Friday, December 23, 2016

Tina’s 2016 Top 10

My 2016 Top 10

It’s the end of December, which means it’s time for the fifth annual roundup of my Top 10 sketching products of 2016! The series is always among my most-read posts every year. It’s also one I look forward to writing annually because it gives me an opportunity to review and assess the materials and tools that have served me best in the past 12 months.

Unlike some product roundups that include only products that were released that year, my criteria are different. My focus is on things I use most often or that best support the way I like to sketch most – on location, often outdoors, often standing, in a limited time. Versatility, convenience and compactness are key considerations.

If you’ve seen my lists from previous years, you’ll note that not much is new; no dark horses this year. A few items in the Top 10 have been there for several years (one has made it onto the list every year), but a few had to drop off to make room for others. Most notable among the drop-offs is my beautiful “Stefano” sketchbook system, which had been on the Top 10 every year prior to this one. You already know how sad I am about that, so I won’t dwell on it again.

A couple of fountain pens dropped off the list – a Pilot Parallel with a modified nib (it’s still fun to use now and then, but it’s more a novelty than a mainstay) and a Pilot fountain pen with Posting nib (which was so fine that it encouraged me to be more fussy and detailed, which I’m trying to avoid).

I was torn about taking ink-filled brush pens off the list, as I still use them regularly when I need a fast swipe of sky or shadow. But instead of trying to use them as a substitute for watercolors as I sometimes used to, I’ve cut way back on the number I carry – I’m down to only one blue and one gray.

Here we go! (Items marked with * are repeats from last year. The photo reference numbers do not indicate ranking.)

1. Canson XL 140-pound watercolor paper in self-made sketchbook signatures. Ever since I began binding my own sketchbooks, I’ve tried a lot of different papers. It’s always about finding a balance between cost and how well the paper’s thickness and surface meet my needs. It’s also a practical issue: I have a very small studio with no appropriate surface for cutting or tearing down large sheets. Despite features I’ve liked about other papers, I keep coming back to Canson XL 140-pound watercolor paper in a very convenient 9-by-12-inch pad. It’s a “student grade” paper, so the surface is probably not ideal for watercolor painters, and yet I’ve found it to be completely adequate for my wet media needs (including some heavy washes; see No. 9 below). And its availability in a 9-by-12-inch pad means all I have to do is pull the sheets out and fold them in half to stitch my signatures. Easy-peasy.

12/10/16 A white Sakura Gelly Roll gel pen is an essential part of my sketch
kit so that I can sketch snowmen in my red Field Notes.
2. Sakura Gelly Roll opaque white gel pen. For a long time I used a Uni-ball Signo gel pen when I needed an opaque white marker, and it worked well most of the time. But the past year I’ve been using a Gelly Roll because it pops more vibrantly on red paper (see No. 7 below) and doesn’t seem to clog as much.

3. Kum magnesium 2-hole pencil sharpener. Who knew that a pencil sharpener would be such an issue? Almost every type of colored and graphite pencil I own fits into standard electric, manual and portable sharpeners – except my favorite (see No. 8 below). Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle colored pencils are a tiny bit larger in diameter than an average pencil, causing me no end of headache. For a while I resorted to sharpening with a knife, but I can’t travel with a blade. (Heck, I don’t even want to sit on a park bench with a knife in my hand.) Last year I found the Faber-Castell 9000 while shopping in Tokyo, and that worked reasonably well, but then it went dull, and I couldn’t find replacement blades for it. In desperation, I ordered several inexpensive handheld sharpeners that look like they are intended for kids. The smaller hole of this particular 2-hole Kum fits my Museum Aquarelles perfectly. And to my delight, I found replacement blades for it! (Note that I also tried replacement blades from Kum in this sharpener, but for some reason, they didn’t fit – or at least some in the pack didn’t fit. Aggravating!)

4. * Platinum Carbon Black ink. This waterproof ink is the only product that has been on my Top 10 all five years. It dries almost instantly, is completely waterproof and has never clogged a pen. Whenever a new waterproof ink came out, I used to try it, wondering if it could be better. But lately I haven’t even bothered. PCB has never let me down – that’s good enough for me.

11/7/16 A Kuretake 2-sided non-hairy brush pen gives me
a wide variety of line widths in one convenient pen.
5. * Kuretake No. 13 fountain pen style brush pen and other brush pens. The Kuretake No. 13 appeared on my Top 10 last year for the first time, and it remains there now – although I gave myself some leeway by adding “and other brush pens.” That’s because I now regularly carry four brush pens – two with “hairy” brush tips (one with waterproof ink, one with water-soluble ink) and two with “non-hairy” felt tips (again, one waterproof ink, one water-soluble). Each type of brush tip and ink type serves a different sketching purpose. I’ve tried a lot of brush pens (nearly 50!), and although they all perform similarly, I favor both the Kuretake No.13 and the Sailor Profit because they can be refilled with standard fountain pen inks and cartridges. I wish I could find a non-hairy brush pen that could be refilled, but the problem is that felt and formed tips wear out relatively quickly, so they usually don’t last long enough to refill.

While I’m on the topic of brush pens (surprise, surprise – one of my favorite topics!), this is a good place to mention the series of guest reviews I wrote for stationery diva Ana Reinert at the Well-Appointed Desk:

5/20/16 My Sailor Naginata Fude de Mannen
gives me the most expressive
lines I can get from a fountain pen.
6. * Sailor Naginata Fude de Mannen. After two years of solid use, I’m happy to say that my gold-nibbed Sailor fude fountain pen is still living up to its grail status. My only regret was that I had just one, because I always like having one pen containing waterproof ink and one containing water-soluble ink. When I heard that Sailor’s specialty nibs, especially the fude, were getting harder and harder to find because the company was so deeply back-ordered, I sprang for a second fude as soon as I found one. The two Sailor fudes are the only fountain pens I use regularly for sketching.

7. Field Notes Sweet Tooth edition. By now I have my choice of several Field Notes Brand notebook editions (they’re such an essential part of my basic sketch kit that I would take one to Gilligan’s Island). But the one that really changed my sketching life was Sweet Tooth, especially the red one. Something about its playful color – dark enough to act as a toned background – invites me to sketch the most uninspired subject matter. The ephemeral nature of Field Notes takes all the pressure off. As I wrote in the blog post in which I revealed my surprise that Sweet Tooth had taken hold, the notebook liberates me from expectations and lowers my standards to nothing. 

8. * Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle colored pencils (and a few other brands thrown in). Although I use a variety of watercolor pencil brands when I need certain colors, the Museum Aquarelle line is by far my favorite. They are still the softest, creamiest water-soluble pencils I’ve used, with or without the addition of water.

10/12/16 After applying dry watercolor pencils, I gave the
tree a quick spritz to activate and intensify the colors.
9. Portable water spritzer. Although I’ve been carrying this little gizmo for years and use it regularly, this is its first appearance on my Top 10, and I feel like I’ve been taking it for granted. When I used watercolors, I moistened the paints before using them with this little sprayer. When I want to put a streak of blue sky in a sketch with an ink-filled waterbrush, I always give the page a spritz of water first to help spread the color more evenly. And now that I’ve been using water-soluble colored pencils as my primary coloring medium, the spritzer is handier than ever. I use it to spray the clean page when I want to use the pencils dry-on-wet. I spray the finished sketch liberally to intensify and disperse the color rapidly. (Incidentally, Canson XL 140-pound paper, item No. 1 above, can stand up to a pretty good dousing.) I’d be lost without it! I couldn’t find one exactly like mine online, but I got it at a local travel store. Intended as a purse-size perfume atomizer, it puts out a fairly fine mist.

10. Kutsuwa Dr. Ion accessory organizer (see below). Purchased in Tokyo last year, this little organizer became an integral part of my daily-carry bag instantly. It allowed me to remove the clumsy makeshift dividers I had been using to keep everything upright. Having all my implements standing vertically is a mission-critical organizational structure for my sketch bag – I can’t tolerate having to unzip and open internal bags or pockets, or having everything fall into a horizontal heap at the bottom. (I wish I had a link to give you for purchasing, but I still haven’t found a US source for it. carries other Kutsuwa products, but not this one.)
The Kutsuwa Dr. Ion organizer keeps all my implements upright in my bag!

Honorable mention:

This year’s honorable mention goes to Stillman & Birn’s softcover series. If I weren’t still happily binding my own sketchbooks, the softcover version of S&B’s Beta would be my daily-carry sketchbook of choice and definitely on the Top 10. I still use Alpha, Beta and Epsilon editions regularly in my studio, though. Alpha, in particular, is a favorite for those colored pencil still lifes I’ve been doing.

Looking ahead to 2017:

As a new part to my annual Top 10, I’m going to speculate on the changes I might make to my sketch kit by this time next year. Right now I can’t imagine anything that would drop off the list (but I always feel that way). I’m wondering, though, whether a graphite pencil might appear next year – or is it just a temporary novelty during these colorless winter months? I’m also really enjoying using pencil with a Baron Fig notebook – is it Top 10-worthy? Time will tell.

Here are my previous Top 10 reports:

Tina's 2014 Top 10
Tina's 2013 Top 10 
Tina's 2012 Top 10 


  1. I'd sure like to figure out how some people (you) manage to get GellyRoll pens to work. I buy them and half the time they don't work well right out of the package, but even if they do they become intermittent very quickly. It's a mystery to me.

    Also wish I could get one of those KUM sharpeners but the crafts/art store here doesn't stock KUM and thinks I should pay $43 for one of them :-) I do have the KUM long-point, which works well but it's more fussy in use. Happy Holidays, Tina.

    1. Sorry I can't help with either of those issues, Larry! I wonder if the Gelly Roll depends on what's being drawn on. I've never been able to get it to work well over watercolors (it's water-soluble, so it just smears up the paint), but it works great directly on the Field Notes paper.

      Happy holidays to you, too!

  2. Always interesting to read this, even though I sketch nearly right beside you! :)

    Larry... I use the Signo over watercolor. The page must be completely dry and even then I'm not entirely satisfied with the appearance. Brenda Swenson suggests using the Sharpie watercolor white marker... the oil markers are easier to find and I had to get the watercolor one on Amazon. I'm about to try white acrylic ink with a dip pen... but that would only be added when I'm home, not on location.

    1. I agree that the Signo works a little better over watercolor. I used to use a Molotow acrylic marker, but that thing really clogs up -- and the cap is so hard to pull off! I have an oil marker too, but the smell knocks me out! Seems like this is still a need that some manufacturer should fill -- the perfect opaque white pen.

  3. I always enjoy reading about your "top 10." I'm looking for something to keep my pens in. I'm tired of digging thru all the pens in a pencil holder and still not finding what I'm looking for. But I need to be able to see the pouch. Looking at it on line just doesn't do it.

    1. I hope you find what you need, Joan! It's always great to find exactly the right thing, but I know it can be frustrating -- so many choices, but not many are just right. Let me know if you find it -- I'm always interested in bags and accessories!

  4. My favorite post of the year--and another great one!

    1. Thank you, June -- I'm glad you enjoyed it! Happy new year!


  5. I've been meaning to ask...what kind of paper are you using on the outside of your Canson XL signatures these days? Do you remove the signature covers before you bind them into books? If not, do you draw on the covers?

    Inquiring minds want to know! Thanks!

    1. Great question, Jean! I use any kind of craft paper/cover stock for the signature covers, and I reuse them over and over, because I take them off when I bind the signatures together. Those covers are used only to protect the inner pages while I'm carrying them around.


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