How to pick the right art materials

How do I chose the best art materials for me?

If you have decided to take up art during this pandemic and have now concluded that the cheap set of paints you bought might need upgrading, hopefully this blog will help you to decide what to spend your money on.

Just about every art guidebook you will ever read about learning to paint will tell you that you should always use the best paints, brushes, and substrates you can afford. This is true but why and what can you get away with?

Let’s start with paint. In those books, or maybe in discussions with artists, you will probably be advised to avoid student paints at all costs, wherever possible. The reason for this is simply that you never know how a piece of work will turn out, so you want to aim for every piece being the best you can make. Because chances are you will create your favourite piece using cheap paint and you can’t do anything to change that.

Student grade paint will have reduced pigment density, uses cheaper fillers, and runs the possibility of fading and discolouring. They do handle very differently to professional quality paints but some of them are pretty good, so if you can afford the best do so, but if not, check with your local art suppliers and they should be able to tell you which of the cheaper brands will work to your advantage. I use student-grade paint. There is a place for it, clearly. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be made.

But and it is a big but, I have learned how different paints work and they do handle differently. So why I have learnt how to handle both high quality and student-grade paint?  

Firstly, if I am taking a class to learn someone else’s working methods, I know I am not going to produce a masterpiece. That is not the aim of the class. I would never want to put up for sale a piece I had made in someone else’s class as it is about learning new techniques, so using student-grade paint suits me in this situation. Also, if someone wants to borrow a colour or accidently walks off with a tube of my paint, as often happens, it is not going to cost me a fortune to replace so I won’t get upset about it.

I am there to learn how the tutor works, how they achieve what they do and to figure out if anything I have learned from them is something I want to incorporate into my own working practice.

I generally only take classes with tutors I respect and whose work I admire, so being there to learn how they work means I don’t need to use my good quality paints at this stage. A good but cheaper student paint allows me to work in their way and when I get back to my studio I can decide where I want to take what I have learnt, to explore further.

In addition, using cheaper paints both at home and in classes, allows a freedom that you often don’t have when using the most expensive tools. I can produce reference works without being precious, but then at home I can use my good quality paint once I have decided where I am heading with my new investigations and how best to incorporate that knowledge into my work.

And no, this is not stealing. It’s research. If I copied one person’s work or methods, that would be stealing but by looking at lots of different artists and the ways they work, I am continually researching possibilities to improve the work that I make by exploring these different ways of working. Some fit, others don’t.

I have spent hours watching other artists work, through classes, on YouTube and when I am teaching my students. There is always something new to learn and even if I don’t use that something in my own work, knowing about it means that I can share it with my students.

And finally, I use student-grade paints when I teach. Students are welcome to bring their own paints to a class if they want but my expensive paint is too expensive for me to share. I feel that the classes I teach are no different to the classes I take. They are about trying new techniques and if a student wants to take what they have learned and experiment with high quality paints at home, then all well and good.

Where I don’t scrimp, though, is on the substrates I use in my work.  As a painter and printmaker, I have all manner of different canvases and papers to use, depending on the type of art I am making, so I feel quite passionate about this.

The permanence of paint and ink is affected by the paper you use and the binder in the paint. You could use the most expensive permanent pigment possible but if you use Newsprint, for instance, your painting won’t last very long.

Newsprint is made from wood fibres and contains cellulose, and this can cause a chemical reaction between the paint and the paper. It causes the paper to yellow, becoming brittle – because it is decaying – and it will ultimately disintegrate.

Canvases primed with gesso work well with acrylic. Canvases come in linen (the most expensive); cotton, in different weights; and there are also some new synthetic cotton blends which will hopefully be good, but they haven’t been around long enough to know if they have good archival properties.  

Board; I use board in my work, so I am aware of the problems with it.  Even the most expensive art shop-produced boards are not perfect.  Sealed birch is reportedly the most archival as it less acidic than other woods and sealing it prevents oxidation. Pressed boards, which I use, are made with non-archival glues which can degrade over time. To mitigate this, I seal all the boards myself and all my works on board are coated in resin for extra protection. As board is not considered to be stable, stretching canvas over sealed board and then coating it with several layers of gesso will give you the best archival results.

Watercolour Paper; here you really do get what you pay for. Cheap papers will leave you very disappointed with the outcome, so my advice is to leave well alone.  Medium-priced watercolour papers are probably best avoided, too but good quality heavyweight paper that doesn’t contain cellulose can be used for watercolour, oil and acrylic and if looked after will last a very long time.

That said, the most permanent, most archival materials used in a painting do not stand a chance if the work is kept in an inappropriate environment.  Extremes of moisture, temperature and air pollution will cause chemical reactions in the paint, moulding to the substrate and the death of the artwork.

Brushes

Green tape for oil brushes

You will need different brushes for different media, but you don’t need to spend a fortune on them, especially if you are heavy with your brushes. I would advise not to go for the best.

Brushes come in all sizes and prices and buying a £100+ watercolour brush, especially if you are new to making art or you use acrylic or oils, is probably going to be a huge waste of money. Anyway, just because you have the best brush it doesn’t mean that you will produce the best work.

Turquoise paint for watercolour brushes.

I strongly advise that you keep your brushes separate from each other, i.e. only using oil brushes with oil paint, acrylic brushes with acrylic paint and watercolour brushes with watercolours. This can get a little confusing if, like me, you like to use soft watercolour brushes when using oils or acrylics but I simply use different colour tape on the ends of my brushes so that I know which is which.

So long as your artwork is kept inside a building, out of direct sunlight and with temperatures and humidity which do not fluctuate hugely, it will last and give you years of enjoyment.

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