Page 6. Tools and materials (continued)

Intimidated by tools and materials

If drawing with a brush makes you hesitant to tackle some subjects, then switch to fountain pen. If ink makes you skip sketch opportunities, then switch to pencil. Some tools are more convenient than others and therefore allow for sketching to happen more often. A mechanical pencil is more convenient than a wooden pencil because it's always sharp and ready in a few clicks. In Japan these are called "sharp pencils" or simply "sharp."

Art supplies can be exciting, and it's easy to be obsessed with acquiring new tools. Art supplies can also intimidate you and prevent you from sketching. When I was in high school, I bought a very expensive (for me at the time) Arches watercolor block. I felt that any painting I produced on that block had to be worthy, and felt sick if the results were disappointing. That was 30 years ago and I still have that watercolor block somewhere with half the sheets still new and unused.

A few years later in art school I bought myself a nice black hardbound sketchbook and sat for the longest time staring at the first blank page wondering what I would draw there. I finally drew a whimsical cartoon figure with an introduction to the rest of the sketchbook -- and never got around to putting a single mark on the second page. That sketchbook eventually was lost forever. On the other hand, over the years I have filled hundreds of cheap sketchbooks with all kinds of sketches, some good and some bad.

If you have similar obstacles to sketching, then try to identify them and get around them. If your hardbound sketchbook keeps you from sketching, put it in your closet and get some cheap spiral bounds. Spiral bounds are so friendly! If you mess up a sketch, you can tear it out and throw it away. Of course, if your friends or family ask you why your finished sketchbooks only have an average of four or five pages, you will need to come up with a creative answer (such as, "they were a great bargain, and I couldn't pass them up!").

Cheap sketchbooks

As far as I'm concerned, for carefree sketching, the cheaper the better. However, if you are sketching in watercolors you need to find out how cheap you can go before painting becomes impossible. If you are simply coloring the line drawings with flat color, then you can get away with fairly cheap low quality paper.

This sketchbook is the cheapest I could find that would still take watercolors -- as long as I am doing nothing more ambitious than just laying in color. It's also small, about 13 X 18 centimeters. This sketch was done quickly with a mechanical pencil and watercolors.
But if you are emphasizing watercolors more than line work and plan to get serious with the painting aspect of the sketch, then you will need to find a sketchbook with better paper that handles watercolor.

There are inexpensive sketchbooks that take watercolor fairly well and strike a good balance between quality and price. Your local art store person can guide you in the right direction.

Small sketchbooks

If big sketchbooks intimidate, focus on smaller ones. They are also perfect for those of us with short attention spans, or a low supply of what I like to call "sketch energy" which is depleted after a short time.

Small sketchbooks are more convenient than large ones. You can always carry a small sketchbook with you. You may find you are sketching more often if you have that sketchbook always available. One disadvantage of a pocket size sketchbook is that there is no place to rest your drawing hand when standing. Resting the sketchbook on a slightly larger drawing board will solve this problem, but if you have room for a larger drawing board, you would probably take along a larger sketchbook as well.

F sizes

Sketchbooks in America often come in sizes such as 9 X 12 inches 11 X 14 inches. Having lived outside of America for the last 20 years, these sizes seem foreign to me now, even odd.

In Japan sketchbooks usually come F sizes, although some can also be found in the European A or B standard sizes as well. Here are some F sizes as supplied by one of the sketchbook makers in Japan. The dimensions of F size sketchbooks from different makers can vary by as much as 10 millimeters (1/4 inch) in either direction.

  • F0: 142mm x 185mm (approximately 5 5/8 X 7 1/4 inches)
  • F1: 162mm x 225mm (approximately 6 3/8 X 8 7/8 inches)
  • F2: 192mm x 245mm (approximately 7 9/16 X 9 5/8 inches)
  • F3: 217mm x 272mm (approximately 8 9/16 X 10 11/16 inches)
  • F4: 332mm x 242mm (approximately 13 1/16 X 9 1/2 inches)
  • F5 : 352mm x 272mm (approximately 13 7/8 X 10 11/16 inches)
  • F6 : 407mm x 320mm (approximately 16 X 1 9/16 inches)
  • F8 : 452mm x 379mm (approximately 17 13/16 X 14 15/16 inches)
  • F10: 532mm x 460mm (approximately 20 15/16 X 18 1/8 inches)

A lot of sketchers prefer spiral bound sketchbooks because they fold back flat. Others swear by hardbound sketchbooks for a variety of reasons including the gratification that comes from drawing in a real book, and the satisfaction of storing those books later on a bookshelf.

Loose sheets of paper with a drawing board

If you usually stand when sketching, you will want to keep your materials as light as possible. There really is no need to carry an entire spiral bound sketchbook with two thick covers and full set of pages in your hand when you only need one of those pages at a time. To lighten the load on your hands, the obvious solution is to simply clip one sheet of paper to a thin drawing board. You can keep more loose sheets in a folder in your bag. If you miss the benefit of having a filled sketchbook to impress your friends or spectators, you can always keep some of your recent work in the folder with the blank sheets. I don't usually do this, preferring a spiral bound sketchbook, but sometimes I regret it when my arm gets tired.

A drawing board will also allow you room to rest your hand while drawing. This will work with both loose sheets and sketchbooks. The drawing board should be just big enough to have a margin on which to rest your hand when you are drawing in the lower right portion of your sketchbook (lower left for left handers). Try to find a thin, light weight board that fits in your bag. You can find plywood that is very light, but not so thin that it bends.

Big margins

If you prefer to use a sketchbook with no drawing board, you can still provide space to rest your drawing hand. Just keep generous margins around the sketch area by drawing a border. This makes for attractive sketches anyway, and is highly recommended.

If you want perfect, consistent margins, you can make a template out of a piece of stiff paper with a window cut in it.

Speaking of resting the hand, a piece of scrap paper under your drawing hand will help keep the paper free from smudges and skin oil.


If you want to go even lighter and smaller than loose sheets of sketch paper, there are always postcards. In Japan, postcard sketching is very popular. These sketches are called "e-tegami" or picture letters (the "e" is short as in "red").

Art supply stores in Japan have shelves full of various postcards made of quality paper for drawing and painting. Many of these even have printed squares on the other side for filling in postal codes and placing a postage stamp, and some people actually send them through the mail.

Every Sunday my local newspaper dedicates an entire page to etegami, filled with postcard sketches sent in by readers. Postcard format is probably even less intimidating than small spiral bound sketchbooks since the postcards are loose, can be carried in the pocket in small numbers, and failed sketches can be quietly eliminated without suspicion. The successful sketches can be stored together in special binders also available at art supply stores, or pasted into a scrap book.

The photo above shows a typical postcard binder with clear plastic sleeves. Many Japanese keep their New Year postcards together this way.


There is something even smaller now and more portable than postcards. These are small blank cards for sketching which measure only 3.5 by 2.5 inches (6.4 by 8.9 mm) which is the exact same size as trading cards such as baseball cards and game cards. After they are finished and contain art, they are called Artist Trading Cards (ATC) if they are traded for other cards and Art Cards, Editions and Originals (ACEO) if they are sold for money.

This is a fairly new format which has gained popularity, and is the ultimate portable size. The blank cards are easy enough to make, but you can also buy good watercolor paper already cut to this size. You can keep a few cards in your pocket at all times and be ready to sketch at any time.

I discovered that my sketching activity increased when I started using these because I could complete a sketch much quicker, and was willing to try even if my chances of succeeding were not that great (for example if the model moved away during the sketch). On an average day I can easily finish five ink and watercolors sketches at this size during my commute to and from work, plus my lunch break. One really great thing about this format is that there are already lots of binders and other ways to display and store trading cards with these dimensions.

Here are a few trading card size sketches done on blank cards I cut out of regular sketch paper. The waterbrush is a small piston filler type from Blue Heron Arts. Because the piston takes up so much room, the water capacity is too small for regular size sketches but perfect for this format where you can make one or two sketches with one brush before it runs out of water. Other than the water capacity, these water brushes are actually nicer than the squeeze type because you have better control over the water flow.

Mini Organizer Notebooks

Here's an idea which combines the convenience of a sketchbook with the portability of small cards. They are called mini 6 ring binders, system notebooks and organizers, or some combination of these names. These are very popular in Japan, and the paper is a standard 3X5 inch size.

I use cheap sketch paper which I trimmed down from a spiral bound sketchbook. Hole punches are also available.

pocket notebook

I can keep this notebook in my back pocket and whip it out when I see a subject. If the subject vanishes before I've made but a few squiggly lines, I can just throw away the page with no regrets and have a new page ready for my next subject.

This system will help you to be a true sketch hunter, traveling light and ready to capture your subjects. I even have that quote by Robert Henri on the last page on my sketchbook.

pocket notebook

bound sketchesWhen I get back to my desk, I can move the finished sketches to another notebook for storage.

There are very inexpensive cardboard binders out there which are perfect for storing sketches on the book shelf.

I can even bind the sketch pages with cord and some dark paper for a cover like an old-fashion Japanese bound book, as I did photo on the right.

By the way, I made the round corners with a round corner punch. It's very handy!

After I move out the finished sketches, I can restock this notebook with blank pages, and keep a few of my very best sketches in the back of this notebook to show off to my friends.

These pocket size ring binders have been around for many years.

The trick is to find one slim enough for the pocket so it doesn't make a big uncomfortable bulge.

Rounded corners also help a lot and will protect your jeans pockets more.

pocket notebook

The smallest rings I have found are 8mm diameter, which make for a nice small notebook which fits the back pocket nicely, even jeans, and I've found two companies that have 8mm rings: Pilot (the wine colored notebook on the left) and Ray May / Davinci (the green notebook on the right).

pocket notebook

The Pilot is made of vinyl while the Davinci is real leather. I have both, having acquired the Pilot recently, but I prefer the feel of the leather Davinci notebook which is now several years old and well worn.

And I love the Davinci name with the feather quill on the back inside cover. Very appropriate for a sketchbook, considering Leonardo's extensive use of sketchbooks as well.

Both notebooks are fairly inexpensive although there is an incredibly expensive version out there as well. I'd love to get it someday, but I can't justify it...

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