Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

By Lea Umberger

Where to start…..the tools of the trade costume designers use to complete a costume sketch range from collage, sketching, pen and ink, 3D paper mache, watercolor, acrylic, gouache, and now digital!  More on the digital in a future post- I purchased a new digital drawing tablet thanks to the Creative Pinellas Professional Artist Grant to learn some new techniques and programs this coming year.

Paper and Pencil or ink bring characters to the page!

Over the years I have used a mix of approaches depending on the project, but for the most part- I prefer pencil (and eraser, of course) or black ink on sketch book paper, which is photocopied on matte card stock and watercolor, gouache or acrylic used to create the final image of the character.

Initial Sketch on Sketchbook Paper with marker
Initial Sketch on Sketchbook Paper with marker by Lea Umberger
Sketch Copied on to CardStock prior to Painting
Sketch Copied on to card stock prior to Painting- with room for paint palette to be added and swatches to be attached by Lea Umberger
Painted Sketch on card stock
Painted Sketch on card stock – ready for swatches and signature to be added once it is approved by Lea Umberger














Paper-I prefer 9″ x 12″ size sketchbook that has to be spiral bound.  The spiral book allows to lay the book flat when sketching and makes for quick removal from the sketchbook with little damage to the drawing or the book. I usually sketch in pencil first – it is more forgiving and the trash can doesn’t fill up with quite as many mistakes and when I use pen and ink.  However, there are some characters that are just more fun to find when sketching with sharpie, like the sketch above for a re-imagined “Cinderella” children’s show I am designing right now.

Watercolor paper-When I am confident the sketch is completely approved and there is time to create a more polished sketch, I will use smooth finish watercolor paper to sketch or photocopy sketches on to and then paint.

But usually, time is not on my side and I have found that matte card stock accepts watercolor paint really well.  It also is cheaper to make multiples of the same sketch to so I can create more color options as the director and I are finalizing color concepts for the shows.

Pigments and Paints…

I have amassed a variety of colors and types of paint at various price points.  Maybe I am a mini hoarder?  It is an art store adventure to find new colors or new palettes to try.  And yes, there are people that are purest and think the most expensive watercolors create the best finished look, but it really boils down to the eye of the beholder.

Acrylic, Watercolor and Gouache Tubes
Acrylic, Watercolor and Gouache Tubes
Paint Mixing Palettes and Brushes
Paint Mixing Palettes and Brushes
Paint Palette
Watercolor Paint Palette

My Favorite Paint Palette!

Loew Cornell Watercolor Palette
One of my favorite palettes is over 20 years old and the colors still come through bright and saturated!

This Lowe Cornell palette is one I almost always start with when looking for colors- they are not your typical primary colors ( which I have in another palette)- purchased over 20+ years ago when I started studying costume and set design in undergraduate school.

You can also never have enough mixing palettes- I never wash them out as I never know when I might need that last color I mixed!

Pick a brush, any brush….

Selection of Paint Brushes and Markers
Selection of Favorite Paint Brushes and Markers

The Brush helps me make the most of my paintings- sometimes I need a wide wash or need to paint really small polka dots or a detailed plaid.  Out of the assortment of brushes I have found my champion brush to be the da Vinci Cosmotop Spin #6 (natural bristle). I am sure it my art teacher told me to buy it during grad school. Thankfully I haven’t lost it and it continues to be the workhorse in my collection.  I also use Sharpies to label all sketches.  Each sketch has to be labeled with Character Name, Scene of the Show the Drawing is created for, The Show name, Notes about Costume Pieces and each sketch is signed ( or at least should be- sometimes I forget to sign them)

A New Tool!

The time has come to embrace digital sketching!  This week I have ordered a digital drawing tablet to add to my toolbox.  I am looking forward to learning a new hand eye coordination and playing with adding new texture and detail to sketches.

It will remain to be seen if it will become a preferred source of creative communication. I am anxious to see how it might make the process a little more efficient, economical (60 photocopies on card stock for each show is not cheap!) and open new creative possibilities.




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