Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Creativity on a Budget: Doable Tips for Raggedy and Starving Artists

image of colored pencils in a row
photo by Daniel Gilbey from
Artist supplies can be pretty expensive, especially when you consider that most of the supplies are consumable items. I know you drool over the shiny new paint sets and those beautiful wooden boxes filled with rows of pastels and colored pencils. Well, I drool over them. My little magpie eyes love an array, whether it is the bold spectrum of color in a watercolor pan or the elegant gradient of grays in a set of graphite pencils. I'll buy sets when they are cost-effective, but sometimes I cannot justify the cost. Luckily, most of my favorite mediums are available in open stock or very basic "starter" sets.

Maturity has dampened my "oooooh shiny" reaction enough to help keep me in check, but being broke probably has more influence on that part of my personality. In today's post, I will share some tips that I have learned through the years, sometimes the hard way. Maybe it will help you stay under budget next time you browse in your local arts and crafts supplier or, better yet, preclude your need for the trip altogether.

You Cannot Buy Talent or Creativity

Is the previous line a category or a real tip? Nope, but I decided it deserved more than just bold font because it is 100% true.

Some artists can create masterpieces using leftover tea on scrap cardboard. Likewise, you could buy every single color of the finest paint, but it would not make your paintings any better. Most artists will tell you that cheap, low quality supplies hinder an artist's expression and create frustration. I agree with this to a point, but I don't believe in sketching on Arches 300 lb paper or using a $40 watercolor brush to paint color wheels and swatches. People buy "starter homes" for crying out loud, so why lecture and shame the newbs for using student grade supplies? Sometimes you don't need "the best", and most of the time you don't need the whole set of "the best". And then, there are times when the problem isn't really the quality of one's medium so much as his or her inexperience using it. 

Learn About Color Theory, Pigments, and Color Mixing 


You learn color theory in first year art and design courses if you attend a formal art program, but you can also find this information in books and via hundreds of free online resources. For that reason, I am not going to detail basic color theory in this or any other blog post, but I encourage you to look it up if you need to learn it. 

How would this basic information save you money? 

image by Esrasu,
Well, think about the last time you bought a nice red tube of paint, colored pencil, pastel, etc. Did you buy a "regular old red" or did you buy a cadmium red, madder lake, crimson, carmine, Indian or Mars red or any of the dozens of other red hues available? They are not the same shades, and only some of them would fit as a "primary" red shade as we know it. Some are warmer, some cooler, and they will have different results when mixed with other colors. This is true for all of the colors available in pigmented mediums. Sometimes red and blue will not make purple, at least not the one you want or expect. 

If you know your pigments and how they interact with other pigments, then you can mix any color, tint or shade you need from three primary colors along with black and white. You really don't need black either- just mix your three primaries together. If your medium is watercolor, you will not even need the white. If you can mix all of your own colors you can spend your art dollars on better paints rather than larger sets of inferior paints. 

I have found a great color website called "Handprint", which lists most of the known artist's pigments and provides instruction and information related to color mixing. You can use this site to figure out color substitutions and find out if the pigments in your paint are light-fast. I almost ordered a tube of pthalo blue acrylic, but this site informed me that my tube of Windsor blue was the same thing. 

Don't Be Lazy! 

You may already have an excellent grasp of color theory, but how are you at mixing? Are you lazy? I am- I admit it. It is so much easier to buy premixed colors, but that is not budget-friendly. Most artists mix their paints as a rule, but beginners are often in a hurry to get to the "good part", so they buy a bunch of tubes of color and start squeezing out blobs indiscriminately. That is fine for paint by number sets, but once you start blending paint on a blank canvas, you may be in for some trouble.
My point: even if you use only premixed colors, you still have to know about the properties of these colors and how they interact. 

This is not just true for physical mixing. Placing colors side by side and layering pure colors atop one another will change the nature of the hues involved- we call it "optical" blending or mixing, and it is an essential skill for achieving depth and realism. Glazing and other forms of optical blending make it possible to "mix" colors with dry mediums like colored pencil and pastels. It takes a little time and practice to learn how to mix colors and master optical effects, but once you learn this skill, you don't need 50 different premixed paint colors or that entire set of 150 colored pencils.   

Try Mixed Media

No, it doesn't mean giving up your favorite medium, and yes, it can save you money. If you are like me, then you have a stash of various artist supplies, many of which you have forgotten about. Chances are great that you have a substitute somewhere for the medium you think you need and cannot afford. Many of us equate "mixed media" to collage, but the term just refers to artwork accomplished with a combination of different mediums. The mediums do not have to differ greatly, and it does not have to be obvious that you used mixed media in your work.

For example, when my joint pain began to interfere with my colored pencil art, which can require dozens of layers of colored pencil and heavy burnishing, I began to use watercolor paints and water soluble colored pencils for the initial layers. Not only did this save my hands, but it also made my colored pencils last longer. Furthermore, I didn't have to buy new watercolors because I already had them in my stash. I didn't have to buy toned paper because I made my own. The quality of my paint was not that important because no one can see the initial layers. You can apply this concept to any number of mediums.

You can also venture into the world of collage, using bits of unfinished or "failed" artworks to make something new. Don't throw away your less-than-stellar impasto paintings just because you cannot cover them with gesso. My daughter's kindergarten teacher used to say, "If you mess it up, dress it up" to keep her pupils from abandoning their projects. You may be able to achieve with glue and found objects what you could not accomplish with paint alone.

Recycle and Up-cycle 

(If you're a certifiable hoarder, please, PLEASE skip to the "studio hacks" section!) 

Have you ever seen crochet and knit crafts made from old sweaters? Maybe the sweater was out of style or had some defects, but the yarn was an expensive wool in a fantastic color, and it was perfect for another project. Up-cycling is not a new idea, but maybe you didn't think it could apply to your studio habits. Maybe you don't need to throw away everything that's broken or just crappy. Trash is trash, but empty watercolor pans and crayon and pencil remnants have a lot of potential. Just be sensible about what you are keeping. While it is necessary to toss out those dried up tubes of acrylic paint (you cannot reconstitute them), dried tubes of gouache are not always garbage can fodder. You can add water to dried gouache and use it again once you get it out of the tube. 

Homemade powders: Broken charcoal and pastel pencils- the ones that break no matter how you sharpen them- probably have flawed cores, but you can grind up the cores and use the resulting powder. You can also save the powder when you sharpen your charcoal or graphite on sandpaper or with a craft knife. Now you won't need to buy jars of charcoal or graphite powder. You could even make your own pastels or artist crayons if you use a lot of these mediums in your work.

Affiliate Disclaimer: For full transparency, you should know that many of my links in my posts are affiliate links. As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when readers purchase items using my affiliate links. This helps me fund the blog domain costs, and you will not be charged extra if you buy anything using my links. 

Studio Hacks: I really wanted an electric eraser for a while, but that is a frivolous expense for me, so I improvised one by spearing a piece of one of my thicker pen-style erasers on a tiny drill bit that attaches to my rotary tool. It works because my rotary tool is not overly powerful, so you have to be careful if you have one of the really nice Dremels. You also need to use a cylindrical shaped eraser, not a square one. Trust me, it won't work with a square eraser.  

I have been coveting the Nitram charcoal products lately as well, and this is a pricey brand compared to General's. Nitram has this lovely sanding paddle for sharpening charcoal sticks to a fine point, but it costs around $14, and the refill pads are at least $10 for a pack of five. This is basically a ping-pong paddle with a sandpaper "sticky note" attached to it, but it is much bigger and nicer than those tiny cheap sanding blocks that come with many drawing sets. I couldn't pay $14 for the Nitram sanding block, so I made my own.  I folded a piece of the fine grade sandpaper in half, stapled two of the sides closed, then slipped the sandpaper pocket over a three-inch foam paint brush I had in my stash. There- you have a handle and a flat, even sanding surface. While not as snazzy as the real product, my improvised tool does the same job.

**BTW- I will be able to try some Nitram charcoal soon, so I will tell you if I think it is really worth the extra dollars-maybe in my next post!**

There is a YouTube Video for Everything

I admit, my "hacks" are rather lame, but you can save a lot of money by using your creative instincts to work with the stuff you already own. No luck figuring out your own solution to your problem? Well, I bet someone somewhere has, and that person has made a video about it. You have the Google power- just type the term "DIY" before or the word "substitute" after the name of whatever item you think you need in that search bx. For example: "DIY studio easel" or "gesso alternative". You will find scores of tutorial videos and step-by-step instructions. Seriously, I believe that one could learn how to do whatever rocket scientists do via YouTube. In fact, twenty seconds ago, I learned that the proper term is "aerospace engineer". I didn't even need to leave the search result page.

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