Tools of the Trade: Pen and Pencil

I'm often asked about the materials used in my art workshops as well as those I use in my own work (in fact I use exactly the same materials for both) and I'm happy to share my favourites here, starting this month with pens and pencils.

Over the years, I have discovered some key items that I return to time and time again and most of them are relatively inexpensive. I love to keep my workshops as accessible as possible and this means I try to avoid any snobbery about the materials and tools we use. The one exception, perhaps, being colour pencils; more on that later. 

A quick note before I begin: I'm not affiliated with any of the products or brands mentioned; they are simply materials that I have found to work well for me. 


A daily staple for me as most of my drawing is done using fineliners (or technical pens if you're old-school). I'm very unfussy when it comes to the brand of fineliner but there are three main points to bear in mind when selecting fineliners:

1. Tip size
Ranging from 0.03mm to 1mm, I find it's good to have a range of sizes to hand for different purposes. Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens and Beupro Pigment Liners both come in sets of different sizes and the Beupro set has a lovely brush pen included, which I often use for looser drawings, such as koi.

Koi painting created using metallic paint, watercolour and brush pen.

2. Water resistance
Most fineliners I come across are now water resistant, meaning that they won't bleed (or if they do, it will be very minimal) when they come into contact with water. This is very useful if you're planning to use fineliner in conjunction with watercolour paint, although it's best to wait a few moments after applying the pen, to allow the ink to dry before you paint. If, on the other hand, you'd like the bleeding effect in your artwork, opt for a pen that is not water resistant, such as the Pentel Sign Pen (see below).

3. Lightfastness
Depending on the usage, this may not be high on your priority list but if your artwork is going to be displayed in a bright, sunny location, it's worth checking the lightfastness of the fineliner, which means how much it will fade when exposed to light over time. Archival ink is designed to be resistant to fading, which may also be very important if you're creating a keepsake, such as an album, which you would hope could still be read / seen by future generations!

Selection of fineliners on green background

Detailed owl drawn in black fineliner

As mentioned above, the Pentel Sign Pen is another great, everyday pen. I find it's perfect for quick drawing activities as it encourages bold strokes and it glides smoothly across the paper. It's a doodler's dream! Just's not water resistant.

Pentel sign pen against a green background

Under the sea themed doodles created using a Pentel Sign Pen

Anyone who knows me knows how much of a white gel pen fan I am. They are so versatile and effective on a range of different papers. I use them frequently, from adding highlights to watercolour paintings to line drawings on kraft paper and I'm always trying to push them onto my workshop guests! Sakura Gelly Roll pens are great quality but I also like Arteza acrylic paint pens. Both types are available in different nib sizes.
Top tip: Give them a shake or a tap if they seem to be clogged / the ink stops running freely. Avoid using over wet paint or chalk as this can clog the pen.

White gel pen in front of a green background.

Metallic marker pens work beautifully on grey or black paper and can be combined with fineliner and white gel pen to create intricate designs. I've found Staedtler metallic markers to be reliable and reasonably priced without the strong smell that some permanent markers can have.

Gold and silver marker pens in front of a green background.

Fish illustration drawn using metallic markers, fineliner and white gel pen on grey paper.


As with pens, there is a vast array of graphite (drawing) pencils available for all budgets. Faber-Castell is always a reliable, quality brand but if you're going to be getting through quite a lot of pencils (as I do!), Staedtler Tradition pencils are a good, budget choice. The main thing to remember is that graphite pencils are graded, with 16 degrees of hardness (from 8B - very soft, to 6H, very hard), which is explained in more detail here. For detailed sketches which require a broad tonal range, choose a soft pencil (around 3B to 8B) and for precise line drawings (for example, architectural drawings), go for a hard pencil (around 3H to 6H).

Graphite drawing pencil in front of a green background.


Okay, I have to warn you, I'm about to recommend something a bit pricier...but I guarantee it's worth the investment if you're planning on using colour pencils frequently. I fell in love with Faber-Castell Polychromos Colour Pencils a few years ago and haven't looked back. I was lucky enough to receive all 120 colours as a gift from my teaching colleagues last summer and my squeals could be heard throughout south east London. 

Polychromos pencils are oil-based rather than wax-based and have a very high quality, rich pigment, meaning you can achieve both vibrant and delicate effects equally well. All of the colours are graded good, very good or maximum for lightfastness, meaning your artwork shouldn't fade over time in the sun. With names that include Cobalt Turquoise, Pink Madder Lake and Chrome Oxide Green Fiery, what's not to like? Just start dropping hints now for Christmas...

Faber-Castell Polychromos Pencils

Hibiscus drawn using polychromos pencils

Last summer, I discovered watercolour pencils (which I ended up basing my Summer Art Set around) and they are now a firm favourite of mine. There are different ways they can be used but my preference is to use them like a normal colour pencil  and then add water to create a watercolour effect. So simple and incredibly effective. They are really useful if you fancy doing some painting en plein air but don't want the hassle of taking a full watercolour set. You can use a watercolour brush pen with them as well, to avoid having to bring a separate water pot and brushes. 

This is one item where the brand does seem to make a difference. Having tried a few different types, I've found Staedtler Noris Club watercolour pencils to be very good for the price. When water is added, the pencil strokes blend well, whereas with some cheaper brands, you can still see the individual pencil marks and the blending is not as smooth.

Staedtler watercolour pencils.

Pink and orange shell painted using watercolour pencils.

So those are my top picks for pens and pencils and although certainly not an exhaustive list, I hope this has helped you to discover some new art gems...have fun creating!

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