When buying art materials, it’s almost always wise to get the best you can afford. This is particularly true for supports — the surfaces you work on. Nothing is as disappointing as paper that yellows after just a few years, or cotton canvas so thin and threadbare that it wouldn’t pass for a prison bedsheet.
At the same time, quality and high price don’t always come first when it comes to pigments. There are many cheap colours, particularly earth colours, where the raw materials are so readily available and dense enough to begin with that they work well for most jobs. Further, the fillers, extenders and other additives that go into a lot of cheaper paints can actually be a benefit in sullying the garishness that comes easily in high-density, expensive pigments.
A lover of Golden Acrylics (I’m not on their payroll), lately I’ve been adding squeezes from the fat tubes of Winsor and Newton Galleria (student quality) and even Chinese Pebeos that come at a fraction of the price. But it’s not about saving bucks. It’s about volume of paint and the potential for juicy creativity. Expensive paints bring out your resident miser. Cheaper paints, used discretionally, are more likely to be lathered on in abundance and bravura.
Fact is, for some of us, inexpensive materials bring out the magic of playfulness. Take my friend Toni Cavelti. One of the most honoured jewelry designers in Canada, he’s spent a lifetime working with precious diamonds, rubies and emeralds. In his workshops, gold and platinum were the metals of choice. Now retired from serving the rich and famous, Toni has made a new career making sculptures using 1.5 mm iron wire that costs him less than ten bucks a roll.
In paint, the most important thing is the binder or medium. In acrylic media, rough stones and pieces of found junk can probably be held together for millennia if there’s enough binder. I wouldn’t skimp on quality acrylic medium. In oil, you can think about the admixture of quality materials with student materials, as well as appropriate amount of the current, not too smelly media designed to take the place of the popular (and yellowing) Linseed oil. In watercolour, particularly, you need to be aware of the fugitive nature of some pigments. Reading the permanency guide on most labels will keep your colours the way you want them.
PS: “I work in a very humble material and that suits me just fine.” (Toni Cavelti)
Esoterica: Questions regarding the mixing of paint brands on the same painting often pop into this inbox. While there are some variations in the molecular makeup between the different manufacturers, they seem to me to be homogeneous, and getting more so. In acrylic, favour a quality medium or gel — it will carry most pigments. Materials permanency expert Mark Gottsegen warns, “All the fillers, extenders, and other ingredients used in ‘professional’ paints — oils and acrylic dispersion paints — have homogenized what we get in stores today. They are necessary, in the case of the acrylics. They have made today’s oil paints into white bread.”
Choosing the best
by Mark D. Gottsegen, Greensboro, NC, USA
From my point of view, we (me and the AMIEN Staff) could never recommend an artist use cheap materials unless they are completely aware of the inherent vice and potential for early failure.
Today’s paints are nothing like the oil paints available to artists before the industrial revolution. If you want a taste of what oils paints were like then, especially the mineral colorant oil paints, try Natural Pigments’ “Rublev” oil paints. I know the maker, and his mineral colorants are minimally processed so they retain their naturally variant particle sizes — they are not ground into an homogeneous powder, like, say, Winsor and Newton’s oil paints — and this is his unique market: to make “traditional” oil paints. The same may be somewhat true for Williamsburg’s paints, though they have a new owner (this means the paints will be better and more consistently made, but not necessarily that the variant particle sizes of the mineral colorants will be retained in the new formulations).
As for the vehicles in the acrylic dispersion paints, there are cheap-o binders and there are preem-o binders. The former may contain resins other than methylmethacrylate dispersed in water; for instance, a yellowing styrene resin, or microscopic polyethylene spheres that don’t last unchanged for long, or much less expensive acrylic resins made for, say, the house painting or commercial paint industries where longevity is not as big an issue.
As for mixing paint brands, adding a cheaper brand to a better brand cheapens the better brand whether we’re talking about oils or the acrylic dispersions.
It’s better for everyone to just use the highest quality materials — and we have to know how to pick them. That’s the hardest part of the process, for most artists.
There are 2 comments for Choosing the best by Mark D. Gottsegen
Materials have a subtle effect on results
by B.H. Koster, Great Brakriver, Southern Cape, SA
I so agree with your statements and have exactly the same experience. I believe the solution lies in knowledge of paints and pigments. I use cheap materials, although we do not have a wide variety here in South Africa. Fortunately I have an in-depth knowledge of the manufacture of paints and I agree with all your statements regarding pigments. I must say that when I take a piece of ordinary paper as in paper print and charcoal, I have a completely different end result compared to when I use a lovely piece of Fabriano and a charcoal pencil. The materials that you use to a large extent dictate the end result.
Becoming a colour connoisseur
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
I’ve gone the opposite direction in my pastel painting. I’ve been using just about pure pigment in making my own super rich palette. In pastel, additives are used mostly as extenders although they also add working qualities to pastel as well. Most of these additives are white powders with weak tinting strength. Calcium carbonate makes pastels softer. China Clay or Kaolin is a binder. Sometimes pastel makers add pumice and other materials. All of these additives weaken the color power of the pure pigments. As a small time pastel manufacturer, my basement is full of glorious dry pigments. You can’t beat pure ultramarine blue dry pigment for the visceral delight of color! Others I love are Cadmium Orange Light and Cobalt Turquoise. Even the comparably dull earth colors are very rich in their full strength form. I rarely have to use any binders at all as most dry pigments have enough binding capacity on their own. A few months ago I was lucky enough to obtain a very small amount of Manganese blue dry pigment. In its pure state, this color has the capacity to add a thrilling element to any painting it is added to. It looks like my fantasy of the Mediterranean Sea on a sunny day! Touches of these super rich pure pigment colors shake a painting out of the doldrums. I’ve been working on a new acrylic technique where I liquefy pastel with acrylic matte medium creating super rich glazes that I build up on canvas. This method again utilizes the beauty of the pure pigment! I’ve become a color connoisseur. Bring on the good stuff. I’m not in favor of wasting money on overly hyped art materials but good materials inspire me. Most artists have an innate love of art materials. I find that you can’t have freedom in painting if you are thinking like a cheapskate about your materials. I may drive an old car, but when it comes to color I own and operate a fleet of Lamborghinis.
The value of playfulness
by Aquil Virani, Montreal, QC, Canada
The playfulness and lack of pressure that comes from using cheaper supplies is much more valuable than the slight difference in lustre. A friend of mine used to always bug me about using dollar store paints. I also love to paint on cardboard, found objects, old frames, and anything I can get for free. When you don’t have to worry about “wasting” your expensive paints, you can let loose. It’s an amazing feeling when you sell a painting for a modest hundred when you found the support on the street and bought supplies for five dollars or less.
Let the archivists worry about it
by Alex Nodopaka, Lake Forest, CA, USA
Your addressing quality and permanency of paints and substrates has touched a long-held opinion on my part to let history take care of the archival life of artwork. On a few of your points I hold reservations in that mixing “inexpensive” and “expensive” oils on the same canvas could be a mistake in terms of long term evenly distributed fading as some of the man-made electric-hue paints will definitely fade at different rates. In my case where I love to periodically experiment with organic additives in my sculptures I appreciate the mice and the bugs contributions to those particular artworks. I’d worry about eating my sculpture if it began suddenly crawling on its own.
There is 1 comment for Let the archivists worry about it by Alex Nodopaka
Reuse, recycle and reclaim
by R. Wade Nelson, Thompson Falls, MT, USA
Many years ago when you suggested making one hundred paintings and reserving judgment till the end I listened to your advice. Having just retired as an art teacher I wanted to become a painter. The cost looked daunting so I developed a limited pallet of 5 colors based on a Tapa cloth I had brought back from the Fiji Islands. I used recycled shopping bags and cardboard boxes as support and latex house paint as the medium. Fast forward to the present and I am still using Acrylic Latex house paint, but now on illustration board or primed canvas. The illustrated pieces are all on reclaimed paper, and I am pleased to say I have had several exhibitions, sold at auction and galleries, and people appreciate the “reuse, recycle, reclaim” nature of my work.
There are 2 comments for Reuse, recycle and reclaim by R. Wade Nelson
Fussy about materials
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
If you can paint well with student grade paint, I am even more impressed. I tried Liquitex Basic, and Windsor & Newton student acrylics, mostly for the same reasons as you mention — to have big juicy amounts to play with. However, I could only use them for the imprimatura. Painting with them felt like spreading bubble gum with vague traces of the labeled pigment. Pebeo pigments are very scarily opaque — even burnt sienna, and no amount of medium made it transparent as that pigment is supposed to be. As for Golden, many people like them, but in my experience pigments vary from batch to batch, to the extent that sometimes the smear on the tube doesn’t exactly match the color of the paint in the tube. The consistency of paint varies with pigments. For example, green gold and quin gold harden in the tube after few weeks from opening. I also dislike their tubes — the screw-tops warp and become useless, same as with W&N, and squeezing the last bits from the malformed aluminum tube is a drag. The titanium whites are not as opaque as they could be, and I have purchased batches that were more transparent than usual. The best thing about Golden is the variety of pigments and products, if that’s what you are looking for.
Overall, I find Liquitex artist quality to be most consistent in quality and I love the design of the screw tops — very practical. The problem with them is that the latest line of mediums feels different than before. I don’t know if they changed the recipe, but the medium I have been using definitely fells stickier than before. It still hardens better than Golden, at least the way I use it.
I generally buy the best quality materials and supports, but sometimes I get canvas panels for experimenting, cheap reusable palettes from Michael’s and cheaper gesso. The palette paper rolls up when wet, and the cheap gesso gets so gummy that I can’t even pour it out from the container. I used to buy huge containers of acrylics from a local supplier, but certain pigments got moldy after few months. So for me, cutting corners only brings frustration. Attempts to use cheap brushes ended up violently. I am still too cheap to buy glazing rugs so I am cutting up old (and not so old) husband’s clothes — that right there may cause problems if he ever catches up.
I need a more industrious canvas priming method since that is the most boring thing to do, and I was planning to try your recipe. I have it written down somewhere, but it might be helpful to share it with other readers. I think that I remember the ingredients but I don’t recall the ratios. Was it one part acrylic outdoor house primer, one part acrylic gesso, one part acrylic medium, pigment to taste?
(RG note) Thanks, Tatjana. My thought was that you could sully your gesso with outdoor acrylic latex primer. Here’s my recipe: Equal parts of quality gesso and outdoor acrylic latex primer white. Add acrylic colourant to your taste — right now I’m using greys, both warm and cool. We do them with a roller and cook up a variety of greys at one go. I also add a varying amount of acrylic medium gloss. This last helps to make the surface a bit more shiny and slick for fresher brushwork. These days, just before painting, I’m rubbing on (with a rag) a thin coat of acrylic medium cut with a bit of water to make things go even smoother wet into wet.
There are 2 comments for Fussy about materials by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
A precious secret
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
In an experimental workshop I just gave, I offered the student my “secret” support to work on. I told them they would probably create their best work on it — gessoed corrugated cardboard. The “secret” is that they know it is a throw away, so they stop being precious and learn to let loose a little. Of course, the sad part is that the painting will only last long enough for the student to learn from it, it will be un-saleable as it is destined to deteriorate and self-destruct. So what? I have seen too many students freeze in front of an expensive canvas or panel.
There are 3 comments for A precious secret by Mary Moquin
Expensive is the better bet
by Margot Hattingh, South Africa
I have a definite anxiety fit about using expensive art materials and find it impossible to work with them in a spontaneous and experimental way. One of the ways in which I try and circumvent this is by deliberately buying stock of expensive materials (the luscious paint/special pigment, exquisite paper etc.) when I’ve got the money. I put them away until I need them with the express intention of having forgotten how much they cost. There are two possible problems to this — they are so wonderful to work with when I do eventually use them, that I gobble them up in a series, and am then faced with the huge expense of replacing them to continue the series, or alternatively, if I was to die suddenly — someone will inherit an amazing treasure that on my deathbed I will deeply regret not using up while I could. I mostly like to use transparent pigments, and the thing that I have to keep reminding myself is that those exquisite superior quality paints are so densely pigmented that they actually go a very long way if used with lots of medium. If used as is, the colours are so intense I find that only small amounts are generally needed as accents. I do tend to use cheaper quality earth colours as well as B&W — but find I have to use such large quantities of them, especially the transparent pigments like raw sienna to get the richness. The more expensive, densely pigmented paints end up being a better bet.
Becoming sensitive to the differences
by Fleta Monaghan, Asheville, NC, USA
I love to keep around a variety of materials to mix it up and try new things. My old student grade oils are really coming in handy as I am recently trying out some techniques with cold wax and mixed media with acrylics. One issue is the mixed paints which can vary so much from brand to brand. Indigo and Sap Green are examples, and I tested my raw sienna’s from a number of oil brands, and they were so different I could have made a value scale with them! This does not matter when messing around but it is good to be able to notice the difference!
USS Constitution Vs. HMS Guerriere
oil painting by Andy Thomas, USA
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Jack Pepper who wrote, “A good test of transparency is to drag out a gob of paint with a piece of card or a knife. Over a white ground you get an idea of the difference between poor quality and excellent.”
And also Hwang Eng who wrote, “The main enemy of acrylic painting is water. Glazes, particularly, used with too much water and not enough medium will turn chalky after a while and dust off. Note the corners of your older acrylics and see if they are scuffing down to the support.”
Enjoy the past comments below for In praise of inexpensive materials…