For new artists, buying art supplies, especially paint, can be overwhelming. With hundreds of brands, sizes and qualities to choose from, many wonder where to begin. Follow the tips in this article to jump-start an art education.
To begin, paint is either:
- Heavy-body (thick consistency) or Liquid (thin consistency)
- Artist Quality (high concentrations of pigment) or Student Quality (low concentrations of pigment)
Tempera Art Supplies
Originally used in Renaissance-era fresco painting, tempera remains very popular in elementary schools because, unlike watercolors, acrylics and oils, tempera is non-toxic. Though everyone is familiar with the student-quality versions, opaque egg tempera is available for artist-quality use.
Great care should be exercised when using liquid tempera, as the paint dries very quickly once exposed to air. Tempera paints are available in liquid, cake and economical powder form.
Watercolor Art Supplies
Available in three forms:
- Pan watercolors, which come in trays of dry to semi-dry pigment cakes, are easily transported and best suited for outdoor use.
- Tube watercolors are typically heavy-bodied, good for opaque applications and should be diluted with water before use to avoid cracking.
- Liquid watercolors, which come in bottles or small jars, are best used for transparent coverage.
Watercolors dry quickly and clean easily with soap and water.
Acrylic Art Supplies
Very popular with new artists for their ease of use, acrylics are available in tubes or bulk jars. Like watercolors, they dry quickly and clean with soap and water. Acrylic paints come in three forms:
- Heavy-bodied acrylics are typically higher quality and the most versatile, able to be thinned with water or applied thickly without cracking.
- Liquid acrylics are thinner than heavy bodied acrylics and are better suited for watercolor-like applications.
- Acrylic gouache (say ‘gwash’) can be applied to a variety of surfaces and so is typically used in craft projects.
Also in the acrylic family is the canvas primer, gesso (say ‘jess-o’). Originally made with animal glue, modern gesso uses acrylic binders, which create a flexible painting surface for both acrylic and oil paints. (Without gesso, paint would soak through canvas.)
Because white gesso is made with acrylic binders and a titanium dioxide pigment, there is little difference between it and unnecessarily expensive white acrylic tube paints.
Oil Paint Supplies
The traditional choice of fine art painters, oil paint is available in tubes or bulk cans. Though complex in composition, oil paints still essentially have two parts: a pigment and a binder made from a drying oil like linseed or walnut.
Since drying time can vary with color and application density, oils can take anywhere from six months to one year to fully dry. However, drying mediums can be added to quicken the process.
Most oil paints are heavy bodied and require a thinning agent, such as additional linseed or walnut oil or artist-quality turpentine, for most applications. Oil paints must be cleaned with turpentine or mineral spirits.
Best New Artist Starter Colors (Affordable Equivalents)
- Cadmium Yellow Medium Hue (Azo Yellow Medium)
- Cadmium Red Medium Hue (Naphthol Red Medium)
- Cobalt Deep Blue (Ultramarine Blue)
- Titanium White – oils only (substitute white gesso for acrylics)
- Burnt Sienna
Buy Primary Colors
From the brightest and most brilliant colors (hues), all others are possible. Granted, it’s easier to buy a beginner’s set of paint, flushed with varying tints and shades, but new artists should take the time to experiment from scratch.
Understanding how colors interact is an essential part of becoming an artist. That said, for large-scale paintings that will take days or even weeks to complete, it is worthwhile to buy specific tints and shades of color. Without precise measurements, replicating exact colors is at best difficult.
Buy Medium or Deep Hue Colors
It’s a common misconception that it’s easier to darken a color than lighten it. For example, to turn ultramarine blue into a turquoise, just add white (called tinting). The blue is still blue, only lighter. However, it is much more difficult to turn a turquoise into a deep-hued blue. Simply adding black (called shading) dulls the color, turning it from blue to gray. Deep-hue colors offer the best flexibility for color mixing.
More on the color black: For most painters, black is rarely needed. A blue or purple mixed with a brown is a great substitute for, and will often look better than, a straight black.
Carefully Shop for Artist Paint
Typically, primary colors with the deepest hues are the most expensive. Side by side, two colors of tube paint could look nearly identical, but carry significant price differences.
Avoid Discount-Marketed Artist Paint
Cheap acrylics and oils have a higher binder to pigment ratio than professional-quality paints. Paints with less pigment typically don’t cover well, often requiring many coats to achieve a brilliant hue. While this may not be as important with transparent watercolors, it is an issue with opaque applications involving acrylics and oils.
Though it’s best for beginning artists to buy affordable paints, the cheapest are simply not worth it.