Starting a Sketchbook Habit

My home studio
My home studio

Let's talk about tools and materials for a happy sketchbook habit. Walk into any art, craft, or hobby store and you will quickly be overwhelmed with options, so let’s talk about strategies for sorting your kit. Whether you are just getting started and need to get supplies or you already have a variety of materials, my three simple guidelines will help you get organized so you can focus on building an art habit.



1. Remove barriers to entry


For me, the single biggest consideration for having a daily art practice was the need to remove barriers to entry. When I was painting with acrylics, my barriers were mostly set up and clean up. My home office/studio is very small, and I was using it to teach from home during COVID lockdown at the same time I was resuming a painting practice.


Before I could paint with acrylics, I had to clear my desk, cover it with a drop cloth, put up my easel (I don’t have room to leave it permanently up), unearth my paint box from its storage spot, change into painting clothes or find a smock, and prepare a surface with gesso. After painting, I had to clean my brushes thoroughly, clear off my palette, and reconfigure my space to a teacher’s desk. And any day when I felt even the littlest bit lazy, that set up and clean up meant I was more likely to watch TV than to paint.


I had never painted with watercolors before, but in the summer of 2021, while I was on vacation, I bought a cheap set that came with two waterbrushes. Waterbrushes have a water reservoir in the handle. Water drips into the bristles so you don’t need a separate cup. The kit was totally self-contained!


I sat on the back deck of our rental house dabbling with it while looking out changing tides of Casco Bay. My first attraction was the simplicity of it. My kit took up minimal space, set up was as simple as opening my palette and sketchbook, it wasn’t messy so I didn’t need to worry about my clothes or the table I was working on, and clean up took seconds—swish off my brush, swipe off my palette and I was done!


This was a medium I could use anywhere, anytime, with no barrier to entry.


The more I played with watercolor, the more I liked it. I loved how the paint moved across the page and the different effects I could achieve with it. I haven’t touched my acrylics in over a year now. I am wholly devoted to watercolor.


People often say to me, “Oh, but watercolor is so unforgiving.” Honestly, it has never felt that way to me. Yes, watercolor is a tricky medium. You have to plan and work from light to dark. Once the pigment is on the page, you have to live with it. Sometimes watercolor is unpredictable. That’s all true but as I use watercolor on paper as opposed to expensive surfaces like canvas or boards, I can just grab a new sheet of paper and go again if an attempt goes wrong. Sure, watercolor paper is more expensive than regular paper but it is still relatively affordable compared to other painting surfaces. And if I waste some paint and paper, that’s fine! I’m a paint waster. Paint wasting is an activity I engage in daily.


So, my first piece of advice is simple: Choose materials you will find easy to use and store. They don’t have to be watercolors if that’s not your jam (and I’ll be keeping my prompts as flexible as I can to accommodate all sorts of media). Think about your personal barriers to entry and if any of them are material, look for ways to remove the obstacle.


2. Get the best materials that you can afford.


The words “that you can afford” are key here. I am not advising anyone to run out and break the bank, and you definitely do not need to use professional materials to have a happy art practice. That said, if you always buy the cheapest supplies you might find yourself frustrated a lot.


As I mentioned, my first watercolors were a cheap set of pans with waterbrushes. I think the whole thing cost about $35 and included something like 16 colors. It was fun and showed me that I wanted to paint with watercolors, but as I got serious about learning techniques and skills, I quickly learned that there were real limits to my cheap set.


First, the colors didn’t mix well. I was doing online classes and the teachers were always saying, “Don’t use color straight from the pan. Mix your own colors.” But when I tried I got mud. The reason was that cheap paints are not made of pure pigments. They are hues made by mixing a variety of less expensive pigments to create a color. So when you mix one color with another, instead of mixing two pigments you are mixing a whole bunch and the results can be unpredictable.


Second, I couldn’t get a wide range of values (artist-talk for how light or dark you make a color). This is because cheap paints have more binders and fillers and less pigment than expensive ones. To get intense values, I needed more pigment.


Third, waterbrushes don’t perform like regular brushes.


About two months after buying my cheap set, I bought a set of Daniel Smith professional watercolor half-pans and a few Princeton Neptune brushes. I still remember the first little painting I made with my new gear. I was doing a hundred-day project and the prompt was lemons on a branch. The difference between that painting and all the ones I had done with the cheap set was so glaring it was as if they had been made by different artists.


Similarly, at first, I bought cheap watercolor paper. Michael’s seemed to always have their house brand buy-one-get-one, so I bought a ton. But I couldn’t get the effects my teachers were describing. I couldn’t do successive washes without the paper getting pilly. I couldn’t scrub and lift. I got bleeds and blooms no matter what I did. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to buy the expensive, 100% cotton paper.


I had been painting with watercolors for seven or eight months when someone gifted me an Arches travel journal. It took me at least another two months before I got brave enough to paint in it. From my first brush strokes, I saw why Arches is the gold standard. At this point, I only use 100% cotton paper. It doesn’t have to be Arches. I also like Hahnemuhle and Etchr Studios paper, and Vivivacolors makes a great watercolor sketchbook with rough cotton paper.


Basically, having highly pigmented paint, high-quality paper, and appropriate brushes meant I experienced more success, and as my results improved I was even more motivated to paint.


Now, to be clear, I know people who love waterbrushes (they are convenient if you just want to splash some color over and ink drawing) and I know people who do great work on watercolor paper that isn’t 100% cotton. Some people adore the Moleskine watercolor sketchbook, but I bought one and hated it. It’s all down to personal preference. The area where I feel like I can be a bit cheap is actually brushes. I bought one expensive all-sable brush and found it didn’t suit me at all. Synthetic brushes or blends of natural hair and synthetic fibers give me results I’m happy with.


My point here is simple: Don’t nickel and dime yourself when investing in supplies.


You don’t need the most expensive gear, but you need gear you like enough that you want to use it.


If you buy cheap stuff and are always frustrated, that will become a barrier to entry. Remember of paint waster’s philosophy: Think like a golfer. Golfers have no problem spending money on their hobby. If they can do it, so can you.


Also, Facebook Marketplace is a great source of people selling second-hand art supplies, so if you are a bargain-hunter, give it a try!


3. Keep it simple


Especially when you’re just getting started, decide on your basics and stick to that same set of materials until you know them really well. Every artist you meet will recommend more and more tools to you, but if you want a robust daily art habit, you are probably best to have a consistent kit, again, as a way to remove barriers to entry.


Gradually, over time, you’ll acquire plenty of tools, but it is worth having some restraint and not piling things up too fast, too soon. I speak from personal experience. I have an unopened Gelli plate in a drawer that I bought 18 months ago. Don’t be like me. Be focused.


So, what’s actually in my kit?


I have accumulated quite a lot of art supplies in the past few years, but my go-to gear all fits in a small backpack that I grab and take anywhere. You should use whatever is most comfortable for you, but if you’re curious about what’s in my sketch kit at the moment, here it is:


  • A Hahnemuhle 100% cotton watercolor sketchbook
  • A customized box of half-pans of watercolor (The Daniel Smith Ultimate Color Mixing Set with five “cheater” colors: sepia, sap green, neutral tint, payne’s gray, and rose of ultramarine)
  • Four round travel watercolor brushes range in size from 10 to 2
  • A mechanical pencil (so I don’t have to carry a pencil sharpener)
  • A white eraser
  • A waterproof fine liner and two waterproof pigment brush pens
  • A white gel pen


My current sketch kit - ready to paint!
My current sketch kit - ready to paint!