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Learning To Paint – On A Budget

Student at a table painting a mandarin

Are you a painting student on a budget? Like most artists (except perhaps for Jim Carrey and George Bush) I am frugal with art supplies. Not only do their prices climb up every year, there’s no need to waste what I already have. Some students have asked me to describe my favorite tricks for saving money on supplies, and so I have decided to write about it in a tongue-in-cheek way.

Photo of the front of a box of Russian gouache.

I cannot read cyrillic, therefore cannot tell which brand.

Where should we aim to cut costs? Ok. Let’s think of two kinds of learners. There is the student who is deciding whether painting is something they will like, and there is the student who already does a fair amount of painting during vacations, classes and workshops.

If you are figuring out if painting is for you, keep it a secret. Don’t let your relatives or close friends pick out your gear or supplies. There are many many choices, and you might end up with stuff you can´t use that you will not be able to exchange. If you already “spilled the beans,” tell them to give you gift certificates. Start perusing Craigslist and Nextdoor, noticing the art supplies people are selling or giving away, and don’t buy anything yet. There is a reason everybody is selling french easels, for example. They are sooo heavy! Next, get on Google and type “acrylic or oil painting supply list” and read what art teachers are asking people to buy. This will give you an idea of what is normal to use in a painting class with that media. Then wait to the twice a year art store sales at the beginning of each semester. A good store with lots of different brands and low prices is Jerry’s Artarama. But if you have more time, follow the tips below.

Photo of a box with paint tubes.

Brand-new gouache courtesy of a neighbor.

If you have been painting for a while, read on. Just keep in mind that I want you to save money with the intention of spending it on quality paint. This is the one area where you should “bite the bullet.” For everything else, here’s my list:

  1. Easels.Craigslist, garage sales in affluent neighborhoods, or Nextdoor are the best sources for both field and studio easels. Avoid vintage easels unless they have never been used because their hardware might not work. Test for actual wood and quality hardware. Assemble the easel in front of the seller to make sure all the parts are there. Offer to pay 30-50% of the original price. Your local art center probably gets field easel donations that they cannot use. Leave your name and phone number with them. Expect to pay something for it.
  2. Painting grounds. Canvas, masonite and paper have all skyrocketed in price, but if you don’t plan to sell your work or show it in a gallery, there is no reason to practice on expensive surfaces. Prime some cardboard or matting board with acrylic gesso. The day after Christmas usually finds me hard at work in my studio cutting cardboard into pieces I can paint on. Fun! You can also stretch and prime your own canvas if your hands are strong, but you might end up spending more time on this than on painting.
  3. Brushes. Never buy them at an actual brick-and-mortar store. Go to the store to check out brands and sizes, then order them online. If you work with larger brushes, it’s ok to get those cheaper brushes made in China.
    Photo of two acrylic brushes.

    These come in a package of ten sizes, and you can purchase them in round, flat, nylon or bristle.

    Their bristle is usually ok, but the ferrules fall off. No problem! Twist the ferrule off, score the wood tip with an x-acto knife, and re-attach it to the ferrule with wood glue. Let it dry for 30 hrs. If you do end up purchasing a high-quality brush for details or sharp lines, do not use it for anything but its intended purpose. Wash it well after every use with gentle soap, blot it dry and store it in a case.
  4. Paper. Recycling centers, estate and garage sales, dumpsters and printers all have something in common:  paper they must get rid of or recycle. Craigslist and Nextdoor are always great for this, if you can quickly pick up what your neighbors are discarding. Often you must compete with public school teachers, so don’t wait. Recycling centers that sell extra supplies are also coo,l but my experience is that I can never arrive early enough to take advantage of the spoils. Send an email to your freinds asking them to keep an eye out for you. This is how I used to obtain paper when I was teaching high school art.
  5. Paint Are old paints of good quality worth it? Yes, when the tubes are not hard. If the paint is good but tubes are damaged or fragile, art stores sell empty tubes you can fill with paint squeezed out of old tubes. This works great when the cap is stuck, or when the tube has a perforation and paint is oozing out of it. E-Bay sells paint tubes in lots, but unless the vendor can assure you the paint is still viable, I would not buy them. I would instead use E-Bay to try out new paints of brands not regularly sold in the US. There are many Russian and English paint brands that are perfectly good and sold at decent prices. Look the brand up on Google to see what people are saying.
  6. Pricey Accessories. Paint knives, viewfinders, table easels etc. Don’t buy these at Michaels or JoAnn because the Chinese goods sold there will fall apart after a couple of uses. If you are checking E-Bay, set the filter to “nearest” to avoid Chinese manufacturing. Look for vintage quality brands such as Loew-Cornell, Grumbacher, and Windsor & Newton. Make an announcement on social media, but provide pictures to help people figure out what you need.

I hope this has helped. Now you are ready to go on an exciting search!

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Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez avatar
Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez is the author of these posts and the instructor at Rebeca's Art Classes. She completed her BFA at the University of Puerto Rico and moved to SF seeking to complete an MFA. She did her graduate studies in education instead but continued painting. Later she served as program administrator in a couple of non-profits, After a position as Deputy Director of the Richmond Art Center, she is now painting and teaching full-time and loving it!

2 Comments

  1. Pechman avatar

    Rebecca – this is an AMAZING post! SOOO useful. As a late starter artist, I have long-learned frugal ways and have been truly annoyed at the ways in which we are all so quickly trapped into the illusion that we “need” all these pricy items. Your suggestions are practical and time tested – at least by me, and you’ve added a few that I hadn’t yet thought of. Here’s an example about how you idea above about scavenging can be applied. I haunt the neighborhood recycle centers for copies of ancient books, made with beautiful paper, and plenty of writing on them — especially in a foreign language. These become my rough sketch pads, which I carry with me everywhere, and I use to do urban sketching or warm-up sketching in class. I’ve often used small Asian books bc I can’t read what the text says and it doesn’t distract me, but it inspires creativity and adventure – at absolutely no cost! Bc so many of these old books were made with high-quality paper, they absorb and hold ink, charcoal, and often color. So satisfying to watch my adventure sketches fill my little books and serve as an ideal record of my own development as an emerging artist! THANKS for all these great ideas!

    Reply
  2.  avatar

    I agree that buying painting supplies online is a good way to go on a budget. I saved almost $100 last time I got supplies online versus going to the store for them. Now I am ready to go take a painting class!

    Reply

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