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Do You Need the Best Stuff?

March 16, 2018

Brandon Long
Creative Director

Sometimes I’ll have people that want to start trying their hand at art ask me, “What does it take to get started?”  What materials should they invest in to get off to a good start?  A lot of that may depend on who you ask – their budget, their level of prestige, and their commitment to craftsmanship. 

I’ve been to classes- both in realms of academia and community-level workshops that have art supply lists that would make Rembrandt blush.  Some instructors require certain pencils, charcoals, specific brands and weights of paper, fine erasers, and so on. Quite often, the price of the supply list will rival the actual cost of the course.  I can certainly understand, from an instructor’s perspective, the benefit of having everyone on the same page (pun intended) as far as the students’ materials go, but I find that this approach can be somewhat excessive and intimidating – especially to newcomers who might not have decided whether art is something that they want to pursue in the long term. 

Here’s the part that might get me burned for heresy.  For many of the classes that I teach, I usually have the students use basic drawing pencils, white erasers, and we draw on printer paper.  PRINTER PAPER?!?  Sure we’ve got all kinds of pencils in the grab box – plain old no. 2 school pencils (still a favorite of mine), 2B, 4B, 6B, and a whole bunch of H’s and HB’s. Some artists (maybe even you) appreciate all of the delicate nuances of the different lead types, but most of my beginners (and me too) can’t really tell much of a difference between a 2B and a 6B.  

We’ve tried them side by side and the difference is, in my opinion, negligible.  All the students know is that H pencils make skinny, sketchy lines and B pencils make bold, black lines.  And you know what?  That’s good enough for them.  Why?  Because we are too busy spending time learning how to see and how to interpret the fully 3D world around us onto flat pieces of paper to notice that one pencil might be slightly darker than the others.  We are too busy trying and failing again and again on so many multiple sheets of cheap printer paper, that to draw on expensive paper might be an even bigger hindrance and mental block to the beginner student.  

Many beginners are so afraid of making mistakes, that I often catch them erasing more than drawing in the first class.  I am quick to let them know that we will make a LOT of mistakes in our art, and that learning to be bold enough to make courageous lines far outweighs the ability to make perfect, exactly-right-the-first-time lines.

Quite often beginners will invest in very high-grade materials from the get-go for the wrong reasons.  Not because they think that the early investment in high quality materials will yield better results in the long term, but because they think every painting they make (especially their first one) will be a hang-it-in-the-Metropolitan masterpiece.  I can’t remember who said it, but I once heard a famous poet on NPR say that “your first 200 poems are the worst, so it’s best to get those out of the way as soon as possible.”  The same is definitely true of any art form.

Beginners often mistake the process of learning to create for the products of their creation.  Artists don’t learn how to paint in order to own really cool paintings, they paint because it’s a self-investment and it’s something they feel driven to do.  Rather than saying, “Wow, I painted THAT!,” artists are more likely to say, “Wow, I (emphasis on I) painted that.”  Rather than focusing on the materials and the products of creation, artists are more likely to focus on the journey that got them there. 

Is there a point at which an artist does need to invest in the best supplies?  Of course.  I like to think of it in terms of mountain climbing.  It all comes down to what’s at stake.  If you are just taking a hike in the woods in your neighborhood, you are more than prepared if you just have a pair of sneakers and street clothes.  If you are going to try to climb Devils Tower in Wyoming, you’d better be prepared for a life-and-death situation and have the experience necessary to know how to use the equipment.  The same applies to art supplies.  If you are just starting out, you don’t necessarily need the same kind of supplies as a top-tier internationally known artist whose work will be in museums for the next few hundred years. 

But what supplies do you need?  I suppose it all comes down to what your medium is and what you are trying to do with it.  You have to adapt your materials to your needs.  If you are painting 8ft by 8ft abstract expressionist works, you probably don’t need small sable watercolor brushes.  You might even find yourself using house paint – like Robert Rauschenberg. Jackson Pollock got a bit creative and started using automotive paint.  I will caution you that some works by Pollock are starting to have some “archival issues” in that the paint is starting to crackle and disintegrate. 

One of the things you have to consider when thinking about your materials the level you are at in your career.  Of course, every artist thinks they are just one discovery away from being in the Whitney Biennial, but you seriously have to ask where you are in your career.  What do your clients or audiences expect from you?  One of the things that I think every artist owes their clients is durability.  While not every piece has to be made to last thousands of years, you do need to consider whether your materials will endure the amount of time that the piece needs to last.  Sometimes, both the artist and client know that a piece won’t last forever.  

For example, I create assemblages from old rusted roofing tin and reclaimed metal.  Some of my clients decide to display my work outdoors.  Being made out of materials that are already in a state of decay, we (the client and I) know that the materials will likely to continue to age, but that they should last many more years in the elements.

As far as pigments and inks go, you need to be sure that your materials will be lightfast and not prone to fading, especially if you are mixing media.   I know that some inks and even permanent markers will fade over time if exposed to sunlight.  I’ve seen some felt-tipped signatures on paper fade to purple, then orange, and disappear completely over the years.  Just because something is labeled “permanent” doesn’t always mean that it will last forever.  

If you want to find out which inks and markers are the best and most stable, look no further than memorabilia collectors.  These superfans collect autographed baseballs, comics, posters, action figures – you name it.  The pros definitely know which ones to stick with.  I did a little googling myself and found that you want to look for pens/markers that are labeled as “archival” and “pigmented,” if you want those crisp lines to last.

Paper is another material in which the archival nature must be considered – If you want it to last.  If you’re just doodling to capture ideas or practicing, you might not care if your drawings yellow and fade, but if works on paper is preferred media, you definitely want to have your work last.  Again, look for the words “acid-free” and archival.  I’m looking at some old sketches near my desk now, and I swear they used to be on white paper, but now it looks a bit beige compared to the rest of the paper nearby.

 So, do you need the BEST materials?  That’s up to you and what you expect to get from your work.  There are some artists whose work ultimately depends on the lasting quality of the medium – portrait artists immediately spring to mind.  There are other artists for whom the creative side of the journey is more important that might experiment with all sorts of different materials – some of which will last and some that might not (maybe even on the same piece).  It is my opinion that artists need to use materials that are “good enough” for their work.  

For me, I find cheap materials liberating in that if I make a mistake or take a bad direction, there is little expense on my end.  Some artists may get more confidence from using better materials, and the price at which those materials come, also ensures that they strive to do their best on each piece.

I’d love to hear from you – whether you prefer materials that are “cheap and cheerful” or do you prefer the “best and brightest?”  Whichever you prefer, keep making that great stuff!