Supplies for the Starving Artist

I think it’s pretty clear that most of us are having more struggles with money. Usually, there isn’t enough of it. For those of us who like to draw, paint, or otherwise make visual art, that can be a real struggle! We might see an awesome tutorial for an epic art supply and really want to try it out, only to find out that those markers or paints are way beyond our price range. Maybe our kid wants to get started in art and we want to help them out without breaking the bank. What to do?

Luckily, there are solutions and some materials are both affordable and of good quality. I’ll be mentioning a few of these that I’ve tried myself, and giving links to those. If you happen to buy the item using my link, I might get a small amount of money but remember that these are things I have bought myself, and use every day.

If you are flat broke but still have that burning desire to be creative, remember this: though good supplies can really help, you don’t need them to make awesome art. I’ve seen people create beautiful images with nothing but a normal pencil, hunk of charcoal, or even a basic ballpoint pen. Paper can make a big difference, but I’ve still seen some great stuff done on basic printer paper. It helps a LOT to pick a medium that is more forgiving.

Cheapest Media:

Pencils – will work on a variety of papers, have a wide range of prices, and can look good on cheap, rough, sketch paper.

Charcoal – usually fairly cheap and don’t need a premium paper to look good.

Watercolors (to a point, see below)

Digital – if you already have a computer, you can do a lot digitally. An inexpensive drawing tablet will serve you well. See below.

Inks – This can mean a dip pen and ink bottle, fineliner markers, or brushes – either way it’s fairly easy to get these.

Water-based markers – depending on what you buy, these can be dirt cheap. They will work better on very smooth paper.

Best sources of higher-end art materials:

Alcohol Markers

Alcohol markers can be a fantastic medium but they are stupidly expensive. For example, I have seen Copics go for $10 a marker. If you buy super cheap alcohol markers though, they can have poor coverage and be really frustrating to use. I’ve used a brand called Ohuhu, and they are as good as (or maybe even a little better than) the Prismacolor Premier art markers I used to buy. They come in a fantastic array of colors with good tips. You can get brush tip, bullet tip, and chisel, and all the markers are double ended.

You can also buy themed sets such as gray scale, flesh tones, pastels and more. The main downside to them is that you can’t get single markers, but if one comes to you already dry or bleeding all over the place, the company will replace it. They also provide nice extras, such as marker cases, swatch sheets, and protective shseets to go under your paper. I’ve been using this brand for a while now and none of my markers have run out yet.

These also go on sale fairly often and they are easily a third of the price of more well known brands.

Here are some affiliate links if you want to check them out:

Basic Set of 48 colors

Pastel Set (36 markers)

Flesh Tone Set

Gray Scale Set (warm grays, cool grays, a really nice selection)

Marker paper sketchbooks (really nice heavy weight paper that is smooth and doesn’t bleed)

Massive set – has pretty much everything – 320 markers – on sale at the time of this writing

Watercolor

There are a lot of different travel kits and sets of watercolor out there. Generally I like finding tubes so I can mix larger quantities. Generally the most expensive thing you are going to have to buy is the paper since a watercolor tube actually lasts a long time. I found a really cool travel kit though with a nice metal tin and literally everything you need to make art including a pencil, a sharpener, an eraser, a brush, and really nice refillable water-brush. The colors are vibrant and work well. This makes an awesome gift.

My favorite travel kit – this has everything and it’s really pretty too! It even has a small paper pad to get you started. It is also frequently on sale.

Watercolor Paper – 140 pound is the lightest grade of paper you want to go with for watercolor, and even then it’s helpful to tape it down to a board to help prevent buckling. There are many options but here is one I’ve used and like.

Acrylic

Liquitex Basics has a decent array of colors and their tubes aren’t tiny. It is worth shopping around though because you may find other brands that suit you just as well. The best tip I have for acrylics is to learn to color mix, and to buy the best paints you can in good primary colors. If you have good primary colors that mix well, you avoid having to buy every color of paint in the rainbow, instead you can make your own. Brushes are important too, I’ve had good results from brushes with nylon bristles, you don’t have to get the super fancy brushes to get good results.

You can use acrylic on canvas, hardboard, even mattboard meant for painting. I’ve gone to the hardware store and gotten hardboard project panels, they will even cut it to size for you if you need. That can be a good source of cheap but durable surfaces. I’ve tried painting on foam core poster board but that curls so badly that I wouldn’t suggest it.

Oils

It’s pretty hard to do oils cheaply but if you are absolutely determined, be careful that you buy paint with really good pigment (the more warning labels, the better) so the colors mix well and you need to buy fewer of them.

That said, the hardware store is your best friend. You can get canvas drop cloths there that can be stretched for painting canvasses. You can get furring strips to make into the frames for those canvasses, or hardboard to paint on. It’s also the cheapest source of turpentine, mineral spirits and linseed oil. You can even buy your larger format brushes there – for example, one or two inch natural bristle brushes.

By comparison, art stores will charge a premium price for those basic supplies, in much smaller quantities!

Digital Art

Digital art can be really expensive to do, or nearly free. My favorite free art software is probably Krita. It works on a wide variety of computers and is very flexible. GIMP is another good one, also free, also works on a wide variety of computers. Both are amazing but are a little different, so try both!

Drawing Tablets – it’s pretty hard to do digital art without some kind of a drawing tablet. My favorite brand is XP-Pen. They have good prices on their tablets, have a wide range of options, and are usually on sale. They also have good customer support and their drivers are solid, I’ve never had one stop working or crash.

Ultra basic drawing tablet – here’s a good one to start with. Much less than $100!

Drawing tablet I currently use – this one has served me well and never given me problems – it has a nicely sized drawing surface.

My dream tablet – this is going to be my next upgrade. And it’s still a fraction of the cost of the name brand competition.

Colored Pencils

These can be really cheap or extremely expensive depending on what you do. You can get decent results with cheap Crayolas but you may face a lot of frustration along the way. You also want to get a good quality paper for colored pencils to look their best, like a hot rolled watercolor paper or cardstock with a bit of a tooth to it.

That said, I have found that Arteza pencils are almost as good as the premium brands yet are still affordable. I base that on experience and obsessive watching of YouTube comparisons.

48 color basic set, Arteza Pencils

72 color set in metal container, Arteza pencils

Unexpected places to find art supplies

The best place to find cheap art supplies, if you are really broke, is probably not where you’d expect. I’ve found my best deals on basic supplies at post-back to school sales, in the grocery store. That’s where they just had the big back to school blitz, but now it is time to switch to some other promotion so they heavily discount the school supplies. You can usually get good markers here for example. It’s often a Crayola product of some kind but remember, with determination and creativity, you can make art with ANYTHING.

Another good place to get cheap art supplies is at a big craft store like Michaels or Hobby Lobby, when they have their seasonal discounts. They usually have sets of basic art supplies or at the very least, paper.

Thrift Stores can be a good source of materials depending on what they get. They are usually found around the kid’s section. Another thing you can get at thrift stores is canvasses. Find a painting on a canvas, any painting, gesso over it, and feel free to paint away. You can do the same thing for frames. If you are more of a crafter you can also usually find random items to redecorate.

Office Supply Stores often have sales too, usually at the holidays or at back to school time. You can get markers or paint or pens there, but you can also get things like card stock and better papers. They are definitely worth a look.

For those who want all the flexibility of a major art supply store, but don’t live near one, or maybe the one live near has management you can’t stand, Dick Blick is a great website that has a huge range of art supplies. They do a good job explaining what everything is for and have competitive prices.

Lastly, the Dollar Store (or equivalent) can SOMETIMES have art and craft supplies. Beware though, you may end up paying more there for the same thing, or not be able to use the item because of poor quality. So be careful. Example: say you are a crafter and want to use those little jars of Apple Barrel Paint. Maybe you see them at the dollar store for a dollar each. That same paint might be 89 cents each at a craft store. Or even less if you buy a set.

The end…. or is it the beginning?

I hope this was helpful to someone. I’ve gone through a lot of hardship and been flat broke on more than one occasion. It’s helped to know where I could get some sort of art supplies when the creative bug bit me! I was helped a lot by watching YouTube reviews, which by the way is also an excellent source of art education.

If you have your own best places to get art supplies, or I’ve missed a category you want me to cover, feel free to comment below.

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