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From ancient times until now, every artist has kept an assortment of necessary tools in his or her studio, and many of the objects found in contemporary work spaces would have been familiar to an artisan or craftsperson of medieval and Renaissance Europe or to a scholar-painter in ancient China. Just call to mind Ming dynasty painter Xie Huan’s Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden, with its image of an artist’s work table complete with brushes, a water container, and an inkstone. Despite the differences in ambience and setting, the functions of those implements were the same as they are today.
In our own era, tools for drawing or sketching are used by artists working in three dimensions as well as two. Inks and pigments, whether black or in colors, can be applied to models or a final product. And a measure, either a ruler straightedge marked with centimeters and inches, is invaluable no matter what medium you work in. Assuming that most contemporary artists have access to a smartphone or camera, and that every household has a container for water or solvent (be it a plastic yogurt cup or an empty jam jar), here is a list of a dozen things we think every artist—whether they work in traditional media, in a less conventional medium like light (think James Turrell), or in installation or performance art—should keep on hand, along with our with our recommendations for specific products culled from past reviews. (Prices current at time of publication.)
Please note that these tools are for general use. You can find our reviews of more specialized materials and tools here.
There are innumerable types of artists’ papers on the market. Smooth-surfaced processed paper is probably the best for sketching with pen or pencil. A good mixed-media pad is the most versatile and comes in handy in most situations.
ARTnews Recommends: Strathmore 500 Series Heavyweight Mixed Media Pads
Acid- and lignin-free, this 100% cotton paper has a slightly textured vellum surface. Each gluebound pad contains 12 sheets of natural white paper.
Purchase: Strathmore 500 Series Heavyweight Mixed Media Pads, $9.14–$20.52 on Dick Blick
Budget Pick: Canson XL Series Mix Media Pad
Bright white and thick, Canson’s mixed-media paper takes dry media, from pencils to charcoal, very well. You have to exercise more caution, though, with wet media such as watercolors and ink, as the surface can warp with too much liquid.
Purchase: Canson XL Series Mix Media Pad, 9 x 12 in, 60 sheets, $14.79 on Amazon
Wooden or mechanical, soft lead or hard, pencils are vital components of any artist’s arsenal. Both sets below come with a sharpener and eraser.
ARTnews Recommends: Tombow Mono Drawing Pencil Set
If you’ve ever known the special, quiet frustration that accompanies a pencil that won’t sharpen evenly, you’ll appreciate the inverse joy of finding a pencil that does. From Japanese artist supply company Tombow, these pencils feature precisely centered lead cores that are adhered to the cedar wood barrel. Cedar wood is hard, so it shaves away cleanly and smoothly, exposing a sharp point. This set contains 12 pencils in degrees from a soft 6B to a hard 4H.
Purchase: Tombow Mono Drawing Pencil Set, 12-Pack, $20.27 on Amazon
Another Option: General’s Semi-Hex Graphite Drawing Pencils
With a hexagonal shaft made of hard cedar painted dark blue, the pencils in this soft-grade set of four range from HB to 6B.
Purchase: General’s Semi-Hex Graphite Drawing Pencils, Set of 4, $4.95 on Amazon
The most practical type are pens with pigment-based ink that will not bleed or run if liquids are spilled on it or if watercolors or other paints are applied after the ink has dried. Many artist pens come in a range of tip sizes.
ARTnews Recommends: Sakura Pigma Micron Pens
Designed in the early 1980s as an inexpensive delivery system for their patented pigment-based ink, Sakura’s Pigma Micron pen, with its familiar beige barrel and gear-shaped top, remains the best-quality disposable drawing pen in its class. Permanent, fade resistant, chemically stable, bleed free, and run-proof once dry, Sakura’s archival-quality Pigma ink makes the Micron the go-to tool not only for artists, but for anyone concerned with preserving their work. This set comes with three pens, each with a different fine to medium-fine tip size: 0.1mm, 0.3mm, and 0.5mm.
Purchase: Sakura Pigma Micron Pens, Set of 3, $7.78 on Amazon
A Great Alternative: Le Pen
Behold LePen, a longtime favorite of pen geeks. Unlike our other choices, this super-slim, fine-line marker comes in only one weight (0.3mm in technical-pen speak). However, if you’re a writer who gets attached to a particular kind of pen, or a draftsman who needs only one line width for your work, this just might become your new favorite implement. The midrange nib size is useful for writing and drawing, but be warned—the ink, though a strong black, is not waterproof. This pack contains four pens.
Purchase: Uchida of America, LePen, 4-Pack, $9.69 on Amazon
4. WORK LIGHT
The best work lights let you control the brightness and distribution of light on your desk or workstation. Some LED lamps allow you to adjust the color temperature to give you warmer or cooler light.
We are fans of the original Luxo Combination Task Lamp, which holds both a 22W circular fluorescent bulb and a 14W compact fluorescent bulb that can be used together or individually. The spring-balanced arm extends to 45 inches, and the angle of the head can be adjusted in any direction, for getting the best light possible on your work.
Purchase: Luxo Combination Task Lamp with Edge Clamp, White, $233.43 on Amazon
Budget pick: IKEA Forså Work Lamp
This enormously popular task lamp takes an E14 LED bulb (sold separately) and comes in a choice of silver or matte dark red, which suit its bulbous retro styling. While not as sturdy as the Luxo, the Forså also has a spring-loaded arm with three different hinges, as well as an adjustable head. Those who dislike edge clamps will like its heavy base.
Purchase: IKEA Forså Work Lamp, $26.99 on IKEA
These can be divided into brushes best suited for drawing lines, for applying colors, and for creating gradations and shading, so a mix of widths and tip styles is recommended. Excellent synthetic alternatives to animal hair can be found, many of which are applicable to a range of uses.
ARTnews Recommends: Princeton Velvetouch Series 3950 Synthetic Brush Set
Truly all-purpose brushes, Princeton’s synthetic brushes can be used for acrylic, oil, or watercolor paints. This set of four short-handled brushes includes a #4 round brush, a #8 long round brush, a 3/8-inch angle shader, and a 3/4-inch wash brush.
Purchase: Princeton Velvetouch Series 3950, Set of 4, $30.30 on Dick Blick
Budget Pick: Blick Essentials Craft Value Brush Set
If you tend to go through a lot of brushes, or just need a wider variety without breaking the bank, consider this set of 25 brushes in all shapes, sizes, and bristle types, most of which, with care, can be used with a range of media.
Purchase: Blick Essentials Craft Value Brush Set, $11.99 on Dick Blick
6. STRAIGHT-EDGE RULER
Not just for architects and draftspeople, a long straight-edge ruler has infinite uses in the studio, from guiding cutting knives to drawing long, straight lines.
ARTnews Recommends: Starrett 36-Inch Anodized Aluminum Straight-Edge Rule
Even on a student’s budget, there’s no excuse for not getting yourself a high-quality tool with Starrett’s durable, affordable, straight-edge ruler. Made from 0.075-inch-thick anodized aluminum, it has a hole for hanging, which is the best way to prevent warping.
Purchase: Starrett Anodized Aluminum Straight-Edge Rule, 36 in, $13.39 on Amazon
Pair Your Straightedge with a Drafting Triangle (Again, Not Just for Draftspeople): Westcott C-Thru Professional Triangles
Westcott’s smoke-tinted professional-grade triangles feature beveled inking edges to prevent smears, and a cut-out center for easy lifting.
Purchase: Westcott C-Thru Professional Triangles, $3.06–$33.92 on Dick Blick
Helpful for jotting down notes, sketching out ideas, or even making presentations, notebooks come in a wide range of formats and sizes.
If you know your notebooks, you know that Rhodia’s have a cult following—and for good reason. They are bound with high-quality, smooth European paper that is ideal for taking fountain pen ink. The legacy brand, in business since 1934, offers options in a wide range of formats and sizes, including this hardcover journal with a rigid faux-leather cover, inner pocket, and blank pages.
Purchase: Rhodia Rhodiarama Notebook, Black, 96 Sheets, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4 in, Black Cover, $17.96 on Amazon
Budget Pick: Muji Recycled Paper Pocket Notebook, Thick
A super-affordable notebook popular with architects, artists, and designers, Muji’s softcover notebook is bound with 184 sheets of 7.7-by-5.4-inch blank recycled paper and has a useful ribbon bookmark.
Purchase: Muji Recycled Paper Pocket Notebook, $3.90 on Muji
8. CUTTING TOOL
Some artists still use razor blades, but we recommend something with a handle, for safety’s sake. A good utility knife should be one you want to reach for over and over again. Deploy it for general everyday tasks, like opening cardboard boxes and slicing tape, or more specialized projects in the studio, like cutting canvas panels or trimming fabrics. When choosing a knife, it’s important to think not only about sharpness but also comfort and security. We’ve done the research for you; check out our favorites below.
ARTnews Recommends (For Heavy Work): Olfa Snap-Off Blade Utility Knife
The first thing to know about Olfa’s knife is that it’s loaded with an extremely sharp blade. Just one stroke is needed to slice smoothly thoroughly a cardboard box. The carbon steel metal also stays sharp for a very long time, but when you’re ready for a new one, simply snap off the blunt end to reveal a fresh edge: The knife is loaded with a long blade divided into eight 8mm sections. These are rigid, thin to provide precision, and highly resilient.
Purchase: Olfa Snap-Off Blade Utility Knife, $6.21–$9.72 on Dick Blick
We Also Like (For Fine Work): X-Acto #1 Knife Set
No art or craft studio is complete without at least one X-Acto knife for precise cutting. X-Acto’s standard #1 knife is the go-to knife when it comes to finicky cutting, and this set comes with one handle plus three #11 blades, one #10, one #16, and one #17 blade.
Purchase: X-Acto #1 Knife Set, $7.74 on Dick Blick
Multipurpose artist’s tape is always useful. But you’ll also need a stronger tape for general use.
ARTnews Recommends (Artist’s Tape): Blick Artist Tape
Formulated with a positionable adhesive, this artist’s tape won’t leave residue or tear your paper. It’s also easy to write on and comes in six colors, making it ideal for labeling.
Purchase: Blick Artist Tape, $4.00–$20.03 on Dick Blick
We Also Like (Gummed Tape): Kraft Paper Tape
Eco-friendly and forming a stronger, longer-lasting bond with cardboard than than plastic packing tape, water-activated gummed paper tape is gallery and museum preparators’ choice for packing art, as well as for sealing the backs of frames.
Purchase: Kraft Paper Tape, $7.41–$12.00 on Dick Blick
Artists use many different types of adhesives, but here are two basics that every studio should have.
ARTnews Recommends (PVA): Lineco Neutral PH Adhesive
Polyvinyl acetate, or PVA, is just another term for white glue. A rubbery synthetic polymer with adhesive properties, polyvinyl acetate emulsion is PH neutral, water-soluble, and dries clear. It’s perfect for woodworking, bookbinding, handicrafts, and wallpapering. It’s also useful for sizing a porous medium such as canvas or wood or sealing a finished collage—just cover the surface in a layer of polyvinyl acetate. For projects using very thin paper, PVA can be diluted with one part water to three parts glue. For all these gluing, sealing, and priming tasks, PVA is handy to keep around. Lineco’s version is buffered and has excellent “lay flat” properties.
Purchase: Lineco Neutral pH Adhesive, $3.86–$47.71 on Dick Blick
Another Option (Epoxy): Gorilla 2-Part Epoxy
It’s never a bad idea to keep epoxy in your home or studio. The most common consumer-grade epoxies are two-part epoxies, which keep the resin and hardener separate until it’s time to use them. For jobs that require you to hold the pieces together, a quick-set epoxy is the best choice. Gorilla’s dispenser is fitted with two syringes and a plunger that dispenses both liquids at once in equal amounts out of separate nozzles. The result is a clear, super-tough epoxy that sets in just five minutes and cures in about a day.
Purchase: Gorilla 2-Part Epoxy, 5-Minute Set, .85 oz Syringe, Clear, Pack of 2, $9.49 on Amazon
We can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a good pair of scissors. It’s nearly impossible to list all the various uses for a pair around the studio, but everyone knows the specific frustration of using dull, weak, or uncomfortable ones.
ARTnews Recommends: Kai 8-Inch Dressmaking Shears
Japanese scissors are supposed to be the best (thanks to the country’s long tradition of blade making), and Kai’s are ultrasharp and beautifully balanced. Plus, they’re comfortable to hold and come in versions for both right- and left-handed users.
Purchase: Kai 8-Inch Dressmaking Shears, $14.38 on Amazon and here for lefties
Also a Good Option: Fiskars “The Original” 8-Inch Orange-Handled Scissors
“The Original” is in the name because just about everybody remembers when these orange scissors were ubiquitous fabric cutters in American households. They don’t feature soft grips or titanium-coated blades, but these industry standards prove that good design sometimes matters just as much as cutting edge (sorry) innovations.
Purchase: Fiskars 8-Inch Scissors, $8.99 on Amazon
12. TOOL KIT
Almost every artist, regardless of what medium/media he or she works with, will eventually need a set of common household tools. You never know when you may have to assemble a frame, hang a work of art, or nail an installation setup together.
ARTnews Recommends (For Household Use): Apollo Tools 39-Piece Hand Tool Set
This kit features an 8-ounce claw hammer, pliers, tape measure, utility knife, bit driver plus 20 bits, screwdrivers, hex keys, and scissors, all in a compact storage case.
Purchase: Apollo Tools 39-Piece Hand Tool Set, $19.99 on Amazon
We Also Like (For Crafting): Garrett Wade Basic Tool Kit for Small-Crafts Work
This 26-piece basic kit includes all you need for small crafts work, including bench vise, hand vise, clamps, caliper, picks, probes, tweezers, flat and needle-nose pliers, and a polished mini steel anvil.
Purchase: Garrett Wade Basic Tool Kit for Small-Crafts Work , $107.50 on Garrett Wade