What Quality Art Materials Should I Purchase?

Can any art materials make a decent painting? Simply put, no. The quality of your materials greatly affects the quality of your work. Beginners will often say that they will go for the cheapest materials to start with and as they improve, get better quality ones.

The harsh fact is, with the cheapest materials, they will never make a marked improvement. Paper, especially watercolour paper, is one area where money shouldn’t be scrimped on. Real watercolour paper is sized both sides with gelatine; this is so the paint has time to be reworked and specialist techniques can be used before the gelatine breaks down and the paint is absorbed in the paper.

Cheap watercolour paper is not properly sized and is in effect, blotting paper. The paint is just absorbed straight away, leaving you no time to do anything with it. If money needs to be considered then you do not need to go for the expensive cotton rag paper like Arches or Fabriano, just stick to the wood pulp watercolour paper like Bockingford, Cotman or Langton. This is not cheap as such.

An A4 pad of 12 sheets is around £9 but you can use both sides. Unlike food, supermarket own brands of watercolour paper are markedly inferior to the named brands. A tip I will give is to buy a much larger pad size than you need. I always buy an A2 size pad. 12 sheets costs around £22, but each sheet makes four A4 sheets. So when you work out the value, it is much cheaper.

Also, get a decent weight of paper. I would recommend paper of at least around 300gsm (140lb) as this will take quite a bit of water and is a good all-rounder. You can even use it for acrylic painting or pastels. Brushes and paints too will also have differing qualities so don’t be swayed by price. Stick to reputable brand names or ask your local art shop for advice.

Canvassing Opinion

Canvases are all the same, right? Sort of. So why would it appear that art shops sell canvases at a much higher price than say, a home furnishing or bargain book shop? Are they ripping off their customers?

On first glance, all canvases appear to look the same, and they all carry the name ‘canvas’, but there is much more to this humble, ancient painting surface than meets the eye. There are many things that will cause canvases to be more expensive:

i) The weight, the weave, or the type of canvas will make a difference. For example a 7.5oz canvas has a more open weave than a 10oz canvas. Callico, Cotton, or Linen canvases will also change the price (and the look).

ii) Is the canvas primed? If it is primed well you should be able to hold it up to the light and not see any daylight shining through (which is often the case with cheaper canvases).

iii) How the canvas is secured to the frame. Often with more budget canvases, there are visible nails or staples on the sides. With better quality canvases these move to the back, and with good quality canvases they are hidden altogether in grooves.

iv) The wooden support. This is perhaps the most important thing to consider when buying a canvas, and yet is often over looked. It is the wood that will make or break (quite literally) the canvas.

It is this that can mean the difference between a cheap canvas and an expensive one. If the wood is not well seasoned then should the canvas be hanging on a wall above a radiator, the heat may cause the canvas to twist put of shape and bend. An awful and embarrassing mistake to make especially if it was for a commissioned or exhibition piece of work. Good quality canvases will use better quality wood which will keep its shape no matter where the picture will be hanging. So although canvases are all called canvases, there are many reasons why some appear to be cheaper than others.

Generally art shops will sell mid range to high end canvases as their customer base dictates quality and longevity over price, whereas bargain shops who have the reputation for stocking inexpensive items will very rarely sell good quality items at pocket money prices.

What Are Paints Made From?

We often get customers in the shop asking what the pigments in our paints are made from such as Cadmium Red and Ultramarine and what the difference is between artist and student quality paint. Artist quality paints are mainly made from pigments ground from the earth such as Yellow Ochre, others are manufactured chemically from the metal cadmium such as Cadmium Red and Cadmium Yellow.

Student quality paint however, is a synthetic mixture that closely mimics the real pigment, but is often not as bright or permanent. A student quality paint can be identified by the word ‘hue’ written after a colour. I thought I would share with you a brief, interesting and sometimes amusing history of the lengths artists would go to make the colours they needed.

Historically, artists would make their own paint in their studios by mixing the pigment with either gum Arabic for watercolour or linseed oil to make an oil paint. Traditionally, Sepia was made from the ink sacks of cuttle fish, Indian Yellow was (allegedly) made from the urine of cows who has been fed on mango leaves, and Vermillion was made from the highly toxic Mercuric Sulphide. Egyptian Brown was historically made by grinding the remains of Egyptian mummies! Some greens were created by mixing copper sulphide and arsenic, but when the colour got damp it gave off a toxic gas. Thankfully, these colours are either no longer made or have safer modern alternatives.

In years gone by, artists could be identified by their pallor; their sunken cheeks and dark rings under the eyes weren’t from a late night painting, but from the chemicals inhaled or absorbed into the skin as they mixed their colours or painted on their canvases. How thankful we are that the tube of paint was created along with the legislation to makes paints safer! Even today, owing to where pigments are found or how they are made, there are still some high quality paints manufactured that do carry a warning due to the pigments used. The better the quality of paint, the higher the chance of it being slightly toxic. These paints give brighter, stronger more permanent colour and are perfectly fine to use as long as you don’t suck your brushes!