For Beginners and Those Not So New!

the essentials of creating art 

This week a friend asked me how they could start creating art, what are the essentials when you are just starting out, and should they buy one of the starter kits that are popular in the large art supply stores. My friend is naturally gifted and has produced some really good works but has never had the confidence to make a start and turn his hobby in to a business. 

I pondered this for a while and realised that many people who want to start creating art might be tempted to buy some of the starter kits, the problem with many of the starter kits though is that they either come with non-essential items or will come with various types of paint mediums, and actually only contain a small number of the absolute essential items that you need when starting out.

The other issue with many of the good kits I have seen is that they are expensive and most of that expense is made up from those non-essentials that always seem to be included in the set. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very good cheaper sets, but the quality of the items included is often not all that good and most of them will contain student grade materials. 

This is fine if you want to test out the waters and do a little practice, but if like my friend, you want to create pieces of work which can be of a quality where they can be sold then you will need some better quality materials, but not necessarily too many of them. Buying smartly can work out much cheaper than a kit and what you spend on non-essentials can go towards buying higher quality materials, unless you just want to fill your art creating space with equipment regardless of the quality. I have seen this a lot. 

The difference between using cheap materials and higher quality materials becomes evident once the piece is finished. Lower priced paints tend to have less colour pigment, whereas a slightly more expensive option will have more colour pigment and will produce vastly better results. The colours for a start will be more vibrant and they tend not to fade quite so easily if at all. 

If you are only trying to get a feel for the type of medium you feel most comfortable with, then a taster pack or starter set is ideal, you can always go for a smaller starter set with slightly higher end components included if you still want to achieve a good standard. By doing this it will also give you a more realistic idea of how the better paint can be applied.

Some artists I know tend to stick to one type of medium, oil, watercolour, acrylic, or gouache. Others I know will utilise a combination of mediums to produce the end result. I couldn’t really say that one style is better than any other, but many beginners tend to go with acrylics. They tend to dry quickly and they mix well. Better still, they can be cleaned up more easily than oils, and they adhere well to most surfaces.  Watercolour seems an obvious choice for beginners but watercolours are perhaps one of the most difficult mediums to work with, it is very difficult to overpaint mistakes. 

However some artists prefer the way oils apply and give a shinier result, some even suggest that oils are actually easier to use. I have seen a number of starter sets that include a particular medium that you can test out, and there are a number of starter sets that include oils, watercolour, and acrylics, and some that also include a set of pastels.


You can mix different brands of paint, although they might apply very differently than if you were to mix the same brands, but if you do mix different brands, always use brands of the same quality. There are essentially two qualities of paint that we need to initially focus on, student quality paint, and artist quality paint.

If you have two brands of artist quality paint you will have fewer issues mixing them than you would if you tried to mix student quality paint with artist quality paint.

If you wish to use different mediums such as oil and acrylic, then you should remember that the acrylic should always be beneath an oil paint as the acrylic dries much faster than oil based paints. You also need to consider that the canvas or paper you are working on should support the types of paint that you will be using.
The other thing to remember is that if you apply a smooth acrylic and then add in some detail with oil, you will have a problem with adhesion. You need to apply the acrylic so that it is not too thick, as fast as acrylic dries, it can take a while for thick swathes of acrylic to dry out. Whenever I use acrylic bases, I tend to do so when I am using a stiffer and more rigid drawing surface.

Acrylics are flexible whereas oils tend to dry hard, so any stretch of the canvas could lead to the oil paint cracking, although it is not a huge problem in most cases of the canvas is of a relatively good quality.

When it comes to starting out and choosing the colours, you actually don’t need too many to start with. Many colours can be mixed, but you need to understand a little about colour theory to be able to apply consistent results.

A beginner’s paint shopping list should really comprise of a cool and warm red, a cool shade and a warmer shade of yellow, cool and warm blue, to cover shades of the primary colours, and a white. I always suggest getting a deep black too.

In terms of cost, you can pick up some amazing artist quality paints for just a little more than a good student quality paint. There are some student quality paints available which still cost more than a lower end artist paint, so it is always worth going to a local art supply shop to get the best advice when selecting paints for the first time. They will be able to tell you exactly which paint is ideal for whatever purpose you need it for, and they will have much more specialist knowledge than some of the large box and chain stores.


The support that you use (an artist’s term for the type of surface) is very important. Some canvases come pre-primed, some are for specific mediums, and some are for mixed media. If you are only using one type of medium, go for the support that supports the chosen medium. Some of the mixed media supports are more expensive and the results are not always as good as using a dedicated support.

If you are using oil paint, make sure that you either have a pre-primed support, or that you prime the support before you start painting. If you don’t do this, the oil will cause the canvas or paper to start rotting prematurely. When you are starting out, pre-primed is the better option to go for.

If you want to look at alternatives to purchasing pre-primed or stretched canvases, why not take a look at my previous post, The Art of Beginning Art at: and this will post will also explain to you what brush and paint is useful for what you are working on.

artist Quality materials 


Brushes are one of the things I never really compromise on, I usually prefer a slightly more expensive brush because with the cheaper ones you will find that you get more bristles than paint on the work you are creating.

If you want a great brush though there are options. Whenever I travel I now use a travel brush from Rosemary and Co. and if you are saving on other essential supplies you can afford to spend a little more on a good quality brush. I think a great quality brush also gives your confidence a boost when you are using it. Not all brushes are created equal.

It depends on a number of factors, mediums used, size of the work you are creating, but generally I find that whenever I create anything up to around 24 inches, I have some favourite brushes which I always turn to, and rarely if ever do I use some of my others.
Essentially I will have a round brush, a pointed round brush, a flat, a bright, a filbert, an angular flat, and a round detail brush. That is just seven brushes in total. Beyond that it comes down to size.

If you are starting out, my advice is to start with a basic set of 8-10 brushes and maybe a palette or painting knife too. If you are working on larger work then have a few larger sizes of your most used brushes as well. Also worth remembering that just because one brush says size 8, some manufacturer’s brushes are larger than other manufacturer’s brushes even though they are both apparently the exact same size, so always go with the measurement over the brush number.

And finally some brushes are specific to a particular medium. If you only work in acrylics then you will need only a set suitable for acrylics, these tend to be springier than brushes for oil and watercolour and needn’t be quite as expensive as those used for either oil or watercolour.

The Palette Knife is one of my most used tools. Where at one time I would always use a flat brush, a palette knife is ideal for spreading colour, and building up texture. I tend to do all of my mixing with a palette knife now because they will not wear out as easily as a brush. For many years I would have a brush used specifically for mixing, but I found that the bristles will deteriorate over relatively short periods of time. There really is no need to use an expensive brush to mix, but what you can do is keep your old brushes for exactly this purpose.

I absolutely love palette knives for mixing and applying colour to a large area but when it comes to actually doing any painting, you’ll need a painting knife. So many people use palette knife as a description of the two, but there is a difference between a palette knife and a painting knife.

Painting knives are generally made from metal although you can buy plastic ones. If you go with plastic, at some point soon it will snap. There is a large bend in a painting knife between the handle and the blade, this is to ensure that your hand is away from the paint. The metal variety are also flexible and ideal for applying smaller details and giving the piece texture.


So we have covered the basic essentials that you need to start painting, so what about drawing. You can draw with most anything that leaves a mark on a surface, one of my favourite mediums at the moment is a biro! The downside to using a biro is that you cannot easily remove any mistakes, but you can achieve some nice shading effects when using a run of the mill BIC Crystal.

When it comes to pencils, as with paint there are many different manufacturers creating very different products both in terms of what they do and in terms of quality. You can buy a really nice tin of pencils which include almost every hardness from 6B to 9H and everything in between. The harder the graphite in a pencil, the lighter the markings and shades will be, the softer graphite pencils are useful for thicker strokes and darker areas of shading.

Softer pencils will wear down much quicker than the harder ones so you will need to sharpen and replace them more frequently. Some sets come with a number of the same softer pencils just for this very reason.

What you will find is that you don’t need every hardness and every softness available and which are usually standard fair in the sets. Buying individual pencils can be cost effective, especially if you only went for the most used, in most cases they would be, 2H, HB, 2B, and 4B, which give a broad range, especially if you practice applying pressure in different ways to achieve different shades. What you should look out for though is that some sets will be as cheap as buying five or six individual pencils, even more so as sets are more likely to have offers applied to them.

classic biro 


Choosing a sketchbook is like choosing a dessert from a patisserie. You know that some desserts will look good and taste awful, and other desserts won’t look quite so nice but will taste like heaven.You will want at least two or three good quality sketch books, with one or two set aside for practice. 

As with anything in life, an artist needs to exercise their skill and try out new things before committing them to the final work. I keep what I call my ideas sketch book, a fairly inexpensive yet good quality sketchbook which I use every day. It goes everywhere with me. As soon as I get a moment during the day, I might do 30-seconds or 30-minutes of sketching ideas or things I want to add to an unfinished piece, and in readiness for when I have an idea that I would like to try out. 

Mostly, there is little detail, and I write a lot of notes inside it together with some simple concept sketches. I also keep another sketch book close by, and this is the one that I will practice sketching with. I can try out new things in this book but it is purely used to practice. A good example at the beginning of my latest sketchbook is when I started sketching hyper realistic objects. As I have progressed through, I can see that my latter efforts are much more realistic than those I first did. It is a way that I can also check my own progress.

My third sketchbook, and subsequent ones in different sizes are where I lay down those ideas and skills and create a finished piece. Over the years I have built up a collection and it is interesting to see how my skills have evolved, well for the most part anyway. 

I have a preferred paper, usually heavy weight, bright white, and really smooth for drawings. For painting I like a deep texture. In technical terms the surface of the paper is called the tooth, and papers with more a pronounced tooth will give lines a broken effect when drawing, and when painting will apply a texture under the paint.

Paper weights are important too. You can find out more about paper weights in one of my earlier blog posts- Get the most out of your printer which can be found here:

I like heavier weight papers, and I like them to be quite thick. Some papers can actually be thinner than others and yet still maintain a heavier weight. I always choose an acid-free paper which again is explained in more detail here:

In short, an acid-free paper will last a lot longer than those papers containing acids which eventually break down the paper and whatever is on it. Acid containing papers will also discolour over time too.

As a general rule of thumb, I will use a heavy and smooth drawing paper for any pencil work, or where I am creating lots of lines, and Bristol paper, which is similar to card-stock if I need to create various gradations of shade. I rarely ever use charcoal, if I do it is usually only to have a play about with, but there are papers which are especially suited to charcoal. 

There is an alternative to having various paper types, companies such as Daler Rowney produce a really good mixed-media paper as do others such as Strathmore and my all-time favourite paper manufacturer, Canson. You can see Canson’s papers here: please note that I am in no way affiliated or supported through Canson, I genuinely love their papers and rate them very highly.


If you produce a sketch and have never made a mistake you are either extremely talented or one of the very lucky ones. Every sketch artist needs to occasionally rub out a mistake, or erase the guide lines.

Many years ago when I was at school, I honestly thought that there were only ever three types of eraser. Those that were either white or pink and dull, those that were pink one end and blue the other, with the blue end supposedly rubbing out ink, and those fancy erasers that had a fruit smell. 
I loved those and even today whenever I see one I have to buy it, I just love the smells that some of them have. Then there were miniature versions of the pink or white eraser that were built in to the slightly more expensive pencils. 

When I was at school, social class was determined by pencil type. A built in eraser put you in to higher middle classes, a worn out HB pencil minus an eraser made you somewhere in the lower classes bordering poverty. I chewed a lot of my pencils so my parents would never buy me one with a built in eraser for fear of me choking. True story, very tough school. There's probably a whole blog post that can be written about my school and my occasional days within it, it eventually burned down. 

What I hadn’t realised for a long time was that there were actually a number of different erasers that were particularly suited to different tasks. Rubber erasers are what we in the U.K call rubbers, which also means a form of birth control. It’s so easy to mix them up so we will call them rubber erasers to avoid any embarrassment. Everyone knows that I plan on living in the States one day, shopping will be fun. 

Rubber erasers, my favourites were produced by Paper Mate, and Steadtler, would effectively remove lead when it was legal and didn’t cause a poisonous reaction, (it did but nobody knew) and graphite, the modern equivalent. The problem with a rubber eraser is that it can damage the paper if you were overly aggressive, and it would leave shreds of rubber all over the place.

Gum erasers are much softer than rubber erasers and also feel very different to hold. Gum erasers also crumble and it is the crumbling pieces that absorb graphite. Gum erasers also prevent damage to your paper, the problem is that you will go through a lot of gum erasers because they crumble apart so much.

Kneaded rubber and putty erasers are actually more fun to play with than to use. It is reminiscent of silly putty to feel, and they work by lifting the pigment away from the paper. The useful thing about kneaded putty erasers is that they also work with charcoal and you can shape them to a fine point to erase small details. Even better is that kneaded rubber erasers can be easily cleaned and last a long time. They are of course slightly more expensive.

Plastic and vinyl erasers (the white ones, but they also come in other colours) are extremely durable and are the most destructive to paper if not used in the correct way. They produce very clean results and can even erase most inks. 

Some erasers can also be used to blend colour, but for the most part using a blending stump is the preferred method. If you want to smudge or blend colours, companies such as Prismacolor have a range that can be used. You can also create various gradations, and these blending stumps can be used to create smoother tonal surfaces. I tend to use these when creating portraits, but their use is many and varied. Just make sure you practice different effects, you will be surprised at what you can do with a blending pencil or stump.

when I was at school pencils 


If you are using any pencil you will need to sharpen it. A good quality sharpener can save you a fortune in the long run. Here is a really handy tip that will save you an absolute fortune if you use coloured pencils, and especially those from Prismacolor. Get an official Prismacolor sharpener.
I say this because coloured pencils contain a binding coat. If you use an electric sharpener or one that is not the perfect size, or one where the blade is of a lower quality, they will chew your pencil up in double time, the graphite will get damaged, and when using an electric sharpener, the binding can jam the mechanism and render the sharpener useless. This is from experience. Never ever put Prismacolor pencils in any run of the mill budget priced sharpener. 

My recommendation for a good sharpener is to just get the Prismacolor sharpener and use it for everything. If you go with any other type, then try to get one that will accommodate different circumferences of pencil and make sure it has a quality blade.


I personally have never liked the mess created with charcoal. I love the end results but I just don’t like charcoal as a medium myself. As with pencils, charcoal comes in different gradients, usually it is either vine or compressed, with vine charcoal being much softer than compressed charcoal. You can always use charcoal pencils, this will at least save your hands from needing a deep clean when you put them away. For some reason charcoal was used a lot when I was at school but it seems to be that fewer artists today actually use it. I do love too see a good charcoal work. 

Conté is another similar medium, although it is made differently using clay as opposed to burnt materials found in charcoal. Again, not a medium I particularly enjoy, but if you want to produce stunning mono toned works, then these are probably your best options.


Why did we not have Sharpies when I was in school? If you are looking to use felt-tip pens in your works then I would recommend Sharpies. They stick to just about any surface and you can even get them in metallic colours too. 

Sharpies are exceptional value in packs over the prices of a single unit, and the choice of colours is so varied. Look out for special offers in the larger art supply box stores and in supermarkets. In the U.K, it seems that Tesco always have offers available on packs of Sharpies, and you can save a small fortune over buying individual pens. Check prices on Amazon too. 


There is a wealth of information in this post so I thought I would write a list that you can use to go out and at least get started. I am not affiliated nor do I have any ties or interests in the products on the list where manufacturers are named, and I have tried to keep it as generic as possible.


Pencils - 2H, HB, 2B, and 4B,
Sketchbooks A3, A4, and A5 with preferred weight and tooth
Kneaded rubber eraser
Plastic and vinyl eraser
Good quality pencil sharpener
Coloured pencils with a high content of pigment to produce bright colours
Fine line drawing pens (Faber and Castell are very good) with various sized tips


You should have as a minimum:
Cool tones of red, blue, and yellow
Warm tones of red, blue and yellow
White (cool and warmer tones would be better)
Primary colour tones are colours which cannot be mixed to achieve the colour.
Deep black

If you can afford it, then something like the Michael Harding oil paint starter set is a great investment. and includes:

40ml of 102 Titanium White No.2,
113 Ultramarine blue,
205 Scarlet lake,
110 Yellow lake,
118 Yellow Ochre Deep,
126 Burnt Umber

The set costs £39.95 in the UK, and it really is a great introduction to working with artist quality oils.

For paint-brushes, please read my related post at: 


If you prefer to start out with creating digital art I will be posting an exclusive feature just after Christmas 2016. There are so many excellent apps and software packages available these days and for every platform.  Just keep an eye on this blog by signing up to have each post sent directly to your inbox (I refuse to ever send you spam!) All you need to do is provide your email address in the box near the bottom of this page or email me at and I will make sure you are on the list. If you have developed an art app that I A, not currently a Beta tester for, get in touch and I will give your app a try. 


Mark “M.A” Taylor is a UK based artist who specialises in contemporary, abstract, landscape, and digital art and has more than 30-years of experience. His works are available through online stores such as and at Pixels through and at Zazzle* Mark will also soon be producing stunning new designs that will be exclusive to Design By Humans.

His work is sold all over the world and also in more than 150 of the largest brick and mortar physical retail art stores in the USA and Canada, such as The Great Frame Up, and Deck the Walls.

Mark supports other local and international artists with advice and promotion through this website, and his successful Facebook groups The Artists Exchange, and The Artist Hangout and regularly promotes other artists from around the world. By purchasing Marks artwork you are helping to keep this website maintained and for Mark to continue supporting other artists in such a highly competitive market. 

For more about paper types please visit:


This week I released a brand new work entitled Disclosure and I would like to thank everyone who has supported and purchased this wonderful piece. After months of being asked if I could produce wooden canvas prints, the option became available through Fine Art America and its associated partner sites including and the option is now available across the range of art I have produced. Make sure you order early for Christmas!

disclosure by Mark Taylor 


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