Choosing Art Supplies: Need v. Want

Of course you know you don’t need a lot of equipment to be creative. Paper and pencil is fine. Paints and brushes. Scissors and glue if you work multi-media. But in our consumer society, we are pushed to be “creative” by buying equipment, products, “stuff” that will make us better artists. “If I buy this left-handed brush made with the eyelashes of a thousand virgins surely I will be able to paint perfectly.” I’ve been there.

There is a fine line between “need” and “want,” and even if the line is clear, it

This brush does a lot in one stroke. From

doesn’t mean we don’t want. There is also that slight frisson of fear that if we buy one more thing, the producers of  Hoarders will come to our door while we shriek, “I’m an artist, those are my tools!”

If you have limited space (who has huge studios with endless storage like those featured in those yummy studio  magazines?) you need to make careful choices of what you need and how you will store it. It doesn’t make sense to have the perfect piece of equipment if it takes you an hour to find it. So how do you make that choice?

I asked my spouse, who is a chef. Yes, he has a ton of equipment, too, but here are some great kitchen rules that work in the studio:

1. Choose equipment that does more than one thing. For example, toasters ovens can cook without heating up the whole kitchen, broil, and make toast, but a specialized bagel toaster can just toast bagels. Does anyone need a banana hook? Look for equipment that can do more than one thing. A paper cutter for example, can trim straight edges, cut papers in half or other fractions, make triangles, squares, and other straight-edge geometrics. A paper cutter can also cut heavier papers for covers, pockets, and cards.

2. Avoid equipment that requires you to buy more than one to achieve the same idea. Years ago, we used a square cake pan and a round cake pan to make amazing cake shapes. Now you can buy cake pans in the shape of brains, vampires and SpongeBob SquarePants. How often will you use each one of these? The same thing works for shaped hole punches that you can buy in eight sizes. Will you really use all eight sizes of butterflies? Nope. But when you are standing in the store, you aren’t sure what size you will need the most, so you buy them all. Marketing loves your indecision; they are counting on it.

3. Buy the best of what you use the most. For a chef: knives and pots. (Notice these are all multi-use tools.) You need good ones and several because you are not going to take time to plan your meal so you can keep washing one pot and reusing it. The same is true for paint, brushes, paper, and whatever you use in your specialized kind of art.

What purchase do you regret? What was a great discovery? Let me know in the comments.

-Quinn McDonald is an author and creativity coach who works with creative people who are stuck.

18 thoughts on “Choosing Art Supplies: Need v. Want

  1. I’m so glad I’ve cleaned out my whole studio – paper, pens, inks, paints, even books on all the art and craft subjects in the world. My world is so much cleaner and easier… I have become a digital painter… only a computer and a few programs. Very tidy arrangement!

  2. Definitely good “rules of thumb” for thinking about future purchases. I am trying to get better pens for myself; turns out “Sharpie” just doesn’t answer all of my needs! I am eyeing the Derwent Inktense colored pencils, and trying to decide if they could really be worth $50, instead of the $9 box of colored pencils I already have. Sometimes it’s hard to judge what will be worth the splurge.

  3. best buy was a Sigma uniball impact 207. I live in fear it will run out and I will not find any. In fact, running out of my favorite stuff is a major fear as they seem to discontinue after i discover the perfect whatever. Many of us could benefit from copying the habits of chefs, they always clean up at the end of their project.

    • See, that’s why I buy multiples of everything. That’s not the solution either, because pens dry up at the same time. They check in with each other, have a countdown and. . . quit. Hate to break the bad news, but the dishwasher or busboy cleans up after the chef. I know whereof I speak.

  4. Oh, Quinn!
    “the producers of Hoarders will come to our door” — this had me shrieking with laughter! *although, it HAS been a real fear for me, of late!* It IS hard not to want all the ‘latest and greatest’ goodies, as they seem to come more and more quickly, these days! My favorites are still the basics: good papers, good paints, and my trusty notebook of all the ideas I don’t want to get away from me. There is a delicious pleasure in ‘making do’ with what I have on hand to accomplish a result promised by the ‘latest, great thing.’

    p.s. — the best thing about hanging bananas is that I remember to eat them, before they advance to the stage that renders them useful only for baking :-\ …but, I do so from a curlicue on the shelf that houses my cookbooks (not from a packaged utensil sold as a “banana hook”)


    • Those latest and wonderful goodies always come with the hidden promise that we will be better artists. That’s what makes them dangerous. Seriously, I am de-stashing, because my small studio is starting to look like something the producer of Hoarders will be interested in. Thank you for not having a banana hanger. Seriously.

  5. Best purchase I’ve made recently is Sennelier Oil Pastels. The quality of these more than makes up for the price. OMG . And I wanted to buy one of each but the math made my heart stop so I just went for colors I use the most. Very happy camper.

    On the other hand, my friend accuses me of saving string. She’s right but I won’t admit that!!!! (oops, guess i just did)

    I used to share my studio space with my husband but alas, he’s been squeezed out. I do need to eliminate something but have no idea what it would be.

    • Sennelier makes the best Oil Pastels. I want them just to look at. I save bubble wrap to re-use, but it’s taken over a lot of space. I’ll have to start sending people stuff. Maybe that’s a way to clean out the studio!

  6. Quinn,
    The other day my 6 year old granddaughter came to me and asked if I would help her “do a craft.” My thought was to create a couple of Thanksgiving turkeys using pinecones as the body. I told her to go into the yard and bring in 2 big pinecones. She and I dug in a few of the craft drawers and found some wooden push on clothes pens, a wooden roof shingle, some google eyes, some craft paper and a bit of glue.

    As I began showing her how to use the clothes pens as tail feathers and her Papa used the roof shingle to cut out heads for the turkeys she began to complain that the process was taking too long. She insisted that I wasn’t letting her do what she wanted to do.

    I asked what she wanted to do and she said, “Draw a chicken.” I told her to draw the chicken as I went on forming a tiny gobbler. Moments later, I was amazed when she picked up the paper on which she had used crayons to draw a wonderful cartoon-like rendition of a chicken. Something well above my skill level.

    All of my saved up art and craft supplies were nothing to a little artist who needed only a yellow sheet of craft paper and three crayons to complete the art she wanted to create.

    Crayons are an art supply we find most useful around here. 🙂

    • Isn’t it great when the creative urge requires so little? I love the story–all your granddaughter wanted to do was draw a chicken. I’m glad you let her do what she wanted. It’s the best way to encourage art making.

  7. Hi Quinn,
    I must say that I get great fun out of buying things as cheaply as possible. So for instance decorating paint brushes from IKEA at €4.99 a pack of 5 go a long way. Also, discount stores often have fantastic materials at a song. I recently bought 3 big bottles of glitter paint for £1 each in red, blue and green at the Poundstore in Strabane and have had some really interesting results (take a look at my post today at I always have my eyes open for cheap things to experiment with.

    • You sure made the most of those colors, Krystyna. Can you tell us how you did this painting? It’s got such great power and vivid color–and I love the lines you pulled into the paint. I had to smile when you said “Poundstore.” Here they are called Dollar Stores.

      • Happy to tell you how this painting evolved. First I did a backwash of watery blue mixed with gold paint (acrylic) on acrylic paper. Then, while it was still wet, I used black, burnt umber and burnt sienna acrylics plus a bit of green for the corner bits, using the same brush and just experimenting with texture.. I had a bit of red already squeezed, so did the big red curve across the middle with a brush. I then played with the curve with the glitter paints, emphasising the edge of the curve by squeezing the glitter paint on. The glitter paint is quite blobby. I painted the little white girl, who seemed to be lost in all this activity, and then started to play with the blobby paint using the end of the paintbrush to pull the paint out from the curve. I used a tiny bit of white left on the brush to pull through the red under the girl. It was all great fun!

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