Top essential art material for a student designer


When we first join a design school, we may receive an art material list. After a visit in any art shop, you realise that the material is costly and that our budget may be quite limited. But we start so excited that we tend to be non reasonable, and buy the maximum of things from the list and even extra tempting stuff.*

  • Chilling in a Art shop material is like chilling at IKEA. You may end getting an extra cool marker like buying a set of candles or a Bonsai !

We have the belief that more we get equipped, more we’ll do great stuff !

I do not recommend to follow the school list. Keep it just for your own reference. If I am not wrong the list I received during my first year of design school contained about 3 full pages… I unnecessary spend money during my first week of school believing that I could get a great start getting all these things in advance.

So, I though that this article could help you to avoid my mistake, and identify the bare minimum needed for a good start as a student designer.

Art shop banner
Art materials shop – It’s easy to be overwhelmed there.

TIP – Too many equipment kills productivity. Start simple.

At start, keep your material as minimum as possible or you may end overwhelmed. Later on only, spend some time to refine and explore more material along your learning journey.

Eg: Think about Photoshop. How many times did you open, and close it after a minute just because you felt overwhelmed by all its tools, and you didn’t know where to start. Don’t put yourself in that situation with analogue tools.

Let’s see the short list of tools that you can begin with but also keep along your career.

1- X-acto

Exacto blade

We prefer an X-acto than using a regular cutter or scissors.
You can cut more precisely such as font for examples, and cutting curves with precision. I prefer to use Exacto to cut images to create my mood boards instead of a scissors. Try and you might get used to it as well.

TIP Use an X-acto instead of a cutter or scissors.

Note that the blade need to be changed regularly – especially when you want to cut foam board – or you may get some undesirable “bullet” of foam on the edges.

  • + Sharp and efficient
  • + Great for cutting curves
  • + Precision such as cutting fonts
  • – The blade need to be replaced quite often
2- Cutting mat A3
Cutting mat with metallid cruler

Cutting mat A3

Protect your desk with a wide cutting mat from the blade of the Exacto and from ink stains.
This mat is great for protecting your desk. If you make some stains on it, try to keep it clean for a good working environment.

3- Metallic ruler 30cm

metal-rulerMetallic ruler

A metallic ruler is better than plastic to cut paper and foam board safely.
The plastic ruler is made of a “soft” material, the blade might damage it. To keep your finger safe, use a metallic ruler. Make sure to hold it firmly.

TIP You may protect your finger using your nails as a “shield”.
(Some chef use a similar technique for cutting onions for example)

4- Foam board

FoamboardFoam boards

You will paste your work on these boards for your oral presentations.
I recommend foam boards with 3mm thickness. They look neat and elegant, however these boards tend to bend a bit. The 5mm is a safer choice for big size documents such as A3.

TIP Buy them in a set to get a discounted price.

They are big and pretty fragile, make sure to avoid the rush hour if you take the subway and store them in a safe and non humid place at home.

5- Ball point pen

Pack of ball point pen x60

If you find a ball point pen that suits you, I recommend you guys to get them in pack.
Train with the same pen and you will sharpen your pen pressure sensitivity. Each brand of pen is different – so it’s good to stick to the same. Make sure to choose one that offer a good variation of lines.  You can click here if you want to know more about the ball point pen.
The brand I used to buy when I was student was the Paper Mate above.

  • + Improve your skills faster
  • + Cheaper price buying them in pack
  • + Be able to bring them anywhere. Put one in you bag, an other in your jacket…
6- Felt pen

Stabilo Stylist
The Stabilo Stylist is a great choice for drawing on Layout paper (Special paper for markers).

  • + The ink doesn’t blend in contact with the marker ink. (Many ball point pen do)
  • + Good pen pressure sensitivity
  • – Remember to put back the cap after usage. The tip dries fast.
  • – Draw gently with the pen, the nib get shorter from the “paper abrasion”

PaperMate Flair Original
The Paper Mate Flair original is a good tool to complement your Ballpoint pen and Stabilo stylist. You can use it for adding thicker lines in your sketches.

  • + Great for doodling
  • + Play with different line thickness
  • + The line is regular and bold
7- Colour lead o.7mm and mechanical pencil

Colour lead red 0.7mmStaedtler-rubber

The colour lead are often more fragile than the regular “charcoal one”.
At 0.5mm, they will too often break and start to be irritating. Get colour lead from 0.7mm or even 1mm. Blue and red leads are the most common used.

Beside that, the colour leads are more difficult to erase. Get a good rubber such as Staedtler. If you know a better one, let me know !

Note that I do not recommend to use pencil neither an eraser. These colour leads are an exception. There is no much needs to get any regular “charcoal leads” for the moment.

8- Paper

Double A paper
A4 and A3 Laser copy paper 80g

I have a preference for laser paper instead of inkjet paper.

  • The surface is smoother and slide better.
  • I choose 80g paper for the thickness. 70g is a bit fragile and transparent. 100g is unnecessary too thick.
9- Sketchbook A4

Sketch book
Cheap and simple sketchbook

Don’t get any expensive sketchbook.
It will paralyse you from drawing in. The sketchbook will be your best partner. Bring it with you as often as you can with a ball point pen.

An expensive sketchbook will make you draw lesser.

  • + Carry it anywhere to sketch in anything
  • + Note inside any ideas that come up day and night
  • + Private. Not aimed to be shown to anybody
  • + Not made to be beautiful but experimental and messy

10- Art Portfolio A3 with elastic

Portfolio Exacompta A3
Art portfolio with elastics

Bring your files at school with this portfolio.
I recommend to get one with elastic instead of ribbons. It’s just faster to use and it won’t open accidentally.

11- Glue in spray
Spray mount Scotch

Repositionable Spray mount

Make sure to get the REPOSITIONNABLE spray. Never buy any permanent one.
It allow you to glue your work on the foam board and readjust the position if needed even hours later with a minimum of damage. If you make some mood board manually (not digital), use preferably that spray instead of a regular UHU stick of glue.

  • + Repair your mistake anytime
  • + Clean work
  • + Spray a light layer of glue is enough
  • – Need an open space

12- Markers

Copic Grey of Shade
Set of 12 shade of cool grey – COPIC

Markers are super costly. Buy them carefully. You can first get the basic set of grey of shade. Then, for the colours I recommend you guys to buy them along your projects.

gaz-choutac-chungThere are several brand available. The top 4 brands on the market are :

  • Letraset Tria
    : 3 tips – expensive – reliable. The colours are standardised. A marker bough in US will be the exact same colour from one bought in Asia for example.
  • Copic markers
    : 2 tips. Cheaper option and well made. Copic are pretty well known for Manga artist.
  • Letraset Promarker
    : 2 tips – pretty affordable – but may stain. The body is not as well made as the Tria series. About half price of the Tria if you get them in set.
  •   Chartpak
    : Strong smell of alcohol.
  • + others such as Prismacolor Premier
    that I havn’t tested.

I discovered and bought a cheaper option in Vietnam. I never saw them in any shop. Actually the website indicated ( on the marker body – but it is not on service anymore. I only found these markers available on Ebay: Touchliit marker. The design of the marker are Copic alike, and are well made.

Note: Try to get a blender. You may try some nice gradient effect with.

Chartpak Blender marker

13- Layout Paper

canson layout markerpads
Layout paper for markers – Bleed proof

Get these paper for your markers.
Make sure to draw on the right surface. The verso is not usable (Some artist like to experiment that suface. It gives a wet result)

  • + The marker ink will be “regularly” absorbed on the paper to give a smooth effect.
  • + The ink won’t go through
  • + Save ink compared as regular paper that the fibre absorb more ink
  • + Semi transparent, you can draw on top of an other sketch from a different sheet of paper.
  • – Doesn’t dry as fast as regular paper – be careful with your palm
  • – Expensive

14- Printer

Canon Printer A3
Canon A3 Printer

Get a borderless A3 printer instead of an A4. Most of the work you will present at school will be A3 size. It’s to make sure that the whole class can see your work, even from far. Ok, you may tell me that you can assemble two A4 paper on the presentation board. True.

Get an A3 printer to save time and energy.

  • But you will discovered that it’s pretty annoying to parameter your software and printer to print without margin. Note that not all printer can print without margin. So you may need to cut manually and  NEATLY the extra white boarder…The joint have to be perfect, especially if you have some text written on it. To avoid the hassle, consider an A3 Printer.
  • You will need full A3 size paper for your portfolio.
  • Note: You may consider to print your work or portfolio with a Professional Laser printer. It will be much faster, cheaper. However you won’t control the colour calibration that tend to be too contrasted at time.
  • Make sure that the ink cartridge are all independent.
  • You may consider refill ink to low the cost. Try to get a system that needs the less maintenance as possible.

15- Scanner

Canon Scanner

Canon A4 Scanner

Despite of recommending a A3 printer, I recommend an A4 scanner.
Because the A3 scanner are just overpriced. Things you will scan from may come from magazines, newspaper or else.. most doesn’t exceed a4. Note that an A3 scanner is VERY bulky.

Get a scanner that has ONLY an USB cable, no power cord.

A scanner doesn’t need much of energy, and will get it from the USB cable itself. The simplification of cable is a practical choice. My scanner remains most of the time in my cupboard. I take it out only when I need it.

16- Mac or PC ?

macbook pro
Macbook Pro

Definitely Mac !
Most industrial designers will answer Mac as well. Nowadays both 2D software and most 3D software such as Rhino 3D are available on Windows and Mac OS.
I would recommend a portable option that allow you to work anywhere. Just make sure to get at least a 15 inch screen. I know it’s quite heavy, even for a Mac Book air.

  • + Safe environment
  • + NO VIRUS
  • + Low updates needed
  • + Possibility to install Windows on a Mac with Parallel Desktop (Works great but take a lot of resource)
  • – 3DS max and Solidworks are ONLY available on Windows
  • – A bit heavy to transport.


Portable Wacom Companion

The only reason why I would go on a PC, would be an additional screen tablet included. Some of you may think about the “Portable”  Wacom Companion. I tried and unfortunately I didn’t like it. It’s heavy, the autonomy of the battery is low and worst of all, the pen is not accurate when you reach the edges of the screen. Disappointed. UPDATE: The Wacom Companion 2 has been released. I havn’t get the chance to try it yet !

Modbook inc Mac book screen tabletModBook: Fusion between a MacBook Pro and a Screen tablet

You may consider a screen tablet for Mac. I didn’t have the chance to try it. That option is pretty interesting but VERY expensive. The company Modbook Ink takes some Macbook Pro, and TRANSFORM them into screen tablet with 1024 pen pressure sensitivity. Awesome !

17- Graphic tablet

Wacom Intuos4

Wacom Intuos 4

If you can’t afford a screen tablet, start cheap. Don’t underestimate a regular graphic tablet vs the Screen tablet. It will take you more time to get used to it, but we all need to start somewhere. If you can’t get an Intuos 4, you may even consider a Bamboo. Unfortunately I havn’t personally tried that one. All I know is that I started with the Graphire 2, a very old version that gave me satisfaction.

For the rest of materials, wait for you teacher to give you specific instruction before getting more such as: brushes, painting, watercolour, curves, permanent markers, Posca, trace ellipses, circle, pastels, sponge, colour markers, blender, pencil colour… or you may end having a lot of art supplies on the shelves taking the dust.

Let me know your impressions in the comment below.

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About The Author


If the sketching methods I’ve acquired aid me in my life and in my career, I believe that they can also help you to learn, and help you with your projects. Whether Design is a job or a hobby it doesn’t matter, so long as you do what is important to you.


  • Anna Batog

    Reply Reply October 16, 2015

    I bought some of these markers Touch lit you are talking about in Copenhagen this year, and mine have the website on them. They are great!

    • Chou-Tac

      Reply Reply November 6, 2015

      Hey thank you Anna for the link !

      I guess it was not that easy to find them right ?

      Very happy you share with us this website 😀

  • Peter Sellers

    Reply Reply September 19, 2015

    Rhino for Mac is not the finished article. as an industrial designer I do appreciate the design of the Macbook, I do own one, but I do get frustrated with the lack of Solidworks, Solidedge or Inventor availability on the OSX platform.

    • Chou-Tac

      Reply Reply September 21, 2015

      Have you found a way to deal with it ?

  • renata

    Reply Reply April 9, 2015

    wuauuuu I love this article, it makes me feel sooooo young! ;-)))
    thanks Chou-Tac for sharing

    • Chou-Tac

      Reply Reply April 9, 2015

      Back to school ! Still like chilling in the art shop. 🙂

  • Davis

    Reply Reply April 8, 2015

    Macs do/can get viruses. Last year, OS X and iOS actually had more vulnerabilities than both Windows and Linux. Anything that connects to the internet can get a virus or be hacked.

    • Chou-Tac

      Reply Reply April 8, 2015

      If you have an article about this, I would be pleased to read about Mac vulnerabilities. Thanks for the precision Davis.

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