Part 2: Artist’s Paints
In the previous post I discussed ways to save money on drawing materials. In this post I talk about ways to keep down the cost with artist’s paints that I hope others may find helpful.
The price of artist’s paints can be off-putting at times. It is a good idea, where possible, to use paints and materials made by local manufacturers, as these are less expensive than imported products. I find that sticking to a limited palette is also a way to prevent over spending. The main colours which I use no matter what the paint type are Titanium white, Ivory Black, Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Yellow Ochre, Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red Pale, Burnt Umber, Viridian, Cerulean Blue and French Ultramarine. Some brands use different names for these colours.
For work in visual diaries and designing textiles, gouache is a good water-soluble paint because the colour is intense, you can use it on dry paper and create defined images. To save money it is wise to prevent wastage of your gouache paint. I keep my gouache tubes in an old Tupperware container found at an op shop to prevent them from drying out and store this in a cool cupboard. I put out the colours from the tube into the compartments of a round palette kept in a biscuit tin and I use two inexpensive plastic palettes for mixing these paints. One is for warm colours, the other for cool ones.
If you mix a larger amount of a colour do this in a deep plastic palette with a lid or in small paint wells that can be stored in a disposable food container. When finished working cover all the paint holders with cling wrap before putting on the container lids. With traditional gouache (not the acrylic type) if the paint dries out water can be added and the paint is still workable like watercolour pans and can be used again. Taklon (synthetic) watercolour brushes are great for gouache and are less expensive than hair ones. These last for a long time if you gently wash them in a mild soap to stop paint build-up.
For works on canvas the main types of paints are oil and acrylic. Artist quality paints can be very expensive together with the various brushes and equipment. There are also mediums for both oils and acrylics that add to the cost. So the whole process for both oils and acrylics can become complicated and expensive.
I like to use both paint types. In summer the slower drying properties of oil paints make them perfect in a hot climate. While it is wise to limit the use of solvents, you do need some type of paint thinner in the under painting. This requires lots of ventilation and it is easy to open a window and use the exhaust of an air-conditioner when the weather is warm. Oil paints are also easy to take outdoors and this is probably the safest place to use them. In the winter when it is too cold to open windows and use exhaust fans, acrylics are much safer and more pleasant to use than oils, as long as you are not in a very confined space, because all paints give off some type of fumes. The cooler weather means that they do not dry quickly and mediums can slow down the drying process. There is even a rewetting agent (Atelier Unlocking Formula) so after drying you can still rework small areas. It is also possible to use acrylics thinly underneath oil paint to reduce your exposure to solvents.
So how can you save money on these paints whether you use oil, acrylics or both? Firstly, as I said above, buy local products. You will save money and support local manufacturers. A beginner does not need lots of paints and equipment. I began using oil paints at school with only a few tubes of paint, basic brushes and small canvas-covered boards. Don’t be tempted to buy every colour under the sun or lots of brushes at first. You learn more about colour mixing with a restricted palette and it is easy enough to clean a small number of brushes as you go.
With regards to cleaning oil paint from brushes, don’t use a dangerous solvent. I use a cheap oil to clean brushes while I am working then give them a good wash in mild soap and warm water afterwards. But remember you must never mix non-drying oils like safflower or sunflower with oil paint, the latter being made with an expensive drying oil like linseed or walnut. First I clean the brushes with cheap sunflower oil to get rid of the paint, wipe it clean on a rag or paper towel, then I dip the brush in linseed oil and give it a good wipe to remove the sunflower oil. That way my paints are not contaminated with incompatible oil and I don’t waste a lot of expensive linseed oil on cleaning. Have two labeled jars with lids to contain small amounts of your cleaning oils and discard when they become too dirty.
As with most art materials, if you can find good second-hand paints and equipment, all the better. My wooden oil paint case came from a relative with a quantity of useable paint tubes, brushes and a couple of small bottles for a medium and linseed oil. A case makes it easy to transport the paints. You could also use a plastic fishing tackle case. As I use up the paint, I replace the old tubes with a local brand (Art Spectrum) and have slowly added to my brush collection when funds allow and have included some old pliers, which are great for opening stuck tube lids.
With oils you would need thinning and oily mediums, because unless you use a quick, wet in wet painting method, the paint must be built up in layers, progressing from fast drying to slower drying to prevent cracking. To simplify the painting process and reduce solvent use and expense, don’t use lots of mediums. I originally worked with artist’s gum turpentine as a thinner but it is very irritating for the lungs and skin. Odorless mediums and solvents still give me a headache and make me feel dizzy. I prefer a medium with some kind of odor because at least you know by the smell how much exposure you are getting.
An alkyd-based medium contains lower amounts of solvent and odor than turpentine. I use Art Spectrum Liquol. I’m sure that other brands would have something similar. It speeds up the drying of the first layers of paint and can be used for smoothing brushstrokes and glazing. You don’t need to use much and can add a little linseed oil to the final layer of paint instead of liquol. To reduce exposure I put a small amount of liquol in one of the metal containers that you can attach to your palette. I keep the lid on when not mixing it with the paint and if inside, the window is wide open and exhaust fan on. The other container holds refined linseed oil. No mediums are needed for the wet in wet method where you blend the paint quickly, usually in one session. Great for out-door painting and impasto effects.
When using fast drying mediums you will need to clean your palette after you have finished painting for the day or it will become encrusted with difficult to remove paint. To save paint, put any pure, medium-free colours onto an old china plate and cover this with cling wrap ready for to use at your next session. Oil paint stays wet for a while like this. Scrape off the unusable paint from the palette with a palette knife onto a paper towel and wipe it clean with a small quantity of linseed oil. Always wear powder free plastic gloves if you are doing anything messy with any paints and when cleaning your equipment because toxic solvents and heavy metals in paint pigments can be absorbed through the skin.
Acrylics are perfect for large canvases created in the studio. As with oil paint I use a good Australian brand (Atelier) to reduce the cost. Acrylic paint keeps well in pots or tubs, which are more economical than tubes when using large quantities. You can’t use water to thin acrylics as this weakens the paints binding properties and you will need painting mediums that control flow and viscosity. You don’t need lots of different mediums. Just use what suits your style. I work with two mediums, an all-purpose mid-viscosity clear painting medium for slowing down the drying time and blending paint and a low viscosity-liquefying medium for fine detail work (this can be used with airbrushes), but I think I will buy some of that unlocking formula to rewet paint. There are also mediums available for impasto and glazing, as well as drying retarders and varnishes.
It is best to keep acrylic brushes separate from those for oil painting. As with all brushes buy a few at first then add others as required and always wash them regularly. For priming canvases and large brush stroke effects, house-painting brushes are cheaper than artists. When mixing larger quantities of paint use a palette knife to save wear on your brushes.
As with all art materials, a way to save money is to make your paints last for as long as possible. For mixing small amounts of paint needed for a small, quick work, a large palette with tear off sheets is great because acrylic paint can be hard to remove when dry, but for slower works it is better to use a wet palette. These can be made from an old plastic tray, which is lined with several layers of blotting paper or blank newsprint. Wet the paper thoroughly then place a sheet of baking paper cut to fit on top. You can mix your paints on this surface and they will stay wet for a long time, using a fine spray of water to keep them moist. By covering the palette with cling wrap under some kind of lid made from a larger tray, the paint can be kept for several days. I found a plastic seed tray and duck taped a plastic sheet over the bottom holes to seal it. Upside down it fitted over my wet palette. After about a week mold may develop on the damp paper so you know it is time to replace the layers.
When mixing larger quantities of paint do this in disposable food containers with lids so that you have enough for the whole painting and it will not dry out. Any plastic food packaging is useful for mixing acrylics. With containers without lids cover the paint with cling wrap but you would need to use it quickly.
If you chose to work with just one of these paint types you would definitely save more money. I find that oils and acrylics each have their advantages and disadvantages and that is why I like to work with them both. Experiment with a limited number of paints to see what suits you and have fun.
The Painter is a beautiful song by Neil Young. Here is a video with some inspiring artwork.