Sunday Mailbag

July 7th, 2013 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: When you draw, do you use pencils with different values? I mean like hb, 2b, etc?

A: Sounds like it might be time for my sort-of-once-a-year answer to that most incessant of all questions: “What materials do you use?”. I do update this each time I do it with whatever I am using these days, if it is different. But first, your specific question:


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¬¨‚ĆStaedtler 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¬¨‚Ćmechanical 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.

As I mentioned in a previous post, 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:

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.

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: 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.


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:


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.

I mentioned earlier doing pencil sketches in PhotoShop now. I have found some great tools presents for this that I highly recommend from artist Ray Frenden. He has several different “sets” for things like inking and sketching in PhotoShop for sale at $4.99, but they only work in PhotoShop CS5 or CS6. I especially like the set of pencil tools. You can visit his online store here.

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¬¨‚Ć24HD widescreen Cintiq as my graphics tablet. It’s a monster and works well for my purposes. It’s ridiculously expensive and a few other competing products are now becoming viable like the Huion GT-190, so if Wacom is out of your price range look at some alternatives.

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 year when I was commissioned to this for Weird Al Yankovic’s birthday:

Clicky to embiggen…

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 MFladlien 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. N gomes says:

    this work for Mad in Real Paints. Did you treat it in photoshop as well afterwards.

    • Tom says:

      This was not for MAD. It was a personnel commission from a friend of Weird Al’s on the occasion of his birthday, and no, this is a straight scan… No PhotoShop.

  2. mfladlien says:

    Thank you for your answer. It’s not the materials that are used but the artist using them.

  3. Ken C. says:

    Thanks for the info! Very Useful! Do you do all of your illustrations at 300 dpi?

  4. Chris says:

    Do your regular #2 pencils specifically say they are 2B? The ones I use are labeled HB, though their leads seem softer and they make darker marks than my artist’s HB.

    • Tom says:

      You are right, a No. 2 pencil is supposed to be an HB equivalent. I use a Dixon Ticonderoga “Black” HB 2, not a 2B. My bad.

  5. Kelly says:

    I’ve been trying to find the best brush pen/marker for live caricatures – just starting out with marker caricatures for now (but would love to start air brush eventually). Any suggestions? I’ve been using the dual tip Tombows but I am finding that the fine tip end far outlasts the brush end which gets fuzzy a little too quickly for my liking. Thanks 🙂

    • Tom says:

      I seldom use markers but the last time I used one it was called a DeMar Quichdraw Marker Pro, which worked pretty well. Some of my artists use a Crayola black marker.

  6. Court says:

    Hey Tom, thanks for sharing your tools. I actually ordered a couple of those Universal Pen Holder’s from John Neal (H49), as I frequently do inking. But they don’t seem to have a soft cushioned grip as your review (and their own website) mentions.

    I immersed it in hot water, as the instructions say, before putting a nib in. But the grip area stays just as hard. It distorts a little when the nib goes in, but it is definitely not what I would call a soft cushioned grip. Am I missing something here? Did I order the wrong one?

    • Tom says:

      No. sounds like the right one. I guess it depends on your definition of “soft, cushioned grip” is. Compared to the rigid plastic of most pen holders, that rubbery sleeve has some give, but it is not like foam or soft rubber.

      • Court says:

        Ah, okay. If I want a rubber grip, I guess I need to just get one separately and do my own assembly. But it’s not too big a deal.The callous on my knuckle from a lifetime of drawing is probably here to stay, at this point!


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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