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The Best Beginner Colored Pencils Are Japanese

The spring weather has made me a little nostalgic for a year ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic was just arriving in the United States and it seemed like it would only be a matter of weeks or months until it was over. That was not the case; however, what got me through the initial months was sketching, taking back up a teenage hobby and occupying my anxious mind for an hour or two.

I had a set of colored pencils laying around, from the Japanese brand Tombow, that I bought by chance at the Scandinavian homewares store Flying Tiger in Soho. Most afternoons, as it got warm enough, I brought the pencils and a spare sketchbook out to the park near my apartment and drew — sometimes the trees, sometimes the people sprawled across the lawn working, reading, or picnicking. It became a way of paying attention to my surroundings and calming down even in the midst of panic: some normal parts of life, like relaxing in the sunshine, still kept going.

It took a while for my muscle memory to kick in and for me to start actually liking the drawings I was making. Long-ago life-drawing lessons came in handy. But it turned out that the set of colored pencils I had grabbed on a whim was actually perfect for my purposes. Tombow’s set of 12 recycled colored pencils ($14.99) comes in a convenient metal case, has slots for each pencil, and the texture of the lead is soft and forgiving, easy to draw sharp lines with the point or color wider areas using the side.

Most importantly, there are only 12 colors, from brown to light blue, orange, and pink. They’re pastel hues, light and organic without being too dull. You can’t create a perfect flesh tone or nail the color of the sky, but that’s not the point; you’re trying to have fun and make something interesting out of the limited options at your disposal. Sometimes art materials can be intimidating. These pencils are exactly the opposite.

The small investment is worth the slim possibility that you’ll give up quickly, but that’s unlikely because they’re simply fun to use. Be sure to get a good sketchbook and pencil sharpener (preferably with a container to catch the shavings) so you can start right away.

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