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Unmagical Drawing Methods

People keep asking me how I draw and what drawing tools I use. I know a few of them think I have special pens or paper with magical properties. Sadly, no.

I will reveal something about the magic behind my drawings at the end of this blog. But first, I'll describe my unmagical process and my unmagical tools.

Drawing Steps

1. Pencil sketch.  Most of my drawings start with a pencil sketch. I keep sketchbooks and pads of drawing paper around the house in case an idea strikes. I’m so lazy, I don’t want to have to get up out of my chair to chase tools. Sometimes, because of poor tool management, I am forced to draw on envelope backs and on blank pages of whatever books I am reading.

I especially enjoy doing two or three pencil sketches before going to bed. That way, I'll have something to ink the next morning. This method gives me a good reason to get out of bed in the morning. One needs good reasons to get out of the bed in the morning, right? 

Here's a typical pencil sketch. The original is about 4 inches high.


Notice that some of the details are ambiguous. For example the positions of feet and hands and what he’s holding (carrot? chili pepper? dagger?). I usually don’t bother to fix minor problems in a pencil drawing and just work them out while inking. But if there was a major problem like tentacles instead of arms, I might have to erase the problem and fix the problem in the pencil sketch.

There was no model for this drawing. Clowns are easy to draw. Bad proportions, ugly faces, and big ears just make them look funnier. At the time I did this drawing, I had been drawing clowns over and over for a period of several weeks, so this character was just another one of those before going to bed.

2. Inking. I usually ink over my pencil drawing with a bold brush pen. In this case, I used a Pitt 199 Brush Pen. It allows some modulation of thick and thin like the details around the eyes and the clown’s hair. But most of these lines are fairly thick so they can be reduced in the next step. 


3. Gustaving  For many drawings, I like to break down one side of the major lines to differentiate the edge side of the line from the interior side of the line. (Think about it. An ink line has two sides. One of them represents the edge between a shape and its background [edge side]. The other side of the ink line is just the interior of the shape [interior side]. Perhaps the interior side of the ink line should be subordinate? That’s what I’m doing by breaking down one side of the line.)

I use a white, Sharpie pen and make a series of cuts half way into the line of the interior side. These cuts are almost always dots, but sometimes they are strokes running either parallel or perpendicular to the direction of the line. Like this...


I like the way gustaving adds interest to my lines and starts to hint at volumes—the roundness of the forms. I think gustaving also adds an interesting rhythm of dots that goes well with the stippling I use for shading. (See next step.)

So, why do I call this technique “gustaving”? You won’t find that term in any textbook. I coined it because I needed a way to refer to the time I was spending breaking my inked lines. 

The first time I saw someone break an edge with white intrusions was in a woodcut by Gustave Baumann, a German-born woodcut artist who worked in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century. 


In Baumann’s exhibit poster, he broke into shapes, not lines, but the idea is there. I started experimenting with it and it crept into enough of my drawings that I thought I needed to have a name for what I was doing. So...gustaving. (There is probably a fancy-schmancy art term for this, but I have never run across it and don’t have to time to chase it.)

(One more bit of trivia. It appears that this poster was the only time Baumann used this technique. I have never found another example in the hundreds of his woodcuts that are shown on the web.)

4. Stippling  Next, I shade part of the drawing with dots or patterns of lines. This is a chance to increase the impression of volumes to make the subject less flat. Stippling also adds tone, textures, and patterns to the drawing that can later be colored.   


I usually take care to align the direction of the stipple field to depict the contours of the shape. For example, suggest the sag of the clown’s big belly by having the stipple strokes sag in a sweeping curve.

Sometimes, it pays to have the direction of the stipple strokes contradict the form. I usually take that approach when the surface I’m showing is boring and flat. By allowing the stipple stroke to curl and swirl, the drawing can become more interesting.

I spend a fair amount of my time stippling little dots and strokes. I’m now good at it. I look forward to being invited to stipple for the U.S. team at the Olympics.

5. Scan and Trace   When everything that needs to be stippled has been stippled, I scan the drawing to turn it into a digital file. Sometimes, I use Photoshop to make refinements of corrections to the scan. Typical refinements might include repairing broken likes, correcting the size of an ear, making a hat taller, or adjusting the angle of a leg.

If the drawing is going to be in color or if I plan to combine it with other drawings into a more complex composition, I almost always bring the digital image into Adobe Illustrator and auto trace it. 


An image traced in Illustrator loses some details but in the process develops a crisp, hard-edge feeling that reminds me of woodcuts. I like this transformation for most of my drawings. comparison

The image above is a comparison showing a detail (the tip of a tentacle.) The scan of the original drawing is on the left and the traced Illustrator image is on the right.

Now, let’s talk about the drawing tools I like to use.


Favorite Drawing Tools

Pencils. I prefer a pencil with a very soft lead. My mechanical pencils contain 4B leads. That's the softest I've been able to find. These leads are 5mm (skinny). That's so thin, no sharpening is needed. That’s good because I can seldom find any of my pencil sharpeners.

I also have some wonderful wood pencils with 10B leads. That’s so soft that one doesn’t actually need to touch the paper to make a mark. Just hold the pencil nearby and threaten the paper and marks will appear, That’s all the pressure needed. These pencils make such a dark mark that one can use them to create a finished, scannable drawing and skip the inking step. (See below.)

Pencil Alien

The drawing above is an example of a pencil drawing pretending to be an ink drawing with thin and thick strokes. Easy with a really soft lead (8B).

Unfortunately, these pencils require frequent sharpening to maintain a fine point. But the pleasant part of that is the delightful cedar-wood smell they give off when being sharpened.

Ink  I ink my drawings with black brush pens. I like the variations in line weight that I can achieve. I have several brush pens in my jar. My favorite is the Kuratake extra fine. I’d also be lost without some Pitt 199 from Faber Castell. They're great for bold lines.

White Ink  When I reduce an ink line with white (gustaving), I turn to my Sharpie, water-based white pen. These used to be available in a fine point. It appears that it is no longer manufactured, so I’ve become accustomed to using the medium point. Sadly, these markers don’t last very long. After just a few days, they become incontinent. If I can get more than a week of service from one, I’m lucky.

Paper  I carry around a Landing Zone sketchbook for drawing and note taking. At home, I often reach for a pad of Stonehenge White from Legion. It’s a delightful, heavy, cotton paper with a fairly smooth surface that suits my drawing style. I try not to draw on the backs of earlier drawings, but often can’t resist. I’ve also been caught drawing on envelopes, lunch receipts, shopping lists, and graph paper.

Change up tools to stave off boredom. I try to avoid settling into a deep rut. I like to change tools from time to time to make the act of drawing more interesting and surprise myself. So, I also do drawings with ball points, fountain pens, markers, skinny Muji pens and Hi-Tec-C pens, and uncooked pasta.

Sources   I get most of my drawing tools from Jet Pens. They have a nice selection and feature weird pens and brush pens from Japan. Kevin at Jet Pens ships fast and has always gotten my orders right. When I am feeling depressed, I use shopping therapy. Nothing cheers me like ordering fifty dollars worth of new pens and pencils.

So, where's the magic?

Here it is. I love to draw. I like making marks on blank paper. I like creating characters and scenes where nothing existed before. And I absolutely love when it when I can create a drawing that makes me laugh. Therefore, I draw everyday and gradually, because of all that time drawing, my drawings have gotten better.

So, if you want your drawings to get better, I urge you to draw more. Sure, you should experiment with new tools and supplies. But it is far more likely that improvement will come from daily practice than from new pens. And the energy to keep doing something day after day usually comes from the immense enjoyment it brings you. If you don't enjoy drawing that much, maybe you should become a chef or a musician?

Don—Pittsburgh, January 14, 2021

41 Responses

Phronsie hart

April 12, 2021

My marvelous niece turned me on to your work. She does your puzzles yep she’s a genius. I’m 79 and house bound on oxygen was feeling sorry for myself today but not now. I can sketch I’ve always sketched not as well as you ,but pretty darn good. I was giving up and you’ve made me want to continue another 79 years. Thanks for your blog I loved it Your the best ! In Every Way.


March 01, 2021

You are so generous, especially in sharing teachiques. I love you art, humor & verse, & especially love your willingness to share. That’s awesome.

Just keep doing your amazing work… (it sure helps me, during this Krazy Kraken time to visit your page, & indulge my yearning from some of your awesome art. (I’m sure I’ll get to order some, one day & in the meantime, I can be a “lurker” just enjoying looking at all of your incredible art.)


February 22, 2021

Astounded by how prolific you are! I remember your first Kickstarters way back.


January 18, 2021

Hello and Good Morning!
Very interesting and informative. Thank you for sharing. I especially like the term, “Gustaving”. I have illustrations that were made into rubber stamps and I employed that technique but never knew what to call it but “little dots”. The biggest difference is that I add the Gustave dots around the outside of my drawings. You have expanded my horizons!

Stephanie K Mascis

January 18, 2021

I love that your paper is delightful. I am sorry that your white Sharpies become incontinent. As ever, I love your language skills. Around here, the trailing dripping line is a Mr Fotheringham. The wavering undulating line is an Erica Henderson. Henceforth, the reverse shading will be Gustaving.

I can resist temptation, but the JetPens email always calls my name. It knows my bank balance. It accounts for a tremendous amount of stuff on this desk right now. All of the holiday gifts I bought for people I love came from them. They carry Flair pens every day of the year. I only wish I could get the Muji pens all the time. LePen is not L’Enough. The Kokuyo enpitsu is the diggity bomb. I think they make my ideas better.

Certainly my coffee tastes better out of the Christmas Calamity mugs.
All good stuff for everyone for the new year and then some


January 18, 2021

Thank you for a wonderful blog post. I don’t have much time to do art these days — I’ve worked online for years and I only got busier after covid arrived — and I love reading about how artists work, their materials, and really almost anything about their process. It’s fun and inspiring. I miss my life drawing group, which isn’t meeting because of covid, and your blog and site give me a small and very welcome “art fix.” I’ve given the TCBW mugs to friends, family and colleagues, who all love them. They make us all smile every day! Thank you for that. Sometimes we compare notes on what the Calamity of the Day is, according to how our days are going. Last week started out mild, with just a roadrunner on Monday, but by Thursday the Blob, Sasquatch and the Pirate Ship had all appeared, and the spaceships were coming. This weekend’s been calmer, not a tentacle in sight.


January 18, 2021

Thank you for this! I’m not an artist, but I always want to know the whys and hows of things, and I’m one of the folks that asked if you would share. I appreciate your time!


January 18, 2021

Interesting! Love your HUMOR!!!

Maria Cunningham

January 18, 2021

Thanks for the great post! According to my Mom, I’ve been drawing since an infant and can’t imagine a greater joy. I urge everyone I know to draw. They always tell me, “I can’t draw” or “I don’t know how” SURE YOU CAN DRAW! and there’s no “how” Everyone can draw, you’ve done it since the day you were born but now just don’t take the time to do so anymore or get hung-up about it “not looking like it’s supposed to” screw that!

Miranda Gray

January 18, 2021

“How to Sharpen Pencils” Funny, “performance piece” book about all things pencil sharpening.
If you haven’t yet read this, it would be a fine thing to do. Right up your alley.
Good posting. Thanks.

Zee Zeleski

January 18, 2021

Your blog has inspired me to get back to the simple joy of drawing. Thank you… I needed that!

Cathy Gillette

January 17, 2021

Thanks for sharing! I have just retired and am doing as much drawing and painting that my new schedule allows. You have inspired me. Plus I gave my siblings , their spouses and myself new calamity mugs for Xmas
Cathy g


January 17, 2021

Wow! I thoroughly enjoyed this post. In first grade my teacher wrote on the report card, “Pam is not creative. Please help her at home.” The teacher had no idea that I could read! I love your progression of steps. Thanks very much for this post.

Linda Dean

January 17, 2021

Excellent post about your creation process and tools you prefer. I am a fan of your work. Thanks.

Ch!p Thompson

January 16, 2021

Don, thanks for sharing… this is actually the blog post I’ve been waiting on for a very long time. I’ve often thought it’d be cool if you offered a stippling (or maybe now called gustaving) course (for pay of course — one more “of course” and we’d have a Mister Ed chorus). Anyhow, thank you… and if you ever do offer that course, I’m in! PS: the Location, Location, Location print is still my fav hanging in my office. All the best, Ch!p

Roy Townsend

January 16, 2021

Interesting ,thought s abound in my head. Inspiring and annoying. Can’t doodle have yard work to do. Is Black Forest still around? I would have thought the Springs would have eaten it. I lived there 1969-71 went to school in Falcon, Co. May blow off the yard work.


January 16, 2021

Loved reading this—a lot of wow in one post. Very generous of you to share! I’ll be checking out Jet Pens.

Woody Reed

January 16, 2021

OOOHHH! And I use the Landing Zone sketch pads from time to time as well! I love those!

Woody Reed

January 16, 2021

I do some of the same things. I’ve ordered some of that paper you mentioned. I also use Sakura Pigma 30067 pen sets. My doodles aren’t as famous or as good as yours. :( ;)

Lou Cook

January 16, 2021

Love peeking into other people’s process! I’m a big (can’t help it—they just multiply!) collector of pens and pencils. The shape of the mug, and the quality, are so pleasing to use, the humor evergreen!
What about demi-tasse/espresso cups?

Julio Terra

January 16, 2021

Hey Don, it’s awesome to read about your process. As you know, I love your work. Keep drawing. Please!

Pattie Covert

January 15, 2021

Thank for this!! I’ll share this post with all the little artistic kids in my orbit! (Jet Pens, you’ll notice a bounce in sales directly tied to this article. Send Don some pens, gratis!)

Culla Akins

January 15, 2021

I’m an artist and you gave me some great techniques! I don’t have a printer but I’m sure I can make an interesting image.
Thank you!!


January 15, 2021

Thank you for sharing your secret sauce! I’ve wondered if your stippling was an algorithm because sometimes I spot something you’ve cloned. Knowing that it’s like bulino engraving or woodcut makes me appreciate it so much more. I’ve hated Adobe’s autotrace since the day they introduced it. I had every shop I worked at buy alternatives because they’ve never bothered to improve how crappy it looks or works. I often spend the time to trace each line with a mouse instead. I just discovered Vector Magic [] which requires less touch-up. See if you hate it. :)

Diane Dexter

January 15, 2021

I’m so happy to get your newsletter. I am a “mature” art student and have been for lots of years. You are really talented and inspiring. You make me want to draw right now. Thank you!!!!!


January 15, 2021

Thanks for sharing and inspiring. Off to draw my new puppy Lola the wonder dog….again.
She has a series of books l have written and illustrated for my grandchildren.
Titles..Oh No Lola!
Things Lola finds really, really scary. And
Things Lola really , really loves.

Catherine Rawls

January 15, 2021

Thank you so much for sharing!
Love your drawings

Joane Mitchell

January 15, 2021

I love reading about your drawing process, tools, and inspiration. I totally appreciate your humor, too!

Sheri J Kennedy

January 15, 2021

Thanks for sharing this. Fun to know your process, and I’m amazed by the gustaving. I wondered why your drawings looked so different than most and see it’s often due to that interruption of the interior line – as well as your fabulous imagination, of course. Thanks for drawing so much and sharing your bounty with the world. It’s a better place with your creations in it.


January 15, 2021


Thanks for some insight into your work process. As a sometimes artist, I really appreciate learning how other artists I admire (that’s you) move from idea through revision to “final.” Your “Things could be worse” tea set adorns my office and reminds me of how I can indeed get things from vision to production. I was introduced to your work (and Kickstarter) by the Calamityware mugs, and I have since completed a bunch of my own projects because of it. Many thanks!

Thanks also for introducing the term “Gustaving” for your line-weight tampering. I dig it.

My current favorite tool set is a trio of brush pens: one with undiluted ink, a brush-tipped fountain pen with the same ink slightly diluted (about a 5-6 value on the 1-10 scale), and another identical brush-tipped fountain pen with the same ink more diluted (a 1-2 value). Sometimes I start with the very light to get the main body in, and sometimes I start with pure black (but only if I’m very confident). I can glaze or wash with those value-brushes to get all the values. I clean up/highlight with a white-ink pen and then scan for final.

Michael Pollard
Black Forest, CO

Jeffrey Beauchamp

January 15, 2021

Hi Don,

I’ve admired your work for quite a while but only just got a CalamityWare mug for my wife for the holidays. Big hit, of course! “Gustaving”! Such a great word to coin and I appreciate your sharing your process so openly, I never would have thought to try nibbling away at a line with a white Sharpie, genius. And even still, slightly less labor-intensive than doing an actual woodcut, so well done. The results are beautiful and full of character.

I’ve been falling down the rabbit hole of fountain pens during the pandemic and seeking ways to recreate some of the old-school line qualities in my own drawing. On a New Years Eve beach walk with the family we found a Waterman pen from 1910 washed up literally at our feet. I just got it back from the nib meister who only had to re-tip the 14k nib, that’s how basic those old eye-dropper pens were, bless them. Today I’ll try it out in the studio.

Good things for 2021! Things could be worse!

All the best,
Jeffrey Beauchamp
Forest Knolls, CA

Jennifer Nelson

January 15, 2021

I thoroughly enjoyed your first? blog! I love your drawings and they way you just wrote about your drawing and tools. Laughed out Loud about just how soft the B-leads are.


January 15, 2021

Enjoyed your blog post. I tend to use harder pencils than you because I have a very heavy hand but the markers I use are the same.

I really agree with the “draw more” to get better. I’ve taken classes with people who traced a pattern because they couldn’t draw well enough to paint it and people who really couldn’t draw simple shapes who are way better than I am now and it’s because they draw every day while I take time off to pursue other arts. It truly does make a difference!

When this Covid quarantine is a thing of the past, I plan to have a sister over for tea on your wonderful dishes. I’ll have to see if she notices they aren’t so ordinary and I suspect she will because she notices details! That will be fun. And that reminds me I need to order a teapot!

Jean Andersen

January 15, 2021

I wonder how many of your creations have been unceremoniously swept into the bus bin when clearing a table?
It’s kind of…heartbreaking…to ponder.


January 15, 2021

It’s always interesting to hear about people’s “processes”. Thanks for the information!! Draw on.

Holly Mitchell

January 15, 2021

Excellent post. Thank you for sharing!

September Elledge

January 15, 2021

I love this post, thank you!
I can’t remember how it was I started following you on Instagram, but enjoy your drawings so much. I’m not an artist, but a lifelong ‘doodler’. Thanks again, and Happy New Year!

Neva Waldt

January 15, 2021

Your images make me grin! Thanks for sharing your unusual technique. Looking forward to more.

Jim adler

January 15, 2021

Thx don

I could hear tour voice when I read this

: )


Web Webster

January 15, 2021

Wow! Thank you for sharing technique at this level of detail. I’m not an illustrator but I do diary and write letters. Which means I have a (somewhat spendy) love of paper, pens, and pencils from Jet Pens.

Do you happen to know the mill and finishing process of the paper in your Landing Zone notebooks? Specifically, I’m interested in how much the paper feathers under the weight of a stub nibs and relatively wet inks (Pelican, Noodler’s).

Thanks so much for sharing your work. The TCBW mugs given as gifts won Christmas for us.


January 15, 2021

Your art is fantastic, Don. I found you on Twitter. Please tweet more!

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