I often get asked what art materials I use. More often than not, people just want to know whether I use acrylic, oils, pencils or pastels. They don’t ask what make or grade of material I use. And they definitely don’t ask what canvas or paper I use.
Way back as an undergraduate, we were enrolled on a ‘Methods & Materials’ course on our Art History degree at UCL. Most of us thought it meant learning about the types of paints, pencils, graphites available, as well as archaic methods such as egg tempera and vellum, more associated with the renaissance and the medieval times.
Instead, the course opened a world of interest into the chemical makeup (hear me out) biodegradation and inherent quality of historic art materials. More like a forensic identification of the elements it took to make up pigments and surfaces , we looked at cross sections of paint samples to see the layers of paints and varnishes, to identify the compounds of the pigments, often made from metals, plants or, less often, animals . We also learned how well – or not – that paints, varnishes, canvases and paper had held up over the (often many) years. What that information told us about the artists’ methods was conclusive: the better quality and generally the more expensive materials, the better they have lasted.
And it is still true today. The better quality the art materials, the longer and in more pristine condition your artwork will last. The concentration of pigment, the binding in the pencils, the quality of the brushes used to paint all helps to produce artwork which lasts. As professional artists, it is our duty to offer excellent quality products.
Derwent, Daler Rowney and Rexel Cumberland and Winsor and Newton are all British art supplies brands, and overwhelmingly manufacture in the UK. They make excellent ranges ideal for professional artists, at the more expensive end, while also offering products for students, hobbyists etc. depending on your requirements.
Whatever your budget, however, the most important material to spend money on is the surface that you’ll apply the pigment to – i.e. the paper or the canvas. This will determine how your pigment sits and binds to the surface, and how well over time your artwork will last. After all, you want your client to be happy with their artwork for many years to come.
In terms of paper, some cheap paper is fine for sketching and practicing, but really for final artworks, I can spend from £2 to £10 on one sheet of paper for drawing, and for watercolour paper, much more. The cheaper the paper, generally the waxier the surface and therefore the less well the colour adheres, blends and stays on the surface. It only leads to disappointment for the artist and client alike!
For canvas, there are two things to consider – the frame and the canvas material. The frame will make the canvas wobble and lose shape, and will be hard during paint application as well as afterwards. The canvas material may bow, and the primer painted on the canvas material can also make it harder or easier depending on quality to let the oil or acrylic paint to adhere to the surface. You can also buy canvas without primer, which in some ways is better, because you can paint directly onto canvas, leaving a ‘bare’ look if you choose certain colour of thread, or it means you can use your own primer, which works best for the type of paint that you want to work with.
In sum, the quality of the materials is really important, both liquid and surface. And as a professional, neither should be scrimped on. But if you have to be frugal, the most important part to not save on is the surface – the paper and the canvas. Only then will your work stand the test of time.