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The importance of choosing quality art materials

Marion Boddy Evans, artist and writer outlines the importance of choosing quality art materials:  

When it comes to buying art supplies, we’re luckier than the Old Masters because we can buy everything ready-made, ready to use and we have far more choice. What hasn’t changed is the importance of being particular about the art materials you use, opting for quality rather than quantity. Tubes of paint you know are full of pigment, not just a little stretched with filler. Paper that doesn’t yellow or have spotty sizing. A brush whose hairs stay firmly in place and shape. By using top-quality art materials, you make the most of your artistic skill and creativity.

Even if you are already using top-notch materials, it’s worth periodically checking to see what’s new. It's not every day that you will discover a product such as Winsor & Newton’s Artists' Acrylic which introduced a totally reformulated acrylic, but innovations and improvements happen all the time.  For instance, Winsor & Newton now has three versions of traditional lead-based white for oil painters.

The right brush for the painting

Artists' Water Colour BrushHog-hair, sable-hair, squirrel-hair, synthetic fibres, mixed fibres... filbert, flat, round, mop, fan, rigger... long handle or short. There are so many variations to something as fundamental to painting as a brush. Everyone has their favourite, the one that’s just right for your painting style. But familiarity puts you into a comfort zone; you know what you can do with the brush and if you’re not careful, the brush dictates how you’re painting.
Try a different shape of brush and see what it does to your mark-making in the paint.

Try a different type of hair and see how it works with the paint. A rigger brush for delicate lines longer than you’d think possible, or a mop for wonderfully watery washes. And if your memories of synthetic-hair brushes date from when they first came onto the market, give them another go as you’re in for a pleasant surprise.

If you look after a top-quality brush well, it may even outlast you, whereas a poorly made brush will frustrate you by leaving hairs in the paint and soon end up unused in a jar on the shelf. What you’re after is a brush that will hold the paint within the hairs and let the paper gently pull it from the brush rather than it all slide off the instant you touch the surface. As well as a brush that is balanced in your hand, not top- or bottom-heavy. The ferrule won’t rust or loosen. The varnish doesn’t flake off the handle. Hairs don’t fall out or instantly splay in all directions.  

When you look at the Rolls Royce of sable brushes, such as a Winsor & Newton Series 7 brush, you’ll notice it has an exceptionally fine point. That’s because it’s made from different length hairs, carefully arranged to have longer ones around the fatter belly of the brush and tapering to a point. Put a little pressure on the brush to paint a thicker line, lift up and the hairs spring back to the point, enabling you to paint fine detail without swapping to another brush.

If you do have to replace a quality brush, the new one will respond like the old. With poorly made brushes that wear out rapidly, you have to keep buying a new one and learn its idosyncracies all over again. You’re spending time mastering a tool – again – rather than developing a painting.
Next time you looking at brushes, don’t think of it as simply “this brush costs X and that one Y” but analyze what you’re getting for the price. The quality and selection of the hairs, the construction, how many miles you’re going to get out of it, what it might add to your painting technique and style.

Read more about this in our Article: What makes a quality artists’ brush?

Artists' AcrylicStudent paints and artist’s quality paints

There are many different types of oil paint and at the bottom end of the market, those of a poorer quality have so little pigment that they can be difficult to paint with. Above this you get cheap student paint, and above this you get the student or hobbyist lines produced by the reputable brands. These student paints can even be better than what some manufacturer’s sell as affordable artist’s quality.

Buying a reputable brand means you can know the colours aren’t going to fade or produce peculiar colour mixes, that there’s a decent amount of pigment in the tube and it’s been properly formulated. 

Winsor & Newton’s affordable brands -- Galeria (acrylics), Cotman (water colours), and Winton (oils) -- all offer an array of colours that will have anyone painting contently. But WINSOR & NEWTON’s artist’s ranges give access to far more, to the full range of pigments, traditional and modern, the full extent of the strength and subtlety of colour available to artists today. Learn with student paints, then step it up a notch and move up to artist’s quality paint.  

For an in-depth look at how to judge what you’re getting in a tube of paint, read The quality of your oil colour by Emma Pearce, former technical expert for Winsor & Newton. It’s about oil paints, but the key information applies across all mediums.


Artists' CanvasQuality in the foundation

The best paints in the world aren’t any good if what you apply it to isn’t going to last or yellows. With canvas, some of the problems encountered are easy to spot. Stretchers that aren’t put together square or so thin they’ve warped. Canvas not stretched tightly enough or pulled skew so the grain is distorted. Canvas with a coarse weave that will overwhelm fine detail. Unsightly folds at corners.

Other issues are less easy to spot, such as uneven priming. I’ve even encountered a canvas where acrylic paint simply wouldn’t stick in one spot. I had to sand it down and prime it again.

If you’re using oil paint, look for canvas that is double or triple primed or buy unprimed canvas and apply several layers of gesso yourself. Several layers of gesso helps stiffen the fibres in a canvas, reducing movement and flexibility, thus protecting the paint. Gesso also protects the canvas from the oil in the paint. Acrylics are more flexible, so it’s less of a concern unless you’re using thick layers of paint or texture paste.

Paper needs to be acid free or it will deteriorate and yellow over time. Few of us are going to check a paper declaring itself to be acid free is indeed so, relying on the integrity of the manufacturer. Similarly, you can't see the sizing in a paper, but once you put brush to paper you experience it. A quality paper will have the same level of internal and surface sizing, so you can rely on it responding consistently. Poorly sized paper can lead to paint spreading unexpectedly. One small spot on a sheet of paper is all it takes to ruin a watercolour painting.

Once you've found a paper you enjoy using, why might you change it? There's the new-on-the-market aspect, the greener-credentials papers, and the stuck-in-a-rut factor. If you only ever use what you know, what might you be missing out on, what paintings might you not create by changing the materials you’re using?

A heavier weight paper isn’t simply a thicker version of a thinner one with the sole benefit that you don't have to stretch it before painting on it. Try it and you'll feel it responds differently, it’s more resilient. With graphite, for instance, a thicker paper will more readily take additional layers. You can leave the paper for a bit to 'relax', then apply more on top. If you’re lifting colour off to fix a mistake in a watercolour, there’s less risk of disturbing the surface of the paper. 

Artists' Acrylic Mediums and ColourDon’t forget mediums

If you’ve never used anything but oil and turps for oil paints or water for acrylics and watercolours, then you’ve been missing out. How about adding a bit of texture medium to watercolour? Or a sparkle to colours with iridescent medium? Deliberately making the pigment dry uneven with granulation medium? Slow the drying time?

With oil paint, there are mediums for speeding up the drying time, for making it easier to blend without brushmarks, for adding body (impasto). With acrylic paint the range is even larger, including mediums to facilitate glazing, make the paint more matt or gloss, or slow the drying time, as well as all sorts of texture mediums for extra body and surface textures such as glass beads.

Getting an easel

Few things feel more like a commitment to creating art in the long term than getting an easel. If you’ve been in an art class with battered tripod easels that wobble however you stand them, struggled to adjust wingnuts or tighten them so your painting doesn’t slide down as you’re working, then you probably won’t need persuading to buy a sturdy, h-frame one with a ratchet so it’s easy to adjust. If it seems an expense you can’t really justify, divide the cost over the years you’ll use it, probably the rest of your life...

Check the largest size canvas it’ll take and whether your ceiling is high enough for the easel at it’s maximum extension if you like painting standing up. Check the mechanism for adjusting is easy to use and, if it’s on castors, that these are easy to lock. If an easel wobbles or is a pain to adjust, you won’t use it and may as well chop it up for firewood. If an easel is sturdy enough to withstand vigorous brushwork and simple to adjust, the joy of using it will be reflected in your art. Once you get over the horror the first time you get paint on your lovely new easel, that is.

I recommend taking a look at Winsor & Newton’s Shannon and Welland studio easels.

Don’t get stuck in an artistic rut

It’s easy to find excuses for sticking with what you know, for not trying art materials other than what you’re now using or using better quality paint. Take the initiative and discover for yourself how much more you can achieve with top-of-the-range art materials and experiment with new products. You won’t be the first to discover that it is true you can use less good quality paint to achieve more than you can with loads of inferior paint.

Marion Boddy-Evans is an artist and writer who now lives on the Isle of Skye. She paints mostly with acrylics, but regularly gives herself a creative boost by using other mediums too. Marion also writes About.com:Painting.