Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Pencils Made Me Do It


10/3/19 Kingart and Faber-Castell Durer water-soluble brush tip markers

Whenever I acquire a new art material or tool, I want to put it into action immediately. More than the subject matter, composition or approach, the pencil or sketchbook or pen is often the so-called muse that inspires me.

When I say “new,” I don’t necessari
ly mean something newly purchased (though, let’s be honest, that’s often the case). It might be something I haven’t used in a while, so it feels fresh again. Or sometimes I forget about something I have enjoyed in the past, and seeing someone else using it prompts me to pull it out again.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that this is true for many, if not most, sketchers. My reasoning? The product reviews and other posts in which art materials are featured are – by a huge margin – the most widely read on this blog. Liz Steel, well-known urban sketcher, instructor and blogger, says that material reviews are by far the most-requested content on her blog, and I know other bloggers who have said the same. If I show a photo of a fistful of colored pencils on Instagram, it will inevitably receive more hearts than my sketch of a garbage bin. (What – no one hearts garbage bins? 😉)

8/9/19 Palomino Blackwing and Staedtler Mars Lumograph graphite pencils

The evidence seems clear. We all like art materials as much as we like using them (and sometimes more). And sometimes the medium drives the sketch.

Certainly, there are many times I am motivated by a subject, scene or composition that I want to capture. It happens most often when I’m sketching on location, especially when I travel. Often, though, I don’t have much in mind but feel an urge to use a particular set of colored pencils, a freshly inked fountain pen or anything new. That’s when I grab an apple or some other object that is not necessarily compelling to draw, but it’s something to look at while I play with whatever medium is in my hand.

New materials can motivate me to try a new approach, or they can give an old approach a new look. Either might lead to new discoveries   or might be just a push to open my sketchbook when I’m feeling sluggish.

12/21/19 Caran d'Ache Supracolor water-soluble colored pencils

I was recently asked whether I thought sticking with one medium for a while might lead to greater improvement in artistic skills compared to constantly jumping from one thing to another. If the goal is mastery with a particular medium, then certainly commitment to that medium for an extended length of time is likely to lead to stronger skills. The question reminded me of something I heard Gage Academy atelier instructor Juliette Aristides once say: When she was an atelier student herself, she worked with nothing but graphite for something like seven years before moving on to painting. Seven solid years with any single medium would surely lead to improvement!

There’s something else to consider, though, if mastery in a particular medium is not necessarily the goal (or maybe even if it is). For myself, my primary goal has always been nothing more than to learn to draw as well as I can. Maintaining self-motivation is usually not a problem, but I’m almost certain that I would not be able to stay motivated to continue practicing if I used only graphite for seven years. And without regular practice, skills would not improve.

10/3/19 Kingart, Faber-Castell brush markers

Switching up my media is one thing I do to stay engaged with my learning process so that I will be motivated to keep practicing. Whenever I take a class focused on a particular medium, I can see that sustained, concentrated practice does lead to better results. For the time that I’m doing it, I appreciate the focus. And as soon as the class is over, I’m happy (sometimes relieved) to use other materials again.

Being motivated by the material is as good a reason as any to keep on drawing and keep on practicing.

(Shown in this post are some old sketches that appeared previously as scanned images. Here they appear with the materials I made them with.)

7/10/19 vintage Stabilo Schwan water-soluble colored pencils

5/24/20 Arteza colored pencils


  1. Boy, did this hit home! I notice a drop off in my enthusiasm when I stop trying out new materials! (out of guilt?) I, too love to draw, and the use of different materials also has a tactile enjoyment for me. I’ve lately found that if I get too serious about what I’m doing it takes all the enjoyment away for me. Thank you for your posts, and your reviews!

    1. I think if materials give us tactile joy (a huge motivator for me!) as well as motivation to keep practicing, then that is justification enough for having and buying materials! You're welcome! ;-)

  2. It is fun to see some of your sketches and the materials you used for them. You use more of a variety of media than I do. Give me a new pen or some new ink and I'm ready to sketch with it.


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