The Tools Artists Use

Vivien Blackburn

Posted on March 13, 2009 | Comments

Vivien Blackburn is an artist from the UK who also teaches painting and printmaking. Vivien is also the very first contributed interview.

What are your favorite drawing tools (pens, pencils, markers, drawing tablet, all of the above)?

Charcoal has to be one of my favourites; not always practical because it's quite messy, so I would use it in the studio or on a day out sketching where getting dirty didn't matter - not on a day out with family :>)


I also like mechanical pencils with an eraser on the end - really simple and accessible, biro on occassion, Conte pencils. charcoal pencils. coloured pencils, Caran d'Ache Neocolor II with water, but only very occasionally ink,

I like painterly drawing media rather than the graphic lines of an ink drawing for the way I work (though I love them in other peoples work). I do like those double ended Tombo pens with water soluble ink (mid grey is a favourite) as you can get lovely washes - again it's the painterly feel that attracts me. I really don't like the scratchy feel of most dip pen nibs. I like bamboo pens and twigs because of the changes in line as the ink dries and the slight unpredictability but am more inclined to use them with watercolour.

If you have a wide collection, how do you decide on which to use on a particular drawing, project, or day?

It will depend on the subject matter and what will give me the vocabulary of marks that I need. Also on whether I'm out 'seriously' sketching with lots of choices with me or on a trip with family or friends where I can only carry a little, can only draw quickly in order not to hold everyone up and need to keep clean! I'm inclined to use fingers to smudge or drip paint or ink onto clothes or dip sleeves in paint so that is an important factor!


A current long term project on local waterways has work in charcoal, watercolour, coloured pencils, mixed media. linoprints. pencil, Caran d'Ache neocolor II, Inktense - I don't think I've done any oil sketches yet which is unusual as that is usually my first choice at the coast.

How do you like your color? Watercolor? Acrylics? Oil? Colored pencils? Markers? All of the above?

Oil first usually, also watercolour, often with oil pastel or coloured pencil. coloured pencil. pastel - acrylic in the studio but not plein air and markers not for colour but occasionally as drawing tools. Studio work in acrylics is usually finished in oils as the oils work so well glazed or scumbled or scratched through, over underlying acrylic marks put in very very loosely. Most of my work is mixed media as I pick up whatever will give me the marks I want and so a combination of materials is often involved.

If you do use paints, inks, pencils or markers for coloring, are there any in particular that are your favorites? Do you prefer travel sets or do you need a full set of colors?

As a colourist painter I like to have a lot of blues, yellows and reds to choose from and a range of other colours. I mainly mix colours, not using them straight from the tube or pan and though a painting will only use a limited range of them. I want the specific blue or whatever to achieve the results I want to catch the light, mood and colour of the day.

I don't use sets but have a collection, bought individually over time, of colours that I like to use.

I use Winsor & Newton and Daler-Rowney Artists watercolours but also have a box of White Knights that I'm fond of. Oils are a mix of brands, mainly artists colours but not all. I also like the quick drying Griffin Alkyds. In pastels I like Unison - luscious and velvety and they don't break into tiny shards like some soft pastels.


If you have a different set of tools for working in your studio (or office, or home, or on the couch) and out in public (at the park, or a coffee shop), what are the differences?

I answered this one earlier really - it depends on the subject, the situation - do I need to stay clean and tidy without smudges or paint on clothes or face, how long have I got to work? am I with friends with all day to paint and so getting paint splattered doesn't matter and I have all the time I need? then the bag of materials gets heavy as I can't resist all the stuff I may need - and if I don't take it will be certain to want!

Is there any particular type of notebook or drawing pad you prefer? Or does any scrap of decent-sized paper work in a pinch?

A wide variety. I like heavy weight cartridge paper as you can use it with any medium, watercolour paper - Arches, Fabriano hot pressed, not Bockingford very much, hand made paper, moleskine for pencils, large A3 sketchbooks in a landscape format that open out to about 3 feet across. I've also made my own books recently but I'm no expert at this like Nina. In a pinch - anything.

If you paint, is there any particular type of canvas you prefer? Do you like to paint on wood or other material?

I like deep sided canvasses as I never frame them, I prefer the look of them as they are without imprisoning the work. Plein air I do oil sketches on Cryla primed paper and frame as if for watercolours. I also sketch straight into sketch books of cartridge paper without any priming as I like the way the oil paint behaves - not archivally friendly but ok in a sketch book. Occasionally I've painted on hardboard (masonite) and like the firm surface but don't like the fact that it has to be framed.

Do you ever do any kind of post-processing (like adding color in Photoshop or similar tool) to your art?

I do use Photoshop to create images that exist in their own right and play with ideas - it's a great tool. You can see examples on my blog and website.


Have you ever tried a new pen (or paper, etc) from reading about it, or seeing the results in another artist's work?

Yes, I had been using coloured pencils in mixed media work but wanted some better quality ones and had great advice from Katherine and others. They advised Polychromos for the way I work and they were right - I love them.

Do you have anything you use out of the ordinary for making your art?

The way I mix media probably. I like the variety of marks possible by combining for instance watercolour, oil pastel as a resist and coloured pencil to subtly enhance or overlay colour. Again on my blog you'll see lots of mixed media pieces - recently lino prints, printed non-traditionally with oil paints and then worked into with oil pastel and coloured pencils.

If you create collages, where do you get the materials and objects you use in your pieces?

I prefer to paint the papers myself if it is going to be a finished piece and then cut and tear them - recently I learned to marble to create some different papers for beach sketches - so far these are just in sketchbooks. I will also use hand made papers and elements that won't fade or tarnish.

When creating your digital art, what are the software programs you use? Is one used more than another?

Photoshop mostly and occasionally Corel Photopaint to manipulate and change elements fed in.

If you work both digitally and non-digitally, which do you find yourself doing more? Is there a reason you would prefer one of the other? Is it because of the tools available in either space?

I prefer the hands on of 'real' materials and the happy accidents and 'language' of marks. I don't paint digitally but manipulate elements to create something very very different from the starting point.

I asked about post-processing on a computer, but do you think the computer is a helpful tool for making art? Whether it's looking for inspiration online, or using it to build a weblog to promote yourself and your art, do you think a computer is necessary, helpful, or a distraction (or all of the above)?

Very helpful for playing around with ideas, creating work that exists in its own right - and very distracting, eating up time if I'm not careful Very useful for research, for talking to fellow bloggers, critique, exchanging ideas, selling a little and learning a lot. So for me an essential.

Thanks Vivien!

Vivien Blackburn's website is, her sketches can be seen at, and she also has a shop on Etsy. She has also started a group weblog called Watermarks, which "is a small community of artists who make art from water."

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