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What do you need to get started sketching and drawing?

Here is a list of ‘ingredients‘ to make a portable drawing kit:

drawing pencils (AKA sketching pencils, artists' pencils, graphite pencils)





Choosing pencils in person

When you go to the art store to buy pencils, you’ll find that lots of drawing and sketching pencils are sold in sets, and sometimes you can also find them in a bin where you can buy them individually. It’s nice to try out some pencils on paper before you buy to see how they work and how they feel when you use them. You can bring your own sketchbook to the store if you want to know exactly how they’ll feel and look on the paper you already love, or just use the little scratch pads you'll find on the pencil display.

What do the H's and B's mean?

Pre-arranged pencil sets will have a range of pencils of different hardnesses. If you choose individual pencils for your own set I would say it would be good to look for a range between 6B and 6H. "H" stands for "hard", and "B" stands for "black". (Nope, I have no idea why it isn't "hard" and "soft".)

When you see the letter B, that means black, and those pencils will be softer and will make darker marks (with the same amount of pressure) than pencils in the H range. The number in front of H or B tells you how hard or black the graphite is. For example, a 6B pencil will make a dark mark, feel softer, and smudge more easily than a 3B pencil. On the hard side, 4H pencil will make it much lighter mark with the same pressure, feel harder, and resist smudging better than any of the B pencils. If you draw a lot, (and I hope you do), you’ll probably use up your B pencils much faster than your each pencils. A good range of pencils to have if you’re buying them individually would be: 6B, 3B, HB, 2H, 4H. HB is right in the middle of H and B, kind of like the zero on a number line.

Pencils are fragile

Once you’ve chosen your pencils, be careful not to drop them. The graphite inside the pencil's wooden shaft can break. You might’ve seen this happen before when you are sharpening a pencil and the point keeps falling out over and over. Especially with pencils in the B range, because the graphite is softer and more crumbly, this can happen pretty easily.

It’s also possible that somebody else dropped the pencil before you bought it. If you find this is happening with all the pencils in your set or all the pencils are you buying at a particular store, let the people at the store know. They might give you replacements. If not, at least you’ll know maybe that’s not the greatest place to buy those pencils!


We'll start with a small & simple handheld pencil sharpener. Keep in mind that you can make more different kinds of marks by sharpening your pencils with a knife and making a longer pencil point. More on that later.

Sketchbooks with tooth

The heart of a regular drawing practice is (often) the sketchbook. My favorite ones for portable drawing are spiral-bound & have hard covers. You can fold back the unused pages completely and always have a firm support under your paper.

Experiment to find a favorite

Maybe even more important than the exterior of your sketchbook is what it’s like inside. Do you like the paper? Does it feel good to you to draw on it? How does it feel to draw on an area on which you’ve used an eraser? Do you like to have some texture in your shaded areas, or do you prefer smooth and even? “Tooth” means the paper has a noticeable texture. Papers can be very rough, (a lot of tooth) or very smooth (no tooth) and there are many options between, too. Most sketchbooks are around the middle of this spectrum, but you can also find small tablets of drawing paper of all kinds. To branch out: there’s Bristol (AKA hot press) and Yupo (a brand of synthetic, waterproof ‘paper’), which are ultra smooth drawing papers, cold press (rough) or hot press (smooth) watercolor paper, or toned charcoal paper, which has a grid texture. If you find a paper you love, you might even want to make your own sketchbook with it!


Erasers are another thing to consider when you’re putting together your sketchbook kit. Sometimes it’s nice to draw (carefully) and not erase. Also you can think about whether you want to use the eraser just as a kind of a drawing tool, not only to undo ”mistakes” to take out highlights, to lighten an area gently, or even stamp or roll a kneaded eraser to make a pattern.

The vinyl eraser (AKA plastic eraser) is usually white and block-shaped, or in its own ‘pencil’. Erasing with it is very smooth and it doesn’t make a lot of those little dusty things when you use it. Vinyl erasers are free of any grit, so it won‘t rough up the surface of the paper.

Other erasers, including kneaded ones, have some fine grit in them—that can help with erasing marks faster, but will also scratch any soft papers. Depending on the paper, the erased areas might show up darker when you draw over them, but you can use this to your advantage as long as it doesn‘t catch you by surprise.

The kneaded eraser, usually gray, is sold in a block-shape, but when you take off the wrapper, you’ll find that instead of being stiff & formed, it’s squishy & stretchy. You can shape the eraser & use it as a drawing tool. Instead of shedding bits of eraser, it works by holding on to the graphite. After a while, the surface will be black with graphite and won’t erase well. Then you clean it by stretching and kneading it. It will also clean your fingers as you do this!

One more eraser to keep around is the usual kind that you find on the end of the yellow number two pencil. It’s similar to the block-shaped Pink Pearl.

Getting it together

To get lots of drawing worked into a busy life, it’s helpful to make these essential drawing tools into a portable kit, or even multiple kits, to keep tools ready at hand anytime you feel like drawing or have a moment to spare. (Think of places you spend time waiting: keep one in your car, one in your backpack, one near the TV, one on your desk, you get the idea!

With a simple pouch to hold your tools, and possibly even your sketchbook, you can squeeze your drawing time in between other activities. It can even be fun to wait in line, if you can draw for a bit.

Below are some of my sketchbook pages: in a car, on a boat, at home...