Tools

Tools are always less important than ideas, creativity, and techniques. Good art can be made from any tools. On the other hand, knowing your tools is also the first step towards improvements. This page lists the tools that I personally use.

Sketching

For drawing random stuff, practicing or travel sketching, I currently prefer gel ink pens and whatever sketchbook that is at hand. I sometimes also sketch digitally with Apple Pencil or a Wacom tablet.

Similar choices are ballpoint pens and fountain pens. Ballpoint pens are better for a range of light and dark strokes, but many ballpoint pens leak ink and smear the paper. Fountain pens are expressive for different line shapes, but are less portable. I primarily draw with pencils when I was young, but stopped using them around 2009. I think switching to ink pens that cannot be erased actually allows me to draw more freely without worrying too much about making mistakes. It also allows me to draw more frequently because otherwise drawing could be a big project and I won't draw unless I have big chunk of free time. I consider it an important milestone in my art journey. Below are one pencil drawing (2008) and two gel ink pen sketches (2012). Note I'm not against using pencils, though I personally treat them as tools for more sophisticated drawings than casual sketches.

For sketchbooks, I like ones with well designed covers and with good quality papers. I don't have a specific brand to recommend. Moleskine sketchbooks are OK, but there are usually better ones.

Painting

I started trying watercolor painting around 2013 and later on acrylic and oil. The toolkits are all pretty standard: papers or canvas; brushes; paint; palette; oil or water; etc. I list common ways of painting in the order from easy to hard, from my personal perspective.

Water-soluble colored pencil: very easy to use. It usually comes with a set of many pencils. Simply apply colors with the pencils and then add some water with a brush. It immediately become as beautiful as a watercolor painting. Here is an example of my original sketch, pencil colored version and the final version when water was added (I was not planning to add color, so the sketch was not on a thick watercolor paper, and wrinkled by the water).

There are also water-soluble non-color pencils that could be used to create grayscale washes — nice complement to ink line drawings (better to use waterproof ink pens in this case).

Watercolor: painting with real watercolor is more fun to me as you can let the water run on your canvas. The water carves out characteristic patterns and different colors blend nicely. It is sometimes quite difficult to make a watercolor painting ugly when you added enough water. One disadvantage of watercolor is that you cannot cover the color below with a new layer of color. Therefore, one has to plan ahead for lighter or white areas, and it becomes a bit more difficult to paint fine details. The gouache (a.k.a. opaque watercolor) solves this problem. But I have never tried it. One of my early watercolor study here shows how the water flows around and create nice looking end results by simple big brush strokes.

Acrylic & Oil: Acrylic and Oil are very similar in terms of how the end results look like. The obvious difference is that Acrylic uses water as the medium while Oil needs oil. The other difference is that Acrylic drys much faster than Oil, which could be good or bad. For example, it might take several days for Oil painting to dry before I can paint cleanly a new layer, but Acrylic drys in minutes. However, if you want to paint wet on wet, then Acrylic might be drying too quickly. In general, I find both very fun to work with, but also more difficult to get started than watercolor. It is especially challenging for me to mix colors.

Because the preparations and setups are more complicated, I have not been able to do many Acrylic or Oil paintings yet. On the contrary, watercolor is relatively easier to setup and clean up.

Markers: markers are difficult. I have tried and failed a few times and still don't understand how those beautiful marker paintings are created.

Digital Painting

My current favorite tools for digital painting is iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. If you have a tight budget, any of the Wacom Intuos Tablets would be my second recommendation. Of course great arts can be made from less accurate stylus or even fingers, but the process could be much more enjoyable when you have the right tools IMHO.

Is a Digital Painting a Painting? Yes it is! ① It is definitely a piece of art, as art is not about what tool you use to create it. ② It is also a painting, because digital painting ≠ applying a Photoshop filter or neural style transfer to a photo. ③ It is not a physical painting. So it is less appealing as a gift. Even though you can print it on nice papers, the fact that one can make infinite copies of it also makes it feel less unique.

Digital Painting - Pros & Cons: Digital Painting, just like Oil or Watercolor, is just yet another way of painting, and comes with trade-offs. The advantages:

  • More colors: since we are just manipulating numbers, the range of available colors is way larger than in typical traditional paintings (though you are limited by the monitor's ability to render colors). This could be good or bad: too many colors can be very difficult to manage. Even some great artists use limited palette (e.g. Zorn's Palette contains only 3~4 colors). It is much easier for a painting to look really bad with too many colors than with too few colors. So be careful!
  • Easy colors: I had a great trouble mixing colors when doing traditional painting. Sometimes I do get the color that I want, but when it runs out, I will never be able to mix the same color again. This adds variety to my paintings but could also be frustrating sometimes. In digital painting, a color picker can easily pick up exactly the same color you used elsewhere in your painting. And you don't really need to mix colors unless you want to. You can even directly choose colors from a reference photo — but that is not very recommended. Because what's important is not to copy the exact absolute colors as seen by the camera or our eyes (our brains do a lot of post-processing and adjustments, so we are never perceiving the absolute color), but to capture the relative color or color relationships, and being able to manipulate them for your own use.
  • Layers: Some digital artists use hundreds of layers while others use only a few or even only one. Layers can make painting objects in different depth a lot easier (e.g. the sky showing through holes of a tree).
  • Non-destructive Editing: Undos, perfect erasers, and adjustment layers and many other tools allows us to experiment various things without committing. Personally I try not to over-use those tools, for the same reason why I prefer ink pens over pencils while sketching.
  • Editing and manipulating: digital editing makes a lot of tedious things much easier — making symmetric reflections, repeated patterns, Gaussian blur, etc. For example, in the digital painting below, I could have created the background patterns (less important and less interesting parts) much more easily than painting every details if I am good enough with Photoshop. But I did apply a Gaussian blur to create the effects of camera depth of field.
  • Convenience and costs: digital painting is definitely easier to setup than, say, Oil painting, and much easier to carry around. The cost is only a one-time purchase.
Graduation

On the other hand, digital painting has its own compromises.

  • Brush feelings: painting on iPad Pro is basically writing on glass surface. Paiting on Wacom tablets without displays is even worse — you need to look up at the computer screen to see what you are drawing. For drawing, it is slippery; for painting, you basically need to pretend you are holding brushes with different sizes and shapes while the physical responses is really a pencil-like stylus.
  • Clean hands: doing digital painting does not really have the same feeling of craftsmanship that gets your hands dirty. Somehow having my hands full of paints is a lot fun for me.

Digital painting apps: Depending on your platform and what kind of paintings you want to create, there are a lot of options to choose from.

  • Procreate is an iPad app that costs around $10. It is a highly efficient, versatile and professional app on the iOS for digital painting. Many professional digital artists use Procreate. Most of my digital arts on iPad are also painted in Procreate. If you only want to buy one app for digital painting, this is the one to go. It also has the handy feature to automatically record the painting process as a timelapse video that you can replay and export later to inspect or share. There are a number of other iOS apps that are also good if you want to try out more options.
    • Paper is a free sketch and note taking app that is good at organizing lots of contents. They have only a few brushes with limited customization, so it is not easy to create complicated paintings. I sometimes use it as a practicing sketchbook.
    • ArtRage has both iOS / Android and desktop versions. It primarily focuses on simulating the look and feels of traditional artistic tools. Although I feel you can achieve similar effects on Procreate. It costs $5 on iOS.
    • Autodesk Sketchbook is also available on both mobile and desktops. I feel it is targeting more towards the people who do designing and drawing, though it is equally capable of doing paintings. The app is free with an option to subscribe for pro features.
    • If for some reason, you want to make vector graphics, Adobe Illustrator Draw is an iOS app that you could try. I don't think it is very related to the desktop counter-part Adobe Illustrator. Adobe also has an iOS app for drawing called Adobe Sketch. The nice thing is that you can import Photoshop brushes if you are already a heavy desktop Photoshop user. But some important features such as selection tools is still missing in the iOS app right now.
    • MediBang Paint is a free app that is available on both mobile and desktop platforms, which primarily focuses on manga drawings.
  • Adobe Photoshop is available on both Windows and Mac OS X. If you are using Wacom Intuos with a computer, Photoshop is probably the most powerful tool you can have. A lot of third-party plug-ins and brush sets are also available to enhance your workflow. But there is a learning curve and it is very expensive.
  • Corel Painter a powerful (and expensive) desktop app that focuses on delivering the most realistic simulation of traditional art media. While Photoshop is highly customizable and also good at image processing, Painter provides pre-defined art sets corresponding to all the traditional media (thick oil painting, wet-on-wet watercolor painting, etc.) ready to use.
  • PaintTool SAI is a Windows only desktop tool primarily for manga-style paintings and drawings. It is super tiny and smooth (installer only 2.4 MB) yet includes all the essential tools for making manga and anime style drawings. It is also very easy to use and has a large user base. The official version is in Japanese only, but there are many third-party language patches. SAI is probably the only software that I miss after moving from Windows to Mac OS.
Little Dancer

Painting of The Little 14-Year-Old Dancer, a famous sculpture by Degas originally sculpted in wax. 28 bronze replicas were casted after Degas' death. This particular one is found in Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

The painting process automatically recorded by the Procreate app. The background music is Air on the G String by Bach, piano version arranged by Siloti, performed by Valentina Lisitsa.

Digital painting hacks

  • Palm rejection gloves: iPad has good palm rejection, but not really perfect. Especially when my palm is on the boundary area, I constantly trigger the touch action. Fortunately, iOS is able to distinguish the Apple Pencil touch and the finger touch. In most of the apps, you can configure the to disallow finger touches to activate paint tools to avoid accidental strokes. You can also buy an art glove (a lot of options available on Amazon), a funny looking half glove that basically covers your palm, the pinky and sometimes also the ring finger.
  • Drawing surface texture: I sometimes put a piece of sketchbook paper on my Wacom Intuos tablet. The strokes and pressures register correctly and I have the pleasure of drawing on a piece of real paper. You cannot do the same thing with iPad because you will not be able to see through the paper. Third-party transparent screen protectors with textures are available for iPads, but I have not tried them. Since I also use my iPad for many other things, I do not want to compromise the quality of the gorgeous display.

Cameras

I'm new to photography, so I don't have much to recommend here. I use the camera from my phone and a Fujifilm X100F, which is a fixed-lens camera with a 35mm equivalent 23mm F2 lens.