The Right Tools For The Job

Advice and Tips, Illustrator

“A poor workman blames his tools”, that’s how the old adage goes, or at least, it’s something like that anyway. To an extent, it’s right, if you’re good at what you can do you can create a masterpiece with shoddy equipment, but it won’t be super easy and it probably won’t be all that fun either. I for one am a big, big fan of having the right tools for the job. If illustrating is your job, or you want it to be, then here’s some ideas for pointing you in the right direction of what equipment you’re going to need – in my humble opinion.

Top of the list, you’re going to need a work surface. Not exciting I know, but there’s no getting around it, you’re going to need somewhere to do your artwork. I’ve got a desk and a drawing board and a lap top tray that fits on your knee. I use all of them from time to time depending on the situation. The desk I use the most, it’s right there after all and it doesn’t take any kind of preparation, whereas with the drawing board I have to prop up its little kick stand and the lap top tray I only use when I want to sketch and watch TV at the same time.

Where ever you have your surface, you’re going to need light. Ideally the best kind of light for creating artwork is natural daylight, not dazzling bolts of sun mind you, they’ll reflect off the paper and blind you. If you live in the North West of England like me, and natural light is in short supply, then you might want to look into getting a desk lamp with a daylight bulb. You can even get energy efficient daylight bulbs which helps the environment.

Next, we can start on the really fun stuff, paper and pens. I adore both, I suppose you have to really to be in this line of work. There’s few things I like more than some gorgeous pens and a pad of fresh white paper, so much potential!

The kind of paper you get is important of course. It depends entirely on what kind of medium you’re going to be using on it, are you a painter? Do you use watercolour, acrylic or something else? Each kind of paint will have a preferred paper to accompany it, different grains and gradients, hot pressed, cold pressed, thick and thin. Cold pressed paper is quite textured and very absorbent so it’ll swallow the water from your brush whilst you’re painting. Hot pressed paper is the opposite really, it’s smooth and much less absorbent so the colours are easier to blend and adjust before they sink in, and because of this colours tend to be more vivid on hot press. Bear that in mind when you’re deciding which paper to use for which paint job, if paint is your medium of choice.

If you’re more of a pen and ink kind of a person, like me, then you’re going to need to get some decent paper that is smooth and doesn’t bleed. Poor quality paper may have speckles in it, or it will likely cause your ink lines to bleed slightly. You might not be able to notice straight away, but when it comes to scanning your pieces into the computer you’ll see the frayed lines and despair! At the moment I’m using the comic art pad from Letraset it’s been treated to reduce bleed and it’s thin enough to be able to trace through.

Although if you’re looking for assistance when it comes to tracing things, you can’t go far wrong with getting a light box. I picked up a really great A4 sized one from a car boot sale for just a couple of quid, what a bargain! It’s small enough to store away when I’m not using it, then when I need it I can get it out, plug it in and I’m away. A light box, for those who don’t yet know, is a box that has a large Perspex surface area on top and a light bulb within. When it’s on the light gleams through the Perspex, you place the original image onto the surface, place a blank sheet of paper on top of that and you can see the original through it with crystal clarity. Then you just need to trace it. Although if you have to choose between buying a light box and buying a scanner, get the scanner. You’ll need it much, much more than a light box.

Then we come to the really fun bit, the weapons of mass creation! A good selection of black fine liners is a great start; you’ll need them ranging from ultra-fine, (0.05mm) to quite thick (8mm or more). You’re also going to need some pencils, I for one really like mechanical pencils – and I know many other illustrators who use them too. They’ve got a permanently sharp point for doing intricate detail, and you can get them to shade too if you practice. I’ve also got some blue lead for my mechanical pencil, a lot of the time I do my sketches using the blue lead because then you don’t really need to do any rubbing out. You just sketch away until you’re happy with the drawing, ignoring the mistakes, then you use your black fine liners to ink in the bits that you’re happy with. Scan the image on a black and white only setting and it’ll ignore all of that blue sketchy stuff. Brill!

When it comes to colours, it really is up to you what kind of medium you go for. I wouldn’t recommend oil paint though, it takes longer to dry and if you’re an illustrator, time is money. Acrylic is great, really bold and vibrant. Dries very quickly though and isn’t as easy to blend on the paper as, say, water colours. Watercolours are lovely to use, very subtle colours, great for children’s illustrations and landscapes. I’m a big fan of Letraset pens , I’ve amassed a fair collection so far but I’ve still a way to go before I complete the full range of about 148 of them. I’m using their Pro-Markers. They make different kinds of pens, so I can’t tell you about all of them, but from my experience Pro-Markers are very good and fun to use. They’re felt tip pens basically, but a rich pigment with an alcohol base which gives you the chance to colour an entire area in without the pen streaking. The colours meld together seamlessly and the overall image looks like a cartoon, it’s perfection.

So if you’ve got all that kind of thing, you’re pretty sorted in terms of hand drawn illustrations. When it comes to digital software for illustrations, I know that a lot of people swear by Adobe Photoshop and the images I’ve seen being turned out by it look pretty hot. However it’s expensive and takes time to figure out how to use. There are other image manipulation programmes out there, such as Paintshop Pro, works well and is much cheaper.

Well, hopefully all of this has given you some ideas for the kind of things you might need if you’re exploring the world of illustration. There are of course tons and tons more things you could get if you wanted to, or scale it right down to just a pen and a pad of paper…and a scanner.