14 Tools I Can't Live Without (Well, Maybe I Can, But I Don't Want To)

Mayi Carles

This is a question I get asked pretty much everyday, to share what’s inside my toolbox. Today I’m going to talk about a few of my favorite things – tools I can’t live without. Well, maybe I can live without em’, but I choose not to. 

You might be surprised to see how very little I need, actually. A few basic supplies + very simple platforms that make life a little easier.

But you know what?  At the core of it all, we are already everything. You have you. I’ve got me. Our unique abilities + talents + perspective + skills + ideas + visions + the way we use all that goodness to articulate what we are. Everything else is extra frosting.

Here’s my list of favorite frostings… I mean tools:

1. 0.5 Mechanical Pencil. Got one in my purse + one in my nightstand + one on the car + one inside my beach bag. It’s my writing tool of choice.

2. Micron Ink Pens. When accuracy + minute details + preservation count, there is no pen that stands a chance next to the unparalleled archival quality of Microns. The finer-points are great for technical outline work + the bolder ones are perfect for hand-lettering projects.

3. 8.5″ x 11″ White Paper. Fancy right? Were you expecting me to recommend a glamorous sketch book or art journal? The truth is, I tried using a tablet once + many other gadgets, but I always come back to my plain ol’ blank piece of paper. My illustrations all start there, humbly. And that’s good enough for me.

4. Giant tube of titanium white paint. I usually buy Americana (or Liquitex when it’s on sale.)

5. Of course, other colors too. I splurge on these 3 shades because they’re the ones I use most often in my Design Studio: Natural Buff + Light Portrait Pink + Foliage Green.

6. 000 Brushes. Tight, but still flexible. Natural bristle, suited for acrylics. I’ m not loyal to a brand, but I usually know how I want the brush to feel on the canvas + shop accordingly. I usually purchase 20 at a time because they lose their shape quickly, and due to the nature of my work, the moment they get messy hair, they no longer serve their purpose. To give you an idea, I used 38 brushes to complete all the Life is Messy Kitchen illustrations.

7. Plastic Paint Pallets with Paint Wells: Here’s where I pour + mix (or not mix, which is what the independent paint wells are for) my paint colors. I love the way they can be completely wiped clean at the end of the day.

8. Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Liquid Hand Soap. Essential to clean my hands + my brushes too, believe it or not. I used to get these ugly rashes when cleaning with heavy-duty stuff like turpentine. Not anymore. Love Mrs. Meyer’s. Strong enough to remove tough messes + soft enough for my 10 little fingers. My favorite scent is Lemon Verbena.

9. Image Scanner. These days I use the Canon CanoScan LiDE 120 Color Image Scanner, Canon’s lowest-cost flatbed scanner. Lets me do high-quality image scans without paying extra for film-scanning features or photo editing software I really don’t need.

10. Life is Messy Planners. The organized system for creatives that provides “just enough” structure for your journey to take your brilliant ideas from light bulb to done without becoming a correctional facility, and “just enough” wiggle room to unleash your unique gifts + honor your most valued forms of currency, freedom + happiness. Planners are my BFF. Saved my life a couple of times already. Helped me make room for what truly matters to me + Expecto Patronus any dementor that stands in the way. No wonder it’s not just me using them, but 7 thousand other artists + creatives + innovators + small business owners. Because they were designed by someone who speaks your language… moi.

11. MadMimi. This is the e-mail marketing platform I use to send all my e-mails + stay in touch with my favorite people. It’s very intuitive + allows me to create fully customizable campaigns without making my head hurt. Above all, I’m a loyal customer because of their out-of-this-world customer service. Have never seen anything like it. They reply within minutes (if not seconds) to my needy (and sometimes frantic) e-mails, providing quick answers + solutions to my every question. Makes me wonder, maybe MadMimi is operated by minions. It’s the only explanation for their awesomeness.

12. Harvest. I used to dread invoicing, then I found Harvest. In my opinion, a simpler + much better way to work + run my business. I use Harvest for all my time tracking + billing needs. Managing clients + organizing projects + preparing invoices has never been so ridiculously easy. One of my favorite features is their seamless integration with PayPal + Stripe, making it less annoying for clients to pay with one click + freeing up my time to bake cookies. Win-win.

13. PayPal/Stripe. I use both as my payment processors. PayPal is a trusted brand + has a long history of processing payments on the web. Stripe, well, they are the hottest new payment processor on the block for handling credit card payments in a very secure way. These days, I get about 50% of my orders though PayPal + the other half from Stripe.

14. Creative Cloud. For only $40-something bucks a month, I have all the tools + assets I need to create my best work more efficiently. Creative Cloud includes all-new versions of my favorite desktop apps – including Photoshop + Illustrator. These days, when I’m not editing pictures or cleaning up my illustrations on Photoshop, I’m vectorizing my work or creating printables on Illustration.

That’s what’s on my go-to kit. Really. You will be given 10,000 options at the art supply store + the Mac store + Amazon + everywhere! My advice? Just stick to your gut + your budget + allow your creativity to take over from there.

I know it’s fun to hoard bundles of fancy brushes + expensive software. Trust me, I know. But,  you are your best asset – not the tools. Use what you have. Do what you can.

What tools can’t you live without? Any brands + platforms + hacks you’ve tried + fell in love with?


  1. I love my Windsor Newton Watercolor set! I picked it up on sale when I lived in London planning to paint in Kensington Garden and try to catch a glimpse of Tinkerbell & Peter Pan. Then my dissertation happened. I brought the kit home never opened and this January I finally cracked open the case to play! I forgot how much fun watercolors are!!! 🙂

  2. This is fantastic, Mayi!

    My littlest bug sees herself as a Mini-Mayi, and she looks up to you in a great big starry-eyed way. She’s an artist too who lights up when her brush squishes into a new dollop of paint, and she will love to know that the supplies you use aren’t beyond her reach.

    I’m a MEGA fan of the creative cloud too, and can get lost in illustrator for hours just playing with all the possibilities…in fact, I better step away from the computer and give myself a shake. Your post has got me all excited about art, and I have a Sales Page to write!

    Stop being so FUN, Mayi! Jeeeze…

    Don’t ever change 🙂


  3. I have CC, but I’ve really only played in Photoshop so far. I want to experiment with Illustrator! And painting..gosh I don’t get to do that nearly often enough. Your illustrations always make me smile so much though!!!

    And I’m about to go to town on your planners! 🙂 I’ve got a massive project coming up & I’m going to reverse engineer, just like you taught!

  4. Hi Mayi
    I’m so honored to have won this challenge. Thank you immensely! 🙂 I’m super thankful! I’m so excited to get it and give it a prominent spot on my coffee table and in my kitchen. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this helpful list!

    At the moment, my go-to tool has been Evernote. I signed up for it years ago but, I hadn’t seen the value of organizing my thoughts and my writing digitally until recently. I love putting pen to paper, but sometimes, the closest thing to you is an electronic device.

    I’ve created a system in Evernote that allows me to start my blog posts there so that I can get to work on them no matter where I am. I wrote this week’s blog post on my phone (while in bed a couple of days ago) and edited it last night on my computer, so it’s all ready to go for tomorrow.

    I can put my blog drafts on Evernote, my research, my ideas for my “tweetables” on there, my product ideas, important resources, etc. etc.

    It’s been a life-saver during this month. The thing I like the best is that it gives me some peace of mind that I’m backing up my posts manually because I never want to lose everything. I do have a plugin that gives me daily backups, but then again, you can never be too safe when it comes to creativity.

    How do you start your blog posts, Mayi?

    Wow, Mayi, you taught yourself how to use Illustrator? That’s soooo cool!!! And inspirational!

    I was just saying yesterday that I want to use it too, and the fact that Creative Cloud has that program, Illustration, that can help with printables is so interesting! I want to improve my printables, and certainly, my artistic skills. (I had never heard of Illustration, or Harvest)…. so thank you so much for those tips.

    I enjoyed to see that what your resources are. And thanks for the Dr. Meyers soap tip…I’ve been wondering whether I should use it or not.

    I especially liked that you said that it’s important to consider ourselves as the best tool, so to speak. Because, our creative genius is the motor behind the tools, not the other way around.

    Sending you a big hug! And once again, thank you for everything. 🙂

  5. I’m glad Mrs. Meyer’s made it in a list of must have artist’s supplies. I’m addicted to the lavender liquid soap. I always wondered how you created your remarkable little worlds. This is a lovely peek. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I agree that ultimately it doesn’t take that many special tools to create beautiful work! Thanks for sharing your list. My go-to is definitely just pencil and white printer paper as well! I also like essentials like tracing paper and a lightbox for finishing works!

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