The Tools Artists Use

Kurt Ankeny

Posted on June 01, 2009 | Comments

Kurt Ankeny is an artist and art instructor living and working in Gloucester, Massachusetts.


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

My favorite tools are pencils, ballpoint pens and the Pentel brush pens with permanent ink in them, which I purchased while I was living in Japan, god, eight years ago. The Pentel permanent ink is so nice and heavily pigmented that it is really permanent. I made our address sign for the placard at our apartment door with it, and it sat in the full blaze of the Japanese summer sun for two years without a sign of fading.

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

The project is usually going to dictate the medium. If the deadline is tight you need something that's going to be dry and finished fast, especially when working with paints. For the drawing tools, it depends on what kind of mood you're going to evoke. If I need a more uniform line weight, I'll reach for the ball points, if I need verve, power and snap, I'm going to go with the brush pen. If I need some subtlety and variation in tone, it'll be the pencil.

If you prefer pens, is there any particular brand, color, or type of ink you like best?

For pens, I usually use Papermate pens. The ink comes out of them pretty readily and heavily, and I can get a wide variation out of the line/tone quality. If the ink comes out meagerly or is too liquid, you lose that play and option in the linework. You don't need those SKG-whatevers that James Jean uses, you just need a ball point where the ink comes out easily but not too liquid. Then you can get all of that lovely "dry-pen" look that he gets.

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

I work a lot in oils, which are a very forgiving medium. Watercolors are also a favorite, but to work opaquely over them, I use gouache, which is some of the most unforgiving stuff out there. Mainly because the amount of color and value shift from the wet to dry paint varies widely from color to color, and when you've got a mix of them going on, well, you're never perfectly sure what you're going to end up with. But I use them anyway, and I'm getting better at predicting how they'll curveball on me.


Do you prefer travel sets or do you need a full set of colors? 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 have a very portable kit that I take with me for sketching. It consists of a cloth fold-over wallet that holds several pens and pencils of different uses, and then a tin that contains a water brush pen and a small watercolor pan set. With those items I can make notations of almost anything I need to out in the field. The only difference between field work water colors and studio watercolors is that in the studio I have a wider selection of tubed gouache paints. In the field, I just mix the watercolors with Chinese White, which is just white gouache.

For plein air oil painting, I use the standard french easel and my full palette, which is a modified version of Richard Schmid's palette. From left to right on my palette, I lay out: Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue Deep, Viridian, Transparent French Red Ochre, Pyrrolo Ruby (looks like Alizarin but permanent), Cad Red Light, Yellow Ochre, Cad Yellow Deep, Cadmium Primrose (a greenish yellow) and Titanium White. (I'll use Flake or Zinc white for special effects some times, but Titanium is the workhorse.)

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

I always have a Moleskine with me, mainly because it's small and takes pen and pencil well. I don't use the sketchbook version, just the plain (I get more paper that way!) For bigger sketchbooks, my wife makes them for me out of selections of nicer paper that I buy in sheets and she binds together with covers and coptic binding, which allows the pages to lie nice and flat.

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

I prefer to make my own canvases, because the mass-produced ones are just generally crap: the weave of the fabric is skewed or wavy or the primer is acrylic, which is like sandpaper and can kill nice oil brushes. (I have a nice bristle bright that I used to scrub in some shadows on a 18x24" canvas and when I was done, at least two-thirds of the length was worn away.)

I do increasingly use panels, since they don't have the give of canvas and I can be assured that when I push the brush into the panel with some force it's not going to bend and make me miss the mark I was trying to hit. Real Gesso makes excellent panels with traditional panel gesso or oil-primed linen surfaces.


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

Other than correcting the photos of the artwork to match as closely as possible, not usually. Sometimes I will do some compositing to meet a deadline or accommodate some changes that an Art Director wants.

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

Sure! I think most artists do. I've tried out Rives BFK after seeing James Jean use it, but the loose nap got on my nerves. My favorite paper for ink and watercolor work these days is Annigoni paper. There's a light tan version that has a great unifying effect on any colors that go over it and it absorbs ink in a way that makes the ink look like it's part of the paper instead of sitting on top.

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

I have some weird brushes, like Epiphanes varnishing brushes and a weird assortment of calligraphy brushes I often use for oil painting, but that's about as "out there" as I get.

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

I use Photoshop with a Wacom tablet.

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 work digitally on certain projects like storyboards. That way they're done quickly and are easily editable and I can make quick changes and crank out a set of 10-15 in a day.


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)?

Computers are a great and useful tool, as long as you know what they do well and what they don't. Promotion by computer is a necessity these days. I can't imagine getting the word out about my art without it.

Thanks Kurt!

You can find Kurt Ankeny online at his portfolio website and weblog and on Twitter (@kurtankeny). You can find out more about the classes he teaches at

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