Art Tools of James Hobbs

Today we have James Hobbs from London talking about his drawing tools. He's an artist and freelance journalist. His artworks can be seen occasionally on his blog and the main Urban Sketchers site.

Times Square, New York

His style is that of simplifying, distilling a scene down to the minimal but yet retaining recognisable features of the places and things he draws. Very impressive and challenging.

He has also recently written a book called Sketch Your World, which you should check if you're into location drawing.

Alright, let's see what he uses to create those drawings.

Qn: How about an introduction for our readers? Tell us what you do.

It's very simple really. I draw in sketchbooks. That's pretty much it. I tend to carry a sketchbook around me wherever I go, but I can go a few days without using it, depending upon what I'm doing.

Doing a drawing a day doesn't really excite me: if I'm moved to draw every day, I'll draw every day but I don't turn it into a mission.

I do make colour digital prints of some drawings, which I sell, and I've been making small drawing-based works on canvas, which has entertained and surprised me, so it's not only sketchbook work, but it all starts there.

I should say now that some of the other people who have taken part in this Art Tools and Gears interview series seem to have a lot of kit. I don't. I like things pared down. I've been under self-imposed austerity measures for decades, because I prefer things simple.

The pens pictured here, for instance: I may take at most two out with me at any time.

Qn: Can you give a rundown of the pens you use for drawing?

I'm still on the lookout for an everyday pen that works for me. I have a heap of permanent black markers that I dip into. I bought another one to try yesterday. I seem to be using the Pentel Green Label (NMS50) most at the moment, and the Edding 400 has had quite a run in my kit. It's fairly obvious that I like a strong black line, but the danger for me is using a pen that is too thick in a sketchbook that is too small.

The big Pentel chisel point (M180) was a bit of a revelation. I'd been drawing on canvas when I came across it, and I was rather amused at how excited I was cycling home with it after I'd found it in a local store. At 14mm wide, it wouldn't work too well in an A6 sketchbook, or many other sketchbooks, come to that. I don't generally like chisel points – a bullet point is preferable. But I'll make an exception with this big beauty.

Qn: Why are these your preferred drawing medium as compared to others?

I drew with a pencil and charcoal for years, and I like them both a lot. I like their organic nature. They seem to have come in from the landscape. The graphite for the early pencils came from the ground of the Lake District in northern England, and charcoal has that Neanderthal feel to it. I've written before about my love of pencils — they are the most lovely things.

But as I am usually on the move with a sketchbook, I've fallen in love with permanent markers, even if I do dislike their plasticity, smell, propensity to stain clothing, and their secrecy — you can't tell at a glance how much life they still have in them as you do with pencils, charcoal or a pot of ink.

What they offer is an immediate, inescapable line. You have to live with whatever marks you make. You can obliterate or create diversions to draw attention away from areas that don't seem to work, but essentially you have to make do with whatever you put down. I like that level of risk. Apart from cycling in London and following the England cricket team, I don't take many risks. Using markers is another.

You also get a lot of drawing done very quickly with a thick marker. I work best, I think, when I work fast. For me, spending too much time getting something small right is the beginning of the end for a drawing. But that doesn't mean being careless. Meticulous abandon is what I'm after. I like the work of those artists who push at the limits of what they can do. Dare to fail, I think.

Qn: What's your watercolour setup like? That looks like a 12-half pan box. What brand is that? How do you find this using this outdoors?

That box has Rembrandt artists' watercolours (US | UK) on its lid, but I realise now that they are mostly Winsor & Newton pans (US | UK) inside. I don't always take them with me, and don't always use them when I do. I'm not sure what you call what I do, but I don't "paint", by which I mean make some finished work in colour from drawings. I did three years of painting at art college, mostly using oil, but now I don't get through paint very quickly.

Qn: What are those brushes by the side?

They are the big Daler-Rowney Petit Gris Pur series 24 size 6, and an ABS series 2 size 8 kolinsky sable. They are both beautiful brushes. I'm not using them enough to wear them out. I've had them both for years, and I understand that ABS isn't even trading any more. I edited a magazine for some time in which we tested different art products each month: this pair came out well, if I remember rightly.

Qn: In the picture above, between the two rows of pans, is that a collapsible brush?

It is. But using big brushes in a small sketchbook works better for me. The small collapsing brush doesn't get used. It's too small, and would be encouragement to fiddle around with details that really don't interest me.

Qn: How do you carry those brushes around outdoors? It seems quite easy to damage the hairs without proper protection.

I have a plastic tube that I carry them about in, but it's not so often they come with me.

Qn: What kind of paints do you use? Do you use acrylic as well?

Occasionally I do use acrylics, particularly on the small canvases I've been working on. The photograph of this box gives the wrong impression, however. I'm married to the artist Naomi Strauss, and from time to time I may just use a squeeze of colour from a tube or two from this box in her studio.

I prefer water-based media. I work small on things that will fit under a scanner, and dealing with white spirit and the smells of oil painting in a domestic environment is not a good idea.

Qn: What's the difference between acrylic and watercolour? When do you prefer to use one and not the other?

I use watercolours when I'm out of the house, and acrylic around the house on canvas.

Qn: Is that a box set of watercolour tubes beside the box? How does that compare to the 12-pan set that you're using?

They are Sennelier watercolour tubes I picked up on a trip around its factory in northern France several years ago. I use them at home from time to time.

Qn: More brushes I see. Those are Pentel waterbrushes. Those with the black ink. Did they come with the black ink or did you fill those? What do you use inside? What's this setup for?

Well spotted. They are Pentel waterbrushes: I haven't been using them for too long, but some of the urban sketchers seem to use them a lot so I've been giving them a go.

I fill two of them with different strengths of diluted ink and take them with me if I'm out drawing to bring some tone to a scene. I use the other two, filled with pure water, with watercolours. But usually, as I said before, I use only a pen. Black and white is a lovely combination for me.

Qn: What do you think about the usability of those Pentel waterbrushes?

I haven't really mastered them. I often seem to get ink over my fingers and over the drawing as I try to get a decent flow. This isn't necessarily to the detriment of the drawing. I enjoy a good accident.

Qn: What sketchbooks do you use? Do you have a preference for sizes? Those don't look big.

The books are mainly a selection of Seawhite of Brighton and home-made, although I have picked up all kinds of makes from time to time.

This image includes a Moleskine that I was lucky enough to win from the Urban Sketchers symposium in Barcelona, which I wasn't able to attend.

I like home-made books: the buff coloured one has been covered with an old padded envelope as an experiment.

As with the pens, I'm not set on one brand of sketchbook. Moleskines are beautiful, but I don't often work well in them. I need a sense of play and experimentation to make a drawing work well, and a book that is too precious can put a brake on this.

I usually have an A5 sketchbook and A6 sketchbook on the go at any one time. The A6 will fit into any pocket, and the A5 will be in my bag. Just occasionally I'll work larger. The square one, bought in an Oxfam charity shop in St Ives, Cornwall, was to try something new.

Qn: What's the paper quality in the sketchbook like? What kind of medium can they handle? Since you use markers, do they bleed over? Or do they make an impression on the opposite page that will show up when scanned?

The Seawhite books are 140gsm acid-free cartridge. I'm very happy with them. The good thing about making your own, of course, is that you can put in whatever paper you want, and in any dimensions or format. I do use scraps of paper behind drawings as I work to prevent ink from the markers bleeding through. I save elastic bands to hold pages back and keep books shut. I love a good, thick elastic band.

Qn: What are the challenges of drawing on small sketchbooks?

The challenge is to make something that is lively, varied, bold and that can bear being looked at. That can all happen within 60 seconds.

The challenge, I think, is less about the size, and more about the medium. It's a tightrope, and at times I fall off. I have whole books of disastrous drawings, but they just happen to be small.

It's odd: I only think of small as being an advantage. You don't have to keep remembering to stand back and look at it from a distance in the way you would with a huge work, for instance. I have made very large prints of my small drawings before, and I'm always surprised at how well they still work. The composition, balance and energy of a scene are the same whether a work is large or small. Isn't that right?

Qn: Do you paint on watercolour paper? If so what do you use?

I have all kinds of old watercolour pads and blocks that I work on sometimes, including Hahnemühle and Gerstaecker, but the sketchbooks are what I'm emotionally attached to.

Qn: I can barely make out the label for this photo. Indian Ink, 600ml. Any particular brand? How is the ink? What do you use it for?

The make is Ocaldo. The bottle has been in the cupboard for years, and I'm not sure where it came from. Sometimes I use a brush and ink on watercolour paper working from drawings in the sketchbook. One of these ink works was selected for the Jerwood Drawing Prize show in 2006.

I like drawing to be as simple as possible. Dipping a brush into ink and smearing it on paper is as direct as can be. Using materials of quality that will survive is important in ways, of course: that is being professional. But sometimes the back of an envelope using a ballpoint pen can be the best. I don't want to feel precious about what I am using. I want to feel liberated and care-free. And that's why drawing is so delicious to me. Thank goodness for drawing. It's such a fundamental and joyous thing to do, so it is crazy to make it too complicated.

Qn: Have you ever bought something from the art shop, tried it and disliked it?

I have a small collection of pens that are just too thin for me, but they are always useful for writing with. I write quite a lot in sketchbooks, especially if I'm away travelling.

Qn: Who do you think we should interview next?

Three spring to mind:

  • Rolf Schroeter: I'm interested in how he uses very thin paper and lets interference from other pages bleed through
  • Marina Grechanik: she makes fantastically relaxed and flowing drawings
  • Inma Serrano: her works have a great balance and energy and colour

They are all in Sketch Your World, and they are some of my favourite sketchbook artists.

Thanks. That's all from James Hobbs.

You can check out more of James Hobbs' artworks and postings at and

Check out other artist interviewees at

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