Early this year, I moved a thousand miles and had to rebuild my bedroom studio from scratch, and a couple months later, my laptop bricked itself, forcing me to replace it and all its programs.
So I took that opportunity to tackle one of comics’ oldest questions: What are the cheapest supplies you need to make a good one?
Pretending you’re starting with an empty room, as I did, I’ll be covering as many types of art supplies as I can think of… Except one: We’ll have to assume you’ll be coloring your comic digitally, since there are simply too many traditional coloring media to cover here: it’d make the article too long. Traditionally-colored webcomics are rare anyway.
Each section will have two solutions: The Bare Minimum, for those of you who just want to put lines on paper as cheaply as possible, and The Full Setup, tools that are cost a bit more (while still being affordable) but have more uses, or that look more professional.
Side note: No, I’m not getting anything for these “endorsements.” My Amazon Affiliates subscription expired ages ago because no one clicked the links. These are just the best valued products I’ve found, most of which I’ve used myself.
First thing you’ll need is…
A Drawing Surface
You have to draw on an incline. There’s no disputing this. You just have to, or your drawings will end up all slanty. I’ve come up with two easy ways to DIY a drawing table:
The Bare Minimum
The first thing you’ll need is a flat surface. Any table will do, as long and doesn’t sag or wobble. You can even use a folding table: I do. If it looks unbearably shitty, just cover it with a tablecloth or sheet.
I do a lot of my drawing on a 14’’ by 24’’ piece of Markerboard. Yours doesn’t have to be that size—I wish mine was bigger—but at least it was free.
Go to your local vendor of wood and ask to see the scrap boards. Find a smooth piece of fiberboard in a size you can live with, or ask them to cut a larger one down for you, take it home, stick it on your lap, prop it up against a table, and tape a piece of paper to it.
Like this, except with you in the chair.
Any surface smooth enough not to interfere with your pen will do, but Home Depot’s markerboard is almost perfect, because one side is polished melamine, which I use for drawing long, smooth lines, while the other is a type of soft fiberboard that does an excellent job simulating the “feel” of Bristol Board when you lay a piece of copy paper over it.
Total cost: Free if you’re lucky, or about $5 to buy a 50” by 24” board and cut it down to size if not.
The Full Setup
Note: Your table needs to be at minimum 2’ by 3’ to fit the horse on it, but if you can find one that’s a bit longer than 2’, that’s ideal, so you’ll have somewhere to put your elbows while you’re using the setup described below.
Now, you have to find the surface you’ll actually draw on. It’s even more convenient if you can find one with a built-in light source. Like a $4,800 Mayline Ranger adjustable light table that tilts up to 50 degrees.
…Or this $17 Home Depot store brand saw horse, angled at about 80 degrees.
…Combined with this $12 two-by-three sheet of glass from the same place.
…And two of these $1 clamps, which bring our total to $31.
Next, you’ll need a clamp light, but not one of Home Depot’s: they’re too stiff. You need one of these bendy ones they sell at Wal-Mart for $8 – around $10 once you buy the bulb, too. It fits over the top of the saw horse, like so:
Place it right-side up for direct lighting…
Or upside-down to turn your glass pane into a tracing table.
While you’re there, get some masking tape – about $3 a roll, to attach your drawings to the board. Yes, drafting dots are better, but remember, we’re going for the lowest cost here. Feel free to substitute it with whatever you want. You should also get some tape to cover the edges of the glass: one long piece of Scotch or masking folded over each edge is enough.
Note: The table you put this on needs to be placed against a wall to keep it from slipping off. Or, if that’s not possible, you can add two C-clamps behind the rear legs to keep it from sliding.
Table: Varies, but mine cost $35
Saw horse, glass pane, two clamps, light, bulb, tape: $43
Total Cost: $78
The Bare Minimum
I use copy paper. Unless you’re drawing something that needs to be preserved or sold, it’s good enough. And, at $3-$6 a ream, it’s about the most cost-effective medium you’ll find.
If you’re using dip pens, though, there’s a catch: it needs to be a type that can take the ink without bleeding. Some types can, some can’t. I’m currently using Treefrog Sugarcane paper, which does the job about as well as you can expect from copy paper.
If you want a stiffer board, you can go to Kinko’s (fuck you, it’ll always be Kinko’s to me) and buy some cardstock. I’m not sure which brand they use, but I’ve found theirs takes ink just as well and has a similar feel to some much more expensive types of paper.
The Full Setup
If you are drawing something that needs to be preserved or sold, use Bristol Board. Rough for pencil work, smooth for ink. I personally don’t use it, but I hear Strathmore makes the best one.
However, since my local art store sells the above pad for around $20—working out to $1 a sheet—I cheaped out and skipped it. I’m not good enough to warrant spending that kind of money to preserve my stuff.
For most of my backgrounds that needed to be straight, I’ve typically used Bienfang or Canson 11×17 grid paper. ($10).
But if you have a printer, you can print your own grids from Photoshop and lay a regular piece of paper over them: just one of many uses for our DIY light table.
For larger things like these backgrounds, I brought an 18” x 12” Pacon sketch pad from Wal-Mart for $7. It… Does its job? I mean, it’s big and made of paper, which fulfills all my expectations for a big piece of paper. It’s worth noting that it doesn’t take dip pen ink very well, though, so if you’re planning on drawing with those, go for another option.
You can also tape two pieces of letter paper together to form a big sheet, but I wouldn’t. Just nick a few sheets of 11×17 paper from Kinko’s if you’re that broke: you won’t have to worry about them coming apart.
Copy paper alone: Let’s say $5
One pad of Strathmore Bristol and one of Bienfang gridded: $30
If you’re just laying out the drawing before you ink it, use any pencil that’s comfortable. I mean that.
Total cost: Like 10 cents for a #2.
A Little Extra
If you’re going to scan your pencil work before inking, you should go with a 2b or darker lead, because some scanners struggle with capturing lighter pencil lines.
For precision, I like 0.5 mechanicals. My favorite is the Bic Atlantis—I don’t know why, it just feels right—with non-photo blue leads, or 2b for anything involving tracing, since non-photo blue lines are invisible on a light table.
Total cost: About $5 for a two-pack.
Same goes for inking: there’s no magic bullet. But since inking plays the biggest part in how your comic looks, this section’s way longer.
For sketching, or comics that need to scan well but not look professional, you can use Bic ballpoints.
No, seriously. Cristals and fine-point Round Stic Grips are phenomenal sketch pens: they’re dirt-cheap and they feel like drawing with pencils, making them a good transition point for a beginner. They don’t mix well with other types of ink, but on their own, they can produce some really characterful rough art. They can also be clean to the point of photorealism in the right hands, but ironically, that’s harder than mastering any other type of pen here. They also tend to drip, so wipe them with a napkin often.
If you want it to look professional-ish, that still takes less than you think: Pens used for basic cartooning are all over the place, from markers that can cost cents each to Rotring art and technical pens that can run you $15-$30, but in the right hands, the results you get from the two can differ less than you think. George’s Mark Szorady swears by the $2 PaperMate Flair.
The Pilot Precise V5 is probably the cheapest pen the pros have been known to use. They’re not the best for absolute beginners, since they bleed and smear easily, but the price is right to try one and experiment with it.
Total cost: $2 – $13
Sakura Microns. You’re probably familiar with them.
“But those are for weebs!”
Shut up. If they’re good enough for Andy Brase, they’re good enough for you. The main reason most pros don’t use them for comic art is because having to swap between them for different line thicknesses get time-consuming, but you’re (probably) not producing that quality art to that strict a deadline, so you don’t have to worry about that.
You can find a full starter set for $14 on Amazon, but if you’re like me and have to run out and get your art supplies right now, most art stores sell the same thing for around $20.
Copic Multiliners, Prismacolor Illustration markers, Faber-Castell PITTs and Staetdler Pigment Liners are essentially the same thing, with the main difference in the “handling.” Copics are a little neater and smoother, but not quite enough to justify the extra $10 you’ll pay for a similar pack of them. Prismas are slightly cheaper than both, but also thicker and clunkier. Fabers and Staetdlers I haven’t used since I was a teen, so I can’t judge them, but from what I remember, they have the same drawback. I think Microns offer the best balance, but any black archival marker will do if the price and feel are right for you.
Total cost: $14 – ~$20
Those of us for whom comics are srs bsns buy our ink in separate bottles. …The cheapest of which is this thing of Speedball Super Black India Ink for $4, so you might as well go on and get that up front.
Brushes and dip pens are usually considered the hardest form of inking, because hand tremors, pressing too hard, and holding them the wrong way can ruin your whole drawing; and even if you avoid all those, they’ll either bleed or smear like hell on most types of paper. That’s why I suggested you start with nice, forgiving ballpoints and Microns until you’ve developed a steady enough stroke to pull these off. But if you’re ready, pick a path…
Most manga are drawn with—in order of commonality—G Pens, Maru Pens, and Saji Pens, which, contrary to their names, aren’t whole pens, just nibs. You buy a separate “pen holder,” which most of us would think of as the “pen” part, then pop one in. (This will sound basic as hell to dip pen users, but a lot of us who aren’t wouldn’t know that.)
For those of you who just want to try one without the hassle of buying separate ink and holders, Tachikawa makes an all-in one fountain pen called the School G for $7.
- Basic: $7 – One School G
- Advanced: $12 – Speedball Ink, 3-Pack of one type of nib, and holder.
The Windsor-Newton Series 7, made from the hair of Russian weasels, is the gold standard for comics inking stateside: all the big name inkers who still use brushes use these. They range from $10-$200 if you want to take a crack at it yourself.
Meanwhile, I’ve gotten decent results with a set of no-brand $4 brushes from Wal-Mart. They run out of ink quickly and aren’t the smoothest, so some of the jitters have to be filled in a pen, but you still get the cool brush texture and line width variations cheaper than any other method I’ve seen, though.
As dip pens go, a Speedball holder costs about $1.50, and Hunt Crow Quill nibs about $1. My favorites are the #100 and #101 for precision drawing. (Duplicity’s Brock Beauchamp also recommends #102 and #107.) If you don’t know what those are, Cerebus the Aardvark’s Dave Sim has an essay for you.
For non-professional artists, I don’t believe $10+ technical or art pens like Rotring’s would be the best use of your money, since they’re absurdly high-maintenance and there are cheaper alternatives that do essentially the same thing. Remember, a webcomic artist producing to a schedule will have to use a lot of ink for no pay, so you’ll want to avoid pens with expensive nibs and cartridges.
Speedball Ink, Hunt plastic holder and one nib. (Recommended): $7.50
Speedball Ink, Wal-Mart Brushes: $7
Speedball Ink, Winston & Newton Series 7 #2 (The most common comic artists’ one.): $22
Dollar store ruler, dollar store yardstick.
Total cost: $2-$5
Computers are like cars: if you can live without a warranty, there’s no reason to buy a new one. Unless you’re Feng Zhu and you need to do four 10,000px-wide digital paintings at once, any used laptop you can find for $200-$400 will have enough power for your needs. I brought my current one—an Asus K73—for the price of a new Chromebook with a fraction of the power, and it’s the best writing and art workhorse I’ve ever had.
Hole-in-the-wall computer places are where you find the best deals, especially ones on side streets. They sell solid models dirt cheap, but unlike pawn shops or Craigslist randos, they’ll actually make sure they work beforehand.
Warning: Beware laptops with all the cooling vents on the bottom: they tend to suck up dust and start chronically overheating as they age, which is how my old Toshiba baked its hard drive into a brick. If the one you end up with hasn’t been cleaned out in a while, it might already be already near that point.
Old LCD monitors can be brought off Craigslist or at thrift stores for $10. Place one behind your saw horse and presto: an easy source of constant visual reference.
Total Cost: For me, $310.
Again, used gear is your friend here. Anything that can scan over 300 DPI (or 600, if you’re picky) is good enough for an indie comic, at least while you’re starting out, and a top-of-the-line scanner from 2005 is better than a crappy one from 2016. Also, yes, the ones that come in most all-in-ones are good enough. …Well, for ink drawing, that is. Bad scanners tend to ruin pencil art.
I have an Epson Perfection V500 Photo, which cost $150 new, but it’s more than I really need. The built-in scanner from the old Brother all-in-one I got for free works just as well to scan my ink drawings, and, you know, it was free. I don’t know how much you should spend on a scanner (which is kind of a cop-out, yes), but I know it shouldn’t be more than that.
Total Cost: Free to $150
If you’re planning to go pro, get a medium or large tablet with 1024 or 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity.
As for the specific model… It really doesn’t matter as much as you think. Although I’m a bit biased since I almost never draw with tablets, I just color and tone with them, and the $200 Intuos Pen & Touch Medium I just had to buy ended up being a truckload of overkill for that. It makes up for it by being a perfect mouse replacement for my writing work, but if I had to do it over again, I’d probably buy a Bamboo or a used Intuos 3 on Ebay.
Wacom’s still king, but unlike a few years ago, the alternatives aren’t completely incompetent: some people think they’re even better. (Albeit with buggier drivers.) Huion’s $80 H610Pro and Monoprice’s 10.6 x 25 ($45) are the most hyped. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten a chance to try any of them, but with prices like that, you don’t have as much to lose.
Total Cost: $45 to $200
I once had to use this program full-time, for a day job at a photo studio that was too broke to afford Photoshop licenses. It’s much more powerful than it’s given credit for, but the clunky and unintuitive interface gets in the way. But learn to use it well enough and it can do almost anything Photoshop can… Just slower, more awkwardly, and with a lot more steps.
You’ll need an image-stitching program in order to scan anything bigger than 8.5×11, and this one’s the most user-friendly free one. I’m a bit pissed at Microsoft for tacking on social media features and a bunch of other crap no one needs with the last update, making it run much slower, but again, it’s gets the job done with a minimum of effort from you, for free.
Why the fuck not.
The gold standard: what else needs to be said? Photoshop CC is only $10 a month, so there’s no reason not to go for it.
The original, direct-download version of Manga Studio 5. You can buy it now for $50 or wait for it to go on sale, when it sometimes dips as low as $15. Also, you don’t need the EX version. I tried it: the “photo to screentone” feature is unbelievably shitty—you can download a much better fan-made one for free. All the other features just make your comic easier to print, and you may have noticed, this ain’t Printcomicry.
Total Cost: $15, (or $50 if you’re impatient) + $10 per month
If you wanted to duplicate the exact setup I use to write and draw (which you shouldn’t, because I overspent on a lot of this stuff, but theoretically)…
Wacom Intuos Pen & Touch Medium: $200
Epson Perfection V500 Photo: $150
Saw horse, glass pane, clips, clamp light: $43
Folding table: $25
One pack of Sakura Microns: $20
Clip Studio Paint (on sale): $15
Old LCD Monitor: $10
Bienfang gridded paper (one pad): $10
TreeFrog copy paper (one ream): $6
Tachikawa Saji pens (one pack): $4
Tachikawa Maru pens (one pack): $4
Saji/Maru pen holder: $4
Generic Wal-Mart brushes: $4
Speedball ink: $4
Dollar store ruler: $1
Dollar store yardstick: $1
But since you’re reading a blog, let’s assume you have a computer. In that case…
If you choose to go barebones, you’ll be buying…
Generic used Windows 7 computer off Craigslist: $200
Folding table: $35
Generic used scanner off Craigslist: $25
12-pack of Bic Round Stic Grip ballpoint pens: $2.39
12 Universal Economy Woodcase Pencils: $0.79 + shipping
Dollar store ruler: $1
Dollar store yardstick: $1
And whatever route you take, save the receipts. If you start making any money off your art, all this stuff’s tax-deductible.
So what do you use? And what’d you pay for it? Leave a comment, if you care to.