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Getting Started with Art Media: How Do I Choose?

Updated on October 25, 2009
Creating a New Blue:  Mineral Pigment Milk Paint
Creating a New Blue: Mineral Pigment Milk Paint

Know Your Art Materials

As a sometime artist and chemistry teacher, I like to experiment with materials. I've even made my own paints and inks. So if you're looking for a good pen or paint, I can get you started.

For Beginners and Gift-Givers:

Creative children will enjoy almost any new material. Adults are more easily intimidated. Our more 'sophisticated' tastes, and our fear of embarrassment, can make us all too critical of our own first efforts.

If you are just starting out, or buying a gift for a beginner, keep it simple. Get the nicest quality you can, of something you know will be used: beautiful thick creamy paper, nice cedar-wood pencils with good erasers, pigment pens, or a BIG box of something age-appropriate with lots of colors.

(Choosing Kids Art Supplies: I was excited about crayons at ages 3-6, markers up to about age 10, oil pastels or colored pencils at ages 8-12. For teens, find out their favorite style, or try a small set of pro-grade paints or pens.  It's a good idea to consider their taste and skill at any age: bring a sample of their art along with you if you can, and let a salesperson help you pick something special just for them.)

If you want to paint, start with maybe 3-4 brushes in different sizes. (Flat tips, or points, are most versatile.) Soft camel-hair or Chinese brushes for watercolor, stiff natural-bristled ones for oil or acrylic. You can get prepared canvas or boards, or watercolor paper in a few different textures.

Most artists depend on a physical, sensual interaction with their tools. Touch the paper, smell the pencils, practice writing with the pens. If it doesn't give you pleasure, then look for something else.

For Practicing Artists:

You are comfortable with your technique, but you are ready to try something new, or frustrated by a limitation of your current material. These Hubs contain various tips and ideas:

  • What to look for in professional art supplies,
  • When it's OK to settle for cheap art supplies, and
  • How to tell the difference

There are links below to details about on specific materials. These include:

  • What new media might work well for a new style or subject
  • What materials are compatible with each other, so you can mix it up.
  • Tricks to try with different materials, and dangers to avoid.

Please add your comments, and share your favorites too.

Terms to Know:

Many artists don't do geek-speak, but these ideas will help you get the most out of your media. If you want to hear more, let me know and I'll do Chemistry of Art hub with more details.

Paint or Dye:

Paints are made with pigments: tiny little rocks or powders. Dyes are dissolved liquids.
Why does this matter?

  • Pigments rest on top of the surface. Binders make them stay there.
    Pigment + binder is your basic paint. Paints can be physically removed from a surface, and may crack if the surface flexes.
  • Dyes soak into the surface. Dyes move easily, great for flexible materials like cloth, and for free-flowing pen inks. They can permanently bond or stain various materials (especially with the right 'mordants'), but any excess can bleed and spread.

Super Lightfast Vs. The Fugitive Ink:

You'll see "lightfast" on a lot of art materials, but you'll rarely see the term "fugitive." Yet you've seen fugitive colors in action: the colored 'shadow' after a painting comes down from a wall, or "antique" Inca textiles that turned out to be made with cheap acrylic yarns.

Professional art materials give a 'lightfast' or 'permanence' rating, so you can make informed decisions about the expected performance of your purchase. The ASTM ratings go from I to 8; I and II are considered 'permanent' for artist use. If there is no indication whether it will last, it's not a professional art material. Results may be unpredictable.

  • Lightfast pigments and dyes will not fade in UV or sunlight. Not much, anyway.
  • 'Permanence' in paints means lighfastness + film durability, but 'permanent' markers just means it's not water-soluble.
  • "Fugitive" colors fade over time / with exposure to light or air. Some surprisingly popular colors, like Alizarin Crimson, are fugitive. Most manufacturers put out lightfast or 'permanent' replacements to popular fugitive colors.

Techniques: Applying the Color

Your hands, eyes, and tools are the path to your creative expression. The same basic colors are sold in many shapes and sizes, so you can use them to draw, paint, sketch, watercolor, fresco, glaze, stain....

To improve your technique, or learn the proper use for a particular tool, try local classes, or search online videos by artists you admire. Then do what works for you.

Remember, you're not trying to learn to paint "just like that artist." You are the artist. You want to paint like you. If you want a painting just like someone else's style, buy their art. If you are going to spend the time and money to paint something yourself, it should (and will) be a unique expression of your own vision and skill. Be proud of your style, and keep practicing to develop your creative abilities.

Even if you already have an established style, it pays to occasionally try something new (a sponge instead of a brush? A tissue? A dental pick? Maybe monochrome, or exaggerated color?) to open up your creative experience.


Paper or plastic? Glass or fabric? Birch, plywood, or hardboard? Wall plaster, or painted canvas? Print on T-shirts, archival paper, or greeting cards? How about edible art for cakes? Your surface affects what tools will work, what materials will stick, and how they'll look. Each tool, color, and binder has a range of compatible surfaces.

The main things I look for in surfaces:

  • Is it compatible with my technique? Oil paints need a sealed surface, watercolors an open or porous one. Most commercial art suppliers list the intended use, but you can experiment (oil paint on gessoed paper, watercolors on fabric, new artificial surfaces).
  • Do I like the texture, smell, color? Feel it. Watercolor paper can be toothed, satiny, or flat smooth. I like the smooth stuff for control; my aunt likes more texture for soft effects. Handmade paper takes color very differently from clay-coated office paper. Canvas comes in coarser and smoother, too. Colored surfaces can add excitement to monochrome drawings. You can draw on silk, or paint on glass.
  • Is it archival, and do I care? Archival papers are made to last, free of various chemicals that cause fading and yellowing. If you are making disposable art, newsprint or printer paper might be cheaper. Some great art papers may not be marked either way.
  • Is it the right amount, for the right price? For beginning a new subject, a big pad of penny-sketch might be a better investment than three sheets of fine art paper. If you will be traveling or doing landscapes, consider the largest size that you can comfortably carry with you (and hide from the rain!).
  • Does it make me want to do my art? Get whatever grade of material will inspire you to actually use it.

Go forth and create!

Read More about Specific Materials:

"When is a permanent marker not permanent?" - Pens and Markers

"Why do we paint bridges ugly colors?" - Paints and Pigments

"Is there such a thing as charcoal that doesn't smudge?" - Pencils, Crayons, and Color Sticks


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      I have nuthin asiangt giving hickies or gettin them it's just that i dnt lyk gettin them. I'd rather have ma dude constantly lick ma neck passionately and wildly rather than just suk it. Itz fun an all but i dnt like anyone in ma business so i keep it on the minimum + the 1st hickie i got that ma muther saw geesh i got my ass whopped by mother and punishment lol .by the way just becuz u get hickies doesn't mean that ur a slore (slut +whore) and it doesn't mean that u had sex 2 get them

    • Erica K Wisner profile imageAUTHOR

      Erica K Wisner 

      6 years ago from Oregon

      I'm the same way. I love learning new ways to make things, or inventing something new to do with familiar stuff.


    • lpanfil profile image


      6 years ago from Cleveland, Ohio

      I joke that there isn't an art form or craft that I ever met that I didn't like.


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