Big Fat List of Favorite Art Supplies


 

I have a long running grudge against art teachers who expect everyone to have vast treasure chests of expensive art supplies. You don't need them! At least not for taking my classes. If you are looking for a laundry list of things you need to make great work, this is not it. This is a list of stuff I wish someone had told me about sooner. Take or leave whatever you like. It will probably grow and change with time, as my taste and experience change as well. 

Many of these products contain affiliate links and I will earn about 3% on anything you purchase below (and anything else in your checkout cart at that time too). I appreciate the tip! But, if you have the luxury of buying  art supplies in-person, please, keep your purchases in your local economy. Small businesses thank you! 

PAINT. There are seasons of life for all paints and painters. Quality is usually worth the extra money, but, when you start out, start out cheap. You will never become a decent artist if you are uncomfortable using your materials, and you'll never get comfortable if you start off using the expensive stuff. Acrylic paint is very forgiving - don't worry about it too much. These are some of my favorites....

Beginner: If you need a starter set, this one from Arteza is a solid choice. It's not for folks who want to use paint straight out of the tube - this is for mixing your own colors (A CRITICAL LESSON IN THE EARLY DAYS). These are soft body paints - you can lay them on thick, or dilute with water or flow-aid. The pigments are strong, but not so aggressive you can't blend with other brands. I am new to paint 'pouches' and wish the whole industry would switch - they keep forever are great for getting every last drop of paint!

Middle: I'm a fan of the Sennelier's Abstract line of paints in pouches, although they are not widely available on Amazon. If you have access to an art store, look for them, around $5 a bag - which is a terrific price for a superb acrylic. Sennelier's is one of the oldest brands in art supplies and these people know color. Blend like a dream, and they mix down with extenders and modeling paste very nice. The pigment load is not as intense as some professional grade paints, but honestly, I sort of prefer it that way. As of 2019, I use these paints about 50% of the time, maybe more. 

Advanced: If you go into a professional acrylic artist studio, you will probably see some tubes or pots of Golden paint. It's great stuff. INTENSE colors. These are mostly intended to be mixed down with other extenders, so don't be shocked at the price - you are buying these pigments in a concentrated form. In fact, you'll notice the price varies by color because the cost of pigments vary so much. I never buy professional grade white or pastels, but there are certain shades of red and yellow that you can't get with lesser quality paints. I use a smidge of Golden quinacdradone magenta in almost every painting - there is nothing like it! 

*Craft paint and artist paint are (usually) different animals. Martha Stewart craft paint is the only craft paint I would recommend using (and I DO use it to demo some of my online classes!). Don't get me wrong, I love a good cheap craft paint, but most of them involve a gloss finish that makes it difficult for multi-layered work. Gloss is a problem. Paint doesn't really grip to gloss the way it grips to matte or even satin finish. That's especially bad for layering (and always paint with MANY layers!) If you have a bunch of craft paint already and don't want to buy more, that's understandable - buy a bottle of good quality liquid gesso and mix it with your paints to fortify them a bit more. This will be weird the first time, but trust me, it will be second nature soon enough!

PASTELS AND STUFFNupastels are my favorite mark making pastels. They are firmer than a standard chalk pastel but don't flake away quite as much. They are fast moving with intense colors, but are not buttery like oil pastels*. 

Nupastels are pricey, but they last a long time. This set on Amazon is for 72 pieces. If you are not ready to buy a full set, most art stores will sell them individually for around $3 each. If you want to dip your toe in the water with a starter set of pastels, this is a good one too (very powdery, but great colors!). 

*Sidenote: You will not find oil pastels in my studio. Ever. They are lovely but they cannot be permanently sealed, fixed, or varnished. The oil that allows them to be nice and buttery prevents them from ever fully drying out. I know, I know, it's a bummer! You will want to only use oil pastels on paper works that can be displayed behind glass. Some artists will use oil pastels on canvas and off-gas and dry out for a few weeks before varnishing on canvas - I do not suggest this, and oil pastel manufacturers are on the same page. If you want to sell your work, stay away from oil pastels, or, if necessary, work on paper only. 

FIXATIVE. Spectrafix is the only one worth buying. I used to avoid pastels because the regular fixatives are so nasty and toxic - Spectrafix is just the opposite. Zero smell. No aerosol. You can use indoors year round. Made from milk caesin (an off-shoot of the cheese-making process). As with any fixative, you will need to use multiple misty layers for it to be effective (never attempt to saturate pastels completely or they can turn to chalky liquid and bleed away). Be prepared to see a bit of dulling when you use fixatives - the trick is to use multiple light layers. 

 

GESSO. Every piece of work I make starts with two layers of gesso, and the only gesso I will ever buy is Liquitex Professional Liquid. It's basically liquid gold. It's great for mixing with paint, layering up, and the most critical - the base layers (I'm a fan of tinting the base layer gesso by mixing in a smidge of paint). 

 *Note: Gesso is not white paint. It is, essentially, liquified plaster. It will aborb and strengthen any surface it sits on. It's also great for mixing with paint to change the viscosity and create smooth, matte finishes. There is a nasty rumor out there that you can substitute liquid gesso for white house paint - please do not try this! If you have tried gesso before and thought it was too thick or gloopy, chances are, you were working with heavy body gesso (which is handy at times!) - look for liquid. This bottle from liquitex is pricey but it lasts a longggg time!

BRUSHES. Asking someone about their favorite brush is like asking about their favorite underwear. It's a very personal decision. The brush acts as an extension to your hand and everyone's hand works a little different. Personally, I tend to be heavy handed, almost forceful with my brushstrokes. This means I like expressive and slightly erratic brushes, but I also need some floppy brushes to soften things up on occasion. If you have a delicate touch, you may want to try some firmer brushes that make it easier to move the paint around. In general, I like my brushes cheap and expressive. With that is mind, I present you with a few favorites and encourage you to try them out....

CHIP BRUSHES. You can buy them at the hardware store individually but they are much cheaper in bulk boxes. The 1" width is most popular, I think. 

SUMI BRUSHES. These are intended for Chinese calligraphy. They are almost like painting with feathers. Very soft! They can cost hundreds of dollars, but this starter set is a terrific bargain. 

PRINCETON CATALYST When you start out, use whatever cheap brush set you can find at the store....but when you are ready to bump up to mid-grade brushes, Princeton Catalyst is a nice option for students and professionals alike. They are well made, clean easy as synthetic bristles, but feel like natural fibers. This set is nice because you get a few basic tips. I find that people who like round floppy tips rarely use straight tips, and straight tip people can't stand round. It's best to figure this out *before* you start buying expensive brushes - get a starter set like this one. 

DOMED BRUSH. These are intended for waxing and stenciling, but I use them because they hold so much paint! I use these mostly for doing gesso, underlayers, or very large paintings when you want to cover a lot of real estate fast. Random tip - these are terrific for painting trim work around the house because you can press a clean consistent edge *and* you don't have to dip back in the bucket as often.

Extra Long Handle Brushes. Want to loosen your strokes? Get long brushes! If you ever see nice paintbrushes with extra long handles at a decent price, buy them! Long handles will loosen you up like you can't even believe. Amazon does not appear to have good options right now, but look around next time you are in the art store.

 

SLOW DRY MEDIUM. If you want your acrylic paint to act more like oil paint, add some of this. It makes a lovely consistency. I also like using it for upper painting layers when I want to carve or scribble a bit on the surface. 

PROTECTION. 6ml Plastic sheeting. If you find yourself getting uptight about mess, covering your work area in 6ml plastic is the magic bullet. Not newsprint, not brown paper, not a disposable table cover - get yourself some extra thick construction grade plastic and cover your table, chair, wall, whatever. It protects surfaces. It makes for easy cleanup. It creates an atmosphere of safety that is PIVOTAL to some people letting loose! You can find it in most hardware stores, just don't cheap out with the thin stuff - get the real deal. The 6ml Plastic sheeting is thick enough to use over and over. Good stuff!  

GELI PLATE. I did a demo on this on my instagram highlights in early 2019 and almost every week someone asks me WHICH ONE DO I GET. This is the one I use. I don't think it matters much, but I do suggest going bigger than smaller. 
 
MODELING PASTE. If you want to take regular soft body paint and make it thick and stiff (impasto style) you will want to mix in some modeling paste. I find myself using it only on the final few surface layers of my work, and people like to see it. It adds a layer of dimension and expression you can only see in person, but boy, people like seeing it! 
SEALERS ("AKA VARNISH"). Let's take a minute to talk about this: You need to varnish your work. You need to varnish your work. You need to varnish your work. Unless the final piece is behind glass, YOU NEED TO VARNISH YOUR WORK.
I am not convinced. I never varnish and my work is fine. Why bother?
  1. It seals the surface layer and provides a layer of protection from harmful elements. Paint ages. Even the good stuff. It *will* alter and deteriorate over the years no matter what you do, but sealing it can slow the process dramatically. If someone purchases your work they will have it for the rest of their life - it is your professional obligation to prepare your work so it will look good decades from now, not just today. If you are not interested in catering to your buyers in the long run, that's fine, don't sell stuff. Keep it for yourself. Just don't be the kid who pees in the pool and ruins it for the rest of us. Cool? Cool. 
  2. The other advantage to varnish is that it provides a clean, consistent sheen to the surface of your work - could be matte, glossy, shiny, satin, grainy....your call. Easiest way to tell if work is varnished is to look at it from an angle - light will shine across the surface consistently. If you use multiple brands of acrylic paint (as most acrylic painters do) they will all have a different sheen and will create a subtle 'patchwork' effect. Each paint will age different and as the years pass, the subtle expansion and contraction at all the different rates can cause all sorts of problems - Varnish will not "fix" this, but it will slow it down. 
When I say varnish what I really mean is "sealer" and there are lots of options, I suggest you find your favorite. My top two all-purpose options over acrylic paint:
Liquitex Satin. This is liquid, about the consistency of milk, but transparent. I like to roll it on in 2-3 thin layers using a high density foam roller. Some folks love using a silk brush. Your call! This has almost no smell and is safe to use indoors.
Krylon UV Satin. This is a popular option and the UV protection is a great bonus. The mist is subtle -that's a good thing - but if you get it in a non-gloss you'll need to do three layers MINIMUM (probably 5-10) just to make sure you have it covered. Smells horrible, use outside only. 
 
If I use fixative do I still need to seal it? Fixative and sealers are not the same thing. I don't know why this is confusing but this question comes up a lot. A fixative 'fixes' pastels and charcoal from falling off, but it does not seal them or provide protection. Different animal. So yes, you need to still seal them after using fixative. 
Do I need to seal paper same as canvas or panels? This is a good question. Most people will tell you that if the piece goes behind glass, and the glass is sufficient protection. They are probably right. However, I'm a little neurotic, and glass fails, frames can be faulty, and the sun still shines - so I usually hit stuff on paper with a mist or two of Krylon. That's me. You do you. 
What about yellowing? I heard varnish causes yellowing? Cheap varnish does. Especially the stuff made for furniture. Honestly, yes, even artist grade varnishes will probably yellow a touch over time (much worse if the piece is left in a sunny spot)....but the alternative paint aging process is much worse. By sealing, you are choosing the lesser eveil.
But my paint manufacturer says no sealer is needed? You will find some paint companies will tell you their paint polymers are strong enough to not require varnish, and I believe them on their own, but their tests do not account for what happens when you mix their paints with another brand, or art medium, or even a touch of tap water (the acidity level of tap water ranges something wild here in the USA). Bottom line: Don't do it. Just seal it.
WOODEN CANVASES Also known as cradle boards, or birch canvases, etc  I love wooden canvases. If you love the expressiveness of line work through pencil or pastel or charcoal, you know it's hard to do on canvas because of the bounce factor. Wooden canvases have no bounce. It's a nice firm surface. I like this brand, although I have no brand loyalty. Look for birch or the term kiln dried and you'll usually end up with something good. You don't have to gesso the canvas first, but I do. If you want to grain to show, give it a quick coat of smooth GAC first to create a barrier between the wood and the paint. 
Note: Five years ago wooden canvases were really expensive and very few people used them, then, the paint pouring craze hit and every ten-year-old wants nice firm wooden canvases, so everyone makes them and they pretty inexpensive. However, some of them are not much better than plywood. The acidity will leach up into your paint and change the colors. They also warp and take on moisture in weird ways, so, just be careful where you buy.
FABRIC CANVASES. You'll notice don't actually link up to Amazon here. My favorite canvases are the Level 3 Gallery Wrap canvases from Michaels, usually purchased on sale or with coupons as they are great quality, but a bit over-priced. I like that they are deep dish (almost 2" width), use extra sturdy canvas, and have a reinforced back. 
Sidebar: I never paint on canvases less than 1.5" deep. Big girls only. You can find thinner quality canvas, but the thicker ones are much easier to sell. Especially if you paint the sides. It's a courtesy to the buyer because they don't always have to bother with framing, and honestly, it looks more expensive. People who are willing to pay the premium for original art want it to *look* like original art, and thicker, painted sides are an easy way to give it to them. It costs a little more on the front end, but it pays for itself many times over. Go for the big girls! 
WATERCOLOR PAPER. Because I use multiple layers of gesso and acrylic paint, I'm not picky about my watercolor paper. At all. I like it thin, thick, cold press, hot press, don't care. I tend to go for the cheapest I can find because it makes me less precious about the act of creating. So long as it's absorbent, I like it. This Canson is probably what I use most, but sometimes I actually want really thin watercolor paper for collage, in which case, this stuff is good. Serious watercolor artists are usually pretty particular about their paper, so, it might be worth more research if you are looking to spend most of your time with more traditional watercolor, single-stroke methods. 
PS: If you find your watercolor paper warps up on you after adding paint, let it cure a few days then *mist* the back with water, sandwich between wax paper, and put it under a heavy book overnight. It'll come out nice and flat. Some people also like to gesso the paper before painting as a way to firm it up and prevent distortion. Your call.  
 
MIXED MEDIA PAPER. This is paper designed to hold up to multiple layers of heavy paint, collage, etc. It often has a bit of a grain or tooth to it. It's usually a little better at staying flat, but it depends how you treat it. Most often, you'll find Mixed media paper in spiral form because it's popular with the art journal crowd - this particular pad is spiral but perforated so you can tear out clean edge sheets very easily (learned this the hard way!) 

Note, the one I link here is pretty lightweight, but, I prefer it because it is 11x14" which is a standard frame size. Most watercolor paint does not come in standard frame sizes because watercolor artists like to tape off their edges. Regardless of whatever paper you use, I cannot tell you how much money you will save on custom framing by sticking to standard frame size paper, or trim down the other stuff the minute it gets home!
NEEDLENOSE BOTTLES. In my class The Secret Garden I demonstrate how to dilute paint and draw fast, drippy lines using these little bottles. They are terrific!
CHALK. I use this to carve out space in most of my videos. It's not artist grade, it's just good stuff. 
RADIANT WATERCOLORThis stuff is INCREDIBLE. Honestly, the most luscious vivid happy colors you have ever seen. Feels more like dye than paint. Comes in little glass tiny dropper bottles so you feel like you are in an old timey apothecary. Warning: People complain that some of the brighter pigments will fade. Also, they are expensive! There are plenty of alternatives, I just love this line. The bleedproof white is great if you want opaque white paint but thin like watercolor. 
PAINT PENS. If you see me using paint pens, 80% chance it was probably these Posca Pens. Opaque, fast, juicy, but-not-too-juicy. I use the black and white up fastest. They are not cheap, but cheap paint pens aren't worth the cost anyway. I'm also a fan of Jane Davenport's line as well and her colors are a little better for florals and such. 
MERMAID PENS.  Holy cats do I love these pens! This is like a pen loaded with highly intense watercolor paint. Gorgeous colors. No mess. Lots of fun. They are great for taking on vacation when you are limited on space and don't want a lot of art making junk around. The set makes a great as gift for people in hospital or recovering from surgery - put in a bag with a big paper pad and nice sumi brush...Just add water and they have a fully functioning bedside art studio. 
THE FAMOUS $3 FOUNTAIN PEN. Ages ago, I posted this on instagram and I still get questions about it - THIS PEN WRITES LIKE BUTTER. It is a fountain pen so you feel like George Washington writing important documents and stuff, BUT, unlike most fountain pens, it's fast and *consistent* and runs for hours with almost no pressure. If you need a good teacher gift, buy them a box of these in a fun color for grading papers. Unfortunately, it is *not waterproof* so if you paint over or seal it, it will likely haze or run. It's best for sketchbooks and straightforward drawings. All your other pens will be bitter, but don't worry, they'll be headed to the trash soon enough. Make way for Pilot Varsity!
OVERHEAD PHONE MOUNT. This is not an art supply, but people ask me how I film videos overhead without a fancy tripod. This is it. $25ish. It clamps on to the desk, which I prefer over the ones with weighted bases. I also like that the arm is articulated, not the floppy gooseneck kind (tends to bend under the weight of a phone). 
SOAP.  This soap is great for getting paint off your hands. Smells good too. Give it a good lather and it will take off twice the paint as any regular hand soap. It's an old timey product (the label is a hoot!) and you can use it to wash your floor, your hair, your dishes, your teeth...even spot clean furniture. I like it because it leaves my hands feeling less dry than other soap, and between multiple rounds of paint and diapers, I wash my hands A LOT and need a gentle soap. This stuff is magic. Don't know why, just is.