Can you recommend a basic "drawing package" of art supplies?
December 2, 2013 5:53 PM   Subscribe

I was fortunate enough to score a portable camera Lucida via this Kickstarter project. It is a Christmas present for my crafty SO. I want to supplement the tool with a package of basic art supplies: paper, pencils, pastels, water colors. Nothing too advanced, just enough to allow him to explore his possible interest in the (very cool) equipment. I've searched such kits but am kind of overwhelmed by the hundreds of choices, and would appreciate some guidance.

He has never drawn as far as I know. The goal here is to provide the basics for exploring his artistic interest.

(Using a sock puppet because he's a MeFite, and knows my posting name, though he doesn't spend time on AskMe.)
posted by Puppetperson to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Recommend conte crayon pencils in black, white and maybe fleshtones, a little stick with sandpaper on it to sharpen it, and toned paper. Watercolors would be a little messy with a camera lucida but maybe get some brush-tipped pens.
posted by Teakettle at 6:02 PM on December 2, 2013

Usually kits that contain multiple media like pencils, And paints, And charcoal, And markers, And paper, And etc...are just plain terrible. It's much better to buy these items separately. Most manufacturers specialize in one product.
Caran Dasche makes awesome colored pencils but they are pretty expensive...prismacolor is always a good bet and better than crayola...get at least 24-36 colors as colored pencils do not blend all that well...
...oil pastels are fun to work with and there's surprisingly little variation in quality between brands...remember (sakura) cray-pas? Get a big set of those in a bunch of colors. (not expensive)
A tin of regular drawing pencils in various hardnesses is don't really need a bigger range than 12 ...derwent has one on amazon for $13 (I pretty much only use a standard #2 (2B) myself...when I'm working bigger (like wall size) I use a woodless one (like a stick of just pencil LEAD in the shape of a pencil...I just got one from LYRA that's the size of a jumbo crayon...I feel like a proper cave-man!)
The Germans are the only folks on this planet that seem to be able to make a decent pencil sharpener, get one from there.
Kneaded, last a long time, get a couple of them...they're like silly putty...when they get all gungy you strech them out until they're clean again.
Professional markers cost an arm and a leg...skip those altogether. Bic makes a nice 36 color 'Mark It' set you can get at any office supply chain like staples and they are less 'bleedy' than sharpie markers. (I'd probably just skip markers altogether TBH...they're really very 'dead' and 'lifeless' as a drawing media...)
And while you're at the office supply store, get paper. Really nice, expensive paper from the art supply store is the surest way to constipate anyone's want a big block of something nice and sturdy and archival, but not 'precious' AT ALL...I do almost all of my drawing on staples (or office depot) brand 'cover stock'. It's like copy paper but stiffer, has a nice surface (like halfway between copy paper and watercolor paper), is archival, comes in 8.5x11 and 11x17 (get a pack of's usually 250 sheets) and most importantly, is cheap.

I wouldn't bother with paint at this point...a camera lucida is mainly for make your drawing and THEN you paint the watercolors for his birthday :)
posted by sexyrobot at 6:35 PM on December 2, 2013

If you live in an area with a decent art supply store, go there and ask for help. Be clear about your budget and intention. If you are in NYC, go to Pearl Paint or the Art Students League store. Whether buying in person or online, I think you will probably be better off buying separate items rather than looking for a kit. (On preview, I agree with sexyrobot).

For instance:
pocket watercolor set

soft pastels

sketch pad

watercolor pad

These are not the top brands, but decent quality and appropriate for a beginner. I've used most of these products and have enjoyed them.

Second sexyrobots suggestion for oil pastels - SO much fun.
posted by bunderful at 6:42 PM on December 2, 2013

For the drawing pencils, get an x-acto knife with a #11 blade for sharpening, or use a single edge razor blade.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:17 PM on December 2, 2013

Charcoal and soft pastels are a huge mess and honestly require a lot of technique to control because they are so easily smooshed. Waxy crayons like conte and oil / wax pastels are fantastic.

I would warn against oil pastels though, because they are an oil-based medium and tend to be a bit smellier than cray pas and conte type pastels. The upside of oil pastels is that you can blend them with turpentine or linseed oil and a brush, but this is a messy pursuit. Gorgeous results and one of the funnest mediums there is, just be forewarned.

Regarding the paper, this is the paper I am currently using. It comes in 18x24 (I'd imagine you need a lot of space to use one of those things). It is reasonably priced paper, but smooth and with little flecks of fibers. Light enough that black jumps out but toned enough that white does too.

Good advice all around, you can't go wrong.

And not to start a holy war, but the olfa system wipes the floor with X-acto o<
posted by Teakettle at 7:30 PM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you live in a city, or in a smaller town with an art school (or a college with an art program), go to a dedicated art supply store rather than Michael's or Hobby Lobby.

From there it should be pretty easy -- there aren't that many choices of things and it shouldn't be hard to go very far wrong.

What I would want:

- a good big sketch pad. I prefer the ring-bound ones, personally. I'll second sexyrobot that you don't want to pick anything too fancy, but I think art supply sketchpads are perfectly good and not intimidating. Just nothing with a serious binding, ribbons, or paper that's ultra-fancy. Pick the cheapest thing that is an actual sketchpad and not tiny.

- charcoal

- pencils. I've always drawn with #2, but they're cheap, so grab a range of them, why not.

- a good eraser for the pencils -- most artist pencils don't have erasers on the ends

- watercolors/gouache/pastels/etc. I don't have as much experience with these so can't weigh in aside from seconding the recommendation of Caran D'ache for pastels and Prismacolor in general. There won't be many options for each of these, probably one or two major brands and a store-brand generic version. Most likely any of the choices will be just fine for your purposes.

- If you get him watercolors you may want to get him a separate pad of watercolor paper. Cover stock from Staples would probably also do.

- markers are only worth it if he's into comics and illustration, in which case none of my advice is relevant at all anyhow.

I would not get any kids' versions or student-grade versions of things. And don't cheap out on the paper and go with newsprint. Get the real deal.

A pencil sharpener is just fine for drawing pencils. I agree with sexyrobot that german ones are better, and you should probably pick one up at the art supply store in case he doesn't have one or the one he has is crap.
posted by Sara C. at 10:29 PM on December 2, 2013

Oh and as you can see, a lot of this stuff is a matter of taste. I think colored pencils are boring and wouldn't dream of learning to draw without charcoal. Meanwhile someone else will probably chime in that markers are the great for drawing or Japanese pencil sharpeners are the best.

If he's never done art stuff before, you can likely pick whatever looks good, whatever you can afford, or just whatever there is and it'll be great.

The main thing is to get high quality stuff and the right tool for the job. Don't buy newsprint for painting with watercolors. Don't buy sharpies for freeform drawing from nature. That sort of thing. This is why those kits are so useless -- they are usually low quality materials and a bunch of stuff you don't need.
posted by Sara C. at 10:41 PM on December 2, 2013

For a camera lucida I'd not bother with any soft media, even charcoal-- it's for clean, swift, accurate drawing. I'd go for a big pack of large-size copier paper and a box of Blackwings.
posted by Erasmouse at 11:36 PM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

oh...another note on don't want one that opens like a book (hardcover OR paperback...i.e. so the pages round up in an arc)...this will be really frustrating to use with a camera sara c suggested: ring-bound (or loose sheets, maybe a clipboard). You want the paper to be totally flat.

I suggested the oil pastels as opposed to standard (chalky) pastels as the standard ones tend to be a lot more smudgy (easy to ruin) and the prices of them tend towards the stratospheric. But a small set of conte' crayons (they are like halfway between a pastel and a pencil in quality/smudginess) in neutral colors (usually packaged as black/white/grey/a few browns) is standard 'drawing 101' equipment. (on preview: what erasmouse said)

oh...der...Pen and Ink set...there's a bunch more nibs and sets out there, but that's all you need to start (and the pen cleaner is kinda optional...i just use water and dry with a paper towel)

Another thought: does he have an iPad or other tablet? He might be able to use them together...get him a stylus and a copy of sketchbook pro ($4 on android...not sure on ipad...prob the same)
posted by sexyrobot at 12:00 AM on December 3, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, for these terrific answers. Your links, commentary and advice helped me focus my all-over-the-map thinking.

I went with Erasmouse’s Blackwings, specifically the Discovery Set, and Teakettle’s micro-perf paper, plus one more pad in a different but still lay-flat size. And sexyrobot’s pen and ink set.

He does have an iPad, and a stylus. I'll mention the app but let him get that on his own if he's so inclined.

As sexyrobot suggests, I’m going to save pastels for his birthday, since I’m not sure he’ll get into this. Ditto charcoal.

Much appreciation to you all!
posted by Puppetperson at 3:14 PM on December 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing the recommendation to NOT get the cheap student kits from places like Michaels or Aaron Brothers.*

And here's why: many student-grade art supplies are so different from their professional-grade counterparts that they might as well be different mediums. For example, poor-quality gouache handles like thin and runny acrylic paint; poor-quality acrylic paint handles like tempera paint; and poor-quality tempera is nothing at all like the high-quality egg tempera paint available. (I won't even start on how bad crap oil paint can be.) So your SO might start liking one of the mediums, then decide to upgrade to a professional-grade version, and become insanely frustrated when the thing he liked before is behaving entirely differently on the paper/brush.

Sadly, this is going to mean it's a nontrivial purchase.

Also: get brushes meant for the medium he'll be using them with; get brush cleaner soap as well.

[On preview, I see you've already bought them; if he does end up enjoying it, and wants to pursue it further, see above.]

*If there's no university/art college near you with its own store, or a store like Pearl/Art Students League/Utrecht —  Dick Blick's got a decent online storefront as well as brick-and-mortar stores.
posted by culfinglin at 3:19 PM on December 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

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