Top Design Tools: Analog

These days, there are a whole lot of fancy tools and tricks that artists have at their disposal. Yet what being a successful artist or designer really comes down to is working your booty off, creating daily, and constantly trying to master a basic arsenal of tools. In rockstar designer Jessica Hische's words, "All you need is a decent sketchbook and a well-curated pencil case."

Obviously, what works for me is not going to be the be-all-end-all for the next artist. We all have our preferences, tailored for exactly the kind of creating that we put our hands to. I just want to shine some light on a few of my favorite standards as well as a couple hidden gems that I just can't work without.

Inside my pencil case (From left to Right)

  1. Faber Castell Kneaded Eraser- This moldable eraser has about the consistency of silly putty and is just about as fun to play with. It does a pretty decent job of erasing as long as the lines aren't crazy dark.
  2. Faber Castell Grip Trio Sharpener- I am not at all attached to this sharpener in particular, but it does a great job, has three different hole sizes, and doesn't cover my desk in shavings, so that's a plus.
  3. Faber Castell Pitt Artist Pen (Brush Nib)- Wow, this is embarrassing. I didn't realize that I was such a cheerleader for Faber Castell until just now. This pen is more like a marker and is good for writing calligraphic lettering-- not a calligraphy pen, but you can get some good "thicks" and "thins" with its brush-like tip.
  4. Pilot G2 .38 Pen- This pen is by far my favorite pen for daily use and has wiggled its way into my final sketches. It's super fine-tipped, doesn't bleed, and rolls like butter.
  5. Literally any mechanical pencil- No preference on brand here, just your classic clicker. This one is a Pentel Champ.
  6. Gelly Roller White Pen- I know, you are having flashbacks to 1996 right now, but this is seriously the best pen that I have found for writing on dark paper. I have addressed thousands of wedding envelopes with these bad boys. I can also handle the $1.40 investment.
  7. Pentel Aquash Water Brush- This is a new addition to my go-tos. It has proven to be a great tool for casual brush lettering and doing little watercolor sketches on the go. You just fill up the handle with water and control the "wateriness" with pressure.
  8. Plastic Ruler- Pretty sure I have had this since childhood.
  9. and 10. Assorted pencils- It's fun to experiment with different brands and hardness to find what works best for you. I tend to prefer harder graphite because it doesn't get on my hand, or claw, once I get sketching. (I don't have the prettiest drawing grip.)

For Sketching

I know, I know.... in a world of Adobe Illustrator and tablets does anyone still actually sketch? The answer: Yes, absolutely. The best designers in the world start projects with a paper and pencil. I once read that you shouldn't allow yourself more time than thirty seconds on preliminary sketches. Like a stream of consciousness, ideas can flow from your brain, to your hand and onto the paper freely, without a filter. Give it a try-- you might just be surprised to see what you can come up with when you aren't thinking so hard. The sketching process allows you to quickly understand the relationships between the shapes you are dealing with, for instance, in the case of a monogram or type-focused logo. You get to visually explore concepts and directions in a very noncommittal way, knowing that if an idea doesn't seem to be playing out you can move on to the next, no harm, no foul.

I use anything from torn scraps to graph paper to lined notebooks to explore ideas... and to be honest, I stick to the über cheap stuff (like this and this). I sketch in loose strokes and write in sloppy cursive all over everything, so I don't deserve nice things. I try to keep a small notebook in my purse just in case I am blindsided by an idea while in line for groceries or riding in the car. Once I have arrived on an idea that deserves some extra time pursuing, I graduate that design to a sketchbook. Sometimes, when I have worked out a basic form that I am happy with, I use tracing paper to play around with embellishments without ruining the original.

Only when I am truly pleased with what I see in pencil do I move to the computer to vectorize the design.

For Painting

In stark contrast to my attitude about paper for sketching, I am a complete snob when it comes to watercolor paper. I pretty much exclusively use one brand of paper: Arches. To prove my loyalty, here is a small rant about why I have been using this brand for the past six years.

  1. Arches offers four or five different textures to suit your painting needs. If your painting style is loose and watery like mine, a cold press paper is going to have more tooth to soak up the water before it starts shredding. If you are planning on digitizing your work and don't want the texture of the paper to be too obvious when you scan it, I'd recommend their hot press paper for its smoothness. Hot press is also great if you paint in a tighter, more precise style.
  2. The paper comes on a "block," meaning all of the pages are adhered together. This prevents the paper from curling while drying. You can later use an X-Acto knife to cut the finished product loose.
  3. I have a thing for French things.
  4. I can't resist the pretty colors and gorgeous flourished borders.

As for other painting supplies, it has been a lot of trial and error. I always go with the cheap fifty cent plastic palettes and I just use an old teacup for water. When it comes to brushes, I'd stick to the cheap ones to experiment with different sizes first. This way you can figure out what you will use the most and later invest in nicer brushes of those sizes.

As I said before, every artist has their own preferences and quirks so it is really up to you to experiment with what analog tools work best for you. Call me old school, but even if your artwork is destined for the screen (which much of mine is), you will create better work if you begin your process on paper. By investing real time, allowing yourself to fail, and getting a little ink on your fingers in the process, you are joining the ranks of thousands of years of analog artists who came before you.