Sunday Mailbag- What ____ Do You Use?

November 8th, 2015 | Posted in Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag!

Welcome to my every-year-or-so answer to the perpetual question “What kind of ______ do you use?”… Updated to November 2015 accuracy.

In the Studio

For doing my publication work I use a lot of different tools and materials. While most of what I do these days is digital I do occasionally, when the job calls for it, pull out the old paints and such. Here are the tools I like to use in the studio:


Honestly I usually use whatever I end up grabbing from my eight or so coffee cup/jars full of drawing utensils near my board. For years I used a clutch-type leadholder like the Staedtler Mars Technico Lead Holder and would fluctuate between H, HB or F 2mm leads depending mostly on what felt right that day. I got very tired of using the lead pointer to sharpen it all the time (and more than half the time having the lead snap off in the sharpener, causing me to have to pry it out and sharpen all over again). So I switched to the mechanical pencils with the tiny .05 mm leads that feed from inside. These don’t need sharpening and as they don’t have any thickness to their edges the line quality is not something I need to be concerned about, which makes it ideal for concept sketches as I don’t waste time with the niceties of the line. I use HB mostly but sometimes H or 2B. I also like using regular old #2 wood pencils (which are 2B). Almost all of my “Sketch o’the Week” drawings are done with those.

I have taken to doing a lot of my rough concept sketches digitally these days for various reasons, so see my digital “materials” list for details there. Here’s the rest:

Paper and boards-

Paper for roughs- I generally just use my live caricature paper for my rough sketches and layouts, which is a 67lb vellum bristol. The equivalent would be a Strathmore sketchbook heavyweight paper that comes in pads.

Boards for finals- Strathmore 400 or 500 series bristol, usually vellum finish but lately I’ve been using the smoother stuff sometimes… mainly when I know I’ll be doing my “colored line” style of digital finals. I like a smoother line for that. If it’s a real painting I’ll use a piece of illustration board with a kid (rough) surface as it won’t buckle when I apply a lot of washes.

Pen Nibs-

I use the Gillott 303 and the classic Hunt 102 crow quill. The Gillotts are tough to find in the US. You have to order them from overseas, and that’s expensive. But, if you have to have them, try: John Neal Booksellers. There are others but these are the cheapest I’ve found online. If you look elsewhere, usually the good nibs are found listed under “Copperplate” among calligraphy supplies. These suppliers have lots of cool nibs like Brause and such, so if you are looking for something that “feels right” buy some singles and try out a few. You can get pen holders here as well.

You could try my method of getting Gillott nibs: beg a friend and colleague who lives in Great Britain to order 1,000 nibs at his local art store and bring them with him to the ISCA convention in the states, where you pay him for them and then buy him some beers in gratitude. I am still a few Guinness shy of total compensation. Thanks, Steve!

Pen Holders-

There are lots of different kinds, but I found one I really love called the Universal Pen Holder. It’s just a clear plastic rod with a soft plastic sleeve around the end to hold the nib. The soft sleeve also acts as a cushioned finger grip. Simple but great. You can get them at John Neal on this page.


I use a red sable #1 and #2, and a #6 for big areas. Winsor & Newton Series 7’s set the standard but they are expensive. If you take care of them they will last a reasonable length of time, but ink destroys them much faster than watercolors do. You can find these brushes at virtually any art store. For a few years the real Kolinsky sable was impossible to get in this country thanks to an import ban by the US Fish and Wildlife Department, and it was really all just an enormous bunch of BS due to some improper paperwork on a few shipments of Kolinsky weasel fur. That ban seems to have been lifted, and these excellent brushes are back in stock in North Amercia. This just in: they are still very expensive.


For the dip pen I use Pelikan Drawing Ink A. It used to be hard to find this ink but now they are more readily available. If you want to order online try:

Dick Blick or Amazon

For the brush I like Dr. Ph.Martin’s Black Star HICARB or Tech 14W Black, which are both much more dense that the Pelikan and make for better brush work.

Digital Color: Software–

I use PhotoShop for all my digital color work. I know a lot of people swear by Painter, but as I can accomplish everything I want to in PhotoShop I do not see a compelling reason to switch. Currently I am using CC 2015, having succumbed to the subscription “cloud” service for reasons I’ll get in to shortly.

As far as digital brushes go I have tried some from online sellers that are supposed to mimic pencil and ink, but quite frankly they don’t really work much better than the standard PhotoShop brushes with a few tweaks.

Digital Color: Hardware–

My current computer is a 27? iMac. I used to have a more expensive Mac Pro but honestly the memory and processor speed of more “standard” computers are so strong now that they can easily handle imaging tasks… even big images. I have done images as big as a 29″ x 40″ movie poster illustration, 300 dpi and CMYK and with multiple layers that weighed in at a whopping 360 MB, and my iMac didn’t even break a sweat. These days unless you are doing 3D modeling or video rendering work, you can use computers right off the rack at Best Buy or the Apple Store for most any illustration.

I use the Wacom 24HD widescreen Cintiq as my main graphics tablet. It’s a monster and works great. Plenty of screen room, excellent response with pressure sensitivity and no lag time between strokes. If you are going to work digitally you really need something like the Cintiq. Yes, you can do it on a regular pressure sensitive tablet like the Intuos, but the cost of Cintiqs are going down (there are cheaper alternatives out there also) and it’s so much more natural to use something where your drawing appears under your hand, not on a screen feet away.

I also have a Wacom Cintiq Companion 2, which is a portable solution. This is a self contained computer (Windows), so it is truly portable unlike the smaller Cintiq 12 WX that I used to have and which required power and about 50 cables plus a laptop to work. This one you can turn on and use sans cables right in your lap. It’s a real Cintiq, too. The Companion is the reason I switched to the Adobe Cloud product from a stand-alone version of PhotoShop. PhotoShop CC is independent of platform, and you are allowed to have it active on up to two computers at once. So, I can use it on my main iMac in the studio and on my Windows based Cintiq Companion 2 at the same time. Thanks to Dropbox I can even open the same image on one, work on it, then save and open it on the other and continue working. Best of all, you can download the software on as many computers as you want and by signing off on on of your two active computers you can then sign on on a third computer and keep working (like my Mac Book Pro).

The Cintiq Companion 2 also can be used as a traditional Cintiq, tethered to a main computer/laptop. In this way you can use it with a Mac and avoid the Windows thing altogether, although then it is far less portable.

I’m TRYING to find time to do a video review of the Cintiq Companion 2 soon. Stay Tooned.

Real Paints!–

When I do get out the real paints I basically work in a combination of acrylics and watercolors with both a brush and some airbrush touches. I have no preference as to the manufacturers of such materials, and have a hodge-podge of tubes of various types. Here’s an example of my using real paints:

Live Caricatures


I learned to work in pencil so I stick with that. My pencil of choice is a Caran D’ache FixPencil 3 using their 6B leads, although I also have a special 4B lead that works with this pencil. I also use a Create-a-Color 5.6mm leadholder with a 4B lead.

Blending Stomp–

Standard No. 8 stomp for shading. I soak the new stomp in tap water for about 10 minutes, then put it on a paper towel and place it in a sunny window for about 3 days until it’s fully dried out. This has the effect of loosening the glue that binds the stump and making it much softer. Then I sand off one of the ends to a much rounder shape, so I have a fine end and a wide end. I know… that’s a lot of work for a $1.65 tool, but it’s much more useable after that process.


I use the Iwata HP-SB Plus for live caricature work with a 13 bottle palette. I also use this same brush in the studio. I have metal bottle hardware custom made, as the plastic horrors available for general purchase are garbage. In fact I make the entire bottle assembly myself (Please don’t write me asking to buy a set… I don’t sell them except to artists who work with us in our caricature concessions).

Airbrush Paint–

Mostly Com-Art Opaque and Transparent paints by Medea.


I use several different ones in our various parks, all are just standard drawing tables that you can get at any art supply store. I do have new tops made out of plywood with a paper holder built on the back, and make it as small as the base allows for space reasons.

Thanks to a whole lot of people for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Sean Leslie Casey says:

    Very interesting!

  2. Kyle Maloney says:

    When you say “regular old #2 wood pencils” are we talking about something as basic as a ticonderoga or something more? I just ordered a variety pack of three types of blackwings. They’re probably overhyped and overpriced but I’ve been really curious to try them.


Sketch o'the Week- Natalia Dyer! @strangerthingstv #strangerthings #nataliadyer @mad.magazine

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