Sunday Mailbag

February 5th, 2012 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: What are some of your favorite drawing tools (e.g. type of pencils, drawing software, etc.) you use?

A: I get this question every so often so once I year (or so, actually it’s been since 2009) I do an updated answer. Here is 2012’s version:

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:

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. BTW, Strathmore has had it’s problems in the last few years with quality, but it seems they have figured out the problem, so it remains my board of choice.


I like the mechanical leadholder type pencils like the Staedtler Mars Technico Lead Holders with F or HB leads. They are comfortable to hold and the lead pointers make keeping a sharp point easy, but it also has a thickness that the ultra thin mechanical pencils don’t have. Otherwise I have been known to just grab a handy No. 2 school pencil. Lately I have been playing around with mechanical pencils that use a 0.5 mm lead, requiring no sharpening. I kind of like these, because the quality of line is so… uh… mechanical that you don’t get caught up in the aesthetics of the line and can concentrate on the forms you are drawing. It seems to work well when you intend to ink the results.

Pen Nibs-

I use mainly the Gillott 303 but occasionally 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:

Scribblers (UK)
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 NCN 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.

I have recently gotten a Kuratake No. 40 Sable Brush Pen, and using their Carbon ink cartridge (waterproof) am enjoying the results. It’s great for certain stages of a piece when you need a brush’s touch but are moving about a lot and dipping/rolling the brush is a pain.


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 get a BIG bottle, try:


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 CS5, and I suppose eventually I will upgrade but again I feel no need to rush to do so.

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 recently did 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 Cintiq 21UX as my graphics tablet. Its’ a workhorse and has served me well for many years. It’s the original 21UX model from 2005. The new 24HD widescreen Cintiq looks awesome, but as long as mine keeps on trucking I can’t justify that kind of expense to upgrade. Maybe after I win the lottery.

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. The last time I did a real painting was last winter for a personal commission, which I didn’t bother to scan. Here’s a spot from a few years ago I used real paint to do:

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 the 6B leads. I also use a Create-a-Color 5.6mm leadholder with a 4B lead.

Blending Stump-

Standard No. 8 stump 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.

Thanks to Grant Jonen 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. //I can’t justify that kind of expense to upgrade. Maybe after I win the lottery.//
    Hahhahhaha :))
    Thank you Tom for More, More info…

  2. Robin Crowley says:

    Wow!, those materials still exist?, sounds like last Century’s kind of weird & hard to find stuff! ;P

  3. jjackle says:

    As an amature/hobbyist cartoonist, You can get started digitally reasonably cheap. Windows 7 PCs (and later this year, Windows 8 ) are 1/2 the cost of Apple’s and cheaper to upgrade. Hardware-wise they are compatible. Software-wise, though, PC’s can handle more power and multitask so much better. Always go with as many cores as possible with the highest speed that you can afford.

    Almost all computer art programs can import/export Photoshop formats, so you can swap files back and forth. If you can’t get a student version of Photoshop CS5 ($200) you can start with ArtRage 3 Pro (my absolute favorite for inking), and a Wacom Bamboo Pen/Touch (which includes Photoshop Elements) for around $100. Also Corel Painter Essentials 4 ($50 – $70 from Corel on-line). A good scanner/printer to scan sketches and such. You can stitch them in Photoshop (CS5 and Elements). Brother makes a great 11×17″ scanner/printer that you can get from Amazon from $160 – $260 (volitile pricing, so keep an eye on it).

    That’s my two-cence worth.

    • Tom says:

      I have zero problem with Windows or PC products as opposed to Apple products. I happen to like Apple because I like the look and feel of their hardware and OS better, and I like their stronger resistance to viruses. I worked on PCs for years before the switch to Apple, and found them to be as good as anything for producing the work.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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