Equipment and Materials
Our guide to equipment, kit, paraphernalia, gear, bits and pieces
Mayko and I talked through the best equipment for a budding life drawing artist. Different materials and tools will work for different artists, and a process of trial and error will be needed for everyone. However, we did figure out some important things to consider and some top picks for good gear to get you started. Here’s the scoop:
We do think that there are easier materials to learn than graphite pencils. In fact, pencils are a pretty advanced in some ways. Their silvery grey marks are softer than something like charcoal, so making expressive marks with them is challenging.
The fact that we use them for writing as well means that they allow you to slip into the bad habit of drawing as if you are writing, with only a tripod grip (the grip you use when writing) and by moving from your wrist are fingers rather than your whole arm.
They have big advantages too of course. They are both precise and malleable – i.e. you can erase the marks you make. You can use the point or the side of the graphite to vary the width and intensity of the marks.
Also, for a beginner, they are familiar and won’t present too many surprises to start with, so that is an advantage. If you are a total beginner, they may be good for the very first drawing sessions you do for this reason. After that though, we’d suggest moving to something like charcoal to help get your whole arm moving.
Which ones to buy:
Pencils come with an initially bewildering range of code numbers which indicate how hard they are. All you really need to know is that a beginner should use a 2B or B pencil for drawing, which is fairly soft. It’s easier to make large sweeping movements with these pencils.
If it says F or H on it, it’s too hard if you’re starting out.
The prices vary dramatically. Ultimately, if you’re someone just starting out, you should get affordable pencils that you won’t feel guilty about using for quick throwaway drawings. The main thing in the early stages is to draw a lot, rather than using the fanciest supplies.
When you want to get some good quality pencils, the top brands include Mitsubishi (look for the Tombo range, which are hard to find in some countries, but are the top choice), Staedtler (get the blue ones: Mars Lumograph), Caran d’ache Grafwood Graphite Pencils and Faber-castell 9000 Graphite pencil.
Willow charcoal is a great life drawing material, and one that we really recommend when you’re starting out. It will be a struggle at first, but after that you’ll love the material.
Firstly, it encourages big sweeping lines, because it’s not made for precise little marks. This is great for beginners who tend to get bogged down in details.
Secondly, it can be erased with great precision, smudged, hatched and moved around. Frank Gambino, a great life drawing teacher, describes using charcoal as similar to sculpting, because of how malleable it is. He also says the main drawback of it is how addicted you can get to it, because it is so flexible that other materials feel restrictive after using it.
Many people starting out with charcoal and especially willow charcoal complain that it can get messy – coming off at the slightest touch and dirtying your hands. That’s true, but you’ll get used to it, and end up being able to produce very clean work. You’ll need some fixative to prevent the charcoal rubbing off the finished drawing.
Which ones to buy
Willow charcoal should be cheap. Daler-Rowney and Coates both make good willow charcoal.
Rubber / eraser
A basic rubber is fine and will take care of most of your erasing needs. The thing to keep in mind is that a very rounded rubber might be harder to be really accurate with. Rubbers get rounded pretty quickly through use. Whether that’s an issue depends a bit on how you like to erase thing. Some artists using their rubber as a drawing instrument, especially with charcoal. They lay down an area of charcoal on the paper, then carve out their figure using the putting rubber.
If you want to just erase a very specific spot, a pointed edge can be useful. You can do that by cutting the rubber, but a kneading or putty rubber is also worth trying if you can get your hands on one. With this, you can be very accurate since you can mold it to the shape and size you require. Also, you can achieve more nuanced rubbing out, so the putty rubber itself becomes like a drawing tool.
You should use paper of at the very minimum A3 size and preferably larger. It’s difficult for even experienced artists to draw well on a small page.
Type and quality:
Again the key is to get a material that you are happy to use on quick throwaway drawings with zero guilt. The worst thing you can do is feel like you shouldn’t draw because you don’t want to ‘waste’ paper.
Loose sheets of sugar paper are recommended for quick charcoal drawings. They are cheap, have a nice off-white colour and are of sufficient quality. If you want to go for higher quality, 90-120 Gms paper is a good bet for both pencils and charcoal (when using pencil).
Sketchpads or loose sheet?
Loose sheets are practical since they can be folded to the required size, and you needn’t worry about the sheets tearing away from the binding (which can get quite annoying especially with thinner paper). They are also often cheaper than paper in pads. Also, if your life drawing class uses easels or boards, you will probably end up tearing sheets out of a pad and attaching them to the board anyway. However, not all art shops sell loose sheets, and you will need a big folder to carry them in.
Sketchpads are very convenient, and are a fine choice also. Once again, choice of paper is very personal. It’s a good idea to try out different textures of different brands. The main thing is get use a big size (A4 is too small).
We think that using coloured paper (neutral colours) is great for beginners. The paper becomes a mid-tone, so your work is move some areas towards light (e.g. with a light coloured pastel) and others towards dark (with charcoal or a darker pastel). Starting from the middle and moving to either side is quite a good way to think about tone.
However, the choice of colour depends on how you will be drawing. If you are using a graphite pencil, then it may show up best on white paper. If you like to lay down a layer of charcoal and then ‘carve’ your drawing out of it, then the charcoal layer is your mid-tone, and white paper underneath is your ‘light’ which you’ll reveal with the eraser, so again white paper is good.
Which paper to buy?
Fabriano Academia make some good loose sheets. Daler-Rowney make good sketchpads too. Again though, the main thing is to buy paper that you feel comfortable using for even quick throwaway drawings. So it might be good to have cheaper paper for that, and better quality paper for longer projects you want to put more effort into.
If your life drawing class provides boards to draw on, you’ll need to attach them with either masking tape or clips. They should provide masking tape, but clips usually hold the paper better. It’s good to put a piece of cheap paper between your drawing paper and the board, so you’re not drawing directly on the hard wood surface.
To store and protect your precious pictures, it’s a good idea to have a hard folder. Try using a traditional style one, comprised of large hard boards. They come in handy when you don’t have a surface to draw on too. They’re also good for making you feel like a proper artist 😉
We have a video about using pastels that you might find useful if considering them.
Which ones to buy
Schumincke and Unison are the very best quality brands for pastels, but they’re pretty expensive. Also some of you might find them too soft to draw with. Daler-Rowney and Rembrandt are excellent choices at affordable prices with a good range of colours and not-too-soft/hard textures.
Got some tips, feedback or questions on good equipment for life drawing? Post a comment below! Also, if you feel you need step by step guidance to build your basic life drawing skills, check out our First Steps mini-course (it’s free!).