One of the most frequently asked questions I get on Instagram is about the tools and supplies I use for my illustrations. Three years into doing creative work professionally has given me a good feel for my preferences and favorites. So here it is, my official supply recommendation list - including the one tool that I can’t live without!
If I am free painting, I love working with a watercolor block. With a block, all four sides of the paper have been glued, removing any need to stretch the paper. These blocks are my favorite and the price point is great for something high quality.
When I do commissioned work, I stick to the brand Arches. Arches has been making paper since 1492 - this is literally the stuff Van Gough used. It is pricey, but worth the investment for finished pieces. I buy these blocks and then cut them apart to run through my printer (more on that later).
Regardless of brand, I recommend using 140lb paper as it will hold up better to water. I also prefer cold press (rough texture) to hot press (smooth texture) paper, although if I am digitizing a piece, hot press is often a better choice as the grains aren’t visible when digitally reproduced.
It may seem like an investment, but buying high quality paper will make all the difference in your watercolor illustrations. Cheaper papers will not blend or hold color in the same way as a high quality paper.
I used these paints for years, primarily in a brush lettering or calligraphy application. While they work well for lettering and are very reasonably priced, the quality is not great for illustration. But, if you are just starting out and want something to learn with, these are my top rec!
M.Graham is my new brand of choice. These paints rewet well, mix well, blend well, lift well, and the colors are beautiful. The quality that makes watercolor aesthetically pleasing is the translucency, the ability to see through the paint. These paints almost seem to “glow” because they have such wonderful translucency.
Here are the eight colors I keep on my palette:
Red Iron Oxide (similar here)
Speaking of pallette…I switched to this smaller, travel sized palette after my second kiddo to simplify my tools. I wanted something that could fold up quickly and fit into a purse. This palette is amazing. I have found it very enjoyable to work with fewer colors and learn how to confidently mix my own colors. You can create every color imaginable with these eight colors.
The brushes I used in calligraphy and lettering are much different than the brushes I use in illustration.
These are my favorite for lettering. The brush is nylon so it snaps back into place to create great variation in line width.
If you are interested in illustration, you will want something a bit more absorbent to pick up greater amounts of pigment and water. These are my favorite. They hold a good amount of water/paint while also holding their shape well.
I use pen in my illustrations to create a sketch. I prefer a clean monoline look in my illustrations but I also need something that will not bleed when I paint over it.
When people traditionally think waterproof pens, the obvious choice are Microns. These are wonderful pens BUT they have a bullet tip and dry out SO FAST on watercolor paper. I found that even after one illustration, my nib felt dry and frayed and I couldn’t get the crisp black line I wanted on a first pass.
I recently switched to these pens and THEY ARE FANTASTIC. They are more like a gel pen or rollerball tip so they don’t dry out. They write so thin, so crisp, and take very little pressure to get ink to flow. I’m a big fan. Oh and they are waterproof!
And now the moment you have been waiting for - the one item that has made the biggest difference in my workflow and my business...drumroll please!
Hands down it is my iPad Pro. Okay two things I guess, because I’m including the Apple Pencil. Before I made this purchase, I was hesitant, not knowing if I would actually get enough use out of it. But I can confidently tell you, the iPad has allowed me to scale my work in ways I never thought possible.
I use the Procreate app on the iPad to digitally sketch every home illustration or family portrait I paint. Digitally sketching allows me to make changes easily to get things 100% perfect before putting anything on paper. It streamlines my review process with clients. It allows me to use a grid and straight line tool to get everything perfectly straight. I can draw a shutter once and replicate it 18 times in 1 minute. It has impacted every step of my workflow for the better.
Prior to using an iPad, I would use a ruler to draw to scale, measuring each peak, window, and door frame. It took me hours and hours and hours. Like literally probably 8 hours just of sketching. Now I can sketch a house in about 1.5 hours (depending on the complexity and the quality of the reference photo) AND the quality is much higher.
Not only do I use it in my current work flow, but it was also integral to my work as a calligrapher. It is an amazing tool that is fun and helpful and time saving for hobbyists and professionals alike. I could not recommend more.
To get my digital sketches onto my watercolor paper I have used two different techniques:
Up until a few months ago, I would print my digital sketch onto printer paper and then use this lightboard to trace the sketch onto watercolor paper with my pen. This technique worked great, it was just a bit labor intensive.
I did a lot of research to see if there was a printer that could print waterproof ink AND handle the thickness of watercolor paper and to be honest, I didn’t find the perfect solution. I opted to go with the Canon Pixma Pro. It again was a big investment, but this printer allows me to print on very thick paper. To work around the bleeding ink, I print at 20% opacity so there is barely a line. Then I go back over that line with my pen. It hasn’t been a total time saver, but it does feel a bit more streamlined.
Well there you have it! A list of all my favorite supplies and recommendations to help you in your own creative journey.
Want more guidance? Make sure you check out my in workshop offerings here. I’d love to see you at one of my workshops and teach you techniques and processes I use on a daily basis!