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You’ve been bitten by the inspiration bug, and you want to make art, but you have no idea where to begin. All the supplies you see look enticing, right? It feels like you must have ALL.THE.COLORS, and yet, its overwhelming. Maybe you can’t quite decide if you want to try watercolor, acrylic, or oils. Or if paint isn’t your thing, you might be looking at pencil drawing, pastel, charcoal, or markers.
Wherever you find yourself in this moment, read these five tips for beginner art supplies selection before you spend a dime. I’ve teamed up with marker artist and painter, Becky Coleman of Naturally By Becky, and together, we’re giving you our most helpful tips to get you focused and on your way to loving the artist life. Keep reading to learn what you really need, what’s worth the splurge, and what you can save for later or even go without.
1. First, consider the purpose of your art.
When you’re new to the art world or beginning a new medium, it helps to have a loose plan in mind. Think about what you want your art to say, what style you are striving for, where the art will be enjoyed when it is finished, and your preferences in materials. Know your personal tastes will help you stick to those, despite the abundance of available choices. Below is a quick look at popular art media and their characteristics. Which one(s) feel the most like YOU?
Watercolor & alcohol inks are typically used for more translucent looks. Their flowy consistency gives you less control, dries quickly, and can be built up using layers. These can be used on a variety of surfaces.
Oil paints are more opaque, takes longer to dry, are often built up with layers over time, and are typically used on canvas, panel, or canvas papers. They can be more costly than other paints and require a medium for thinning and mixing.
Acrylic paints are opaque, water-based, dry quickly, and are easy to clean up. They work on a variety of surfaces, and because they are easily accessible and can be worked wet-in wet or layered when dry, they make a good option for beginning painters.
Art markers dry very quickly, are built up using layers, and are very permanent. Mistakes cannot be drawn over or removed. The aesthetic provides a more graphic quality to the art.
Pastels are available as a chalk, wax, or oil format. They come in set or individual and can be easily blended, used to create texture, line, and shading. It is very easy to start and stop your work if you have time constraints, and pastels require little clean up.
Pencils and charcoal are also easy to pick up and work with, requiring almost no clean up.
2. Work with your budget.
As a beginner artist, your budget for supplies may be minimal, but you don’t need a lot if you stay focused and start small. Though higher quality materials are usually more expensive, there’s a wide range of price points to choose from. You’ll find art supply stores stock products in both student/academic and professional grades. Student grade art supplies contain more fillers and/or less desirable types of ingredient, which are known to fade over time or yellow with age. If you’re learning and practicing, they perform well enough and will save you money. Start with these when you are just beginning or trying out something new.
Once you know you want to commit to a certain medium, you can invest in higher quality professional grade materials. Many artists continue to use student grade products until they sell their work. When in doubt about the quality of specific materials or brands, look for reviews online or from artist friends. Here are some considerations for choosing where to splurge and where to save:
Decide where your money will make the most impact. Will you invest more in paints, or does using a few colors but buying good brushes make more sense for you?
Be mindful about the surface you work on. Practice work, experimenting, or first tries are best done on affordable paper or smaller sized canvas. Elevate your work by changing the size when you grow your skills and confidence. Larger work means you’re going to go through your drawings or painting materials more quickly, and the cost of larger surfaces is greater.
Re-use surfaces when possible and keep an open mind. You can paint over old canvases, use scrap pieces of wood, or turn found-objects into your next masterpiece.
3. Colors for a beginner’s palette
Art materials often come in kits and individual tubes, pencils, or markers. A kit is helpful if you are starting with absolutely zero. Take a few minutes to think about the colors and styles you are naturally drawn to, and use this to guide your color selection further. Remember that there are warm and cool tones of most colors, including black and white, and the temperature of your colors will effect the look and mood of your art. If painting, you’ll use more white than any other color, as it is the most frequently use when mixing colors.
There are many beginner art books available that suggest specific colors for a beginner palette with both cool and warm tones. Your color choices also depend on your subject. Will you work with landscapes, portraits, botanicals, seascapes, or something else? Here’s a helpful suggestion from Becky for what to include in your color palette:
Primary Colors (Red, Yellow, Blue)
Secondary Colors (Green, Orange, Purple)
Browns (Burnet Sienna, Yellow Ochre, and Raw Sienna)
Becky uses a small pocket color “wheel” to help plan colors before she begins. I often select colors intuitively while working, but I begin with a general color scheme in mind.
4. Safe art practices
Some art tools and materials can be dangerous, so be aware before you begin. Your space should have good ventilation when working with oil paints, particularly when using certain solvents to mix, thing, or clean your brushes. There are safer alternatives available if you cannot work in a well-ventilated place. Some paints or materials have strong odors, and some can cause lung cancer with prolonged exposure.
Also, paints and pastels may contain heavy metals, such as Cadmium. Prevent these from leaching into your skin by wearing gloves, washing your hands well after working, wearing protective clothing, such as an apron, or buying alternative supplies that are free from these ingredients.
5. Our brand and supplier favorites
There are so many awesome brands and types of art supplies that it’s really hard to narrow the list, especially when we haven’t gotten to try them all. BUT, we are sharing the ones we use most frequently or have a special love for, what we like about them, and where you can grab some for yourself.
Becky says: I am a huge fan of Prismacolor ink pens. I usually purchase a size .005, .01, .03, and.05. I Typically buy them in packs, and I use them so often the nib tends to wear out quickly on the smaller sizes. I also love Tombow Dual Brush Markers for sketching, but I usually color with Copic ciao Markers. I like that they have very little odor, a chisel and a brush tip, and they are refillable. My favorite watercolor paper is Arches 300 lbs. cold pressed paper, and my favorite marker paper is Bienfang Graphics 360, marker paper.
Erin says: My favorite student-grade paints are Winsor & Newton and Grumbacher. For oil paints, I now fill my palette with M. Graham and Charvin, which are two brands of professional oil paints that have a buttery smooth consistency, excellent color varieties, strong pigments, and low odor. I use walnut oil for thinning and mixing, and I love this little self-contained Master Brush Cleaner by General. I use Princeton brushes, Shiva (I’ve had for about 20 years), and for drawing, I like to General charcoal pencils or vine charcoal for rich, deep blacks and texture. I prefer Derwent graphite pencils when working on smooth pencil drawings or sketches.
Prismacolor makes wonderfully smooth colored pencils, Stabilo CarbOthello pastel pencils are amazing pastel pencils for detail work, available in lots of colors, and great for blending and layering. They show off their best quality on pastel mat or museum board, and they pair well together with chalk pastels. For a more playful medium, Caran d’Ache Neocolor II wax pastels are my go-to. They are SO fun because they are water soluble. They color like crayons, but you can apply water with a brush to turn them into a watercolor painting. As for watercolor paints themselves, I have a great collection of Winsor & Newton Cotman tubes. I’ve had my eye on a set of Sennelier pan watercolors.
Where To Shop
If you’re lucky enough to have locally-owned art shops, start there. They will have wonderful selection and are often very helpful resources. I recommend browsing college area art shops, too, where art students go for their supplies. Becky always checks Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, and other secondhand stores first before purchasing. You might find great materials at super low prices! Below are our go-to retailers:
That wraps up the 5 P’s of beginner art supply shopping. Becky and I hope this gets your started on a beautiful creative journey. We can’t wait to see what you make! When you share your art, please tag us on Instagram @naturallybybecky and @erinreinholtzart