I plan on posting a short video about my urban sketching kit, but for those who are interested in links to some of the supplies, I’ll put them below in this post with more information about what I like and don’t like about them. As full disclosure, the links are affiliated with either Amazon or Blick, so any purchase made via these links gives me a small commission (typically 4% or less of the purchase price).
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Why carry a small kit?
Unlike other forms of art, urban sketching doesn’t demand a lot of supplies. In fact, most urban sketchers try to pare their kits to make them as small as possible. Why is that? And why is it so difficult at times?
I believe it’s because art supplies are FUN! There are so many different things to use for drawing, coloring and painting that it seems like I could never have enough. How will I know if I’m missing out if I never tried the latest and greatest?
It’s so easy to keep adding stuff to my “essentials” list that I’ve taken entire bags of pens, boxes of colored pencils, and a tub full of watercolor paint with me on location. Then I discover that, once I get there, I don’t use any of it. In fact, it’s a hassle to lug all that stuff around. And then I worry because I’ve brought all these cool supplies and they aren’t getting used. I’ve wasted space in my luggage and maybe even wasted the money on something I didn’t need.
Then there was the decision fatigue. Every time I sat down to draw, I had to decide what to use. Most of the time, I just went with my most comfortable pen and a few colors of paint. Why did I bring the expensive set of colored pencils? Did I really think I’d use all 72 of them?
Here’s the catch: I might use the colored pencils if I were to do a finished work of art, en plein air. I might need a tub of watercolor paint, or a full set of graphite pencils for that. But urban sketching isn’t fine art. It’s sketching, and it only requires a surface to draw on and something to draw with.
Remember, too, that when you’re out urban sketching, the kit is only part of the weight being packed around. If you’re taking along drinking water, sunblock, a snack, and maybe some bug repellent, you’ve got a lot to carry before you even begin thinking about art supplies.
Carrying a small kit makes a lot of sense. I know this, but I still find it difficult sometimes. I worry about a missed opportunity. What if it’s the only time I’ll ever be in that location and I forgot to bring something that would make my sketch absolutely gorgeous?
Yeah, that’s not happened. Ever. Not because I’ve forgotten to bring a special supply, but because the sketch is going to be right no matter what I draw it with. When I take it home, I’ll remember spending time at that location and drawing every time I look at it. That’s what’s important. I’ll never remember what I thought I was missing.
Pare down the kit and you’ll find it easier to get out and sketch. I know that seems really obvious, but it took me a long time to realize it. I hope it’s easier for you.
Here’s another issue I’ve had with my kit supplies: when I only have one or two choices, I feel like they should be the absolute best choices I can make. This is a valid concern. I want my supplies to perform consistently and reliably.
The best advice I can give anyone who isn’t sure what to buy for their kit is this: get only what you need, but get the best you can afford. Usually, in the art supply world, cheap supplies equate to poor performance.
So DO spent the extra dollar on that name-brand pen if you can afford it. Remember, you only need one. It’s worth it.
If you want to save money on supplies, consider using inexpensive tote bags and homemade carry-alls to put them in. Bags can cost a lot of money, and in the case of bags, paying more doesn’t mean you’ll get better service.
I own a large expensive Etchr satchel. I bought it thinking how convenient it would be to have everything in a foldable bag that also acts as a portable desk. But it’s a real pain to handle when it’s in use, and I feel like everyone’s staring at me when I’ve got this big thing hanging around my neck.
The kit I grab most often is a small pencil case and a sketchbook that I can stuff into a backpack with my foldable chair. It’s easy to throw in a water bottle, sling it on my back and walk off. When I find something I want to draw, I get out my little stool, sit down and use my bag to hold my supplies so I can get up quickly if I need. This works far better for me than the fancy expensive satchel. My advice is to not worry about getting the “right” art bag. Use what you have and you’ll be far more comfortable!
Before we move on, I want to show you this cute little stool I found on Amazon. I absolutely love it. I previously used a camping chair that was comfortable to sit in but horrendous to put together and take apart. This cute little stool folds up easier than an umbrella and gets my tush off the ground. It’s not ergonomically correct; I have to stand up every 20 minutes or so to keep my legs from falling asleep, but it weighs less than a pound and cost less than $15 at the time I purchased it.
(Edit: I just checked the link and the same stool isn’t available anymore. However, this one looks just like it and is roughly the same price.)
Now that we’ve talked about how much to take and what to take it in, let’s look at what’s actually in my kit.
For me, the most critical supply in my kit is my pen, and my first preference is a black waterproof technical pen that flows smoothly and holds a lot of ink. I usually take two to three different sizes with me, which I’ll explain below.
I’m not going to go into great depth about pen selections today because I plan on doing a pen review within the next couple of weeks. You’ll definitely want to check back for that!
My workhorse: Uni-ball Vision Rollerball
The first pen I take out of my kit is the Uni-ball Vision. No matter which paper I’m using, this produces a smooth, consistent black line. It’s pigment based, which means it is less likely to fade and is water-resistant, but I’ve found that I need to let it dry before applying water.
The Uni-ball Vision has two sizes that I use: the micro (0.5 mm) and the fine (0.7 mm). I almost always take the micro, but the fine is great for working in larger (A4) sketchbooks.
The Second Layer: Tombow Fudensosuke
As an alternative to the Uni-ball or an additional pen to use once my initial sketch is down, I pick the Tombow Fudenosuke to add emphasis, tone, and shadow. There are two types of tips you could buy: the blue barrel with silver ring has a hard tip and the black barrel with gold ring has a soft tip. I recommend getting both the hard and soft tip pens to see which one you prefer.
These pens create line variation just by varying the amount of pressure you use when drawing, but not as much variation as you get with a brush pen. I use this for restating my initial sketch lines and coloring in dark areas. If I could only take one pen with me, it would be this one. Do let it dry before applying water.
Alternative: Zebra Pen Zensations Brush Pen
I bought the Zebra thinking it would be a good alternative for the Pentel Brush Pen (the next one, below). But it’s really more like the Tombow. I haven’t used it much, but I’ll take it on our trip this month and give it a workout. My first impression is that it goes on smoothly and can make a limited thick and thin line, like the Tombow. But it’s not an actual brush pen like the Pentel. I don’t think it would work for really expressive line making. But I’m eager to try it out!
For fine line work: Uni Pin Fineliner
My choice for detail line work is the Uni Pin Fineliner in the 0.1 size because it makes a consistent, thin line. I find it more comfortable to hold than fountain pens or some of the smooth barrel technical pen alternatives. I’ve used the gray and sepia colors, but black will always be my go-to for dramatic ink work. It’s great for hatching and fine details.
The drawback to this pen is that it doesn’t perform well on textured paper. It frustrates me on Arches coldpress, for example. But that’s the case with any super fine pen (or even a nib pen), which I’ll get to when I talk about paper.
The Uni-pin comes in multiple sizes, so sometimes I add the 0.5 to my kit if I’m getting that desert-island anxiety before a sketchwalk. But the Uni-ball Vision 0.5 performs better than the Uni-pin all-around, in my opinion.
Alternative: Sakura Pigma Micron
An alternate to the Uni Pin is the Sakura Pigma Micron pen. This was the first brand of fineliners that I tried years ago, and I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for them. I love using these for Zentangle, but that’s because my Zentangle lines are slow and deliberate.
When I try to use these pens quickly, like during a sketchwalk, they seem scratchy and inconsistent unless I’m using a brand new pen. I also find my hand gets tired easily holding the short, smooth barrels.
Out of all the Micron sizes, I prefer the PN for it’s nib. But even that doesn’t usually make it into my “essentials” kit unless I can’t find my Tombow Fudenosuke. I love the Micron for studio work, but it doesn’t come with me often. Still, don’t be afraid to try it in the field. You may not have any problems at all.
The brushpen: Pentel Pocket Brush
My final pen is always some kind of brush pen and nothing seems better than the Pentel. It puts down a ton of ink. Once you are practiced with it, you can create very thin lines or thick bold lines, or paint an entire page quickly.
However, depending on where you buy it, you can pay more for this pen than any other on my list. The advantage it has over the other pens is that this one is refillable. Mine came with two refill cartridges.
I used to use this pen extensively and so I’ll put it down as my first choice in this category. But lately I’ve enjoyed using India ink in a Pentel Aqua Brush, and find that I don’t need this pen as much (see below).
The Pentel Pocket Brush Pen is a high quality pen that will consistently produce quality results. But like any brush pen, it may take some time to get good with it.
Alternative: Pentel Aquash Water Brush (filled with diluted India ink)
Once I learned how Steve Reddy uses India ink in his sketches, I filled my own Pentel Aquash Brush and fell in love with this technique. The idea is to mix a 25% (or up to 50%) dilution of India ink in water, fill the barrel, and use it to add tone to the sketch. It darkens when you let it dry, so taking more than one dilution mixture really isn’t necessary because you can add layers to get a darker tone.
It’s great for shadows and adds a lot of depth to the sketch. Sometimes I add hatching on top, but it also looks great on its own. If you don’t want to use the diluted ink, full strength ink shows up just as dark as the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, but it could be a little messier to deal with. I almost always get this on my hands when I’m sketching but the diluted ink is easy to clean up.
I wouldn’t recommend this as an alternative brush for calligraphy, however. The Aquash tip is very flexible – more like a watercolor brush than a brush pen. And it’s larger than a regular brush pen/marker. If I were going to use it for lettering, it would be difficult to make small words on pages A5 size or smaller. So you might consider this as an addition to your kit rather than an alternative to your chosen brush pen.
There are hundreds of different pen choices available and most of them are going to be great to draw with, so it’s really a matter of personal preference as to what you consider “essential” to your kit. If you plan on using watercolor or washes on your work, consider choosing pigment-based pens over those with dye inks. Dye inks will make vivid, beautiful color but will likely not be waterproof or fade-resistant. Dye ink also tends to fade over time – not that that is a real threat for sketchbooks since they are typically stored closed and the pages aren’t exposed to light. But it’s something to think about.
Two pens that I’ll throw into the bag if I plan on doing anything “fancy” are a white and gold gel pen.
The Sakura White Gelly Roll does reasonably well at delivering an opaque white line. I use it to cover unintentional marks or bring back small white details. Out of all the white gel pens I’ve tried, this one seems to be the most reliable. Many of the others seem to dry up in the nib and end up useless.
The Uni-Ball Signo Gold Gel Pen has a beautiful neutral gold color that I love using on special occasions. You know how some gold gel pens look yellow and some look almost brown? This one has a nice “old gold” shade that works well for anything that needs a little sparkle, and it produces a consistent line when used with a light hand. I’ve found that it can run out of the pen somewhat quickly at times and leave some blobs on the sketch, but I wonder if that’s just a characteristic of gel pens in general?
I’ve also noticed that the Signo gold pen works great, but the Signo white pens dry up in the nib and don’t work after a couple of uses.
That about covers the pens, let’s move on to paper.
I’ve tried all kinds of sketchbooks in addition to making my own. It isn’t the most important part of my kit, but it does make a difference in the overall sketching experience. So my biggest piece of advice about sketchbooks is not to get upset if the first one you try isn’t what you’d hoped for. Take note of the things you like and don’t like about it and use the experience for making the choice of your next sketchbook.
The first decision you’ll need to make is whether or not you want a bound sketchbook or loose paper. After that, there are factors such as the texture, weight, and color of the paper. Then there’s the decision of whether or not to choose acid free paper. Acid free paper is archival and won’t yellow over time. But I have a Bienfang sketchbook with a non-acid free paper sketchbook that I’ve owned since 1993 and the pages haven’t yellowed. They aren’t exposed to light much, but how many sketchbooks are?
I’m not even going to discuss archival quality here because honestly, unless you’re a famous artist whose sketches are going to be valuable in a hundred years, I see no point in spending more for a sketchbook just for archival quality paper. If I’m that worried about saving a sketch, I scan it so that I have a digital copy soon after I create it.
Loose vs. Bound
Most urban sketchers prefer sketchbooks over loose paper. It’s my preference, too, but I encourage new sketchers to try both methods. Using loose paper sheets gives you the freedom to choose a variety of paper and sizes to take with you and experiment with.
My problem with sheets of loose paper is usually figuring out how to transport them so that they don’t get damaged. One way to solve this is to make your own sketchbook out of the paper you like the most. There are tons of YouTube videos that show how to do this, and it’s really rewarding to sketch in a book you’ve made yourself.
Another way to solve this is to put them in a large manila envelope. Add a thin cardboard sleeve to stiffen it and you also have an emergency drawing surface. Because that’s the other issue you’ll find when you have loose paper: you need a table or other firm surface to draw on.
Paper texture generally refers to how smooth the paper surface is. Bristol is about the smoothest finish I think you can find for an art paper, it’s like drawing on copier paper. At the other end of the spectrum is coldpress or rough watercolor paper. In between are all the drawing papers and hotpressed watercolor paper.
The choice of paper texture is a personal preference and could depend on the subject you’re trying to draw, but, more importantly, it depends on the drawing media you want to use. For pencil and pen, smoother is better, and this is one reason I think new urban sketchers find it easier to use drawing paper, Bristol, or hotpressed watercolor. If you like markers, you’ll probably want a smoother surface for blending. Many high-quality sketchbook brands will have smoother coldpress watercolor paper than what you’ll find in sheets or pads for watercolor work and these are also good choices for new sketchers, as well as fans of watercolor and ink.
Speaking of watercolor papers, I’ve found that I don’t use the same watercolor techniques in a sketchbook that I use when making watercolor artwork, so the choice of cotton paper or wood pulp blends isn’t really a factor. How the paper is sized can be important, but it doesn’t become obvious until you use it, so mostly this is a try-it-and-see consideration.
Going back to texture issues: the problem with rough textures is that you can’t get fine lines to show well, especially if you’re using A5 or smaller sizes. You definitely can’t use nib pens well on them, either, because the pen tip gets stuck in the weave and sometimes scratches holes in the paper. So if you want to use a fountain pen while sketching, consider smoother paper textures.
The weight of the paper is just as important as texture. Thin (under 60 pound) paper won’t hold up under much water. I won’t use water on any paper less than 90 pounds because I don’t like the warping that happens when I use washes. On the other hand, if you find a sketchbook with really thick paper (like 140 lb), it usually doesn’t have many pages. So consider what’s more important to you when choosing paper weight: do you need something that will withstand heavy, multiple washes? If so, the sketchbook with a few thick pages may be the better choice. If not, a 90lb sketchbook should work fine (but test it in the studio to make sure).
Type of Binding
The other factor to consider when choosing a sketchbook is whether or not to get a spiral binding. Spiral bindings are wonderfully convenient for allowing the sketchbook to open and stay flat. Many of them have perforated pages that can be removed easily if you want to give your sketch away. The problem with spiral bindings is that they don’t transport well. Mine get caught in things in the pack, and sometimes the cover bends (consider choosing a sketchbook with a stiff cover anyway for this very reason). One spiral sketchbook got so caught up in my pack that the entire corner, and all the sheets within, became damaged.
Glued bindings aren’t much better. You can’t lay a sketchbook with a glued binding flat without some of the pages becoming unglued and falling out.
The best binding is sewn. The book can open and lay nearly flat without the pages falling out. Sewn bindings cost a little more, but since you don’t want to lose or damage the work you’re making, they are worth the expense.
If you’re making your own sketchbook (we’re going to have to do this together in a blog post soon!), there are a variety of bindings that work well. Just stay away from glued bindings, unless you’re using them in addition to sewn bindings.
So, given all these factors, what’s my perfect sketchbook? Errr, well, I haven’t found one yet. But here are my current favorites. Keep in mind that you’re not going to go wrong with any name brand, high quality sketchbook. It just may not have all the features that you would like.
Strathmore is a reliable brand of art paper for any media, and the higher the series number, the better quality you’ll get. The 400 series isn’t the top of the line, but it’s close, and this sketchbook has really good paper for pen and wash work. It’s a bit of an overkill if you only intend to use pencil and pen.
The only thing I would change about this sketchbook (and most sketchbooks, honestly) is the color of the paper. I like bright white, this is almost there, but not quite. The size is perfect, and it does really well with watercolor, washes and inks.
This is a good alternative to the Strathmore sketchbook, but it’s a bit smaller than the Strathmore and the pages are more of an ivory color. The binding is also a bit stiffer than the Strathmore. It has a bit more texture to it, which is great for direct watercolor sketching without the pen.
I love Bee watercolor paper, and this sketchbook is a dream to use. The paper is thick, bright white, smooth and makes my sketches look brilliant.
The drawback? It only comes with a spiral binding. So I tend to use it mostly for studio sketches and practice instead of field work. It’s also great for a swatch book.
It says a lot about Strathmore that two of their sketchbooks are on my list of favorites. The Strathmore 500 Series Visual Journals are very high quality yet inexpensive sketchbooks. I absolutely love the Mixed Media journal for ink work, the Bristol journal for graphite sketching, and the Watercolor journal for watercolor sketching.
The drawback is, you guessed it, the spiral binding. However, I have purchased the mixed media journal, ripped the paper out, and rebound it into a hardcover sketchbook that I use for testing pens and miscellaneous watercolor exercises. So the spiral binding isn’t a show stopper.
Oddly enough, the mixed media paper is 100% cotton but only 90 lb weight, while the watercolor paper is pulp and 140 lb. Go figure. The 90 lb paper can’t handle a lot of heavy washes, but it works okay with watercolor used sparingly. I think the 100% cotton is probably good for building up and blending markers, but I’ve not tried it for that. I can say that it doesn’t bleed through, so you can get maximum use of the 34 sheets in the mixed media journal.
There was a time when I took a large watercolor palette with me when I sketched on location. I don’t do that any more. I discovered that I never used all the colors, and I would get anxious about not having the “right” color with me every time I put my kit together.
Instead, I’ve practiced and practiced with a basic limited palette until I developed confidence in using about 10 colors. I could reduce it to five, but the smallest palette that I have holds 12 half pans, so I take 12.
If you use watercolors, they will likely be the most expensive part of your kit. If you use a limited palette (like mine), it will definitely be the most expensive part of your kit. Good, artist-grade watercolors are pricey. Maybe I’ll do another blog post on the reason you should use artist-grade watercolors, but for now, let’s move on.
Now, you don’t have to have a set of watercolor paints in your kit. Sometimes I use watercolor pencils, which can provide more control while sketching and look as nice as watercolors when finished. I can’t mix color properly with my pencils, but they are so much less expensive than watercolor paints that I can buy many more pencils. I will do a post on those at some point. They are a lot of fun to use.
Watercolor paint is the “traditional” preference for urban sketching (if you’ll forgive me for using the term). Whether you use them like crayons in a coloring book or like traditional watercolor painting is up to you.
Here are the colors I take with me. With these, I can mix just about everything I could ever want on location:
Daniel Smith French Ultramarine
Winsor Newton Winsor Blue
Holbein or Winsor Newton Cobalt Blue
Daniel Smith Viridian
M.Graham Phthalo Green
Daniel Smith Lemon Yellow (or sometimes Azo Yellow)
Daniel Smith Hansa Yellow Medium (or sometimes Hansa Yellow Light, PY3)
Daniel Smith Transparent Pyrrol Orange (or Pyrrol Scarlet)
Daniel Smith Quinacridone Red
Winsor Newton Burnt Sienna
Winsor Newton Raw Sienna
M. Graham Payne’s Gray
I also take a Pentel Aquash Brush, filled with water. Sometimes I take a #6 round or a #4 and #6, as well as a small container of water, but carrying water adds to the weight and figuring out how to carry the paintbrushes so that they aren’t damaged is a pain. Perhaps someday I’ll buy a travel brush!
I bring a cloth or a handful of kitchen toweling with me, and I tuck in a small spray bottle for wetting my palette and keeping the paper moist when it’s hot and sunny.
As I mentioned when I talked about pens, I’m currently in love with using a Pentel Aquash pen filled with a diluted India Ink. Even when I don’t have time to use watercolor, I’ll pull this out and at least add tone to my sketch. It dries fast, too, another advantage for quick sketches. And I can add watercolor on top of it if I want to.
Another fun pen is the Elegant Writer. What make this exciting is that it goes onto the paper black, but if you use water on it, you can get pretty green and pink tones. It’s great if you want to do something a bit different. And it’s only one pen so it doesn’t add more weight to your kit.
Then there’s the pencil. Sometimes I take a small set of graphite pencils, but usually just one HB makes it into the kit. It’s great for doing thumbnails, blocking in my composition, or jotting down notes that can be erased later if I have to finish my sketch at home.
Finally, all of my supplies go into a little bag that I tuck into my backpack with the sketchbook.
And that’s it. Now you know what I like to carry in my kit (for now, anyway).
What do you have in your kit? Are there any supplies you can’t go without? I’d love to hear about your favorites!