Going to a Beginners Art Class? Should you buy cheap or expensive materials?

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My Mother was a keen dress maker.  When she used to come up to visit me in Bristol we always used to have to make a pilgrimage to the John Lewis fabric department for her to stock up and I remember the momentary feeling of dread she used to describe cutting into a piece of fabric for the first time, a piece of fabric that may have cost the equivalent of a couple of hundred pounds in today’s money.  On the one hand you have to cut the material otherwise there will be no dress or coat, but on the other it’s a lot of money to waste if it all goes wrong. 

Many people feel the same way coming to an art class and would rather spend as little money as possible.  When you’re a beginner  you’re not going to want to commit a fortune to buying a lot of expensive artist’s quality watercolours, for example.

I’m not unsympathetic.  When I was a student I can remember buying a small set of gouache in the first year of my art foundation course.  I never used them because I was frightened of using them all up too quickly and having to buy some more.  In my second year I remember being given some pots of Ocaldo poster colour which I seem to remember being reasonably thick, almost like the System 3 or Galleria student quality acrylic that you can buy today.We were encouraged in class  to waterproof it  by adding P.V.A. (The white glue that school children use) and sand for texture.  It was probably the worst paint in the whole world but it was there in such quantities that I felt able to really let go and experiment.  These days I use better quality materials myself but as I provide all the materials for people who come to my beginners art class I still have to be on the lookout for bargains.

Artist’s quality materials can be prohibitively expensive when you’re starting out.  I  remember getting into a discussion in a life drawing class with someone a few years ago concerning watercolour brushes. I hadn’t done much watercolour at the time and didn’t really understand the importance of the different types of brushes and how much water that they carry.  Natural hairs, being hollow, will soak up more fluid than man made ones which is  why brushes made out of squirrel or sable are considered preferable to synthetic alternatives, basically you don’t keep having to dip your brush into your tray of paint. Sable is particularly prized because it keeps a very sharp point.  Now I was trying to struggle on using a small synthetic brush.  The person I was talking too picked up a watercolour brush from the table next to me. “This is what you want”, he said.   I looked at the brush.  It was big, obviously sable or a good quality squirrel  made in the French style and I knew enough to know that it was probably pricey.  “That probably cost a lot didn’t it?” “Oh yeah”, he said “£70-£80”. Now let’s get this straight, noone is going to spend that much money on a brush when they’re learning watercolour for the first time!! There are cheaper brushes made from pony hair that will cost approximately £3. You’ll have a bit of a job keeping a point but if you want to do a reasonably large background wash they’ll do and you won’t need to mortgage one of your children to buy it.  You could then buy a cheap fine brush for fine details.  Alternatively you could just paint smaller watercolours.

It can be equally dispiriting though to see how little people can be prepared to spend on materials.  For example  I brought in some exceedingly cheap watercolours for a project earlier on in the year.  They were just there as a way of providing a background colour on some watercolour paper to experiment with pastels, nothing special and they’d probably fade if you left them up in direct sunlight for a week or two but one or two people’s eyes really lit up when I said that 12 tubes had cost me only£1!  Having said that if you really can’t afford to spend any money cheap watercolours are probably the best option.  The colours in my £1 set of watercolours were agreeably strong and fine for practise purposes but as I’ve already hinted were probably dye based rather than pigment based and so would probably not be light-fast.  You may not think that would be a problem but I’ve seen posters of mine printed on standard (dye-based) ink in not very direct sunlight where after 3-4 months the red has almost faded completely. Always ask yourself, why are they this cheap? 

 Those little sets of tiny tubes of acrylics, watercolours and gouache which you can buy from bargain book stores are probably the worst option.   They may only cost £3.99 or less for twelve tubes but the colours will be chalky and dull and the consistency similar to watery household emulsion paint.  In fact you probably could get better results using house paint.  If nothing else white emulsion is a reasonable substitute for white acrylic and I’ve seen people get some fairly good results with those little sample pots of household paint that you can get from d.i.y.  stores.  It’s important to bear in mind though that emulsion paint is not made to last. Decorators paints are made to last on the basis that (apparently) most people paint their houses on average once every ten years.

In every paint there is a mixture of pigment, vehicle and filler.  The pigment is the colour which can be either cheap or expensive, lightfast or fugitive.  If you buy your paints from a name brand such as Winsor and Newton they will tell you what pigment you are using and it’s lightfastness rating, cheaper brands will not and will have vague descriptions on the tube rather than proper pigment names. (“French Ultramarine” is a proper pigment for example, “Ruby Red” on the other hand doesn’t really mean anything.) Cheaper paints will also have cheaper and/more filler or extender.  Student quality paints from a name brand will be cheap but nice enough to use.  You do really notice the difference when you use very cheap paint, however, such as the afforementioned bargain bookstore paint.

One thing I neglected to mention when talking about the Ocaldo poster colour I used for a while at art college.  One day I took the lid off of a pot of cobalt blue and found the paint surface was covered in mold!  If you mix your paint up with tap water rather than distilled water this can be an occupational hazard and is one of the reason’s why recognised brands of acrylic will contain an anti-fungicide.  This was a long time ago though and I wouldn’t like to say what ocaldo’s poster colour is like now but it’s another example of  things that can go wrong.  Also, beware of P.V.A. It’s a lot of fun but the cheap stuff that’s used for kid’s glue can go brittle with age!

I was having a conversation with Nick  who runs the art shop at Bristol Fine Art on Park Row.  His view is that whereas you do get people coming into the shop who will spend vast amounts of money there are also people who will come in having bought themselves very cheap sets of paint but are very disappointed because they can’t get the same colours mixtures as their class tutor.

If you have to buy materials companies such as Winsor and Newton, Daler Rowney, Liquitex and Golden will provide you with reasonable, student quality materials which will help to get you started but hopefully not cripple you financially at the same time.  Small tubes of Cotman watercolour will set you back slightly under £2 each, which is roughly the same price as a tube of System 3 Acrylic.   If you can stick to the primary colours, white and black in both cases you can keep the cost down to roughly £10.  I know that’s a lot if you don’t have it but it brings it down to a level comparable to what people tend to spend on a night out , a book or a d.v.d.  Chromacryl is not widely available in this country and  I wouldn’t use the cheaper student quality paints if I was going to paint anything to sell but they’re cheaper than System 3 and handle pretty well.  If you get into acrylic you can pretty much paint any thing and hardboard is a good cheap option.  There’s a hardware store close to where I live where you can buy off cuts of wood for  as little 10p!

As I’ve already said I provide the materials for my own classes but if you’re contemplating taking up painting or drawing as a hobby or going to a class where you have to buy your own materials don’t feel that you have to break the bank, but try and spend a reasonable amount of money and you’ll be glad of it.

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