Beginner Oil: Getting the Most out of your Materials

0809begin2_600x406_2 For those just starting out, the cost of art materials can be a hindrance to fully exploring different media. However, there are many ways one can prolong the life and maximize the use of various tools, so you can spend a little and get a lot.

by Naomi Ekperigin


Daisies on Rice Paper,
by Kathi Hanson, 2005,
watercolor, 9 x 8.
Collection the artist.

“Thinking back to my days as a young art student, I remember wasting materials because I didn’t know how to properly take care of them,” recalls artist-instructor Camille LaPointe-Lyons, who consults for Savoir-Faire. For many students, the cost of materials determines their medium of choice, as well as how often they practice and hone their skills. However, artists should not let the cost of materials hinder their working process. Employing a few simple techniques for proper care and maintenance can make sure you gets the most bang for your buck.

Do Some Research

Before choosing a brand, investigate the different manufacturers to see what benefits and disadvantages their products may have. “Research and compare all brands that carry the medium you are working in before you make a purchase,” says Kathi Hanson, an artist-instructor who has taught around the country and written for several publications. Hanson now lends her years of experience to General Pencil Company, where she is a consultant. “Don’t just assume that the brand that costs the most contains the highest-quality material. A lot of the cost of a product includes shipping, packaging, and advertising—things that have nothing to do with the quality of the product inside.” She suggests that artists attend trade shows, where vendors often have their products available to sample.  Free test sizes of materials can also be found online and even at art-supply stores. And when in doubt, don’t be afraid to contact the company directly to get additional information.

Keep Away From the Light.


Lake Lagunitas,
by Camille LaPointe-Lyons, 2008,
watercolor, 15 x 22.
Collection the artist.

“Sunlight and heat are dangerous to most art materials,” notes LaPointe-Lyons. Oil paint and mediums can harden over time, making them unusable. Toxic solvents should be kept away from heat because they can cause a fire. “Oil pastels will melt, and paper will become yellow, faded, and brittle in the light,” she adds. When storing completed work, works in progress, and materials, a cool, dry, area away from light is best. It is also advisable to keep the work in a space that is relatively dust-free, because particles can stick to wet paint and ruin the texture of the surface.

Invest in Storage

Storing supplies properly can prevent loss and damage. This most often occurs when tools are in transport, and an artist can open his or her kit to find new pastel sticks reduced to fragments. “If you’ve purchased individual pastel sticks, you can store them in a long, flat tin box,” suggests Hanson. “Cover the bottom of the box with rice and nestle the sticks in it. This prevents them from rolling around and mixing their pigments or breaking.” She also points out that pencil-tip protectors work well for charcoal and pastel pencils.

Keeping Clean


Saint Vincent Canal, by Camille LaPointe-Lyons, 2008, oil, 30 x 36.
Collection the artist.

“Good maintenance will give more life to your materials,” says LaPointe-Lyons. She recommends using liquid soap to clean brushes because it is gentle and won’t dry them out. Hanson recommends laying brushes flat until they are dry. “Store them with the hair tips protected,” she advises. “More brushes are ruined by improper drying or being stored hair-end down. Using a high quality brush cleaner is also imperative to ensure your brush’s longevity. The ideal cleanser will remove unwanted pigment without drying out or damaging the brush hairs. I clean all my brushes (oil, acrylic and watercolor) with Master’s Brush Cleaner and Preserver. It removes all types of paint and conditions the brush hairs. Some of my brushes have lasted 15 years!” For those who don’t like unpleasant solvents, LaPointe-Lyons suggests Murphy’s Oil Soap. “Wipe off as much paint as you can with a towel, and then dip the brushes into a small container of Murphy’s,” she says. “It will loosen the rest of the paint. Wipe the brush again, and then rinse off.”

Keep It Simple

As the saying goes, good things come in small packages. They also come in simple packages, and often a no-frills approach means a more affordable—yet no less effective—product. “Fancy water containers are not necessary,” says Hanson. “Any old can or bucket will do just fine. If you like resistance for your brush as you are rinsing out color, add marbles to the bottom of the container. The same goes for pencil sharpeners. What’s important is to find a sharpener with a stainless steel blade, and you can find this at a very low price. I use a Lil’ Red All-Art hand-held sharpener, and it works perfectly.” In addition, items found in any drug store can serve as useful artists tools. Cotton balls, Q-tips, and makeup sponges are great inexpensive blending tools that can create interesting background effects.

Just Add Water


by Kathi Hanson, 2008, watercolor,
16 x 20. Collection the artist.

“Many novice watercolorists waste paint by squeezing it out as they work on a painting,” notes LaPointe-Lyons. “They are never sure how much to use, then they throw out whatever is left over when they are done. Watercolors are the one paint that can dry out and be reusable once water is added.”  She suggests buying a watercolor palette that comes with a lid. When the unused paint on the palette dries, it can be packed away easily and safely. “When you’re ready to paint again, just place some water on the flat open space of the palette and then dip your brush into your color. If you want to stop in the middle of painting, you can let the mixed colors dry and they will be ready to use when you are—just add water.”

Naomi Ekperigin is the assistant editor of American Artist.

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