Monday, February 6, 2023

Review: Tombow Urban Sketching Set

Tombow Urban Sketching Set

Around the time that I was looking for a portfolio that would become my “downstairs studio,” a kit assembled specifically for urban sketching was brought to my attention. I’m so used to putting together my own portable sketch kits that considering a readymade kit had never occurred to me, even when I was a newbie. (After all, at least part of the fun of urban sketching is continually assembling and reassembling one’s kit, right?) But since the more general kits had been on my mind, the Tombow Urban Sketching Set piqued my curiosity.

In the same way that I had questioned whether someone new to art would be able to happily use a readymade kit like the one I bought (for its portfolio), I asked: Would a beginning urban sketcher be able to take the Tombow kit out on location as is (nothing more) and have a fun sketching experience? Let’s see.

The Tombow Urban Sketching Set comes in a cute hinged tin illustrated with a design by Carla Kamphuis. Inside the tin are two ABT Dual Brush Pens in brown and dark blue; a red, double-sided ABT Pro alcohol-based marker; a Mono 100 graphite pencil (grade H); two Irojiten colored pencils in Verdigris and Almond Blossom; a waterproof Fudenosuke brush pen; a waterbrush with a flat tip; and a Mono eraser. (I admit, I already had the pencils, the eraser, the waterbrush, and one of the Dual Brush Pens, but it was somehow more fun to see the items put together in a box by someone else.) The products all fit nicely into a compartmentalized foam pad to keep them from rattling around. 

Kit contents nestled in a foam pad.
The set also includes a step-by-step guide book in several languages showing how to duplicate the tin illustration. All the set materials are used in the tutorial. The instructions include tips like applying the brush pen colors directly to the tin lid, then using the waterbrush to mix the colors.

Step-by-step tutorial in the guide

The guide begins with this introduction to urban sketching:

“Take your set outside and draw what you see! With Urban Sketching you draw on location and it can be done both indoors and outdoors. You draw the scene on the spot. Don’t have the time or inclination? Feel free to take a picture of your beautiful and inspiring environment so that you can (continue) to draw at home.”

[Editorial: Although that’s not a bad description of urban sketching, this part is a bit of a slippery slope: “Don’t have the time or inclination? Feel free to take a picture. . . so that you can (continue) to draw at home” – with “continue” in parentheses. But I’ll allow it.]

Using Blick and JetPens as my guides, I priced out the pieces if purchased individually (I had to estimate on Irojiten, which are hard to find open stock), and they come to more than $27. The set costs about $32, so it’s a good value, if you consider the cute tin and the how-to.

Unfortunately, that tin, which is 9” L x 4 ½” W x 1 ½” D, is ridiculous as an urban sketching kit container. All that added weight and bulk for nine tools! Why didn’t Tombow put those materials in a basic fabric roll like the bright yellow one that comes with its standard line of colored pencils? Or a case like the limited-edition case for Irojiten colored pencils? It might add a bit more to the total cost, but a roll would be lighter, thinner and much more practical for transporting and on-location sketching.

The bulky tin is 1 1/2" deep.

Since I was determined to test the kit as is, I took it out in my mobile studio. Placed on the passenger seat, the tin was usable. (It would also work at a café table, but it would still require hauling there; it doesn’t fit in any of my Rickshaw bags.)

Not something I would tote around, but the tin works in the mobile studio.

I didn’t consider the kit’s contents when I chose the location. I simply pulled over in the neighborhood – trees, houses, car, even some long afternoon shadows – my usual urban sketch scene. As soon as I opened the tin, I realized how unusual the palette and most of the materials were for me. The alcohol-based marker was entirely new to me. Although I had used Dual Brush Pens for urban sketching in the past, it had been a long time. I almost never use a graphite pencil unless it’s the only material I’m using, so that felt new to me, too.

2/2/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood sketched with everything in the Tombow Urban Sketching Set (Hahnemuhle sketchbook)

I began with the Mono 100 graphite pencil to block in the main elements and also to draw the foreground trees. The H grade is useful for blocking in, but too pale for drawing, so I went back over most of the branches with the Fudenosuke brush pen. I also used the brush pen on the brown house and car.

Next I used the blue Dual Brush Pen for the street shadows and the brown pen to color the house. The house turned out darker than I wanted, so I tried to dilute it a bit with the waterbrush. That was one reason I stopped using those markers – it’s difficult to moderate the color intensity.

I used the green Irojiten colored pencil for the trees and shrubs. I “licked” a bit of color from the blue brush pen with the waterbrush to apply a tint in some areas, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the diluted ink has a violet hue.

I thought I was done, but then I looked in the tin and saw that I still had a couple of materials to use: the pink colored pencil and the red alcohol marker. With nowhere else to go, I used them on the car. The only thing I didn’t use at all was the eraser. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against erasers, and it doesn’t mean I never make a mark that I regret. I just didn’t have a use for it in this sketch.

Overall, the color choices are fine for most urban scenes. I’d hardly use the pink except during cherry blossom season. I didn’t take advantage of whatever properties make the alcohol-based marker different from the water-based Dual Brush Pens, so I’d like to explore that one further. It’s a good variety of products that would give a new urban sketcher a range of possibilities.

This is my bias, but I also think it’s cool that the kit contains no watercolors. Plenty of small, premade watercolor kits can be found on the market, and some are promoted specifically for urban sketching. It’s refreshing to see a kit with a focus on pencils and markers, which are probably friendlier to sketcher wannabes than paints might be.

The kit comes with the flat brush on the left.

Other than the tin, my only complaint is the choice of the waterbrush shape. Tombow makes a few different styles, and the so-called flat brush is the least useful (see my review). Obviously, you can’t do an actual wash with a waterbrush, so a standard round brush with a pointed tip would be the most versatile. I had to use a corner of the flat brush with mixed results.

My final comment is about where to buy this kit. I got mine at Cult Pens, a UK shop that I had become acquainted with back when I was trying to find a Caran d’Ache Prismalo Swiss Wood set. I have since made a few purchases there (especially when shipping was a lot lower than it is now), and they have good customer service. But surely this Tombow set must be available somewhere in the US, right? I looked, and so far, I haven’t found it anywhere but in Europe. I think it’s fairly new, though, so maybe it’s still making its way over here. 


  1. What an interesting idea. If only the materials were cmyk!

    1. That would have been a more practical palette, but maybe not for a beginner who wasn't familar with mixing.

  2. I like the sketch on the cover of the tin. Tins like that are rather impractical unless you have a flat surface to rest them on. No thumbhole would make this difficult to hold standing up or seated. I would end up with all the materials falling on the floor. lol I agree that a rounded tip water brush would be more practical.

    1. I suppose tins are inexpensive and relatively durable, but yeah -- what a noise mess when it gets dropped! ;-)

  3. So far, the only place I know of is the link I provided above to CultPens (click the name of the product in the first paragraph). Maybe it was made only for the European market...?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...