Which art materials do I need?

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The artist’s essentials

I am often asked about the materials I use when making my artwork and I have written around this topic before but having been asked again this week by someone very new to painting, I thought I would revisit the subject.

My first piece of advice is always to use the best quality paint, brushes and substrate (canvas, board, paper etc.) you can afford. Yes, there are student grade products available which are, especially in the case of acrylics, exceptionally good. However, if you are interested in watercolour or oil painting, the cheap paints will let you down so quickly you will think it is your lack of ability whereas it is the products that are failing you. If you want to make work which you are proud of then you need to use quality products to achieve that.

Before you rush out and buy all those products, you need to know what to get. Pick up any art instruction book and it will inform you that you can make every colour under the sun with just the three primary colours: red, yellow, and blue. This is true, but, in reality, you will need a few more than these to start with. You can add more as you go along, but you just don’t need to go out and buy the lot.

Which paints?

What you do need to get started are: a warm and a cool red; a warm and a cool yellow; a warm and a cool blue; and – possibly – white and black. I will come back to this.

Starting off with the warm colours, a Cadmium Red, Phthalo Blue, and a Cadmium Yellow. The cooler versions include Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine Blue and Lemon Yellow. If you like to make work inspired by nature, I suggest you expand your range of colours further by adding Burnt Sienna and Yellow Ochre, which will give you earthy tones.

There’s a bit of a debate over black. Many people, especially watercolourists, say that you should never use black as you can mix a more “interesting” black by combining the colours yourself, and yes, they are right. Personally, I have found that a touch of black in a colour, and I mean just a touch, helps to tone it down without having to get out all the colours to mix to make an interesting black.

As a watercolour painter you won’t use black very much, but it is a useful tool if used properly. Watercolourists never use white paint; they use the white of the paper instead. This is because white paint contains chalk so mixing it with other colours can make them appear chalky too when what you are looking for in watercolour is that translucent appearance.  

If you do buy a starter set with white in it, though, don’t throw it away. Try it. You might find it useful if you want to create a cloudy or ethereal feeling to your work. One other footnote here on colour is that it is probably best to mix your own greens or if you do buy a green add another colour to it. Green straight from the tube always looks a bit odd.


There are so many brushes out there from cheap 10 for a few pennies to sable watercolour brushes that cost an arm and a leg. Make sure you have a variety of sizes. Don’t make work for yourself by using a tiny brush for a large area of work; invest in a range of sizes to make life easier.

Which brush does depend on which paint medium you want to work in. Softer synthetic or hair brushes are best for watercolour, whilst bristle brushes are generally used for oil and acrylic, but you can break these rules. You can make oil and acrylic paint look beautifully smooth using soft brushes and you can create some interesting effects using bristle brushed with watercolour.

The general rule on brushes is to buy the best you can afford and look after them. Treat them kindly while using them and make sure you clean them properly when you have finished, and they will last.  However, if you are heavy on your brushes, buy cheaper brushes and thrown them away. What ever works best for you.

A wipe out tool, which looks like an eraser on the end of a paintbrush handle, is particularly useful for signing your name on finished acrylic and oil paintings, though the other end of a paint brush is just as good.

It is worth investing in palette knives for oil and acrylic painting. You can obtain some interesting effects through the lack of control you have painting with a knife.


Paper. Just as before, buying the best you can afford will bring the best results.

With watercolour paper, pick a good one and stick with it until you really know how the paper behaves and believe me, different papers do behave in different ways. Buy a gummed pad so that you don’t have to think about stretching paper until such time as you are really invested in the practice.

Acrylic paint can be used on watercolour paper, acrylic paper and canvas. I would not waste money and buy quality watercolour paper to use with acrylic paint. The only time I would use acrylic paint on quality watercolour paper is if the paper is old or has been damaged in some way. Then you would not want to use it to for watercolour works as it will spoil the outcome, but it will be great for other media.

Canvas boards or panels are one area where until you are really well-known and selling your work for big bucks, you don’t need to worry too much. Cheaper cotton panels which have been pre gesso’d are just fine. When you want to step up to a higher quality product you can buy cotton canvases in different grades of fineness or you could switch to linen, which is not cheap.

The only recommendation I would make here is start small. You can go big once you are confident with your chosen medium, but if you start big it could get daunting quickly and it might put you off.

Your setup is important

When using acrylic paint, to stop your paints from drying out you will need a shallow tray lined with kitchen towels or large thin sponges soaked in water. Drain off any excess water, though. You want it wet, but you don’t want to thin the paint. Lay a sheet of baking parchment or similar (you can use tracing paper) onto the wet towels and this will stop your paint drying out.  If you have another tray the same size, you can use it to cover the paint and it will keep it wet for a few days, depending on the weather, so you won’t waste your paint. A lidded tray with a wet sponge left in it will keep watercolour paints from drying out, too. Oil paint can be frozen. Again, you will need a lidded box and I also put that inside a plastic bag too, but it can be kept for months in the freezer, no problem.

Really important

If you are right-handed you need to have your paints, brushes, and other equipment on your right. If you’re left-handed, keep it on your left. Otherwise, you run the risk of damaging your work by leaning across yourself to get at your paint.

I always have a roll of kitchen paper, which I use to clean my brushes. I sometime use it to blot off my painting, too, and it helps with cleaning up after. I also always have kitchen wet-wipes, which are better than baby wet-wipes because they don’t contain the lotion that baby wipes have. If you can’t find kitchen wet-wipes, then stick with the baby wet-wipes: they still do a good job in helping you to clean up quickly if you have spilt paint on your hands or clothes.

Sketch books.

I use several different kinds. Ring-bound sketch books are great as they fold back on themselves reducing the space you need in which to work and having a small one to carry with you when you are out means you can sketch anywhere. An assortment of sketching pencils is worth carrying when you are out too. If you find you really enjoy sketching, try incorporating charcoal or pastel to help increase the difference in tone in your sketches. You won’t be disappointed.

Protecting your finished work

There is too much information for me to share in this post, so I will create an in-depth post later, but a quick general rule here is that watercolour paintings need to be protected behind glass, whereas acrylic and oils do not but will need a couple of layers of the appropriate varnish to protect them. Oil paintings should not be put under glass unless there are exceptional circumstances because oil paint never actually dries, and it needs to breath.

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