Monday, 17 September 2012

Buying materials - can they make you a better painter?

Some years ago, I went on a trip with a group of professional artists. One day, one of them arrived to paint close to me.  Out of a simple plastic carrier bag, he took a tiny box of watercolours with about 8 blocks of paint in it;  a tube of white gouache paint;  one brush;   a book of loose-leaf tinted papers- and he sat down to paint.  In total awe, I watched him produce the most stunning small painting with these few materials.  It taught me a huge lesson.

It is not the materials which maketh the artist.  

Good materials are of course a delight to use, and in some cases, particularly for instance watercolour painting , quality makes a big difference, you cannot guarantee good results if you are using inferior paper, inadequate brushes, and cheap paint.   They just do not always behave as you might like.  

For the artist who works with tubes of paint, and has to mix his own colours, having every tube of paint on the market is simply not necessary.  An absolutely HUGE range of colours can be mixed from just a few tubes of paint.

However, it is a very different story for the pastel painter.

Pastellists are naturally drawn to sticks of pastel like a magpie is drawn to shiny objects.  Many of them freely admit to being unable to STOP buying pastels - every new manufacturer on the market, every new set of glorious greys, gorgeous greens, brilliant blues.  The manufacturers play to this audience, and produce sets which appear to offer "the" answer to the pastellist's dreams - portrait sets, landscape sets,  sets which will give the artist perfect thunderstorm greys for clouds or another for perfect tropical scenes - I have even seen an "arid landscape set" - the list is endless.

There is a post running on an artists' website right now, where the contributors admit to owning loads of sets, claiming that they cannot resist them.  (I tried being a voice of reason...this was not very well received!  oops).

I would just like to speak once more on this subject to my blog audience before retiring quietly and letting everyone get on with spending their money however they like.  

You do not need every set of pastels on the market to become a good painter.  You do not need all the same colours that your favourite artist uses - it will not help you to paint like him.  

You DO need a fair few pastels, in a variety of tones and temperatures, so that you have a good choice at your disposal.  A set of, say, 48 good quality soft pastels will give you a pretty good start, plus perhaps a set of less expensive hard pastels which can extend the colour range and can be useful in the early stages of a painting. You can then discerningly buy more sticks individually as you discover that you need them.  Not enough subtle greys or greens in your set?  Search out some of those.  Need a gorgeous creamy-white with sunlight in it?  Schmincke makes one of those I would never be without.  But PLEASE do recognise that owning a set from every manufacturer of pastels will NOT make you a better painter.  What makes a good painter is PRACTICE, PERSEVERANCE and PATIENCE. Plus constant reading and learning to develop your knowledge and understanding of the craft of painting.     

Richard McKinley, a working pro landscape painter,  takes this set of pastels out on location with him.  It is a pretty large kit...260 half sticks...but I have been told that he only uses a small selection from this kit to create his painting.  

If you do buy huge sets, do be aware that you will inevitably have purchased, along with useful colours which will be used all the time, some sticks you will never use - a waste of money and space! 

Here is a picture of another artist's "on location"  kit.  This person obviously feels that he or she needs their entire studio with them, laid out on tressle tables.  Just imagine how this little lot gets carted around out on location, and try to imagine the scene if it suddenly began to rain..................sorry, I know it is mean and I shouldn't giggle but............... 


oh dear, aren't I disorganised compared to Richard!!!  But this does show a selection picked from the larger travel box underneath it.  On location, I leave the bigger box on the ground (closed, to stop pilfering kids if I am painting street scenes, as I did for the  Venice pic below). I stand or sit at an easel with the small box in my hand.  I seldom use more than this number of pastels for any one picture.
"Wisteria on the balcony"  Venice.  Painted on location.  3/4 pinks/apricots; 1 cinnamon; 1 darker pink; 4 greens; 3/4 blues; 1 purple; 1 white.  Perhaps a couple of others.  No more than 20 or so pastels in total. 

If you are lucky enough to own loads of pastels, or if you are someone who simply gets a kick out of buying and nothing I say will make a jot of difference then please do remember that it is helpful to sort out just such a "palette" of pastels before you begin to paint.  Do your thumbnail sketch and think, while you are doing it, about the colours you might need (you always do thumbnails, don't you...........).   Then, from your giant set of pastels, sort out about 12-20 or so colours, and put them in a little container, and get cracking on your painting.  You might need to dip back into your bigger set as the painting evolves, but having your palette sorted out first will help you to maintain colour harmony in your Degas achieved in that fabulous pic at the top.  I believe he would have sorted out his colour palette in advance. And it would be interesting to try to work out how many different sticks he might have used, too.

Lecture over.  Now go have fun in the art materials shop!


last week's painting was sold, I am happy to say.  Here is another - I seldom paint animals, but this little one-year-old Birman's colouring and eyes were irresistible.    painting size 6"x6".  Pastel on paper.  Will be provided framed - can stand on a tabletop or be hung.
only $85 plus postage.  Email me if interested to  


  1. I love your attitude to materials! and I always remember that Vermeer worked with a very limited palette,four colors at most. But what he did with them!

  2. Jackie - nice to have found your blog, as I always enjoyed your posts back when I used to read WC.

    I agree about purchasing sets - I bought a few "baseline" landscape sets when I was starting out, and those have been great. Now, both for budget and space reasons, I spend a lot of time going through color charts and ordering individual sticks to fill in gaps (most often relating to temperature or saturation) in my palette, based on the subjects I most often paint.

    That being said, one of the sets I did buy was the MV "T-storm Gray" set, and I can say that it has been, hands-down, the most versatile set of pastels I've ever purchased: 100% of them are in my plein air box, and I use them in every painting I do, sometimes even for skies! In fact, it looks like Richard has many of them in his 3rd compartment to the right as well.

    1. thanks Boud, and Sonya. Sonya, it is good to know about the MV T-Storm Gray set, I will tell people you recommend them, if I am asked. Shame we do not have Mount Visions in the UK. I shall check the colour chart for that set, and see if I am missing any of the colours in my own sets, I love having coloured greys and there may be some there that I could find useful. I suspect tho that my Daler Rowney coloured greys might be very similar tho.

    2. Jackie - If you want to email me privately with your mailing address, I'll be happy to send you off a color swatch of the MV set: that is the best way to really see how the colors compare to what you've already got with other brands. But, if you're like me, and you can never have enough grays, you'd probably love this as an entire set (plus, the sticks are huge, of consistent texture, and the best value of any pastel brand on the market, at least in the US).

  3. "manufacturers play to this audience" ... how true. I agree with your thoughts, Jackie, especially when it comes to color harmony. Your beautiful cat painting is a great example: I love how the eyes and background look together!

  4. Hello from France!!
    Thank you for these precious advices. I'm still impressed by such a range of "plein air" photo ... wow!
    Totally agree with the inimitable Schmincke creamy white ... I should go to buy another one (just one!!!)
    Sorry for my english school ....

  5. Funny post! I can tell you're an artist and not a salesperson. You're absolutely right though, it's the time devoted to your art that makes the real difference.

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  7. I have been following your blog for a short time. Thank you for your well written thoughts.

  8. Thank you for commenting on my blog. I love your work and your blog. It is so well put together and informative. I completely agree with you on this post. I have many lovely sets of pastels to choose from and I end up with a comparatively few in my pallet box for each specific painting. I have certain colors I never use also, but this past year I have been using some of them to spice things up.


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