I think a lot of people with art practices probably go through periods where they love a technique or tool for a long time and then later abandon it altogether a few months later––or maybe that’s just me. My practice has always been very intuitive and experimental. In and out of my art, I feel most alive when I’m learning and trying new things.
Unfortunately for me, this has led to a large body of work but little cohesion within it. I personally don’t feel that this is a problem, but for getting editorial and commissioned work it can be. Most clients and buyers want to know what they’re getting when they hire you. If your work is all over the place stylistically, this is hard to do. In 2017, I sought to nail down a specific signature style to my art and illustration. After a summer of deliberate experimentation with tools and techniques, a style within my work began to coalesce.
I still involve as much experimenting in my process as possible, but I try to keep my signature style in mind whenever I do this. Here’s the tools I have recently settled on.
All of the images below link to where you can purchase them on Amazon.
- Alcohol Ink Markers
This is probably old news to a lot of you, but alcohol ink markers are amazing. It’s as if pure, vibrant, unadulterated color is pouring out on my paper. I tested the waters at first to see if I liked them with a cheap brand on Amazon and was pleasantly surprised. They were great. I liked them so much that I ordered them for the children’s art program I ran. Our patrons loved them, and a couple of professional comic book artists who taught our workshops also sung their praises.These are the same ones we used:
I recommend purchasing the cheap set and figuring out which colors you like the best. From there, find matching duplicates of a higher-end brand like Copic. Copic markers are hands down the best I’ve tried, but they are $5-7 each or more. Fortunately, they are refillable. Because of this I’ve heard they are cheaper in the long run than other high-end brands like Prismacolor.I’m slowly replacing all of my cheaper ones with Copics as the Artify markers run out. Most art supply stores will allow you to test markers before you purchase them. The Artify color numbers do not match up with Copics, so I’d recommend bringing in swatches of the colors you’d like to replace and testing Copics that look close alongside them. If you’re lucky enough to live near a Dick Blick or similar large art supply store, there is a ton of selection. Michael’s and A.C. Moore might have some, but I’m not sure how keen they will be on you testing them.
You can also purchase Copics online, but it is hard to know what color you’re getting without testing it. You could also just purchase a large set if you have the funds.
- Tracing Paper
I run through this stuff like it’s nothing. I used to buy the pads of it but found a lot of discrepancies in the paper quality. Of course tracing paper isn’t going to be high-quality, but I’ve found the rolls of it have a lot less dimples and creases. I once had to throw out a whole pad because of how bad the creases on it were. I’ve been buying it in rolls since.I’m going to let you in on a secret of how I get the vibrant, watercolor-like washes in my work. It’s not watercolor. It’s alcohol ink markers on tracing paper. The transparent quality of the paper also makes it less absorbent. Most paper would absorb the ink, but with tracing paper, the ink sits on top and creates watercolor-like effects. Give it a shot and let me know what you think. I discovered this by chance and it’s influenced all of my work since. I’ll also be expecting royalties for this.
- iPad and Stylus
I’m a new convert to this world but I have to say, it’s AMAZING. Technology has come so far so fast. There is something to be said for working on paper with physical materials; it will always be the food for my soul. That said, working commercially and for tight deadlines, the iPad is perfect. Most people who work with one have an Apple Pencil and an iPad Pro.
Well, I’m still using my old iPad Air and a cheap stylus I got off Amazon.
Even with these “inferior” options, I’m genuinely impressed by the quality of the pieces I’ve been making.
I spend a lot of time painting, scanning and then editing my work for clients. Using the iPad has literally cut that time into a third. It’s also tripled the amount of doodling and sketching I do in a day. It’s easier, more convenient and requires no consumable materials. If you’re on the road frequently like I am, it allows you to still make art even if you don’t have the space.
My favorite apps so far are Adobe Sketch and Adobe Draw. I’m going to give Procreate a try very soon, too!
- Journals and Sketchbook
My journal system deserves a post of its own. I’ve adapted a system of Bullet Journaling for my own needs. I’m going to write an entire post about how I do this very soon, but it’s very similar to the one I’ve linked.If you’re not familiar, a Bullet Journal is essentially a DIY planner that you layout and design based on your needs. There’s a ton of information about different layouts and structures you can make online. Some people get very creative with it, but mine is very minimal. If you’re interested, the best course in trying it is trial and error. The layout I used when I started is much different than the one I use now. I really enjoy creating the most efficient layouts as possible that incorporate all of my tasks and goals.Since using this system, I feel like my brain is finally somewhat clear (side note: I have ADHD so I may struggle with this more than you might).I carry my bright red Moleskine everywhere I go. It’s small enough to fit in my purse but large enough to write comfortably in. I’m very fond of Moleskine’s brand of orange-ish red, but of course, these are available in lots of colors. If you don’t carry a purse, there’s a smaller size as well––and larger sizes!
I use it every morning and make thorough lists of tasks and goals the beginning of every month, week and day, and subsequent series of reflections. It helps me dump all the crud that’s floating around in my brain onto paper. Then I reorganize it all based on priority––or decide if it really even matters to begin with. The process helps keep me accountable in my work and personal life.
I use my Moleskine for plans and structuring, and a separate, larger journal for something author Julia Cameron calls Morning Pages. Julia Cameron wrote The Artist’s Way which is essentially a practical guide to becoming more creative. It’s very structured and acts as a workshop; you’re meant to follow it for many weeks. Most of the book wasn’t particularly useful for me because many of the exercises were things I already do in my life as an artist. It’s more geared towards encouraging non-artists to be vulnerable, try things and fail. Artists and creatives are pretty used to that sort of thing. That said, Morning Pages were something I took and ran with. It hasn’t been long but so far I’ve written them every morning for the past 35 days.
Here’s how to do them:
Write 3 pages every morning about whatever is on your mind. Don’t read and review it. In fact, you won’t read it ever again if you can help it. That ensures that when you write, it is purely an exercise of meditation. There is no future-you or reader judging the writing. If you were to read it, it would probably read like the ramblings of a crazy person. Similar to my Bullet Journal, it acts as a brain dump. It helps me sort through difficult emotions. I have already grown and learned so much about myself and my art. I can’t recommend trying it enough.
For me to be able to commit to a daily routine like Morning Pages, I must love the tools I use. This is just something I know about myself; I’m particular about textures, colors and how it feels to hold something. I write with Pilot Precise V7 Rolling Ball pens and use a Fabriano notebook.
And then I carry a third book on me: My sketchbook. I struggled for a long time to find a sketchbook with pages that didn’t bleed through when I used wet materials. I tried a RENDR sketchbook and I haven’t gone back. The pages do not bleed at all. If you’re working with alcohol ink, that is very important. Plus, I really appreciate the minimal, black styling of the cover and that it’s hardbound.
- Water Crayons
These are so cool. I first discovered them when I was backpacking through Europe and loved the convenience of them. You can draw with them and then use any moisture and it creates a watercolor effect. You can play with it to still keep some rough crayon texture in your work, too. I’ve only ever tried Caran D’Ache ones––I haven’t felt the need to venture. They’re buttery, vibrant and respond to moisture immediately.
These are great for convenience as well, and I usually use these partnered with the water crayons. Instead of having to have a separate cup with water, the water is stored in the handle of the brush. If you’re painting on the go, it is a relief to not have to think about carrying a cup and water with you. And it’s much less messy with less potential to spill. I’ve seen these at art supply stores and Michaels for about 6 times what I paid for them on Amazon. Maybe the ones they carry in store are a higher quality, but so far I haven’t had any issues with mine and I’ve been using them for months.
- Holbein Gouache
Lisa Congdon recommended this brand on her blog so I thought I’d try them out. They are incredible! Very matte and extremely vibrant. I tried them while I was in art school, but wasn’t impressed by the colors. I believe I just got the standard set of primary colors. If you don’t plan on using colors beyond that, you’ll be fine. But if you want some bright colors, it is impossible to mix them. I grabbed a bright lime green and nearly neon pink and was converted to the world of gouache.
- Signo Uniball White Ink Pen
It’s a truly opaque white pen that you can use to write and doodle on darker colors. It is the most opaque white ink pen I have found so far.
- Gelly Roll Pens
Gelly Roll makes a great white pen as well in case you can’t find the Uniball one. All of their light colors are very opaque. You’ll find this to be essential if you’re drawing with pens on top of dark colors––opaque reins supreme.
- The last tool I use frequently; Google Image Search. What would any of us do without it? I guess there was once something called a reference book?