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.
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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 STUFF. Nupastels 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....
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.
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!
- 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.
- 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.
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!