Shopping for Art Supplies

Give a child a piece of watercolor paper, a set of paints, and a brush, and they’re happy. I’m usually quite happy with that combination, too. And basically, that’s all you need to start painting. But when you get to the store, choosing which items to buy gets a bit more complicated. The hundreds of choices of paper, paints, and brushes can make your head spin.

The good news is that you can start out as basic or as complicated as you want. In this section, I give you a deeper understanding of these essentials so you can make informed decisions about art supplies and pick out exactly what you want.

Most beginners buy inexpensive supplies thinking that, after all, the painting won’t turn out because they’re an amateur. The fact is that cheap supplies can actually be so frustrating to use and of such poor quality that what you think is ineptness on your part is actually inferior art materials. One easy way to improve your painting is to purchase better supplies. So my advice is to buy the best quality supplies you can afford and upgrade your supplies as you can afford to do so. Reward yourself with a quality art supply every so often. You’ll see the reward return in your painting.

Art suppliers are always coming out with new products, and they’re usually great. So don’t be afraid to try someone else’s great idea. Go to the art supply store frequently for inspiration. Maybe you’ll see a new tool that sparks your creative juices.

Brushing up on your paintbrush choices

Brushes apply paint, so they’re a pretty important part of your paint box. And they’re a pretty simple tool — some hair glued or held by a metal ferrule clamped to a handle.

Splitting hairs: Natural, synthetic, and more

The hairs on a brush can be either natural or synthetic and soft or stiff.

The following list gives you the lowdown on hair styles:

Natural hair: Brushes with natural hair are more costly because the hair comes from the fur of varmint-like creatures. Sable is the most popular natural hair, with kolinsky sable being the most valuable. These hairs have memory, snap, and spring, meaning they quickly go back into their original shape after you mess with them or paint with them. A squirrel or camel hair brush gets mooshed into a shape and stays in the mooshed shape until you rinse it. Mooshed has its purpose, like mopping out a cloud in a sky, but most watercolorists like a brush that springs back into shape – pointed and ready for action.

Synthetic hair: These manmade hairs are excellent today, and it’s often difficult to tell the difference between synthetic and natural brushes. You can buy excellent synthetic brushes that cost one-tenth of what a sable brush costs. If you accidentally ruin the tip of a synthetic brush by scrubbing, you won’t pay a lot to replace it.

Boar hair: Stiff-haired brushes are called bristle brushes, and they’re made from boar hairs. Stiff brushes are good for scrubbing (a form of erasing); the softer bristles can’t take the abuse.

I recommend starting your collection with some nice synthetic brushes. If you can afford a sable brush, get one; you’ll definitely need it as you get more advanced in your painting. As with most things, the difference between beginners and professionals (who are just artists who have sold one painting) is the price of their toys. Enjoy playing.

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