In my Art Journal classes I am often asked: what supplies do I buy? Where do I start?

It’s not an easy question to answer, because when you’re at the beginning of the discovery of your creativity, you don’t know yet which media you like to work with, or which colours. And which media can be combined with which other media. And for me as an adviser it is very hard to estimate what they will like and how far people’s purses will stretch.

Often people will buy the stuff they use in my classes or that they’ve seen from other participants because they’ve become familiar with them.

But that sometimes results in disappointments because they don’t love the material as much as somebody else does when they get to know it better. As I said, choice of supplies is really extremely personal. Not everybody cares as much about which materials they use, though. I have a friend, for instance, a professional illustrator, who really has a laugh with my art supply fetish, my desire to try every brand in the book and to use only the one I like best. She takes whatever’s at hand …sometimes ever her children’s cheap colour pencils…and makes the most awesome images with it. It’s funny how I even introduced her to “new” supplies and techniques. But I guess my path of being and growing as a self-taught artist has a lot to do with my fascination for the materials and to me part of the fun is experimenting with new stuff.

Anyway, in the beginning it’s hard to choose art supplies. Many people make the wrong choice, to my delight, if I’m honest, for I often find great bargains on online auction sites of people selling their wrong choices. Today I visited one of those auction sites again and seeing one woman selling out ALL her art supplies, made me decide to write this post. She had collected a MASSIVE amount of paint and drawing supplies. Massive. Dozens of canvases, dozens and dozens of brushes, over a hundred water color tubes, an easle,  over a dozen water color blocks, a huge pile of water color paper, ink pens and how-to books on watercolor. And she’s selling it all, “because it turned out I don’t like working with water color”.

But I’m not going to make her an offer. Because the stuff she’s tried to work with, was all of extremely cheap and poor quality. And that simply doesn’t work. Real watercolor paper, 300gms, comes for about 8 dollars (60x40cm). It seems expensive, but don’t expect you can work the same way on the same size watercolor paper that comes at 3 dollars for 20 sheets. They simply don’t compare. The expensive paper will give you a watercolor experience. The cheap paper will blob, slowly dissolve, won’t allow correction or rubbing and will dry in the shape of a landscape off hills and valleys.

The same cheap brand offers equally cheap watercolor. 12 tubes for 2 dollars. It’s great for kids to start with or to make rough sketches. But compared to the 40 dollar student quality cotman set, it’s total rubbish. The paint won’t mix as well with water and will contain blobs and hard pieces, so working that paint into a diluted form is intensive, if you manage to get it done at all. And suppose you do get it done, then don’t be disappointed when the brightness of the colours begins to fade after a few days already. In direct sunlight you will end up with a muddy painting in several tones of brown, grey, blue and green. Reds, pinks and purples will simply disappear.

Cheap brushes vary in quality. The Van Eyck brushes, for sale at Action in the Netherlands, are surprisingly good. I even buy them for my classes. With 10 brushes for 2 dollars that’s a great buy. And if somebody messes up a brush, hey, no problem! But I have to say that all other cheap brands I’ve tried were dreadful. Breaking hairs, hairs coming out, breaking grips, rust, paint peeling from grips, but above all a lousy capacity of holding and spreading paint…

The only really smart cheap buy would be an easel if you want to use one. Why buy an expensive one if you’re only beginning? You can always upgrade.

For all other materials I want to stress that if you buy it really cheap, chances are you may turn off from art as a whole. Colour pencils that don’t give off any colour to the paper or that have these really hard and sharp particles in the leads that will tear your paper…it’s a nightmare when you really need your energy to focus on learning to draw and colour! It is true that with only a ballpoint and cheap paper you can make great art, but if you want something more, working with good materials really helps in the process of beginning to draw and paint. Everybody says: “I suck at painting” in the beginning. But with good supplies there are tons of techniques that will gradually help you develop your skills, techniques that give an astonishing result from the first steps onwards. I know, because that’s how my confidence has grown enough to go on. I’m not a natural talent at all. I work hard and learn by trial and error. But for me my art supplies have been very important to help me grow.

So, to all of you out there who are pondering what to buy I want to give you a golden rule:

Buy good quality.

Yes, it is much more expensive. But throwing away all that cheap stuff in the end, is more expensive, for it may seriously cost you your spark to make art. If you need to work on a budget, then start out with fewer colours, fewer sheets of paper.

You don’t need artist’s quality in the beginning. But try to buy student quality. There are dozens of brands that carry student quality pencils, paints, markers, etc. And even paper, don’t buy the seriously expensive paper in the beginning, but there are qualities out there that are good enough. Many big art supply stores carry their own brands. Dick Blick, I saw last week, even have their own watercolour paper made, for instance. It’s a lot cheaper than big brands, but it’s good enough in the beginning. It might always be good enough for you ( I prefer working on less expensive paper), but you can always move up.

Another question I often get is: what colours do I begin with?

Well, if you’re looking to buy a set of pencils or watercolors or pastels, then I’d advise you to do so in two steps:
1. go to a good art supply store and purchase one of each brand within your budget. Start out with your favorite colours. Go home with 3 to 5 different brands. Take some good white paper and sit down with it. Play with it. What are the differences? Which one feels best? Which gives the best colour? Which mixes best? Which allows for second and third layers? How do they work on a different type of paper? What do they cost? Just play and try for yourself which brand you like best at what price.
2. go back to the art supply store and buy a set of your favorite brand. A set of 12 colours will take you a long way already. But if you love purple, pink and turquoise, you could buy them in addition, for these colours are hard to mix and are not in the 12-colour starter set. It really depends on the pigments used in the blue and red whether or not they make a beautiful purple when you mix them. I found out they don’t always do that. So, bear that in mind. Twelve colours doesn’t seem like a lot, but sit down with them and start mixing. Make colour charts with squares…if you mix this with so and so, you get that. Write the numbers or names  of the colours down below the squares and you’re training your colour science! As you continue to grow, you will find out which colours are missing from your pallette and you can later add them to it one by one. You will probably find out that the colours you use most are not perse your favorite colours. I don’t like ochre as a colour, for instance, but since I use it as an undertone for skin tones and as a base tone for many natural green colours, my ochre is a colour that needs changing quite frequently.

What to do when you make a wrong choice?

Simple: try to exchange with somebody or sell. Since the use of art supplies is very personal, you might hate the paint that your neighbour loves. You may have to accept a loss, but on the other hand: it will weigh on you if you keep it without using it. It happened to me and my Derwent pencils. I bought the full set of Inktense and Artist pencils. I loved making  colour charts with them. But after that when I used them in my work…whoops! It turned out I hated working with them. I was very angry with myself for not following the advice I always gave my students and try a few before buying full sets. Instead had listened to the shop owner who told me that these pencils were as good as my no longer available Karismas. But in my opinion, they weren’t…by far. I still have them, unwilling to take a loss. But I’ve decided that when I dig them up from a moving box, I will sell them and try to buy something with the money that I DO like. I remember feeling really bad when I packed them.

And for those who really do like to find out which art supplies I love best, here’s a list (surely not complete!):

Mircon pens
Schmincke Horadam, Rembrandt and Winsor and Newton Artist’s watercolor (artist’s quality; expensive, but brilliant colours)
Winsor and Newton Cotman watercolor (student quality, but really good!)
St.Petersburg watercolor (student quality and inexpensive, typical character on paper!!!)
Lyra Rembrandt, Caran d’Ache Pablo color pencils
Albrecht Dürer watercolor pencils
Sennelier and Rembrandt soft pastels
Artisan water soluble oil paint
Daler and Rowney FW acrylic ink
ARA acrylic paint
Golden fluid acrylics, gesso and gel medium
Da vinci brushes
Schut watercolor paper
Schmincke aerocolor acrylic ink
– Talens Ecoline fluid watercolor ink
Caran d’Ache NeocolorII watersoluble oil pastels
KOI waterbrush
Sakura Souffle pen
Schmincke masking fluid
Derwent automatic eraser (seems nonsense, but is great for erasing detail without wrecking entire sketch/drawing)
Sakura Identipen
Heutink Goldline pencils
Van Gogh watercolor filament brushes
Faber Castell pitt artist pens
Stabilo pen 68 felt pens (water soluble, great for washing down with wet brush)
Stabilo woodies (water soluble oil pencil)
Stabilo easy color + Green trio (super color pencils, bit oily and soft…)
Faber Castell jumbo grip pencil
Conté pierre noire pencil
Creta Color Monolith
Ordinary drawing pens + Indian ink
Pritt Power Gell
Talens Gouache

There’s a few more, but those are still in moving boxes…