In praise of inexpensive materials

August 10, 2010
Robert Genn

Dear Rodney,When buying art materials, it's almost always wise to get the best you can afford. 
This is particularly true for supports--the surfaces you work on. Nothing is as 
disappointing as paper that yellows after just a few years, or cotton canvas so 
thin and threadbare that it wouldn't pass for a prison bedsheet.

At the same time, quality and high price don't always come first when it comes to 
pigments. There are many cheap colours, particularly earth colours, where the raw 
materials are so readily available and dense enough to begin with that they work 
well for most jobs. Further, the fillers, extenders and other additives that go 
into a lot of cheaper paints can actually be a benefit in sullying the garishness 
that comes easily in high-density, expensive pigments. 

A lover of Golden Acrylics (I'm not on their payroll), lately I've been adding 
squeezes from the fat tubes of Winsor and Newton Galleria (student quality) and 
even Chinese Pebeos that come at a fraction of the price. But it's not about saving 
bucks. It's about volume of paint and the potential for juicy creativity. Expensive 
paints bring out your resident miser. Cheaper paints, used discretionally, are 
more likely to be lathered on in abundance and bravura.   

Fact is, for some of us, inexpensive materials bring out the magic of playfulness. 
Take my friend Toni Cavelti. One of the most honoured jewelry designers in Canada, 
he's spent a lifetime working with precious diamonds, rubies and emeralds. In his 
workshops, gold and platinum were the metals of choice. Now retired from serving 
the rich and famous, Toni has made a new career making sculptures using 1.5 mm iron 
wire that costs him less than ten bucks a roll. FYI, we've put a short video of 
Toni and his work at the top of the current clickback.

In paint, the most important thing is the binder or medium. In acrylic media, rough 
stones and pieces of found junk can probably be held together for millennia if 
there's enough binder. I wouldn't skimp on quality acrylic medium. In oil, you can 
think about the admixture of quality materials with student materials, as well as 
appropriate amount of the current, not too smelly media designed to take the place 
of the popular (and yellowing) Linseed oil. In watercolour, particularly, you need 
to be aware of the fugitive nature of some pigments. Reading the permanency guide 
on most labels will keep your colours the way you want them.

Best regards,


PS: "I work in a very humble material and that suits me just fine." (Toni Cavelti)

Esoterica: Questions regarding the mixing of paint brands on the same painting 
often pop into this inbox. While there are some variations in the molecular makeup 
between the different manufacturers, they seem to me to be homogeneous, and getting 
more so. In acrylic, favour a quality medium or gel--it will carry most pigments. 
Materials permanency expert Mark Gottsegen warns, "All the fillers, extenders, and 
other ingredients used in 'professional' paints--oils and acrylic dispersion 
paints--have homogenized what we get in stores today. They are necessary, in the 
case of the acrylics. They have made today's oil paints into white bread."