Materials Matter

There’s a dilemma that comes up every I teach a class to a group of beginning students. Newbies can be a nervous bunch. They question, sometimes audibly, whether they are capable of learning the subject. Their egos are especially fragile, and every mistake can seem like proof that they aren’t talented. On the same note, they may choose inexpensive materials since they aren’t sure if they will ever paint or knit again after the class is over. Besides, that set of 24 colors for $10 seemed like such a great deal.¬†

The choice to go cheap when one is learning a new subject is logical and understandable. Unfortunately it can also be a set up for failure. Here’s why:

People often think of talent like it’s a physical thing. Either you have it or you don’t, and there is the illusion that talented people have some magic gift that makes them able to do something with fairly little effort. I’m convinced that, while a talented people might understand the process more quickly not feel intimidated by it, real success comes from the willingness to practice regularly, even when it it feels difficult. Anticipation of how hard a project will be has a huge impact on the creation process. I’ve known beginning knitters who have successfully finished projects that I would find daunting, but nobody told them it was hard, so it was no big deal. On the other side, ¬†many of my students who believe they aren’t talented were told that they were lousy artists as children. These students are terrified of failure even before the class starts.

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, and we all need all the encouragement we can get. The first steps are the hardest. Everything is confusing, our tools may feel awkward and everything we make looks ugly. When I first got back into knitting a few years ago, my stitches literally wouldn’t stay on my needles. I’m grateful that my teacher was a friend who wouldn’t let me give up.

So what happens when we combine a painfully awkward person with poor quality materials? The student believes that any errors that are inherent to the materials are proof of their lack of talent. Do you see what a bad set up this is?

I recently taught a watercolor class to a group of 11 year olds. Now, you would think it wouldn’t matter if kids use the cheap materials, but these were talented kids, and this was a real watercolor class. Two of the six students used the cheaper Strathmore, rather than the better Arches watercolor paper that I recommend. The results between the two papers was so dramatic, I bought some Strathmore paper and did an identical color test on both papers, which I use to demonstrate the importance of paper quality.

Here is what Arches 140 lb cold press watercolor paper looks like. Notice how even and intense the colors are.

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Here are the same colors of paint on Strathmore 140 lb cold press watercolor paper. Notice how much lighter the paint appears. The paper literally resists the paint, and it’s even worse when you layer the colors. I felt like a lousy painter just making this swatch.

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Here are some tips for picking out materials for a new class:

  • If you receive a materials list, buy the exact colors and brands that the teacher suggests.
  • Beware of deals that seem too good to be true. I remember some students bought a variety pack of paintbrushes on Amazon for $5. There were endless numbers of hairs floating in their paintings.
  • Better quality paints contain more pigment and primary colors tend to be purer. This means that you can do more painting with less paint, and you may only need three or four different colors since you can mix vibrant secondary colors. Suddenly that cheap set of 24 tubes isn’t such a great deal any more.
  • Be willing to do a little work. Stretch your own canvases. Buy 22″ x 30″ sheets of sheets of watercolor paper in bulk and cut them down to your preferred dimension. Don’t forget to paint on the other side of the paper if you don’t like your painting.
  • Invest in the materials that matter most to you, and go cheap with the less important stuff. I use toothpicks or really cheap brushes when I work with encaustic or masking fluid since they destroy the bristles. I use expensive Golden brand acrylic paint, but I often paint on scrap wood.
  • Knitting needles are another expensive item that dramatically affects your creative experience. I often invite students to test out different needles in class to help them decide which ones to buy. Better quality yarn is also more tightly plied and less likely to split as you work with it.

If you really can’t afford better tools and materials when you are starting out, please keep in mind that your results don’t truly reflect your capacity as an artist or crafts person, and invest in the good stuff a little at a time as your finances allow.

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