Painters: Your Fancy Tools May Be Holding You Back

I made this on yellow construction paper with pen and white pastel pencil and there's a coffee stain on it, but making it taught me something! Every drawing you make can teach you something about what you do. It's so intrinsic and weird.

“An artist is only as good as his tools.”

Yeah right.

Not true at all!

Through my involvement with classes at art centers, I’ve learned it’s not uncommon that inexperienced artists will invest in expensive tools. Nice brushes, fine oils, all these accessories, big ol’ fancy canvas. Maybe your own easel to work at home. So you’re sitting there with these great tools, which upon buying boosted you with a confidence that then carried you on a wave of sunny momentum all the way to the art class.

You unpack everything, set up and proceed to paint with this inhibition so subtle yet strong that you can’t fight it. You feel obligated to do your fancy tools justice, which does not leave you free to paint with the necessary amount of looseness. Your painting looks dead, stiff and little. The instructor squeals something at once motivating and condescending. You see the money you spent turn into a bunch of crap before your eyes and you wonder why you even bothered.

Becoming an artist is not only about learning how to mix your colors and compose space. Your body needs the experience of having done it a bunch so it can intuit certain things and refine certain impulses till you can continue onward learning new things and incorporating the things you’ve discovered.

I made the ad pictured above on yellow construction paper with pen and white art pencil, and there’s an oil stain on it, but making it taught me something! Every drawing you make can teach you something. In this drawing, I was practicing freehand straight-line shading, how to angle letters in a bending word, and how to arrange space around a circle shape. Arranging the stuff in the space around a circle can get tricky.

For an artist, there’s a momentum of exponential discovery and growth that comes with steady working. You can’t develop a cohesive body of work if you’re too sporadic about how often you paint. I mean, babies don’t start off reading Shakespeare from a book. You start off gurgling and babbling. And eventually you form sentences and so on. Not because you want to. Because you just do. You don’t, like, set goals for how many words you’re going to know by the time you’re two and a half. It just happens. Which is the one thing I feel most faithful about: Your body is as receptive as your mind.

So save your money and free up your inhibitions by buying tempera paint or cheap acrylic paint and using walls, doors, wall paper, large pieces of wooden slabs, poster board, cardboard — anything. Pen and napkins. Your motions will be freer and you will more quickly develop as an artist.

One of my favorite paintings I ever made — it taught me the value of simple purpose in painting — was done with a pine needle and a twig on a small square of mat board.

My friends and I used to go sit under the streetlight behind the Publix on Treasure Island, a Florida beach town, and under this theatrical lighting, we’d have between the few of us some sharpies, pens, white out, tubes of paint, oil pastels, and we’d find large pieces of cardboard where the workers had thrown ’em all in a pile. We would take turns being drawn. We’d sit or stand while posing, and we could talk and itch our nose and all that. It was loose.

Hanging out morphed into art projects all the time. It’s not like we were “doing art projects.” There was no, “Hey, you guys! Let’s do an art project! This is special! This is different from the rest of our boring lives!” No way. It was just this nameless, addictive activity where we were often actively engaged with our surroundings. Flowers, dirt and sticks are materials. Trash. Hair. Pencil and paper often.

After you do this a lot, then go back to the canvas with the fancy oils. Painting isn’t really all that hard once you’ve loosened up and spent time immersed in moving your hand and arm around in accordance with what you see before you or in your imagination.

You don’t need expensive tools — you need expensive ideas! But besides all that, nothing beats well-made paintbrushes whose hairs don’t break off onto your canvas while you’re painting! If you invest in anything, invest in good brushes.


Avatar photo

About Eva Avenue

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.