up to the paper, which I knew a lot of artists were raving about. Although it held up well to light washes, and I liked the subtle tooth, the show-through when I scanned pages annoyed me. But the more I used it, the more I appreciated its qualities: a hardbound binding that can open almost completely flat; paper with sufficient weight to handle a wash but still thin enough for a book to hold a substantial number of pages; a variety of dimensions and formats. After trying the heavier Delta and Beta series papers, which took care of the show-through issue, I decided that the tradeoff of fewer pages per book (and therefore a higher cost per sketch) wasn’t worth that one annoyance. Although I still also use Moleskine and Hand Book sketchbooks for certain purposes, the Stillman & Birn Gamma and Alpha have become my sketchbooks of choice.
9. Faber-Castell PITT Big Brush Artist Pens. More than a year ago, I was first introduced to these markers by Don Colley, who dazzled Daniel Smith demo participants with his mastery of this medium. Although in the marker world, my preference is still water-soluble markers (see No. 4 below) that blend well with fountain pen ink and watercolors, I’ve come to appreciate PITT’s waterproof attribute, especially for shading, and the wide range of warm and cool grays you can get in this line of markers.
8. Escoda Reserva sable travel brushes. The only paint brushes I’ve used in the field are Kuretake waterbrushes (see No. 2 below). I’m planning to take a watercolor painting class in early 2013, and I know that the instructor would frown on waterbrushes for “real” painting, so I decided to take preemptive action by investing in a few of these Escoda sable brushes. I had gotten the first one as part of a set with a Pentalic watercolor journal (I see that this same set now comes with a nylon brush) and appreciated both the brush quality and the fact that it is very portable (the handle pulls off and serves as a cap, shortening the brush length by almost half). Although I’m sure higher quality, full-length brushes are available, if I’m reluctant to take them with me into the urban landscape because they are too long and cumbersome, then they won’t serve me well.
7. Cretacolor Nero pencil (extrasoft). In general, I’m not a huge fan of pencils for either writing or drawing, preferring the firm, solid line of ink. But this particular pencil has thoroughly warmed me to pencil sketching, especially for figures, which usually demand a medium with subtle shading qualities. I love the range of values this single pencil can produce as well as the softness.
6. Diamine Chocolate Brown ink. After trying about a dozen samples of water-soluble brown fountain pen inks, Diamine Chocolate Brown became my absolute favorite. The rich sepia color washes to an even richer, warm brown that looks especially beautiful on ivory-colored Stillman & Birn Gamma paper and when depicting interior scenes.
5. Platinum Carbon Black ink. When I decided I preferred the variable line of a fountain pen and first started looking for a waterproof black fountain pen ink to replace the Copic Multiliner SP mechanical pen I had used previously with watercolors, the name Noodler’s, an American ink manufacturer, kept coming up in blogs and forums. But when I tried it, I had lots of problems with smudging and smearing. A minority of sketchers preferred Platinum Carbon Black, a pricey Japanese ink. Much faster drying and without the pen-clogging problems that other waterproof inks apparently have, Platinum Carbon Black is definitely my waterproof ink of choice.
4. Kuretake Zig Clean Color Real Brush markers. This past year, I tried nearly every water-soluble “real brush” marker (as opposed to a compressed fiber tip “brush” marker that isn’t an actual brush) I could get my hands on. I found them all to have a variety of pros offset by cons, and I liked each brand for different reasons. Ultimately, I found the Zig brush marker to have all the right pros for my needs: an excellent brush tip, portability (shorter and lighter), convenience (not exploding at high altitudes), a reasonable price, a wide range of colors (especially grays and browns for shading), and the ability to mix well with water-soluble fountain pen inks and watercolors.
3. Lamy fountain pens. New to fountain pens as a sketching tool, I hadn’t used many types before I tried my first Lamy Safari. Because of its price (a little more than 20 bucks) and ease of maintenance, it’s considered to be a “starter pen” (based on what I’ve read in the Fountain Pen Network forum, it’s the type of pen that starts you down the slippery slope of collecting pens that cost about as much as a mortgage payment for a “starter home”). But I liked the diameter, heft and nib so much that I didn’t feel compelled to try others. Since that first one, I’ve acquired four more resin Safaris, plus two Lamy Al-Stars and one Lamy Vista (which all have the same design as the Safari except that the Al-Stars are made of aluminum and the Vista is transparent).
2. Kuretake waterbrushes. Of all the tools and art supplies I’ve seen or used that are ideal for on-location sketching, I give the waterbrush the prize for innovation and functionality. By containing the water inside the brush, this tool liberates watercolor urban sketchers from the weight and cumbersomeness of a water jar. Carrying nothing more than one of these brushes plus a pen of water-soluble ink and a pocket-sized sketchbook, I’ve been able to sketch an elusive heron on my walk around Green Lake where I’m not inclined to carry my whole bag.
Although I’m not experienced enough as a painter to be very discriminating, even I can tell that the brush itself leaves something to be desired, yet the convenience is hard (if not impossible) to beat. Now that I’ve invested in a few Escoda sable brushes (see No. 8 above), I’m going to give them a try in the field. But every time I have to remember to pack and carry a container of water, I’m going to be thinking fondly of my waterbrush (and in many cases, I may decide to leave the fancy Escodas at home).
1. Self-made mint tin watercolor sketch kit/mixing palette assembly. My portable watercolor kit and its ability to attach to my sketchbook is the one item in my bag that forever changed the way I sketch on location. Liberating me from the need for a table or a chair, I’ve been able to sketch easily with paints at farmer’s markets, shopping malls, a pumpkin farm and the zoo. The whole kit and its assembly parts are so small and light that I can carry them around all the time in my everyday bag without having to think about and decide what to bring for any given sketching situation. The total portability of all my sketching gear has enabled me to fully integrate sketching with the rest of my life. I’d say that, alone, is sufficient reason to make it No. 1 on my 2012 top 10 list.