22 Artists on the Materials That Inspire and Drive Their Work
Think, for a second, if you could name one essential product or tool that you could not do your job without.
It’s a tough question, but it’s particularly difficult to answer if your work relies on your creativity and artistic skill. Have you ever thought about what type of oils a famous painter favors, or what kind of plaster works best? Or, perhaps, if sinking money into expensive brushes or paper is even worth it?
Given that prominent artists today are celebrated for their ideas and execution, we’re more likely to pick their brains for their motives and meaning behind their work, rather than their preferred brand of oil pastel, or which household item is integral to their practice. We savor the details of artists’ inspirations and processes, but we rarely know about the traditional art materials and offbeat objects that they love the most. So, we decided to find out.
We asked a smattering of artists—from deft painters and sculptors to new media innovators and conceptual masters—to tell us about their favorite art materials, and how they’ve propelled (and in some cases, even inspired) their practices. While many have clear preferences, others asserted that their work does not rely on a single item, or mentioned objects that you’d never find in a art supply store. Below, we share their responses, ranging from beloved paint tubes to a homemade concoction inspired by the chemical makeup of the human body.
Claudia Comte’s fascination with wood—“in all its manifestations and forms,” she explained—has fueled her smooth organic sculptures, which take shapes like plump doughnuts, curvy cacti, and anthropomorphic objects. To make these works, she sources large trunks of non-endangered trees and carves away at them with a chainsaw. Though her work extends to marble, bronze, and digital animations, wood is always the genesis, Comte asserted. And while she’s created sleek, enticing forms from a vast range of tree species—walnut, mahogany, sequoia, red oak, acacia, pine, among others—her favorite variety to date is yellowwood, a tree native to South Africa that is the color its name suggests, though the wood is speckled with grey or black spots.
“It has a rather unique appearance and reminds me of giraffe fur,” Comte offered, adding that the “canary-like vibrancy” immediately inspired her to create a new body of work. She first encountered the wood back in 2013, during a residency in Johannesburg through the Swiss art council Prohelvetia. The tropical wood is also well-suited to carving, as it’s rigid and doesn’t crack easily. “It was very important for me, as it still is today, to use non-endangered endemic wood,” Comte explained. She’ll continue this tradition next year during a residency at the marine laboratory of the Alligator Head Foundation, through a commission by the TBA21–Academy. There, she’ll use wood that’s native to Jamaica to create a new body of work inspired by the ocean.
Guerra Acrylic 65 and Thickener #1
Few painters work quite so sculpturally as Gina Beavers. The secret ingredients behind her weighty, textural paintings—often of mounds of junk food or make-up tutorials—are two products from the artist-owned New York City paint shop Guerra Paint and Pigment. For a decade, Beavers has been using Acrylic 65—“a super high-quality acrylic that is highly adhesive,” she noted—and Thickener #1, which is used to thicken acrylic paints. “I combine the two to build up the thick surfaces of paint that I use in my paintings,” Beavers said.
The East Village paint shop’s proprietor, Art Guerra, originally developed these formulas. An artist himself, he had a studio in the same building as Beavers in Bushwick. “One day, he brought me some to experiment with, and I was hooked,” she recalled. “I had been looking for a way out of the super-flat, hard-edge abstractions I had been making, and the acrylic arrived at the perfect time.”
Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Color in Olive Green (Permanence A, Series 2)
Sanam Khatibi creates alluring figurative paintings—allegorical works that portray human figures succumbing to primal desires—where rich blues and greens and soft browns and seafoams set the tone. The artist noted that she often tries out new oil colors and brands, but within her distinct palette, a certain olive green has been a constant for around five years.
“I use this color in practically every single one of my paintings,” Khatibi said. “It has become a sort of base for me, and I use it also as a foundation to create other colors.”
One Shot Enamel Paint in Proper Purple and Kool Crimson
After ending a years-long collaboration with a fellow painter, Marilyn Minter began using enamel paint from a signage company in 1986 to distinguish her new work. “Most people use enamel paint with hard edges and graphic shapes (like Christopher Wool and Gary Hume),” Minter explained. She uses it to portray soft modulations of color. “I could never get the deep richness and glow from oil that I can get with enamel,” she added.
Enamel is translucent and dries quickly, which allows her to easily layer colors. That technique has been crucial, she explained, particularly in her recent paintings of close-ups of women’s faces behind a veil of mist. “I feel like I needed to work with enamel for years before I could get to the technical level of being able to paint the last layer of mist or steam,” Minter noted. “My team and I get better every year. I don’t think we could have done this 10 years ago; we are more like Pointillists now.”
Food and drink cans
Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj keeps a cache of food and drink cans in his studio—the materials he uses to construct the frames that surround his dazzling, color-soaked portraits. He first began using them in 1993, likely, he said, because he grew up with these household objects. His favorites are cans of products by the brand Aicha, which is also his mother’s name.
While he incorporates cans for their colors, shapes, graphics, and fonts, he makes a point to use products from a mix of local and international brands, sourcing them from Morocco, Dubai, and London (he grew up in the English capital, and now splits his time between there and Marrakech). “This helps my work communicate to the public as they see something they are familiar with,” Hajjaj explained.
Belgian linen, Libeco batch 17
The one constant material in Hayv Kahraman’s practice has been linen, the substrate she uses for her elegant paintings of women that are informed by research and her experiences as an Iraqi refugee. It’s not just any linen, though—since 2009, she’s been sourcing it directly from the Belgian linen wholesaler Libeco. “This linen has a tight weave with very little knots, and that’s hard to find,” she explained.
She currently uses the textile from batch 17, which corresponds to the year the flax was harvested and manufactured. “The amount of sun and rain the crops get that specific year will determine the hue of the linen,” Kahraman explained (for example, more rain causes a bluish tint; more sun, a yellow tint). For many years, she preferred linen with the warmer hue (made of crops from 2004), but as it became more difficult to source, she’s had to use a more recent batch.
True to the artist’s smart, research-intensive practice, the linen holds conceptual significance, as well. Linen was introduced in 16th-century Venice as an alternative to canvas that was better suited to the climate and easier to roll up and transport. Given its close ties to Western art, Kahraman sees it as “a surface in which I can dispute European concepts of power,” she explained. “So it becomes a material to decolonize. It’s also a common and familiar material for our Western eyes to digest that then serves as the perfect decoy for me to speak about brown bodies and subjectivities.” Additionally, she chooses to keep much of the linen bare (not gessoed or painted) because it reminds her of “the color of Iraqi sand.”
Max Hooper Schneider first encountered invertebrates—the living creatures that would later inspire and occupy his art—while growing up, peering into tide pools along California’s Pacific Coast. The backboneless animals, which range from crabs and jellyfish to spiders, continued to be a passion as he grew up, surrounding himself with aquariums. “As an artist, I quickly began to understand invertebrates as an essential medium for storytelling and systemic sculpture,” he offered. (He’s particularly fond of arthropods and cnidarians.)
Indeed, in creating his works, the artist, who studied biology and landscape architecture, weaves philosophical, often dystopian narratives through complex ecosystems—like Utopia Banished (2015), where live leeches slither in a tank with a white porcelain cake, or The Last Caucasian War (2014), where Ocypodidae crabs share a vitrine with a mud-covered Toshiba laptop. While Hooper Schneider is drawn to the “lure of their symmetrical body plans, spiny skins, and eusocial behavior” of invertebrates, more important is their “extremophilic potential”—their ability to thrive in harsh environments, he explained. “They will continue to colonize the planet long after humankind has exited.”
Aluminum Venetian blinds
New York-based artist Anne Libby, who creates machine-like sculptures that resemble elegant scaffolding, began using metallic Venetian blinds in brushed silver, copper, and gold after living in a first-floor apartment that had them. “Blinds have a direct effect on the amount of privacy I have from the street and the amount of light that comes in [through] my windows,” Libby explained. “I interacted with them so much on a daily basis, and eventually decided to cut them down for my sculptures.” (She’s since recovered discarded sets on the street and bought them on eBay.)
To use the blinds, Libby takes them apart and wraps the metal strips around pieces of wood, then nails them into place. “The blinds are a line between urban architectural and domestic space,” the artist explained. “Metallic blinds are both reflective and transparent in a way that’s related to contemporary architecture itself.”
Paasche H-type single action airbrush with a #3 tip
During grad school, New York-based painter Betty Tompkins “gave up brushes and started to use spray guns,” she said, hoping to reinvent her approach to painting. However, when she moved into Columbia University’s graduate student housing with her first husband in 1969, she quickly learned that the close quarters were not conducive to that method. “I went downtown to Pearl Paint and bought the airbrush, taught myself how to use it, and that was that,” Tompkins explained.
She now has two Paasche airbrushes that she’s used for most of her striking sex paintings, which feature close-ups of sexual acts and moments of embrace in an airy grisaille palette. While working, she’ll dedicate one airbrush to white or lighter tones, and the other to chromatic blacks. (Originally, she only had one, but found she was spending too much time cleaning it out.)
“It is magic to me,” Tompkins explained. “I stand over here, and the painting gradually comes out over there. Using them has taught me patience. The first 20 layers or so look terrible. Eventually, the painting has enough paint on it to start to be subtle. It took me a long time to accept this.”
Jeffrey Gibson uses fabric in “almost everything” he creates—from canvases for paintings, to the linings of his garments, to vintage textiles and weavings he employs in wall-hangings. The Native American artist is known for his multifaceted, mixed-media works that address identity and promote inclusivity. (His newest works will feature in an exhibition this September at the Wellin Museum of Art in upstate New York.) “The fabrics that I use often have a history or a specific aesthetic to them that speaks of a cultural moment,” Gibson explained. “I think about time a lot when mixing them and trying to represent the past, present, and future.”
Gibson began collecting fabrics during college in the 1990s, and often buys them while traveling. Now, he sources most of his fabrics and textiles online from Etsy and eBay. “I have found everything from 18th-century vestment embroideries to holographic vinyl,” Gibson explained. He also cuts up his own clothing and that of family members for future works. “Mixing them is like making a quilt,” he explained. “I can also adorn them, paint on them, appliqué on them. Fabric is truly the most generous material that I have found.”
“Body Without Soul”
“Body Without Soul,” also known as “Liquid Human,” is a recipe that Marguerite Humeau concocted in her studio, inspired by the chemical components of the human body—including oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and dozens of other elements. She orders the materials, which are often powders, online through sites such as eBay, and mixes them together to form a liquid.
She first used the potion for her 2016 exhibition at Palais de Tokyo, “FOXP2,” to dye a carpet upon which elephant sculptures were standing, thus exploring the relationship between animals and humans. She sees the concoction as “a conceptual framework” that she can apply to new projects in different ways—in other exhibitions since, she’s shown the concoction in its liquid form.
Williamsburg oil paint
Nikki Maloof—who creates impossibly vibrant paintings of animals and insects set in pattern-filled interiors or verdant environs—admits that Williamsburg oil paint is probably one of the reasons she became a painter. She describes standing in front of a glass case of the paint like a giddy kid in a candy store. “For me, these tubes contain more than just beautiful hues,” Maloof explained. “They are bottled potential for something I haven’t seen. Often, when I am stuck, I go to the art store and look for some new color, hoping it will reveal some new secret. Sometimes, when I am lucky, it does.”
She first encountered the brand through her undergrad professor at Indiana University, Barry Gealt—“a major paint nerd,” she recalled—who encouraged his students to have as many colors as possible. She first held a tube of Williamsburg at his wondrous, paint-filled studio. Once she tried it, she was hooked—both to its seductive colors, and to its “specific sticky, almost toothpaste-like texture,” she described.
“For me, so much of painting is a sensory experience,” Maloof explained. “The way a paint feels beneath my brush is as important as the image that is revealed.…My hand has learned to manipulate it in a second-nature kind of way. Maybe it’s how a specific instrument might feel to a musician, or a certain clay in the hands of a sculptor.”
Berlin-based artist Alicja Kwade doesn’t have a preferred material or tool for creating her work; rather, she lets the concepts behind her pieces drive what she’ll use. “It’s not really me choosing the material; when I have a concept and this concept demands a specific material, then there is no other way than choosing it,” Kwade explained. It’s a matter of finding the right material that matches the needs and motives behind each work.
For example, Kwade’s series “Hypothetisches Gebilde” required pure copper. The metal, which is believed to have originated through the stars or a supernova and is known for its conductive powers, was the ideal material to realize these sculptures, which were inspired by wormholes—the theoretical channels that connect two locations or dimensions in the universe.
In his sculptural works and installations, Gabriel de la Mora often incorporates discarded objects that have outlived their original purposes, from eggshells to microscope slides. “The end of something is, to me, the starting point for something else,” he explained. In 2013, he began using old shoe soles for a series of sculptures and assemblages entitled “The Weight of Thought.”
For years, de la Mora has had an assistant collect rubber and leather shoe soles from downtown Mexico City (some are found, some are bought). Once they arrive at his studio, the soles are classified and organized into pairs, based on the holes they have and which foot they belong to. The artist mines the objects for their universality and the personal hints they retain from their former owners. Ultimately, he cuts them down and combines them to create conceptual sculptures and assemblages.
Liza Lou has become renowned for her use of beads, beginning with her groundbreaking life-size installation Kitchen (1991–96) through to the present, employing them to create contemplative tapestries and undulating wall reliefs in rich jewel tones. (Her latest work will feature in a new show at Lehmann Maupin in New York this September.) However, these are not your everyday, commonplace beads, Lou asserted. “My beads are of the ‘fuck you’ variety, the kind that wouldn’t be caught dead on a ball gown,” she said. “They aren’t polite, and they aren’t always pretty.”
Given that beads are her primary material, Lou orders custom varieties in specific sizes, shapes, and colors from a glass factory in Japan. What inspires her about beads are their limitations—for example, they can’t be reshaped or blended with water. “I’m interested in the way in which beads demand a life shift; their very nature demands patience and focus, and an ungodly amount of time,” Lou explained. “Best of all, they connect me to deep and ancient traditions, to women and laborers, to traditional skills, to the blood, sweat, and tears of everyday life.”
Antiques and sound
Radcliffe Bailey’s poetic assemblages and installations draw upon his personal and family history, conjuring discussions of race and ancestry. His affinity for found antique objects traces back to art school, where he grew tired of using the same art supplies as everyone else. “I just didn’t want to go the same route,” he said. “I was looking for ways to complicate material.” With antique objects, he explained, he’s able to step back in time. “The smells, too,” he added. “I appreciate things created in the past.” (His works can now be seen in a solo exhibition at Jack Shainman’s The School, in Kinderhook, New York.)
Music has also long found its way into Bailey’s practice. “I’m thinking about non-traditional materials from history, and how they can inform my work,” he explained. “Both the objects and sounds inherently carry layers of history and understanding. They hold time and space within them.”
Pens, paper, MacBook, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro
“Without time, I cannot make anything,” said Lynn Hershman Leeson, who, for decades, has been pioneering new media art to tap into the relationship between humans and technology. And while she’s used everything from a wax cast of her own face to a telerobotic doll with webcam eyes, her go-to supplies are straightforward: pens, paper, and her MacBook, which she relies on for the use of Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. “I first draw what I am thinking, create a plan to bring the drawing into life, and use Photoshop or Final Cut to more specifically animate the project,” Hershman Leeson explained.
The artist has been using both programs since the mid-1990s; however, each piece starts with drawing—“pen and paper, whether it is a script, or an interactive installation, or a film,” she said. Hershman Leeson finds that using these tools helps her clarify her thoughts, and allows for “the deeply hidden, real work to emerge.”
Painter Shara Hughes asserted that she does not play favorites when it comes to her materials; she prefers to use a plethora of materials, and “to let each one shine in its own way.” Her paintings have incorporated a wide array of paints—oil, acrylic, enamel, watercolor, vinyl, spray paint, paint pen, gouache—as well as dye, marker, glitter, oil bars, and the use of an airbrush. Even her drawings are often made from a melange of materials.
“I use paint when it’s old and crusty for specific things, next to nicer fancier paint for other specific results,” Hughes offered. Recently, during a recent residency run by the paint manufacturer Liquitex, she was introduced to new products like a water-based spray paint. “It’s nice to be able to layer that in ways I wasn’t able to with other household spray paints,” she said. “I like discovering different types of paint that make me learn more about how they sit on the surface when applied in different ways, and on different types of surfaces.”
DAP Plaster of Paris
Plaster model for Paula Hayes, Bird Baths, 2006. Photo by Ethan Herrington. Courtesy of the artist.
Plaster model for Paula Hayes, Bird Baths, 2006. Photo by Ethan Herrington. Courtesy of the artist.
Paula Hayes, who is most often recognized for her glass-blown terrarium sculptures, has had a love for plaster of Paris ever since childhood. Named after the city where large deposits of gypsum were once found, the fine white powder can be combined with water to create plaster casts. Today, Hayes uses it to create models for her editioned works.
“I love how it is like milk; it has an ancient feel and is something you get to know the qualities of over time,” Hayes explained. “I love the smell, the rising temperature as it sets up, how to handle it so it remains airless. It requires a light and expert touch though it is so simple. It taught me all of these things.”
Within her practice, which considers the strange relationships between humans and technology, Jillian Mayer has become widely known for her “Slumpies”—playful sculptures in amorphous shapes that are meant to fit a person’s body as they look at their phone. She’s taken to using Apoxie Sculpt, a putty that’s easy to mix, “doesn’t really go bad, self-hardens, and doesn’t stink too much,” she explained. “You can put it on anything.”
Mayer first started using the material years ago, after she was working with air-dry clay and found it disappointing; plus, she didn’t have access to a kiln to work in ceramics. She uses the versatile medium not just to sculpt, but to mend cracks and fill holes. It can also be smeared onto other surfaces or sanded down once it’s dry. Another bonus: It’s very durable. “I am pretty clumsy, so I love anything that will not break when I drop or step on it,” Mayer said.
3/4-inch steel round stock
Hannah Levy’s furniture-like sculptures—informed by the artist’s background in industrial design—have been known to employ silicone, polyurethane, rubber, alabaster, and pearls. However, her penchant for 3/4-inch steel tubing is particularly evident; she polishes, bends, and welds it to create dynamic armatures. “I like polished steel tube because it’s such a commonly used material,” Levy explained. “When you use it, there is an excitingly overwhelming number of possible references, especially in modernist and modernist-influenced furniture. Really, it’s everywhere.”
She first encountered the tubing during college, when a group of architecture students had used it for a project before taking it apart and leaving the pieces up for grabs. “I think I made most of my thesis show out of it,” Levy recalled.
Diane Townsend pastels, Derwent Inktense Blocks, Montana spray paint, and soft vine charcoal
“My works are like Kanye’s production—by that I mean mixed media,” explained Curtis Talwst Santiago, who is best known for miniature dioramas and drawings that consider contemporary diasporic communities. The artist values his various materials equally, though a certain few have guided his drawing process over the past two years—a combination of products he’s picked up at favorite art shops during his travels, including Peters Arts in Berlin, Gwartzman’s in Toronto, Rath Art Supplies in Vancouver, and Montana Lisboa in Lisbon.
“Because I’m not classically trained, I intuitively work with these materials, which allow for surprising reactions,” Santiago noted. He’ll begin a drawing or painting with Derwent Inktense Blocks, which “set key of the song,” he explained. Then he’ll use these blocks of pigment to create undertones or, when mixed with water, delicate washes of color. Next, he “mists” the piece with spray paints (he uses a level-six cap on the paint cans) “to add depth to the atmosphere.” Next comes soft vine charcoal, his favorite drawing tool. “When the drawing’s done and it’s time to fill with color, I look to the box of candy that is Diane Townsend soft pastels,” he explained. “Her pigments are so rich, you will want to eat them.”
Special thanks to Guerra Paint & Pigment and Blick Art Materials for art supplies featured in the header image.
Photograph of Williamsburg oil paints courtesy of Nikki Maloof.