Sketchy on the Details
October 26, 2012 7:02 PM   Subscribe

My sibling is getting really into sketching/pencil drawing. My other sibling and I want to get her some good art supplies for Christmas; a nice leather refillable sketchbook, a pencil set, and some paper. The problem is that neither of us knows the first thing about art and drawing paper. What's the best kind of paper to use for pencil/charcoal drawings, and where is a good place to order some online?
posted by Scattercat to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Get her a good collection of pencils (don't worry about charcoal at this point) so she can vary the intensity of what she draws effectively. Paper doesn't yet matter until she knows enough to ask for better than a standard sketch-pad.

And get her lots and lots of kneaded erasers.

/ IANAA. But I dated one for quite a while, who taught me more than I'll ever, ever use.
posted by pla at 7:18 PM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

What kinds of things does she draw? How physically large are the drawings you've seen? Does she sketch from life? Does she ever ink her drawings? Does she ever paint or work in color?

In general, some things that I have personally found very useful:

- a really good eraser. I like my General's tri-tip, but the faber-castel dust-free art eraser I just bought is pretty sweet too
- a set of good pencils with a variety of hardnesses. Any of these would be fine, honestly.
- A really good pencil sharpener. Preferably more than one, since they get lost easy.
- A sketchbook in her preferred size with a real binding -- the pages in spiral bound sketchbooks shift, and can blur your drawings over time
- if she likes to work in charcoal or soft pencil, you might want to get her some spray-on fixative to help her preserve her drawings.
- if she's at all interested in painting, a little box of Windsor Newton watercolors -- something like this -- and a Pilot waterbrush pen or something similar. Very compact, very easy to stick in your purse and use on the go.
- If you go the watercolor route, a book of postcard-sized watercolor paper. It's a much less intimidating format for a beginner!

My paper preferences are out of date so I'll let someone else opine on that front. Generally, Strathmore has done me right.

As for where to order it, Pearl and Utrecht are both good stores -- shop around to find the best price for what you decide to buy!
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:22 PM on October 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

You know what I would've loved that no one's thought to give me? Graphite sticks. And a holder, especially if you give her or she uses charcoal.

Paper-wise, just get some decent 22x30" sheets or if she'd like to go big, one large roll of paper. Brands that are really good: Stonehenge, Arches, Rives.

I almost totally order from Utrecht and Dick Blick. They're the cheapest-yet-not-fly-by-night online stores. Pearl is ok but overpriced.
posted by vegartanipla at 7:28 PM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

you might want to get her some spray-on fixative to help her preserve her drawings.

Good call, and I meant to mention that... Poor artists call this "hairspray".
posted by pla at 7:30 PM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you're getting her paper not meant for the sketchbook, consider getting her a portfolio to carry it all around in. They have super expensive ones, but the basic polypropylene ones do just fine for most everyone.
posted by vegartanipla at 7:31 PM on October 26, 2012

Pencils come in grades of hardness/softness. She will need a variety. Kneaded eraser. For charcoal, she will want some paper with a bit of tooth to it-for pencil she may want something smoother. Oh and conte crayons are good. (these are really more like chalk fwiw.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:48 PM on October 26, 2012

Ahoy, art student here. It's hard to say what "good paper" is for her needs -- some people prefer more texture vs. less. All in all, something with a little texture and that's heavier weight than your printer paper for sketching is going to be nice. Strathmore has a few different lines (some more economical than others, some that are more eco-friendly, etc.) -- all have served me well. They make tear-out pads, sketchbooks, etc. Tracing paper is also something you might want to consider, but definitely not necessary.

Get a wide variety of pencils. Y'know how on exams and stuff it says to only use #2 pencils? These are also known as HB, or (oddly) "Hard-Soft". Grab a bunch of pencils, they're cheap. Go down to 4H (very hard lead, good for light sketches and precise lines) and up to 6B or so (dark and soft, kind of buttery texture almost). Maybe not every pencil, but 2 each of 4H, 2H, HB, 2B, 4B, 6B is a really solid set. Brand doesn't really matter as far as I know; I just looked in my drawer and I have Kimberly, Reeves, and General's. A good mechanical pencil is also useful for fine detail or if she makes teeny drawings, but you'd know better than I would if that'd be something she'd like.
Vegartanipla's suggestion of graphite sticks (they'll be in the same softness grades I described) and holders is also a good one, especially if she likes drawing larger.

Nthing kneaded erasers, they're awesome. You can make it all kinds of shapes/sizes, it can completely erase stuff or just lighten them by kind of stamping it over the drawing... so versatile! They'll look like grey 1"x1" squares in plastic wrap in the store. Also "Tuff Stuff" eraser sticks. Similar to those clicky tube eraser sticks you see in school supply stuff (which I also frequently use) but higher quality and smaller, which is useful. Magic Rub regular ol' rectangular erasers are good too.

A good pencil sharpener is great, too. I use Prismacolor's, but pretty much anything that's not obviously marketed at schoolchildren is going to be solid. I like having one with a shavings receptacle for sure though.

A pencil case is another thing you might want to consider... doesn't need to be anything fancy, but just something to keep all this stuff together and at hand. Plus it makes wrapping all this stuff a little easier maybe. ;)

Other things to think about: Pens -- brush pens and different thickness pen tips (Pitt and Faber-Castell are nice) in a few colors or a greyscale (they come in packs like greys, "landscape colors", "portrait colors" etc. OR in packs where it will be all black in brush, medium, fine, extra fine tips). Micron makes good (and popular, though many would say overrated) fine-tip pens that are waterproof. Narrative Priorities' suggestion of a pocket watercolor set is a good one too. Watercolor pencils could be fun too.. basically colored pencils that will become watercolor when wet with a brush/spraybottle. Small set of colored pencils (like a smaller box of Prismacolor's Verithin line) could be nice too.... but all of these suggestions are bonus stuff depending on what you think your sister would be into, or ideas for future gifts!
posted by jorlyfish at 8:13 PM on October 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Art supplies can get expensive (just wait till she gets into painting...)
Anyway, I do most my drawing with my beloved Palominos.
They aren't the most expensive wooden pencils by any means, but the HB's have smooth dark lead and feel good in the hand. A great value for a very fine cedar pencil. Here's where I get em. (they used to have nice gift packs but after a quick check I don't see them).

I use an electric panasonic sharpener (not battery) that keeps the shavings contained, tho some purists would slap my drawing hand for using electric.

I use those white Magic Rub erasers most often & sometimes kneaded erasers.

Paper is a big subject...I'll just add that I prefer wirebound pads that lay flat, have microperforated sheets that tear out cleanly, and have heavyweight covers that serve as a stable drawing surface. I tend to buy a lot in just one size, after I fill them up they store neatly together.

And is a nice leather pencil case over the top?
posted by artdrectr at 8:34 PM on October 26, 2012

I draw a fair bit. I've found that art supplies, and art in general is such a personal thing that I'd find it hard to narrow down what to get them unless you know what medium they work in, what they love, and what they hate.

Here's what I'd do: Put together a little portable kit: a small general sketchbook, a couple of kneaded erasers, a couple of pencils, and a portable pencil sharpener. And a little carry case for everything except for the sketchbook. If you know what to look for, this all should run less than $10. And they can start sketching immediately upon receipt of the present.

And then, also include in the carry case a gift card at an art supply shop for more goodies as they see fit.
posted by spinifex23 at 8:49 PM on October 26, 2012

-In my experience, only the Germans know how to make a pencil sharpener...
-For paper i almost exclusively use 8.5x11 cover stock from ~7-8 bucks for 250 sheets there is absolutely no anxiety about 'messing up', it's archival, bright white, fits in any scanner, is heavy and robust, and has just enough 'tooth' to make me happy (the perfect balance of smooth and rough...but preferences vary widely) It's great for both sketching and more permanent work...if I want to work bigger, I also keep a pack of the 11x17 around. It may not sound very glamorous, but it's practical and will be appreciated...a clipboard will go nicely with it as well...
-Also at staples, a 36-pack of Bic 'Mark-it' permanent markers runs around 10 bucks...they're acid-free, come in a nice storage case, don't bleed like sharpies, and are MUCH less expensive than 'art' markers, which I mostly think are a huge rip-off. (and some of the colors are REALLY pretty)
-For a real sketchbook, don't worry about refillable (there's not really a point), and as has been mentioned, spiral bound=no good for charcoal. The Cachet series by Daler-Rowney is excellent, and available at most art supply stores, also Amazon. Any bigger than about 11x14 (MY favorite size) isn't very practical for carrying around (which is why you use a sketchbook as opposed to loose paper) or fitting on a bookshelf, but again, that's a personal preference...look at how big she usually works...
-Unscented hairspray is 100% chemically identical to 'spray fixative' her a can and fill her in on this will save her mucho dinero over her career...spray PARALLEL, not AT, the paper, about a foot above it...and if the paper gets all wet, it's way too much.
-I'm not personally very picky about pencils and #2 is usually fine by me (my work is a lot more about line and color than shade) but I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE 'wood free' pencils (basically a big pencil lead the size of a pencil, usually with a coat of paint on the outside)...they're not expensive (2-3 bucks), don't really NEED sharpening (which i do with a box-cutter), and they last forever. I also love the carpenter's pencils you can pick up for cheap at home depot (possibly also staples, i forget)...the rectangular cross section lets you sharpen them with 4 knife strokes and make both thin and wide strokes depending on how you hold it. Both of those are ideal for working BIG. :D

OK, that's the cheap stuff...for something nice...pastels...Rembrandt is probably the most popular brand (I prefer something harder, like conte' crayons, but I really don't do too much 'smudgy' stuff...if I want to get blendy, I get out the paint...but if she likes charcoal, she will adore them) It's the pigments (mostly rare minerals) that make them expensive, and your eyes will swim at the prices...but even a small set (and I do believe they sell a set of 'neutrals', browns, black, grey, white) will be appreciated...a 'smudge stick' (looks like a tiny roll of grey paper shaped like a pencil), kneaded erasers, and a sandpaper sharpener (cheap, looks like half a paint stirring stick with a pad of sandpaper stapled to it...which is basically all it is :/) will round it out nicely

-Don't worry about carrying cases or anything small and just encourages 'fidgety-ness' and being too 'precious' about her art...she can throw stuff in her backpack (or just all over the place) and it will be fine. Ideally, she should, after you've called her name 7 or 8 times, look up from her work with a wild-eyed, manic expression and big black smudges all over her face and hands. That's how you know she's doing it right. Used to be you needed a smock and a beret to be taken seriously as an artist, but well, times change.
posted by sexyrobot at 9:49 PM on October 26, 2012

My grandma used to order all her art stuff here: She lived up in the Sierras and couldn't get to a "real" art store very easily or often... and they do have great deals. =)
posted by jrobin276 at 10:39 PM on October 26, 2012

I draw a fair bit. I've found that art supplies, and art in general is such a personal thing that I'd find it hard to narrow down what to get them unless you know what medium they work in, what they love, and what they hate.


She may get a kick out of this flavor-pack of 7 Mini sketchbooks which will give her a chance to try new paper types. They're fun.

a nice leather refillable sketchbook,
My brother got me one, but it no worky which was pretty, but didn't lay flat, and it was just "gah"! Pretty, though.

I'd suggest a 5"x8" moleskine notebook and one of the 18"x24" 'watercolor boards' to draw on. They're very lightweight, and either wood or doublethick foamcore.

The moleskine isn't precisely perfect for her needs, but most artists like them as "my sketchbook for other stuff" and she'll like it when she might have trouble with the paper of another random sketchbook which might be too rough/smooth for her tastes. The watercolor board just makes a great drawing board to use with pads of paper or loose paper, especially with a few binder clips or so on. They're nice to take to art classes or if she doesn't have a dedicated drawing surface at home.

Get her a good collection of pencils (don't worry about charcoal at this point) so she can vary the intensity of what she draws effectively.

Try a metal case of the stadler pencils.

Or better, this Lyra Set of graphite and charcoal pencils.

She may want to sharpen them with a fat Olfa knife and a sanding block. Or she might not be there yet with her materials.

-In my experience, only the Germans know how to make a pencil sharpener...


This is an exquisite sharpener for normal pencils.

Consider this "how-to-draw" book as a gift: The Sketch Book for the Artist, by Sarah Simblet. She should like it regardless of what subject material, styles, and drawing materials she favors.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:53 PM on October 26, 2012

I sketch as a hobby, and I don't think the refillable leather sketchbook is a good idea. I don't know *any* artists who use them (and I go to drawing workshops weekly), people just want sketchbooks that are not-fussy and can lay flat. I'd say go for buying a set of sketchbooks of different sizes and textures instead so she can figure out what works best for her.

Is she interested in going to life drawing workshops? Maybe go buy her a month's membership to the local one and get her an art portfolio giant-brief-case-thing and giant newsprint sketch pads to work with, a set of pencils or charcoals, kneaded eraser, and an AMAZING pencil sharpener. Never cheap out on the pencil sharpener, never. Even if it's $10, it's worth it. My pencil sharpener is my baby.
posted by Hawk V at 1:18 AM on October 29, 2012

For drawing books, I'd recommend Betty Edwards' Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
posted by Hawk V at 1:20 AM on October 29, 2012

Related, people are recommending pencil sharpeners. All the how-to-draw books I have say to sharpen the pencil wood only using a knife but leaving the lead, and then shape the lead exactly to suit your current drawing (sharp point, blunt point, chisel, whatever) with sandpaper or just by rubbing it on drawing paper. I was taught to draw by my dad, an architect, who had a carpenter-style pencil sharpener that only sharpens the wood and lets the exposed part of the lead get longer. But the shaping part was the same.

Is this not recommended for sketchers because it's messy, or what?
posted by jfuller at 3:32 AM on October 29, 2012

jfuller - A lot of people do this at my school... I will sharpen with an xacto or utility knife, but mostly when I can't find my sharpener. I think it can be frustrating if you don't really know what you're doing... I've gotten a lot of weird shapes or nicked the lead off when I didn't want to.
posted by jorlyfish at 7:39 PM on October 29, 2012

giant newsprint sketch pads to work with

And a (foamcore) drawing board.

This is a good 2 mm leadholder, btw.

If she gets into watercolor, pick up the watercolor set, book, tiny water bottle, clips, etc. that gurney uses. (see also).

Is this not recommended for sketchers because it's messy, or what?
Many people just aren't taught how to do it. Similarly to how they're not taught sight-size and comparative measurement.

I sharpen with a knife and large sanding block in class and a sharpener in coffeeshops.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:25 PM on October 29, 2012

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