10 Essential Art Supplies for the Traditional Animator

Non-Photo Blue Pencils

Top on my list is non-photo blue pencils. These pencils are great for doing your initial sketches, because they’re just the right shade of pale blue that they tend not to show up on copies when you’re transferring your work from paper to clear cels.

Drawing Pencil Sets

Speaking of 2B pencils, it’s always good to have a set of drawing pencilsaround. I tend to use mechanical pencils rather often–too often, my instructors in art school would crack on me about it all the time – but for animation work, usually a regular wooden pencil is best. I like my Eberhard Faber set, but Sanford and Tombow also make some good collections of pencils in various lead hardnesses.

When you’re retracing animation, 2B is usually the best hardness to use; it’s soft enough to have enough give for a varied line, but hard enough to make good dark, clean lines.

3-Hole Punched Paper

Of course, with your drawing instruments, you’ll need something to draw on. Your best bet is to buy copy paper with three holes punched down the side – by the ream, or by the case. One second of animation will take you anywhere from 30 to 100 sheets of paper, allowing for duplicates for retracing and for mistakes, so you’ll need quite a bit of paper. 20-lb copy paper is heavy enough to make a good copy, but light enough that you can see through several layers of it with a light table on beneath it.

The reason that I choose three-hole-punch paper is because I use a little peg bar on my light table to hold my paper in place, and buying my paper already punched saves me the trouble of punching it manually or taping it on to the table, and makes it easier to align pages. I’m definitely an HP Quickpack kind of guy – they come 2500 sheets to a pack for a fairly good price, and I like the particular type of texture that HP copy paper has.

Light Table/Light Desk

Unless your eyes are better than mine or you have a penchant for torturing yourself with your nose pressed into your desk, a light table/light desk is crucial. Your light table has two primary purposes: to retrace your sketched frames, and to sketch new frames as in-betweens. With this you can light your artwork from below to make it transparent enough to see through for reference.

Some light tables can be very expensive; professional glass-top rotating tables can cost thousands, or you can find a large desktop box for just under a hundred dollars. I use a cute little Artograph light tracer box with a 10″x12″ slanted drawing surface; I think I bought it for about $25 back in art school, and I’ve kept it ever since – though I think they’re running a little over $30 now.

Peg Bar

I cannot for the life of me remember the proper name for this next item or an online listing for one, or an image anywhere, so I’m just going to try to describe what I call a peg bar as best as I can, and hope that you can take it from here.

This little bar is a plastic strip the length of an 8.5″x11″ piece of paper, with three small pegs on it spaced ​along the same intervals as the holes in a three-hole-punch sheet of paper. You can tape or glue this to the top of your light table, and lay your copy paper over it to hold it securely in place. When you’re working on a character animation sometimes it’s hard to get your paper to line up again after you’ve removed it from the light table, so having one of these helps you get everything in its proper place again. Check your local arts and crafts store to see if you can find one.

Art Gum Eraser

Let’s face it – you’re going to make mistakes while drawing animation, and for that, you’ll need an eraser. Art gum erasers are far superior to your standard erasers because they rub out lead cleanly without eroding away the actual paper surface or leaving behind smudges from either past lead rub-offs or the eraser itself.


Once you get past the drawing stage, you’ll need to transfer your artwork from plain paper onto cels, so that they can be painted and then placed against a separately drawn background. It’s hard to find anything packaged as actual “cels” – what you really need is copy-safe transparency films.

These are the same kind of transparencies used on overhead projectors, but you have to make sure to get the kind that are heat-safe, copy-safe; the easiest way to transfer from paper to transparency is using a copier (you can get them done at Kinko’s or another copy place if you need to), but you have to make sure to get the right kind or they’ll melt in the copier and completely ruin it.


When you’re ready with your cels, you’ll need paints. Painting on slick cels is very difficult, and requires a thicker paint, usually; I use acrylics, but some people prefer oils. The trick is to paint on the back side of the transparency, the opposite side from the side the that the copier toner is on; that way there’s no chance that the wet paint will smudge the copied lines.


Generally you’ll want to have a set of paints ranging from mid-size to a fine hairline; working on letter-size transparencies, you won’t find that you have much need for a large brush to fill in enormous areas, but you will need finer brushes for getting smaller details.

Color Pencils, Watercolors, Markers, and Pastels

For a bit more manual work, there’s color pencils, pastels, watercolors, and markers; you’d want to use these more for your backgrounds. Backgrounds are done on the same size paper as your animation, and static backgrounds for a single motion sequence only have to be drawn once so that you can lay transparencies over them.

I have to say that watercolors really aren’t my gig; I don’t have the patience for them and the most time that I spend with a brush is when practicing the sort of traditional sumi-e painting passed down through my family. Pastels drive me nuts; too much smudge, not enough control. For my backgrounds I use colored Prismacolor markers with a clear blender to run the shades together, for a watercolor look with more control or, more rarely, Prismacolor color pencils.

May 2, 2018 gowtham

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