Sketching Tip: Recommended materials for nature sketching & field sketching
Updated: Aug 1
Using quality materials makes sketching a bit easier, because these materials are designed to produce visually appealing drawings.
Materials I recommend, include in my kits, and use all the time
If you just want to sketch, nothing fancy…
Anything you have will do! Even though art-quality materials make certain sorts of sketching projects easier, you don’t actually need anything special to start sketching. Anything you can draw with and draw on will do, (regardless of brand/quality). So, as long as you have the following you’ll be fine.
Sketchbook with blank pages – You can find lots of options at craft shops if you don’t want to pay art store prices. Just note that using watercolor or other wet media on cheap sketchbook paper isn’t a good idea. You’ll need a paper designed to handle wet media, or watercolors and inks won’t behave the way they should. Pairing the wrong paper and media can complicates your efforts.
Ink pen – If you are just starting out, though, consider not using pencils or erasers. Challenge yourself to use pens and markers, and to not throw anything away. Learn from the marks you make, and think of them all as a record, of what you noticed, thus an end in themselves. For pens, Sharpie fine-tip marker pens or a fountain pen with waterproof ink are your best bet if you want your lines to be waterproof. If you want water soluable, so you can draw, then use water to create washes, a ball point, a brush pen (like marker, but shaped like a brush tip) or any other soluable ink pen will work. The ink color is up to you – different colors can result in a wide range of visual effects.
Pencils & eraser – optional; see previous point.
Colored pencils, crayons, or markers – Any are fine, although artist-grade will give you more control, and watercolor pencils make learning to control watercolors much easier. Also, crayons actually provide some neat effects.
If you want to shop for your own art-quality materials:
Artist-grade materials work with you, unlike some craft-grade materials. That’s why I encourage using art-quality materials. These are the same materials I use in the field, in the studio, and when I travel. The sketching materials listed below are recommended based on my 15+ years working in the field on natural history, ecology research, and nature-based art projects.
Note: I have linked to the products that I use and recommend, to make it easier for you to visualize them. There are no affiliate links.
I recommend a hardbound option. My favorite is a 9″x6″ landscape-format, with Alpha series paper, from Stillman & Birn (see photo above). It is my hands-down favorite sketchbook, and I use them all the time. It opens flat, works well with mixed and wet media, and can stand up to the abuse of a summer of field work.
For a softcover option, I like this 8.5″x5″ lightweight book from Art Alternatives. The paper can take a wee bit of wet media, and it is handy for when you want to travel light or inconspicuously. I used a pile of these on my trip to Kenya and Tanzania for my “Ecologically True Story of the Tortoise and the Hare” project, and they've gone to Europe with me twice at least.
Permanent ink pen (Sharpie ultrafine) and ball point pen (any one will do; great for ink washes and writing)
Water brush (See turquoise “pen/marker/thing” in header photo. A brush with a water reservoir in the handle; super handy for quick sketches and for learning how to control watercolors. These are available all over the internet. Any brand will do. I like ones with tapered points (rather than flat/wedge points.)
2H drawing pencil
Art gum eraser
Blotting cloth: scrap of old washcloth or absorbent towel, for blotting your brushes when they are overly wet or you want to clean them.
Derwent watercolor pencils in the three primary colors. I prefer Deep Cadmium 6 (yellow), Madder Carmine (red), and Ultramarine 29 (blue) over pure red, blue and yellow. The three pigments I suggest result in more realistic color mixing results. Watercolor pencils are water soluble, making them easier to use than watercolor pigments if you are new to the medium. However, they take some getting used to if you are used to watercolors.
A travel toothbrush holder (can hold your three watercolor pencils, pencil, waterbrush, pen, eraser, and blotting cloth)
Large resealable plastic bag to keep everything organized and dry! If you’re using this option, get the most heavy-duty bags you can.
*If you are participating in one of my workshops, these materials may be available for purchase or included in the participation fee.
Ideal add-on materials
Small section of plexiglass the size of your sketchbook or transparency film, if you can’t get plexiglass. Plexiglass can be a useful hard surface or a tracing surface — see next point.
Wet-erase marker: For use on the plexiglass. Can be used to “trace” scenes, fragile or off-limit objects, complex patterns, and more. Wet-erase markers are also great for dark washes.
Small watercolor tin: You can order these online or make one out of an old mints tin, and instructions are readily available online. I use both kinds. My ready-made ones are this one slightly larger than a credit card and this one, with room for a few pens, a portable brush, and more. The latter one can be made into a waterwater color tin with the addition of a small palette such as this one. See that set-up in the header photo at the top of this post.
Rite in the Rain ® side-bound book cover: Great for keeping everything organized, easy to carry, and ready to go. I have taken mine to Kenya, Tanzania, Italy, and the backcountry all over North America and heartily recommend it. Note that the recommended sketchbooks don’t fit in here – I usually use loose sheets of paper, then paste them into my sketchbooks.
Markers of various sizes and colors, for a range of effects.
Small, compressible dry bag to keep everything organized and secure. You can clip it to a handy area of your canoe, vehicle, or pack, and everything is in one place. I have a couple along the lines of this one.
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