Monday, January 24, 2022

My $25 Sketch Kit

Is it possible to build a high-quality sketch kit for $25?

 The Art Supply Posse podcast took on a fun challenge: Build a beginner sketch kit for $25 or less! Although I’ve built myself many types of sketch kits for various purposes – minimalism, wet weather, life drawing, physically tiniest, nocturnes – I’ve never put one together with an eye on whether it could be purchased for $25. Game on!

The important factors would be versatility and value – a kit that could serve as many of my sketching needs as possible for the lowest cost. For me, that would mean the kit would have to meet my urban sketching needs, which might eliminate some specialized needs like sketching at night or life drawing. If you’re considering building your own, it would be key to consider how you would use your kit the majority of the time.

If cost were the only factor, it would be easy enough to assemble a watercolor pencil sketch kit inexpensively. Cheap colored pencils are a dime a dozen. But of course, I’d want it to be a good sketch kit that I would be satisfied using on a daily basis – that’s a bit more challenging, but certainly possible.

Let’s do the fun part first: the watercolor pencils! Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a luxury user in this department since I was spoiled early on by Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles: Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re going to make it into this kit. But Caran d’Ache Supracolors would be only a minor compromise (after all, they would be my choice if I absolutely had to choose only one colored pencil – it’s that versatile). The key is to carefully select a basic, open-stock palette ($2.69 each at Blick) instead of buying a pre-packaged set. And that palette would be four CMYK-based hues: Gentian Blue (370), Purplish Red (350), Canary Yellow (250) and Black (009). Yes, it’s challenging to use only these four colors, but my experiments have been lively, informative and fun.

Open-stock Caran d'Ache Supracolors... 

... in a CMYK palette.

An essential partner for watercolor pencils is a waterbrush. My choice would be a Kuretake in the compact, versatile medium size ($5.75 at JetPens). There are cheaper brands, but they lack the plug between the brush and reservoir, which I find important for controlling water flow.

With watercolor pencils as the color medium, a pen is optional. I use one so often, though, for line drawings without color that I consider it an essential sketch kit item. Any of my favorite fountain pens and inks would blow my kit budget big-time, so my choice is a Uni Pin brush pen ($2.45 at JetPens), which is currently the pen I use most for sketching anyway. Containing waterproof, pigment-based black ink, the tip lasts longer than most firm-tipped brush pens under my heavy hand – at least as long as the ink – so it’s a good value.

The clincher is the sketchbook: I’m picky about paper quality, and I don’t think compromising on paper is ever a good idea. My long-time favorite Stillman & Birn Beta softcover or my current Hahnemühle watercolor book would put me way over budget. I have an easy solution, though: Go back to hand binding sketchbooks, which I did for many years (and if I ever travel again, I intend to make a book for each trip as I always used to). My favorite paper for that is Canson XL 140-pound watercolor paper in the 9-by-12-inch size (30 sheets for $8.84 at Blick) which folds nicely into 6-by-9-inch signatures. With the same 52-page count as a 5 ½-by-8 ½-inch Stillman & Birn, I could make a book for about $4, including bookbinding thread and cardboard covers.

The final essential piece in this urban sketching kit would be a portable pencil sharpener. Here’s where I am saved by putting Supracolors into the kit instead of slightly girthier Museum Aquarelles: The barrel is a standard size, so any sharpener will fit. (The few handheld sharpeners I own that fit Museum Aquarelles would put me over budget.) The Kum wedge is not the best handheld sharpener in the world, but it gets the job done sufficiently, and for only $1.95 at Blick.

Here’s my tally:  

Supracolors: 4 x $2.69 = 10.76
Waterbrush: 5.75
Brush pen: 2.45
Handbound sketchbook: 4.00
Sharpener: 1.95
            Total: $24.91

High quality, compact and essential for $24.91!

1/22/22 Central District (Caran d'Ache Supracolor pencils 
on Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper)
You’ll note that I haven’t used the term “beginner” for this starter kit as the Posse did; it’s an idiosyncratic kit for myself. But if I were recommending one for a beginning urban sketcher, would it be any different? Not much. I might take out the brush pen and suggest replacing it with any pen or pencil of choice. The best way to start sketching is to use a drawing instrument that is already familiar and comfortable. Everything else, though, is a perfectly good, basic watercolor-pencil-based urban sketching kit – and very compact and portable, too!

It’s easy enough to add up some supplies to equal $25, but I thought it was only right to put my money where my mouth is. I brought the budget kit with me the next time I went out and made the sketch at right. (Part of the house really was cyan blue and so was the sky!) I inadvertently cheated when I grabbed the spritzer from my bag without thinking, but since the spritzer is a reused bottle of hand sanitizer, technically it adds zero cost to the kit. My budget is intact. Indeed, it’s a perfectly good kit that I am happy to use. (Maybe not indefinitely, but I consider it a starter kit.)

(Whew! It’s been a while since Ive had to use a calculator to write a blog post! I need a nap.)


  1. Good choices. I listened to that episode. I though choosing a Blackwing pencil a bit extravagant. I also noted one item and put it on my Jet Pens wish list.

    1. I wanted to put in a BW pencil, but it blew my budget! Would rather have another Supracolor.

  2. When you begin to factor in the price of the paper... it gets tricky for sure !

    1. DIY sketchbooks is the only way to go if you want good paper!

  3. With all your practice paring down sketch kits before, I had no doubt you would come up with a winning starter kit!

    1. It was easy until I got out my calculator...LOL! All my favorite things start to add up! ;-)

  4. Tina, thank you for doing this. I was really curious what you would pick. I also agree the supracoulors while not as fancy are really convenient. Especially the sharpener bit.

    I went with the less fancy water brush to get a fountain pen in but I really use that one you pick all the time and haven't found anything I like near as well as their standard line.


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