Making Art Can Be Expensive—These Materials Are Worth Investing In

Ingrid Christensen
Aug 20, 2019 5:21PM

Starting an art practice may seem like an expensive prospect. Along with obvious tools and materials like easels, pencils, brushes, and paint, art stores stock an array of esoteric items to tempt novices and professionals alike. It can be hard to know what you actually need and what you can work without.

The following list will guide you in purchasing—and making—a functional yet minimal toolkit to embark on a drawing or painting practice.

What you’ll need for drawing:

Vine charcoal

These soft charcoal sticks are capable of a range of expressive marks, from delicate, modulated lines to smooth expanses of tone.

Artists’ quality pencils

Seek out graphite pencils ranging in hardness (H) and blackness (B). H pencils are good for crisp detail, while to B pencils make softer lines and darker patches and textures. Four pencils, 2H, HB, 2B, and 4B, will be enough to create a broad tonal range.

Kneaded eraser

This lifts both graphite and charcoal.

Pencil sharpener

Cheap sharpeners tend to break graphite rather than honing it to a fine point, so splurge on a quality sharpener from the art store. Or, use a craft knife to whittle the pencil into a long, sharp point.

Vine charcoal marks and a kneaded eraser.



Discover your preferred surface by experimenting with papers from smooth to rough textured, but don’t restrict yourself to costly, art store offerings. Inexpensive pads of newsprint and rolls of craft paper for kids can liberate your work. You’ll be more likely to take artistic risks when you’re free of the anxiety of working on expensive paper.

For important works, choose acid-free artists’ paper.

Paper support

A rigid, flat surface with large bulldog clips to hold your paper will allow you to work both on a flat surface and upright at an easel. You can easily make one by using the back of a canvas board or a thin sheet of masonite or plexiglass.

Jiro Ishihara
Pencil Sharpener , 2017
Momentum Fine Art

Craft knife and pencil.


To store your work, two sheets of corrugated plastic taped together makes a simple, acid-free, and inexpensive alternative to ready-made portfolios to store your work.

What you’ll need for painting:

Artist quality paints

Most manufacturers produce two lines of paint—“Professional” or “artist” quality, and “student” quality. While a price comparison might lead you to choose the latter, it will be a false economy. Student paint has less pigment and more added fillers than professional paint, and mixtures made with these paints tend to be chalky, weak and muddy.

The high pigment load in professional paint means that you’ll use less of it to achieve bright colors, and your mixtures will have greater color clarity.

You can still economize on paint, however, by working with a limited palette of colors.

Rose Eken
Paint Tubes, 2016
V1 Gallery


As with paint, quality is important in brushes. Craft store brushes wear down quickly and shed their bristles during cleaning or on your paintings. They also lack the precision and spring of a well-made brush, which limits the sensitivity of the marks that you can make.

Look for mid-priced brushes by reputable manufacturers. They will meet a higher standard than craft store products but won’t feel too precious to use. With proper cleaning, a brush should perform well for many months of painting.

This article will help you determine the best brushes for the marks that you want to make.

Palette knife

A mid-sized, flexible, metal palette knife can be used to mix and apply paint and unlike plastic knives, it will last for years.


While stretched canvas is the most common support for painting, you can save money by using alternative surfaces for experiments and while learning.

Art stores sell primed canvas by the yard, allowing you to cut pieces as you need them and tape them to a board for use. The resulting paintings can be stacked and stored flat. Leaving extra canvas around your image gives you the option of stretching the work in the future.

Other economical painting supports include gessoed watercolor paper, cardboard, masonite, or birch plywood.

Value checkers.


Whether it’s made from wood or lightweight aluminum, your easel should hold your support steady as you push and drag your brush across it. Test it by clamping a board onto the canvas ledge and pressing against the board with a brush or your hand. The easel should hold steady and the board should remain firmly clamped in place.

Additionally, check that the easel will hold every size of support that you intend to work on, from small to large, and that it will accommodate both standard and gallery width canvases on its shelf.


A wheeled or stationary cabinet with a flat top and drawers, a taboret holds your palette, paints, and other supplies. An inexpensive alternative to a store-bought taboret is a kitchen cart with a butcher’s block top that you might already have. Add a piece of glass to the top and you’ll have an easy-to-clean palette space.

Extra materials for drawing and painting:

Beyond the basic equipment listed above, there are a few invaluable tools that you’ll find useful for drawing and painting. They will help you improve your work by altering your perception of it.

Value checker

These transparent filters convert your work to a greyscale, to help you discover if your artwork has areas of weak or incorrect value. They’re easy to make from colored photo gels or transparency film, or you can buy rigid acetate value checkers in quilting stores.


Viewing your art in a mirror will instantly reveal flaws in its composition or proportion. You can mount one behind your workspace, or examine your artwork in a compact mirror. Taking a photo of your work will work just as well.

Assorted frames or mats

Framing a piece can help you determine if it’s finished. You’ll avoid overworking your art if you periodically put it into a frame as you work. Thrift and discount stores are great places to find these indispensable items.

Start up costs need not deter you when you begin a new art form. With some basic equipment, you can achieve a full range of expressive potential in your work.

Ingrid Christensen