No matter your skill level or how long you’ve been painting or drawing, there’s always a thrill in getting a new art supply product. Whether it’s a few tubes of paint to replace what you’ve used up or a big set of markers or pencils, that moment where you get something new is almost like having an extra birthday. If it’s a replacement supply, it’s easy to throw it into the box with the rest of your colours and start using it along with everything else, but I often find it harder when it’s a sparkly new set of pastels, still with their perfectly even points and neat little wrappers… And I know I’m not the only one.
It happens with different types of art supplies, too. I open a new box of soft pastels and know I need to break them, but they look so beautiful in their box, all the same length and still with their paper labels, and I just can’t bear to do it, even though breaking them and using the pieces on their side is the best way to get those painterly strokes pastels are so good for. (luckily this isn’t an issue with half stick sets, which are small enough to do this with anyway and generally don’t come with wrappers)
Or a new watercolour set; not only do you have to destroy the little pans by unwrapping them like lollies, you then have to defile the box itself by mixing paint on it, which we all know usually results in staining within a fairly short time. Monstrous!
Hell, I have a small set of Caran d’Ache Luminance coloured pencils, which are basically the Rolls Royce of coloured pencils and are twice as expensive as pretty much every other pencil. I didn’t even pay full retail for them – I got them off eBay for about a quarter of their price – but even so, the knowledge that I can’t crap out a masterpiece just by picking up the tin makes me feel guilty about using them.
Sometimes it even happens with blocks or pads of expensive paper. I get it out and get ready to draw or paint on it, only to find myself reluctant to actually put colour down on the surface for fear of making a mistake and ‘wasting’ the paper.
This, I think, is the main cause of New Art Supply Paralysis: fear. Fear that whatever you draw won’t be good enough. Fear that you will make a mistake and all the time you’ve spent on it will be wasted, along with the paper you’ve drawn it on and whatever you’ve used to paint or draw it up until this point. This is doubled if they are good quality (and therefore more expensive) art supplies, as you feel like you are wasting money by daring to put something on paper or canvas that isn’t worthy of hanging in the Louvre.
It can be tempting to avoid this altogether by only buying student or kiddie grade materials; after all, it doesn’t matter if you waste something that only cost $5 for the whole set, right? But this is a false economy. Cheap pastels, pencils and paints are cheap for a reason; they have a lot more fillers and much less actual pigment (and they often substitute genuine pigments for cheap dyes), meaning you have to use more of it to get the job done, and even then it might be difficult or impossible to achieve the same effect as if you were using artist grade materials. This is frustrating to anyone, but to a newcomer to the medium, it can be enough to put them off art altogether. Cheaper colours often don’t mix or blend in the same way the real thing does, so when you do eventually start using better quality materials, you end up having to relearn a lot of things like mixing ratios. If you have any intention of getting into art seriously, you are far better off buying a small range of artist grade materials than a big set of cheap junk.
This applies to paper as well, especially watercolour paper. Cheaper, thinner paper will fall to bits on you as soon as you put more than one or two washes on it, making it impossible for you to achieve any nice layered or glazing effects. Even if the paper remains intact, colours look dull compared to when they’re applied to proper artist grade paper, but the learner artist thinks their poor results are entirely down to something they’re doing wrong with the paint, and they get discouraged. Artist grade watercolour paper is more expensive than cheap drawing paper, but even so, you can get pads of reasonable quality paper for under $20. I noticed a huge difference when I switched from using $5 pads of Eraldo di Paolo (or something similar) watercolour paper to Daler-Rowney Bockingford; my paintings looked better, it was easier to achieve the effects I wanted and it was like someone had flicked a switch in my brain. Because I didn’t have to fight the paper, I was able to just concentrate on painting, and as a result my skills began to improve at a much faster rate. Obviously I’m still not a master painter but I paint a hell of a lot better than I would if I had stuck to the budget paper. So do yourself a favour and start with good quality materials. They don’t have to be the most expensive, top-of-the-line materials (after all, most expensive doesn’t necessarily equal best, anyway), but they should make it easier for you to create art, not harder.
Now that you have your nice artist grade supplies, how do you make yourself use them without freezing like a kangaroo caught in headlights at the thought of opening the box or picking up the brush? There are a few ways you can overcome your fear:
Colour Charts – The first thing I usually do when I get some new art supplies is to make a colour chart for them. I draw up a grid with enough squares or rectangles for each colour, and then I colour a swatch of each new pencil, pastel, watercolour or acrylic, leaving a little room below so I can write the name of the colour. You might set aside a journal or sketchbook solely for doing colour charts, or just use a page at the back of whatever book you’re working in at the time. As well as charting the colours themselves, you can also experiment with mixtures to see what other colours you can make out of the colours you have. This helps you get to know how colours will mix and perform where it doesn’t matter if you make a mess, rather than having to guess how the colours might mix if you just go straight into doing a painting with them.
Small, Quick Sketches – Sometimes when I get a new set of paints or pastels, the colours in the set give me an idea for subjects to paint or draw, but the prospect of trying to paint or draw anything bigger than A5 size fills me with dread; after all, the bigger the drawing, the more time it takes, and therefore the more time is wasted if it doesn’t work out. The way I get around this is to make a few small thumbnail sketches beforehand. Use a limited set of colours to help decide on a colour scheme, or try using only graphite or charcoal to get a sense for the shading and values in the piece. Do several little drawings of your intended subject; if it’s a person or animal, draw them in different poses or from different angles. For a landscape or still life, try changing the composition or lighting. It’s a lot easier to fix composition mistakes in a drawing that’s only a few centimetres across than in a nearly-completed painting on a half-metre canvas panel. You can do these sketches in a journal specifically for practice sketches, or even just on any old paper you have lying around. I’d recommend having a journal as it can be interesting to look back later at the progression of your ideas and skills.
Practice on (Good) Student Grade Surfaces – I know I said earlier that you should buy artist grade materials, so this may seem a bit contradictory, but it can be worth having a pad or two of good quality student grade paper (note the emphasis on ‘good’). Most manufacturers of artist grade materials also have a student grade line, and though it’s often not as good as their artist grade stuff, it’s still usually good enough to behave in more or less the same way as artist quality materials. Daler-Rowney’s Aquafine watercolour paper is a good example of this. If you’re hesitant to use your new block of Arches watercolour paper, try doing a small scale practice painting on your student grade paper before moving up to the more expensive paper. If you’re an oil or acrylic painter and you’re worried about ruining a canvas board or panel, pick up a canvas pad (which are usually only about $6 for 10-15 sheets) and practice on that first. Practice pictures can sometimes turn out to be ‘proper’ pieces in their own right.
Paint or Draw Something You’re Familiar With – Because of the huge variety even among art supplies of the same type, it can be hard to predict how a new ‘toy’ will perform. Rather than trying to learn how to use them at the same time as learning to draw or paint a new subject, try your new supplies on something you’ve drawn before. It can be something as simple as a piece of fruit or the view from your window, but drawing something you’re already good at drawing helps you focus on the texture or consistency of your new art supply instead of worrying about where to put the lines and so on. This means your first painting or drawing with your new supplies is more likely to be good and therefore less likely to feel like a ‘waste’ (though at the end of the day, no art should be considered a waste).
Do an Art Challenge or Exercise – I’m a member of the WetCanvas art forum, and most of the sub-forums for different media have their own challenges every month, or at least a few times a year. Someone will post a theme or some reference pictures, and those who take on the challenge do a painting or drawing that fits that theme or is based on one of the reference pictures. If you have any art instruction books, you could try practicing one of the exercises in there on a small scale. For the reference pictures or exercises, you don’t necessarily have to copy the whole image. For example, if the reference picture is a complex still life with a large arrangement of fruit, you could just pick one or two pieces of fruit and focus on those. Doing one of these challenges removes some of the pressure to be creative or come up with your own subject, so you can just get on with painting or drawing.
Embrace Failure – Yep. I’ve saved the hardest one for last. Even if you’re an expert artist, you will sometimes make mistakes. If you’re a beginner, you will make a LOT of mistakes. Some mistakes can be repaired or worked around, but some will mean scrapping the painting or drawing and starting over. Is this frustrating and upsetting? Absolutely, but it’s also part of the learning process. Even when something you’re working on goes completely and irreparably tits-up, you can still view it as practice. Not only do you learn what works, you also learn what DOESN’T work. The process of fixing (or attempting to fix) the mistake is also useful, as if it works, you know what to do if you run into the same problem in the future, and if it doesn’t work, you know to try something else next time. A failed painting in one medium can always be resurrected as a new painting in another; for example, if a watercolour didn’t work out too well, you can always draw over it with pastel. The point is, failure shouldn’t be seen as something to fear.
All of this, of course, is easier said than done. As I said earlier, even seasoned artists sometimes freeze up at the prospect of using a new art supply for the first time. But eventually they get over it, and pretty soon the new set of pastels or pencils is as well-worn as the others in their collection, and they have lots of new pieces of art to show for it. Look at it this way… You’ve already spent the money on your new art supplies, right? At this point, it would be wasteful NOT to use them 🙂