The Art of Creating Art on a Budget

Is it possible?

On the day the UK decides whether to remain in the EU or opt out, take yourself away from the political stuff, put your feet up, and read on. Today's post is way straighter than a politicians answer from either side. What will happen, I have no idea. Either way, “Art provides us with clues about how to live our lives more fully...about how creating, collecting, and even just appreciating art can make daily living a masterpiece.” ― Michael Kimmelman, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa

The art of creating art on a budget
The Art of Creating Art on a Budget. Is it possible?

 

This week I was going to break open the wallet and spend some serious money on some new art supplies. I also need an Adonit Pixel Stylus for my iPad Air2 because a couple of my usual apps haven’t updated their SDK to support my Wacom. I literally could have spent thousands of pounds, and my Amazon wish list already totals nearly £5,000! Not going to happen said the wife as she ordered a pair of Jimmy Choo’s. So I decided that I really need to spend a little less on art supplies and equipment until we get back from vacation, by which time her shoes will have been left in a wardrobe for another 12-months. This week I was also going to talk about the art of self-promotion but a few people have asked me recently if I could write something about creating art on a budget. I thought for so long, is this at all possible? I looked at recent receipts for my art purchases and set myself a challenge.

Also some of you will have noticed that I have recently become an Amazon affiliate. I thought long and hard about doing this, but the reasons are many. Firstly I want to raise some funding to completely overall this blog, and secondly I want to be able to find the best value art supplies and let you know about them. I will only be recommending products that I have extensively used, or own but you can guarantee that I will be finding the best prices. I now have a recommended by M.A affiliate link on the right side of the page on desktop views. So far my Amazon Affiliate earnings are a healthy zero, nada, nothing. But that's not the point. These are items I believe in. Only the best offers I can find will make it on the list.

As a digital artist I often hear that it is a cheap way to engage in being creative by those who have yet to be sucked in to a world where the equivalent of a pencil can cost hundreds of dollars. I have also come across more than a few people who describe digital art as not being real art, after all; real artists need to master so many techniques such as shading and mixing colours. The reality is that many digital artists including myself, didn’t start off as digital artists, and those traditional skills are also invaluable when creating on a digital platform.

I was one of those traditional artists at one time, occasionally I still am. I mainly painted landscapes, but I also painted abstracts and always had an interest in experimenting with very different artistic styles. Another thing that is often frowned upon in the serious art world, but I am truly fine with it.

To me, digital art is just as much real art as anything else. Be it a statue, ceramics, paper, canvas, digital art is just another medium. The assumption that it's a cheap alternative to traditional art is also very much a myth. Instead of a paintbrush a digital artist may use a stylus or a graphics tablet. Whilst you can buy cheap ones, investing in high end equipment pays off in terms of the quality you can produce. A good digital stylus will give you 2048 plus levels of pressure sensitivity, so similar skills to using a pencil to shade are required. The upside of digital is that you can undo your work if it's not quite right, but generally the skills needed are more similar than you would think.

Beyond the equipment you also need to become transliterate across multiple software packages and apps. I hadn't realised until I counted up recently just how many apps and software packages I can use in a single piece of work. My work is mainly created on an iPad, but I still need to use Photoshop and other packages such as Maya and Blender, and a whole suite of Adobe software.

I have just over 100 apps on the iPad that allow me to do something artistic. Although I have purchased nearly 200 art related apps since the launch of the original iPad. Some of these though are not so good when you need to produce art that you wish to go on and sell, and anything that no longer passes muster is deleted and confined to previous purchases in the App Store. Apple should open up a charity shop for no longer used apps.

The good thing about apps is that compared to desktop versions they are so much cheaper. The costs though can quickly add up when you are buying a few new apps pretty much every week. There is no single app that will give you everything you need so the desktop versions have to be used on some projects. The good news is that there are now a few apps that are getting really close to desktop class, and even more so on the iPad Pro.

I mainly use Photoshop on the PC and am considering buying it for the Mac. I use Adobe Creative Cloud frequently, but not quite as often as I once did. I use the extended version of Photoshop over the cheaper elements version because there are just so many more options. None of this software is cheap, and coupled with a Cintiq graphics tablet which cost almost £1,000 (UK), digital at this level can hardly be described as a low-cost way of creating art. I'm desperate to try out the Cintiq 27QHD but I can't seem to convince the wife who is an ex-bank manager to let me have it just yet, and yes it is on my wish list.

I spent almost five years studying the use of digital art software formally, and I have been using it since what seems like the dawn of time. I was creating digital art before the days of even the Commodore 64 personal computer. In fact digital art back then could be described as reasonably cheap, but the results weren't terribly impressive by today's standards. To be fair, they weren’t that great by the standards of the time, it was though the dawn of a new era. I am planning on digging out a couple of old personal computers and giving my old skills a 21st Century refresh. It should be interesting.

In terms of time a digital work can take me anywhere between 30-minutes and up to hours in the region of three digits. A recent book cover design took me 74-hours including client revisions. So digital isn’t always quick.

Whilst traditional art is not easy, there are so many different categories under this term. You might be great at painting but you might be weak at sculpting. Drawing on paper is not all that different to drawing on a screen with a stylus. But you kind of have to learn to become a master of many techniques and tools when creating digital art.

I say this because many traditional artists are making a transition to digital. Others are entering their art careers and making the leap straight to digital. Some because they like/love what digital offers, others though are under a misconception that digital is a budget way of creating art. It's not.

I am glad that I chose to follow a traditional arts path before starting to sell my digital art because I learnt so much from traditional painting that I really could not have learnt by any other way.

Over the years though I have probably spent way too much on software, systems, graphics tablets, and yes, even now I still frequently buy traditional art supplies as well. Whilst it's not cheap to go digital, there are some things that you don't really need straight off, and if you are a traditional artist, there are some things that you can also do to save some money. Remember that every dollar or pound you spend is a dollar or pound you need to recover when you sell your work.

Soon I will be writing a guide to the best Apps available to create digital art. Although not all of these will replace everything you need Photoshop and other desktop software to do, there are more than a few that come close enough though. To save you time and money I will be highlighting the best apps that will get you close to desktop class functionality. If you are an app developer please do get in touch.

But there is one thing I have discovered over the years and that is that you don't have to go all in to produce really great results. Whilst I might be desperate to try out the latest Cintiq, the reality is that I truly believe that you can make art with anything that you have. You just need to know how to use what you have. It's the same with traditional art when it comes to painting. A stone or stick on a beach to draw in the sand, a Sharpie on paper, a Sharpie on glass, you don’t have to look too far to find something that creates beauty.

Student grade paints
These might be student grade! Very little pigment, not quite so vibrant

 

THE GREAT CRAYOLA FIRE

When I started drawing as a child I would be happy with a couple of felt tip pens. I remember getting a box of 64 Crayola Crayons with a built in sharpener on the back of the box as a present for passing a test at school. I thought I had been given the world. But then one day, my last crayon disintegrated in my hand, I felt so disappointed that I tore up the box. I would need to wait for Christmas to get a new set and that was weeks away.

As I started tearing the box I noticed that strands of crayons were in the bottom of the box from being sharpened. Every kid I knew liked sharp crayons. I knew from my limited exposure to any science at the age of five that candles melted in the heat. Crayons were made from the same stuff, except the wax was coloured.

I still remember what I did next clearly to this day, surprising because I struggle sometimes with remembering what I did this morning. But the crayons I do remember. I also remember Mom and Dad bursting in to the lounge with buckets of water. I had attempted to build a multi-colour super crayon with a box of matches I had found in the kitchen. I was five years old and I was burning wax in tinfoil. Who knew that tin foil could get so hot?

When I had returned from the hospital visit that immediately followed I went in to the lounge to find that my super crayon had set. With a bandaged hand I picked it up before my parents could throw it away. Like a squirrel I huddled it away in my bedroom. My parents had to replace a carpet, but I had a super crayon. It was only a small super crayon, but I had learnt that when I got more crayons, I would take them out of service earlier and probably set fire to them in the garden.

Ever since that day I have looked for ways to save a little here and there on art supplies. Having said that I occasionally treat myself to some new Prismacolor pencils or some Old Holland Oil paints, but it's not all that often, both are a constant on my wish list.

The thing with me is that I cannot simply walk in to a stationery shop or an art supplies store and only come out with what I went in for. I'm like Kim Kardashian in a shoe shop. I need to buy everything that says new, or on limited time special offer. I can see the staff running around ahead of me sticking “sale” and “brand new line” labels on to everything, so that when I get to them I put them in the basket.

They know the minute I walk in that I'm a stationery geek sometime artist and I might look a bit gullible. I honestly believe that there are special people who are employed only in stationery and art shops, and they can sniff out a sucker from 300 paces. Engage me in a conversation about Gel Pens or heaven forbid those smelly erasers and I'm all in.

I probably should work in an art/stationery store, as long as I could play, and as long as they have a coffee machine. If it were a coffee/art/stationery shop, oh wow, I would be in bliss, and what a great business model that would be. If anyone wants to invest, let me know and I will happily run it.

THE ART OF SAVING

 

Art supplies
Art supplies - who else owns so many Sharpies in the same colour?

Whilst I will be creating a feature around the best art apps to use in the future, this week I will be looking at ways you can save a little when using traditional methods of painting. Traditional art supplies as well all know come in multiple variants. There are the professional products, and there are the student products, each with multiple layers of quality.

I never would advise on using really cheap art supplies when you are creating a piece that will be sold but there are ways that you can save money on the supplemental items, just not so much on the mediums.

Student grade and budget brands are great for practice or creating art for friends and family, some of the higher end budget brands do come close to the lower end professional brands but you would need to try them out.

Budget brands have less pigment in them so they won’t be as vibrant as higher quality brands but there is a difference in price. Having said that, I really like Pentel pastels. They are smooth and they cost a lot less than some of the premium brands.

Some acrylics will have more fluid in their base, some will have higher volumes of polymer binder and less pigment making the appearance more opaque and far less vibrant. Some of the budget brands will also be more difficult to work with as a result. Budget oils tend to be just that, with a high degree of oil again making their use problematic.

Not surprisingly the cheaper options can make an artist lose confidence in their ability. Their creative vision becomes dull when laid down on canvas, but if a better quality medium was used the results would have been staggering.

THE HUNT FOR A BARGAIN

I think over the years I have drawn on everything from my parent’s sofa to the back of a brown paper bag. Brown paper bags by the way are wonderful when used with vibrant high quality coloured pencils, and I quite like using ink on them. It’s also better for the environment over using plastic bags. Currently I am being creative with post-it notes. Doodling small designs on each before I place them all on a cork board. So far I have just over 200-sheets of post-it notes that have been scribbled on in everything from biro to crayon.

I have lost count of the palettes I have purchased over the years. Now I tend to use cheap plastic containers that have small sections. The plastic is generally a low grade which tends to be very smooth, so when I wash them out they are actually easier to clean than palettes I have previously paid top dollar for.

It bothers me that all too often we artists pay a premium price for the accessories. I purchased a Daler Rowney artists carry box for under £10, but I also have a couple of carrying boxes that were in the fishing section of a discount store. These cost me around £4 each, and they’re just as good as the Daler Rowney in terms of size. They also have some useful smaller boxes inside that are perfect for holding smaller accessories.

Talking of storage solutions without running the risk of sounding like a Pinterest post, one of the best bargains I have ever got my hands on was an artist brush point of sale display stand. This beast holds up to 244 brushes of different varieties.

The shop I purchased it from got sent a new one free every time they ordered new brushes to sell. Not having the room to display their 35-excess display stands they were offering them for sale for £7 UK ($10 US) each. Apparently many of the artist supply wholesalers will frequently send retailers point of display stands, and just as frequently many of these end up in the waste. So it is worth asking if your local store has any unused point of display stands that they would like to get rid of. Many will gladly give you them rather than having to pay to have them taken away. I now have a stand for oil brushes, water colours, and acrylics, although I am not too sure that I will ever manage to fill every one of them.

Art studio
Tidy up your studio and look after your materials!

 

While you are there, ask if they offer a discount on repeat business. My local store often gives me a little extra. Sometimes it is a free tube of paint, sometimes a couple of good quality pencils, and last time I received a carrier bag full of items that they needed to get rid of to make way for new stock.

More often than not these days even the smaller art supply stores offer a loyalty scheme. Every time you spend a certain amount you’ll earn points towards store credit. The larger stores have been doing this for a while with some of them asking you to pay a fee for joining their loyalty schemes. The smaller art stores are less likely to charge and offer much more relevant offers, not just on promoted products that they need to move quickly.

The smaller shops are often a little more expensive because they don’t have the foot traffic of the larger stores, but you are more likely to find that obscure medium and the staff tend to be artists themselves and will advise you far better than someone who just works on a Saturday and only really knows the corporate line about any product.

THE BASICS

I cannot believe that Mod Podge has been around forever but I have only recently discovered it. I have clearly led a sheltered life. This stuff is up there with Gorilla Glue and bubble wrap. The problem for me in the UK is that it’s not always widely available. I tend to run out at inconvenient times just as I am about to finish a project.

Now I have to say that the original Mod Podge is the real deal. It doesn’t yellow over time, and it is a step above anything else available that even gets close to doing the same thing. But in times of desperation there is an alternative.

You need exactly one cup of glue and exactly a third of a cup of water. Anything more or less is going to be useless. There are many recipes all over the internet to create Mod Podge, but this recipe is as close as you will get when the shops are closed.

If you want a glossed look you can add two table spoons of water-based varnish, and you can even add some very fine glitter if you want a sparkling effect.

Be cautious though. If you are using a homemade variant of the original Mod Podge, it is likely to discolour over time. You will also need a good quality glue to start with as a base. But this is ideal for children who tend to overly Mod Podge everything and it can help you out when you are in a real fix.

THE ACRYLIC PAINT

Good acrylics are essential for professional use but if your use is one where the finished results don’t have to be to such high standards, you can use a cheaper brand with some modification. Generally because of the liquid content and less pigment a cheap alternative will lack the vibrancy and lustre of the more expensive options. The cheaper brands also tend to be a little too chalky and brittle for my liking but you can add gloss medium to boost the brilliance and transparency of the colour as well as improving adhesion and durability.

Often I am asked to design a logo for a T-Shirt usually for a charity to use in an event. The last one wanted a silk-screen effect rather than printing. Silk screening can be a little more expensive than printing a T-Shirt and for me it gives the t-shirt a quality that you cannot easily achieve through printing.

If you have ever tried to draw or stencil a design you have probably used fabric paint. The issue with many fabric paints is the cost and especially if you will only want a small run of shirts. While what I am about to suggest is ok for short-to-medium term use, if you are creating professionally and you have a budget high-end paint specifically for fabrics tends to produce better and longer lasting results.

A good acrylic paint is all you need and a tube of good acrylic is around half the price of a tube of fabric paint. However, as with any medium when working on fabric is to make sure you apply some heat after the paint has dried. Even the high-end fabric paints should really have heat applied after drying. To be honest though, I can't say I have noticed any longevity issues with any decent acrylic.

THE CANVAS

Pre-stretched canvases which come pre-primed are expensive. This is where many artists find themselves in a dilemma. Do I buy one really good canvas or three or four cheap canvases for a lot less?

Again, if you are selling your art you want the best that you can afford. Many of the cheap canvases are not acid-free and this will impact on the longevity of your finished work. There are cheaper acid-free canvases available and lately I have favoured Loxley canvases for their affordability and in all honesty, I think some of their products are better than some of the more expensive brands, although it depends on the medium you are using. I use Loxley whenever I work with acrylics as I don’t tend to offer my traditional art for sale all that often. I usually create for friends and family, it is a way for me to not forget my non-digital roots.

Stretching your own canvas can be rewarding. There are now so many YouTube videos that will guide you through the process that learning the art of stretching is easier than ever. There’s a knack to it, but once you have created a few you will find the process easy. I only do this occasionally because I find that I need space, and also because I really don’t have too much free time to be able to do it for every canvas

You can save a lot of money by stretching your own canvas and it allows you to experiment with different surfaces. Another option is to reuse older canvases by flipping it over or priming it with Gesso. It is also surprising how many charity shops will sell mass produced canvas prints that are actually good quality. The reason people donate them is usually because the image no longer fits in with their décor at home, but if you prime these canvases you can reuse them at minimal cost.

But you don’t always have to stick with canvas. If you prime with something like Gesso most surfaces become something that you can be creative on. Wood, glass, paper, can all be used to add even more interest to your work. Imagine a woodland landscape on wood from a tree from that exact landscape.

For those unfamiliar with Gesso, Gesso is a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment or any combination of these. It is a staple of any serious artist. It can also save you paint. You can build up layers over Gesso and you will lose less paint because of soakage into the medium.

Home brand store canvas board tends to be budget canvas over slightly thick cardboard. Using thin board or wood can be just as cheap as some of these boards. Prime the surface of the wood or board with Gesso or use Mod Podge to apply a fabric such as muslin cloth, and suddenly you will have a very high quality board and you needn’t have spent a fortune buying cheaper ones that will bend especially when using water-based paints.

There are of course benefits and cons to stretching your own canvases. It is usually far more economical and you need space to stretch and to store your finished canvases. However, you do have flexibility and it gives you a wide range of options which are not so easy to find commercially. Sometimes the surface that you want to paint on is not available commercially at all.

There is a learning curve, but as I have already said there are so many videos on YouTube that will take you through the process step-by-step, it is easy to learn how to stretch quite quickly. Of course the downside is that stretching multiple canvases takes some time.

For wood you might want to invest in a table saw, but for other mediums it might be possible to cut using nothing more than a large craft knife.

SHOULD I ALWAYS USE A CANVAS FOR OIL PAINTING?

At one time I was blissfully unaware that you could use anything other than a canvas for painting with oils. It is a strangely unique medium that offers so much flexibility and the reality is that oil works on a number of surfaces.

Usually a canvas is seen as a primed fabric over wooden stretcher bars that are made from wood, but frequently you can find aluminium stretcher bars which tend not to react with the environment and can be lighter for hanging. Of course they also tend to be a little more expensive.

Linen has forever been seen as the default for a canvas surface but cotton canvases are just as popular. It is a myth that either outlasts the other, it is just that the two offer vastly different surfaces to work on. I personally prefer linen for abstract work because they have more of an irregular weave than cotton. Cotton is very good for landscapes, but the question is do we really have to conform between these two choices?

Over time there is a tendency for oil paint to crack. The more solid the surface the less this is likely to happen. MDF is a Medium-density fibreboard and is an engineered wood product made by breaking down hardwood or softwood residuals into wood fibres combining it with wax and a resin binder, and forming panels by applying high temperature and pressure. However, it can also contain chemicals that could over time give you a bigger headache than simply cracking. But MDF is also a popular choice for some artists to work on. You can buy pre-covered MDF canvases and these should fare better in the long run.

But oil also works well on wood panels. Prime those with Gesso and you are good to go. There are some art suppliers who will sell you an archival wooden board, meaning that they are treated and will stand the test of time but again these tend to be expensive.

One of the coolest surfaces I have tried is aluminium. I have even etched in some effects. The type of aluminium that is used for road signs is also great for creating some unique effects. However, you will need to first sand the surface of the aluminium before cleaning it and priming it. I would tend to use an acrylic primer as the results appear to be better than an oil primer.

Copper is another metal that is often used with oils and just last week I saw a beautiful work in a local gallery that was actually created out of copper piping from a plumbers merchants. When I spoke to the artist I was surprised to hear that it actually didn’t need priming but if you want to you can. You do need to make sure you sand it down slightly before applying the paint, but I was taken aback that I could potentially use the thirty feet of copper pipe that was left behind by the previous owners of my house. I just need to check that it absolutely isn’t connected to anything first.

BRUSHES

I have no idea how may brushes I have used over the years, more than likely I could have filled my point of display stands with them multiple times over. My daughter being an avid and award winning I might add, artist is always on the lookout for brushes. If mine disappear there is no doubt that my 13-year old has squirreled them away and conveniently forgot to put them back.

But being a 13-year old she is also very heavily in to makeup. I’m not talking run of the mill Walmart or Boots, I am talking Mac Makeup brushes and Real Techniques that both cost real money.

She also likes doing her nails. She is just as much a nail artist as she will become a traditional artist in a few years. But there is one thing that we both hadn’t realised until lately is that makeup brushes of this quality have really soft bristles.

Off to the local nail salon we went and asked them how frequently they changed their brushes. After looking slightly confused by this odd request the salon owner said that they had to replace their nail art and makeup brushes frequently because of splaying and chemical use.

Now whilst I don’t like mixing brushes between mediums, this seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. I now go to the nail salon every six-months and receive a bag of premium makeup and nail brushes that have been cast of as being no longer suitable to work on the detail required in nail art. So now we seem to have a collection of stippling brushes and mascara brushes which are great for scratching effects.

THE DECISION

As an artist you need to decide what is important and what is nice to have. You also need to sometimes take a step back and consider what it is that you think you need as opposed to what it is that you actually need.

I am left-handed and I write and draw in the oddest way. Whenever I stop and think about how I look when I write and draw even I laugh out loud. I turn everything sideways and I write sideways too. It drove my teachers mad at school, and this is just one of the reasons why they said that I was on the edge of some kind of spectrum. Yes, they really did say that.

I purchased an easel because I thought it would be a good idea, but I ended up standing to the left of it and turning the canvas around 90 degrees so that I could actually control the pen. It was awkward so I invested in a craft table that not only has storage but also raises and lowers in various angles. I usually keep it flat. Would a normal table serve me just as well?

No one can blame you for the occasional treat. My treats are Prismacolor pencils and Old Holland oil paints, along with many gadgets. But there are times when we need to consider just how much we spend on creating a piece of art and what we will get in return. Pride in our work whenever we produce something great is a wonderful return, but it doesn’t pay the bills. To pay the bills you need buyers. If they will pay then you need the best that their available budget will buy. If you haven’t got a buyer already, you need to make a choice. Do you create a piece using the best mediums or do you go slightly lower on the budget?

I would say use the best that you can afford, but this isn’t always possible for everyone. Consider buying smaller quantities of better quality materials as a compromise.

So now we can perhaps save a little and create more art with the same budget. If you have any ideas that can save your fellow artists some hard earned money, please do feel free to leave a comment.

THIS WEEK

This week I will be ramping up my marketing a little because I am in the process of investing some funds to give the website an overhaul. I am hoping that I will soon be able to write even more posts and add some additional content to the site, and maybe turn the blog in to a full-time venture at some point. All I need is traffic and a few more art sales to make it happen!

So if you would like to help a fellow artist in his quest to spread a little knowledge and joy, please do consider heading over to http://10-Mark-Taylor.pixels.com and buying a piece of art. It doesn’t matter if it is just a greetings card, every sale is appreciated just as much as the next.

Lastly I would like to thank the very kind lady in Seattle who got in touch to say that she loved her print and until she carried out some research on the internet she had no idea that Print On Demand artists earned so little, and by way of thanks she would like to send a little extra to my PayPal account. That gesture has completely restored my faith in humanity this week. Thank you, I will be sending you a signed proof print in return.

 

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