The best art supplies in 2021, from sketchbooks to pastels

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These are the best sketchbooks, graphite pencils, charcoal, colored pencils, erasers, pastels, watercolors, acrylics, oils, brushes, and canvas.
Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky
  • The best art supplies can be expensive, but you don't have to spend a lot to get great materials.
  • We've rounded up the best traditional art supplies you can buy online.
  • Our list includes graphite, charcoal, pastels, watercolors, acrylic, oil paints, sketchbooks, canvas, and more.

If you're going off to art school or you just love to create, you need quality art supplies. While artists who've made it past the "starving artist" stage may use incredibly expensive supplies to create their masterpieces, you don't have to spend an arm and a leg on top-tier materials.

Often, more affordable options can serve you just as well, provided you have the know-how to make them work to your advantage. We rounded up many of the basic art supplies you need in your studio in one handy guide.

As someone who's been drawing since I could hold a crayon, I've been through my fair share of graphite pencils, charcoal, sketchbooks, erasers, and paint sets. I've tried dozens of different brands over the years, and some are still my favorites.

Here are the best art supplies you can buy:

The best sketchbook
Strathmore Sketch notebook

Strathmore makes excellent sketchbooks with all kinds of paper, including drawing, watercolor, pastel, charcoal, and more.

Pros: Sturdy sketchbooks, great paper quality, paper types for different media, affordable

Cons: Larger sizes cost more, specialty papers have fewer pages

I've used Strathmore sketchbooks for years. I typically buy the ones with recycled paper, but I've also used the pastel, charcoal, and watercolor pads for when I need a different texture. No matter which media you choose, these sketchbooks can handle it. 

The standard paper will warp if you use watercolors on it, but for any kind of pen, pencil, marker, or another drawing implement, it will do the job — it's a good thickness and weight. 

When it comes to Strathmore's watercolor paper, it's sturdy and strong enough to stand up to lots of water. The charcoal and pastel paper notebooks both have a wonderful texture to them that really works for the softer media and good blending. Strathmore's prices are fairly reasonable, too, so you can sketch away.

Besides the product shown at the top, here are other Strathmore products we recommend:

The best graphite pencils
Staedtler drawing pencils

The Staedtler Pencil Mars Lumograph 12-Piece Set comes with all the graphite pencils you need to draw like a pro.

Pros: Bold graphite pencils, 8B to 6H range, affordable, long-lasting

Cons: None

If you draw with graphite pencils, you know that not all graphite is the same. This Staedtler set comes with 12 pencils in different hardnesses from 8B to 6H. For the uninitiated, the higher the number in front of the B, the softer the lead. Conversely, the higher the number in front of the H, the harder the lead.

Most people will use 2B, HB, and B the most, but if you need deep dark blacks that blend well, you'll need 4B and up. For hard, light lines, H pencils are perfect. 

The pencils come in a tin for safekeeping, and they're easy to sharpen and comfortable to hold — even when you draw for hours on end. I've used dozens of graphite pencils, but Staedtler's are the best for the price.

The best charcoal drawing set
generals charcoal

General 33-Piece Classic Charcoal Drawing Set has every kind of charcoal you need to create beautiful work.

Pros: Big set with many pieces, includes white and black charcoal; comes with an eraser, charcoal sticks, and pencils; affordable

Cons: None

If you're just getting started with charcoal or you want to try a new medium, this General charcoal set has everything you need, including 18 pencils, 12 sticks, a sharpener, an eraser, and a drawing pad.

Each pencil is labeled with its hardness level, and the set has white charcoal pencils for highlights, too. The kneaded eraser is a great blending tool, but it can also erase any mistakes fairly well. The charcoal sticks come in various thicknesses, so you can work big or small.

The only charcoal types that are missing are powder and vine charcoal, but those are specific tools that most people won't need right away. I've used General charcoal pencils for years, and they can produce some great sketches, even though they're relatively affordable.

 

The best colored pencils
Prismacolor colored pencils set

The Prismacolor Quality Art Set includes 48 colored pencils that are rich in color.

Pros: Bold colors, lots of variety, long-lasting, eraser and sharpener included, affordable

Cons: None

The Prismacolor Quality Art Set comes with 48 colored pencils in beautiful, bright shades. You'll also get a sharpener and a Latex-Free Scholar Eraser in the set. 

These colored pencils aren't like the basic Crayola ones you used in elementary school. — they're high-quality, soft lead pencils with rich colors. You can create extraordinary drawings with these Prismacolor pencils or color in an adult coloring book to make a black and white design come to life.

 

The best erasers
erasers

The Prismacolor Premier Kneaded, ArtGum, and Plastic Erasers will erase any mistake you make.

Pros: Three types of erasers, affordable

Cons: None

To err is human, and here to fix your mistakes are Prismacolor's erasers. This three-pack gives you a kneaded rubber eraser, an artist gum eraser, and a latex-free plastic eraser.

I personally only use kneaded erasers, because they work with all media and don't shed eraser bits everywhere, but the ArtGum eraser is great for stubborn graphite and the plastic eraser doesn't shed, either.

Since this set gives you all three, you can pick and choose which one you need based on the medium you're working with.

 

The best pastels
Sennelier pastel set

Sennelier makes the absolute best oil and soft pastels, but Van Gogh, Koh-i-noor, and Prismacolor are fine alternatives.

Pros: Beautiful oil and soft pastels, good variety of colors, strong pigments

Cons: Sennelier's pastels are expensive

One of my favorite mediums is pastel. The rich, bold colors and easy blending make for the perfect drawing experience. Of all the pastels I've used, Sennelier's are the best. Its oil pastels, in particular, are stunning. The richness of the colors is unparalleled and you can feel the oiliness of the pastel. I lust over them every time I got to the art store. 

However, Sennelier pastels are very expensive, because they are among the highest quality ones you can buy. Since not everyone can spend hundreds on them — myself included, alas — Van Gogh makes great oil pastels for much less, Koh-i-noor sells wonderful soft pastel pencils, and Prismacolor makes great soft pastels for an affordable price.

I mostly use soft pastel pencils, because the fine tip gives you more control over your drawing and fine detail. However, when you're working big and you need to blend, Prismacolor's pastels are perfect. Van Gogh's oil pastels are nearly as pigmented and rich as Sennelier's and they blend very well. You can even thin them with linseed oil, just like you would for oil paint if you want a painterly look.

Here are the best pastels we recommend:

The best watercolors
Winsor & Newton water color paint set

Winsor & Newton makes wonderful watercolor paints and sets, while Derwent makes excellent watercolor pencils.

Pros: Bright colors, good variety in the sets, sturdy pencils

Cons: High-end tubes are pricey

While you may think about those plastic sets from elementary school, the best watercolors come in tubes like acrylic and oil paint. You can get good sets in plastic, of course, and there are wonderful watercolor pencils, too. We've got picks for all three.

The Winsor & Newton Cotman Water Color 12-Tube Set is best for the serious watercolor artist who wants a nice set of colors, while the Sketcher's Pocket Box is great for anyone on the go who want a travel-friendly plastic set. Both provide rich, lovely color.

My favorite watercolor pencils are Derwent's because you can get a nice variety of colors without paying too much. The watercolor pencils give you more control over fine details in your paintings, so they may be a fun addition to your supplies.

Here are the best watercolor art supplies we recommend:

The best acrylic paint
Liquitex BASICS 12 Tube Acrylic Paint Set

Liquitex BASICS Acrylic Paint Tube 12-Piece Set and the Winsor & Newton 2190517 Galeria Acrylic Paint 10 Tube Set are great starter kits for painting.

Pros: Strong colors, affordable options, high-quality options, sets offer good value

Cons: Small tubes, can get expensive

My first set of acrylic paints was the BASICS set by Liquitex. The set comes with 12 colors that you can mix to your heart's content to create more shades. You really only need these basic colors to create every shade of the rainbow.

Of course, this budget set isn't that high-end, so if you're looking for something a bit better, the Winsor & Newton 10-tube set is a great option. You'll pay more for higher-quality paint and strong pigments. You can't go wrong with either one, really.

Here are the best acrylic paint sets we recommend:

The best oil paint
Winsor & Newton Winton Oil Colour 10 Tubes Set

Winsor & Newton, Gamblin, and Williamsburg Handmade oil paints represent very different price points to satisfy any budget.

Pros: Strong colors, affordable options, high-quality options, sets offer good value

Cons: Small tubes, can get expensive if you go with the high-end paint

The most expensive art form you can get into is oil painting, but it's also one of the most flexible. Oil paint is richer than acrylic and it stays wet longer for better mixing, blending, and use over the course of long-term projects.

Winsor & Newton make a good oil paint that's suitable for beginners or artists on a budget. Gamblin falls in the middle, while Williamsburg's handmade oils are considered among the best. They're sold by tubes and not by sets, so you can pick the colors you need.

The differences are in the richness of the pigments, the oils used to make the paints, and the process by which the paint is made. You can spend hundreds on small tubes of the best oils, but these three options will serve you well until you become as famous as Picasso.

Here are the best oil paints we recommend:

The best brushes
da Vinci Student Series 3502 Brush set

Da Vinci makes great brushes for watercolor, acrylic, and oil painting.

Pros: Brushes for all media, relatively affordable, no shedding, sets offer good value

Cons: Real hair and bristle cost more

The main advice we have on brushes is don't get cheap terrible ones that shed all over your canvas.

No matter what medium you paint in, da Vinci Brushes has the brush you need. There are more brushes out there than can be put in a simple guide like this, but da Vinci's wares are relatively affordable and long-lasting, so we've included them here.

Some of the brushes are synthetic, but others are made from real animal hair and bristle. There's a lot of argument over what materials are best, but we've included a mix at different price points.

Here are the best da Vinci brushes we recommend:

The best canvas
Fredrix Style 520 Polyflax Red Lion Canvas Rolls

Fredrix makes good canvas, and it's almost always cheaper to stretch your own canvas than to buy pre-made ones.

Pros: Canvas is cheaper when you make your own; good quality canvas material, available in primed or unprimed

Cons: Canvas is expensive and time-consuming to make

If you're working in oil or acrylic, it's tempting to buy pre-stretched canvases and have it done. However, you can save loads of money — especially if you paint on huge canvases — if you make your own canvases. 

To do it yourself, you'll need wood for the frame, canvas, a staple gun, and canvas pliers to stretch it properly. I've made canvases before, and it may be hard work, but it's worth it. 

Fredrix sells canvas in many forms and sizes. You can get it primed or unprimed if you prefer to do it yourself with a giant bucket of gesso or if you just want a raw canvas.

Here are the canvases and accessories we recommend:

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