DIY: Materials

This tutorial dates from 1998. There’s more up-to-date and clear information on materials throughout Drawing Words & Writing Pictures. There’s also a more current Supplies List at with buying links.

Page size:
Whenever we talk about page size, we’re actually talking about “image area”, which means the part of the page on which you are actually drawing. It doesn’t matter if your paper is the size of a football field, the image area, the rectangle you’re actually drawing on, is all that matters.

Most American comics are drawn at approximately 10 inches by 15 inches. This is in the ratio of 2×3. Other 2×3 ratio pages could be 8” x 12” or 18” x 24” for example. Since art is almost always reduced in the printing process, it doesn’t matter what size your originals are, just the ratio. European standard ratio is closer to 3×4—i.e. the originals are 9” x 12” or 12” x 16”. You should scale your originals to be approximately 150% or more of final print size.

Paper type:
Generally, cartoonists draw on 2- or 3-ply bristol board. A few (such as Chris Ware) spring for the more expensive illustration board (which is a lot stiffer. Make sure it’s archival! Ask your art supply store!) I have used both, but normally use 2-ply 500-series Strathmore bristol with a vellum finish.

There are three types of surface on bristol board-type papers: a hard, glossy finish called “hot press” or “plate” finish, a medium surface called “vellum”, and a relatively rough surface (not really that rough) called “regular” or “cold press”. Which of these you use totally depends on your preference. I go back and forth. If possible, try ink on a sample of the bristol you are considering. Lots of brands of paper, especially cheap ones (but even some quite expensive ones), will bleed and feather around your lines, which is INCREDIBLY ANNOYING!! This happens especially badly when you use a steel-nib pen (see pens section). I must note here that some people go intentionally for the bleeding line, but that’s a pretty experimental style, and most of us don’t want that most of the time. Quality and prices vary tremendously, so check around to find a brand you’re comfortable with. My fave is Strathmore, but that’s just because I know I can rely on it. Apparently, it’s not available outside the USA, which sucks for all you international types. Word of warning on plate-finish boards (hot press): ink dries even more slowly on a plate finish, and dried ink may smear when erased over. Also, there are different grades of paper, and you’ll have to decide how important it is to you that your paper have all-cotton fiber, or whatever. Buy sheets of different stuff and see how much it matters to you. Consider the archival qualities of each type and weigh that as well. You can get paper in individual large sheets or pads of different sizes, and…basically, paper is incredibly complex, and if you’re just starting out, I’d say get a student-grade acid-free 2-ply bristol in a pad, and you’ll probably be OK.

Black (graphite) pencils go from 6B (very soft and black) numerically down to HB (in the middle) numerically up to 6H (very light gray and very hard). Hs are good at holding points, but are scratchy and hard to photocopy. Bs (pencil E) have a satisfying soft dark line, but are sort of mushy and hard to be accurate with, and also hard to erase. I used to always use a good ol’ #2 yellow pencil, which, in art-store parlance, is (confusingly) an HB (pencil D). Art store pencils have a more consistently-composed graphite lead, but otherwise are similar to regular yellow #2 pencils. In your finished art it won’t make much difference, but you might enjoy drawing more with the art-store kind. A lot of people (including me) use non-photo blue pencils. These are light blue colored pencils that, as advertised, do not photograph when you’re having films shot for a printed comic. They also mostly do not photocopy (as long as you go easy with them), but that’s more and more of a problem as photocopiers with greater sensitivity to subtle tones are introduced. Be careful. A good, non-waxy (i.e., erasable) non-photo blue pencil is Col-Erase. I use “light blue” Col-Erase pencils (pencil A), which a just a little darker than “non-photo blue”, but I find they are equally good in terms of not copying, and they’re a lot easier to use because you can see them better, and they erase more easily.

Other penciling tools:

Most importantly, erasing. I use a white plastic eraser because it has the best damage to paper/effective erasing ratio. For more erasing power and more damage, try a classic Pink Pearl. For less and less, try a kneaded eraser. Some people swear by an electric eraser, which I might try one day, but they’re really expensive. Get yourself an electric pencil sharpener, and you’ll improve the drawing experience immensely. Seems like a dumb luxury, but, believe me, it’s not. Anyway, they don’t cost that much. 

For lettering, an Ames lettering guide is really indispensable. It’s a very cheap plastic thingamajig that’s designed just to make drawing lettering guidelines easier. Isn’t that nice of Mr. Ames? Look at the instructions in the package for more specific info on how to use it. It’s a bit hard to explain without the thing to demonstrate with. It’s easiest to use with a mechanical pencil, and note that you can get non-photo blue leads for mechanical pencils. One other pencil tip (ha ha. get it?): when you wear your pencils down too short to hold comfortably, put them in a pencil extender. It’s a money saver.

As far as inking tools go, people use a wide variety of pens and brushes, but most common are red or kolinsky sable watercolor brushes. The “classic” is a Winsor-Newton series 7, #2 or #3 size. However, this is by no means the only type of brush you can use, and it is quite expensive, since it’s a “name” brush. I use many different brands, though I quite like Isabey, Princeton, and Raphael (this is my current fave brush) and I usually use a #3, #4 or even #5. No matter what brush you use, cost and quality are closely related, and, while you can use a cheap brush, you will see the difference. Expect to spend $15-$25 for a good-quality #3 brush. This is definitely one place where spending a little money will pay off. If at all possible, I strongly recommend that you test the point on any brush before you buy it. Most good art supply stores will have a piece of “brush up” paper you can use to do this. This is light blue paper that is sensitive to water, and when wet, makes a dark blue mark, so you can use plain water to test the point and resilience of the brush. I really can’t emphasize this too much. Also, red sable or kolinsky sable brushes usually hold a much better point than synthetic brushes. I hear that Chris Ware uses incredibly cheap synthetic brushes, but he uses a new one for every page, so that adds up fast! For brush inking on the road, you can get a Japanese brush pen. They’re a bit expensive ($35-$65) [a lot cheaper now—more like $15], but they are fun to have. They are actual synthetic brushes, not the felt-tip brush-markers you sometimes see. They work like fountain pens a bit, though I think they use (the much preferable) pigment ink, not calligraphy ink (which is often dye-based, and is always non-waterproof). Anyway, the ink comes in cartridges. I’ve heard of ones from Kaimei (which people say are actually sable brushes, not synthetic), and I have one from Pentel that I bought in England (for only about $15, but I’ve never seen it in the US), as well as a Japanese one on which I can’t read the brand (it’s in Japanese).

The other major inking tool for cartoonists is a steel-nib pen. This is what you might call a “dip pen”, a flexible and replaceable steel nib in a wooden or plastic nib holder/handle. It’s what your grandmother probably learned to write with. There are lots of types of nibs, from tiny rolled ones (crow-quills) to larger flat ones, and they range equally widely in line-width and flexibility. My work-horse pens are Hunt #22 (“extra fine”) and Hunt #56 (“school”).The 56 is thicker and stiffer. I also use (crow-quills) Hunt #102 and #108 a lot for more flexible lines. Dan Clowes once told me that Jaime Hernandez only uses a Hunt #22. Jim Woodring is also a staunch pen-user, but I’m not sure what type. Up until 1996, I used a pen for almost all my work, and I’m heading back in that direction lately. Other artists swear by the Hunt 101 “Imperial”, the Gillott 1290, 290 or 170, and lots more. It’s really fun to seek out strange new pens in the backs of old drawers of old art-supply stores and antique stores, and the greatest part is that they’re so cheap! I don’t think I’ve ever paid more than $1 for the most exotic nib. Also, brushes are great and I love them, but there’s nothing at all wrong with using a pen your whole life (as is so eloquently evidenced by Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Woodring). Don’t let anyone bully you out of it if that’s the line you want. These are all, by the way, pens that you have to dip into a jar of ink regularly. Get over it. It becomes second nature very soon, and you won’t mind.

If you’re interested in pen work, I highly recommend Rendering in Pen and Ink, (formerly published as “Drawing in Pen and Ink”) by Arthur Guptill, 1976. Published by Watson-Guptill Publications, ISBN 0-8230-4530-7. This a great, very practical, book on pen inking techniques, filled with rather old-fashioned but extremely masterly and beautiful illustrations from the golden age of pen-and-ink artwork (1900 – 1940). It was originally published in 1930, and has been revised and updated. It’s a treasure.

A lot of people use technical pens (Rapidographs or other brands for drawing, but, in my opinion, this is a mistake, since they have no variation in line weight, and thus look stiff and technical, and, let us not hesitate to say, boring. They’re good for corrections and the occasional ruled line, but even for the latter I prefer a nib pen. Most people go through an early technical-pen stage because they are 1) scared of or 2) uninformed about other options. I did. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as you get out of it as fast as you can. If you eventually find that that kind of line is what you really want, you can always go back. Robert Crumb has used technical pens for a lot of his work, and managed to make this least-flexible of instruments look organic and beautiful. But then, he’s a genius, and I’m not.

Don’t, repeat, don’t use Sharpies or permanent markers. Yes, they are handy and black, but they are totally non-archival and super-toxic to boot! Also, their inks often bleed, fade, or penetrate through opaque white paint. If you must use a marker, make sure you get one that says “pigma”, “pigmented ink”, or “no bleed, no fade, archival” on it. This is a fabulous new invention of the Japanese: pigment (solids suspended in liquid as opposed to dye, which is liquid color) ink ground small enough to go through a felt-tip nib. You can also get felt-tip “brush” markers with pigment ink in them. The brand I’ve seen is Sakura “Sumi Brush”. This is what Dylan Horrocks apparently uses on all his work. It’s pretty cool, and archival, too.

One other handy pen to have is a Rotring ArtPen. It has little or no variation in line weight, its ink is not waterproof, but then what else are you going to use when you’re sketching on the road? Matt is addicted to his Fine Drawing pen, I use a Medium Writing a lot less than he uses his (there are a ton of different kinds of nibs; be sure you’re getting the type you want, i.e., probably not “Calligraphy”, which will have a flat tip). If you’re going to be doing washes or watercolor on your drawings afterwards, use a rapidograph or something instead so the ink won’t run. Basically, I find it a limited but useful tool. However, Jason Lutes uses his for everything he does, so what do I know?

Mostly, you just need black, permanent India ink. But this is easier said than done: most inks are infuriatingly grey and weak! If you get bad ink, leave it open to evaporate for as long as necessary (days, or weeks, even), and/or pour a very small amount at a time (a teaspoonful, maybe) into a small palette with round indentations (round so the ink evaporates evenly), and it should evaporate fast enough for you to use it in a half-hour or so. One widely-used commercial ink is Higgins Black Magic (NOT regular Higgins), but even that is pretty watery. You could also try FW or Pelikan Drawing Ink A. Lately I’ve used Ultra Draw ink a lot, which, though designed for Rapidograph technical pens, works perfectly well with everything else and is really black to boot. Also, Winsor-Newton India ink is extremely black and glossy, almost too much so. Matt and I have mixed it with weaker ink or purified water to get it to the right consistency. (That gloss is from the shellac, by the way, which is the ingredient that makes the ink somewhat waterproof.) Never use washable inks!

White Ink:
Most importantly, this does not mean Wite-Out! Correction fluid is handy, but it’s a huge blobby pain in the ass, bad for the environment, bad for your health, and, worst of all, bad for the archival qualities of your work. Devil, get thee behind me! What you want to look for is some type of opaque white ink (gouache or watercolor) that has good brushing qualities and good coverage. You may have to try several brands. My favorite is no longer manufactured, so I’m sad. Nowadays I’m using Winsor-Newton, and I’ve used one that’s called Pro-White also. Be prepared: this stuff is kinda thick and gooey—it has to be to cover anything. You apply it with a brush, something like a short-bristled #1 or #2 synthetic round. My method is to put a puddle of purified water in the jar when I open it, and then use this water to kind of mix a tiny bit of it at a time it to the right consistency as I go. It’s trick, no lie, but better than Wite-Out! You can use it with a pen for special effects but it’s too hard to use it that way all the time. Kaz uses white acrylic paint, which I’ve tried, but it’s not opaque enough for me and so drives me crazy. But that’s an option.

Inking Accessories:
To try to prevent ink-bottle-tip-over, cut a bottle-sized hole in a sponge, put the bottle in it, and put the sponge in a sponge-sized compartment of a tool tray on your drawing table. Or, cut a hole in a small cardboard box and tape it to your desk. I don’t do this, but a lot of people do. Someone once told me that they keep a small brass brush face up on their desk to jab their pen into to clean it mid-inking. I keep a paper towel handy to wipe off excess ink, and a scrap of bristol board to get my brush point how I want it (or to gently spread out the bristles to do dry-brush). A small eyedropper bottle filled with purified water is always handy.

First of all, the basics: you have to clean your tools every time you use them. If you let ink dry in your $25 brush, it will never ever be the same, and you will be sorry. Try to avoid dunking your brush all the way in the ink. Bad for it. However, if your brush is doing its job, it will be absorbing ink and so the ink will get up in the ferrule (that’s the metal part at the top of the bristles that holds them on). No help for it. Try to wash as much as possible out, but don’t sweat it, because it will do you no good, nor the brush either. Swish your brush in water every once in a while as you’re inking, and never, never, under any circumstances, stand it on its tip. To help me comply with the above admonition, I’ve got one very cool thing, which is a “brush basin” from Plaid Enterprises. It’s a square beige plastic bin that is divided down the middle. The idea is that you fill both compartments with water on one side there are ridges under water that you gently wipe your brush along to loosen the ink, and on the other side, you have some grooves that are designed to suspend your brush in the water, its tip not touching anything, while you’re not using it. It’s a must for marathon inking sessions. Or even non-marathon inking sessions. It’s great. Other companies make a similar product. Use “brush soap” and warmish water to clean your brush. Swish the wet brush over the soap, then gently work it back and forth in the palm of your hand to loosen the ink, then rinse it and repeat until the soap doesn’t turn grey. This is a good way to wash out India ink, but a bad way to wash paint (which is often toxic, and you’re working the toxic chemicals into your skin) so don’t so it this way if you paint!

Two other essential tools:
You will use a ruler constantly. I like to have a clear plastic one with 1/8 inch increments marked on it. It comes in handy continually. Be sure to get at least an 18” ruler if you’re going to be working “industry standard” size. Get a proportion scale. You’ll need it all the time to figure out reductions and enlargements, especially if you’re making minicomics, but even if you’re not.

Screen tones:
Also known as zipatone, which is a company name of a company that no longer makes screen tones (or exists? I don’t know). This is a plastic film with an even pattern of tiny dots printed on it that reads as grey on a printed page. You stick it on the spot where you want the grey, cut it to fit with an X-acto knife, peel away the excess, and then rub it down. Expensive, messy, and with the additional disadvantage of making most people’s work look stiff, flat, and boring, screen tones are nonetheless desired by many a beginner enamored of Dan Clowes. I say, don’t do it. However, if you are set on it, be sure not to use screens smaller than 42.5 lines per inch. If you do, when the dots reduce they will run together and make a visual mess. Best to use 27.5 or 30 line screens. Generally, use nothing darker than a 50% screen, nothing lighter than 20%. Make sure not to layer screens, or you’ll get a moiré pattern, which looks psychedelic and bad, and is too complex to get into. Totally non-archival, too. Don’t do it.