Penny-Pinching Artist - How to Save on Materials and Create Your Own

Penny-Pinching Artist - How to Save on Materials and Create Your Own

Most people know now that personal finances will be getting tighter and tighter. Everything is going up in price, including art materials. How are we to keep painting, whether we are selling our work or not?

There are various ways in which costs can be kept down. This article aims to explore and find out what some of them are.

Online Shopping (and indeed offline).

Always keep an eye open for discount offers. If you purchase from various online suppliers as I do, you will be on their mailing lists. When discounts are running, it is a good time to buy things that are normally quite expensive, such as oil paints or very heavy-weight watercolour paper. If you can stretch your purse, consider larger tubes of paint (like 200ml) especially oils and particularly if they are the more expensive colours. The top brands will last for years (unless you’re painting huge yacht-sail canvases).

eBay is worth a punt, but note that many sellers are very conscious of what things normally go for and, although their prices may appear lower, they then have to add the postage on. A tube of paint priced £2 or so lower than the norm may not prove to be much of a saving by the time you’ve paid £3 postage for that single item. Having said that, if you trawl regularly through the art supplies sections, you can come across bargains. I once purchased a full set of Daler-Rowney pastel pencils for almost half-price, simply because the company had made alterations to the pastel formula and had discontinued the current boxes of pencils.

Similarly, there are branded paints that are actually good quality, but are not household names to the majority of people… these sometimes come up for sale and can be obtained with no competing bids simply because most people aren’t familiar with them.

Grade of Paints.

If you sell your work, you’ll probably prefer artist-grade paint; but it is not unusual to find professional artists choosing certain student-grade colours for their work simply because they like the shade or the handling of the paint. Student grade paints from the big names are generally good value; especially in acrylics, where they often come in large volume.


Piles of canvases come from many places in the East these days. You can buy whole boxes of them at discounted prices from online suppliers, including eBay.

The one thing I would note is the build quality. Many are OK; but some are poorly constructed. I have had “square” canvases looking anything but square. What happens is that if one stretcher-bar is slightly longer than the rest, a perfect square or rectangle is not obtained. The resulting canvas looks absolutely awful when hung on the wall and it is not fit for purpose… even if you ARE a penny-pinching artist.

Dud canvas? Cut off the canvas and use it to make a panel; or just practise on. Better still, invest in a whole roll of canvas. Expensive outlay but you’ll be able to cut off exactly what you want, when you want, and prepare it as you wish… and it could last you simply years.

Canvas Boards

Another way to save is to use canvas-boards. A lot of professional artists prefer them. Canvas-boards are made from compressed card overlaid with a proper sheet of decent quality canvas and glued in place. They last for years; I still have canvas-board paintings from the 1970’s and they are absolutely fine.

You can buy boxes of them from some online suppliers and eBay isn’t a bad place to look either.

And even cheaper…


Medium density fibreboard has found favour with many painters. Available in several thicknesses, the 3mm and 4mm sizes prove popular. Easily cut into any size (and shape) that you want, MDF needs sealing and priming before use. You can use a standard sealer followed by several coats of acrylic gesso, with light sanding in between. Remember the edges as well. If you cut your own, use a dust mask, MDF does create a lot of flying particles.

However, MDF isn’t quite as stable as people think. There is a problem sometimes with what is known as substrate-induced discolouration (SID). There are some solutions on the artists’ market that will deal with this.

Conservation experts are not convinced about the long-term stability of MDF, but most of us are not necessarily going to be painting masterpieces that need to last for several hundred years. Properly prepared, MDF is fine. Some artists find it is too smooth for their liking. It is also feasible to prepare a panel and then glue proper canvas around it; this may provide the extra tooth that some prefer.

And really really cheapskates…


You can paint oils on watercolour paper as long as you prime the surface first, acrylic gesso is ideal. This forms a barrier, preventing (or certainly delaying) destruction of the paper by the oils. Just how long it lasts for, I really don’t know but I would suggest not producing too many masterpieces this way; just to be on the safe side. Acrylics on watercolour paper do not cause a problem.

There are now special papers available for oil-painting; these look just like watercolour paper but have been specially treated to handle the destructive properties of oil-paint. They aren’t necessarily cheap per sheet… but… a whole sheet for six or seven pounds will cut up into whatever size you want, and you’ll get several work surfaces for your money.

Hardboard. I am not sure about this one. The ideal hardboard is one without oils in it (untempered) but I have no way of telling one from the other. If you use it, sand the surface first, use SID treatment and give several good coats of primer.

Try and use artists’ primers rather than those from a DIY shop. I know this is a penny-pinching article but these primers have fungicides and other chemicals in that may react with your paints.

Making your own…

It is possible to make rather good panels by gluing sections of cotton shirts or old bedsheets onto MDF or hardboard. Use pva or an acrylic medium to do the sticking. Wrap the material over the edges and fix to the back, before adding a primer to the surface.

Acrylics can be painted onto plastic surfaces, opening up many ideas for the use of acrylic-sheet, perspex and other similar materials. One of the best places to trawl is, again, eBay, look for offcuts or someone selling panels.

Other Media… Watercolour.

Good quality watercolour paper can be costly. So why not consider the lightweight papers such as 90lb? I have read about artists spreading water on both sides of their 90lb paper and simply letting it stick flat—without any taping— to a very clean smooth board such as formica or marble (an old kitchen work-surface would probably do). The sheet stays in place for a fair length of time. Other people do not tape it, but simply place bulldog-style clips to affix it to a board, allowing the paper to stretch, cockle and then dry again without fiddly taping.


There are options for creating a variety of surfaces which will make you less dependent on “ready-done” papers.

Gritty or grainy papers are very popular today for pastel work. You can make your own gritty surfaces using several materials plus a pot of pastel-primer paint. Try using the primer on mountboard (which is conveniently acid-free), or other thick card. There is a trend to using MDF as well, painted and prepared with a gritty primer. Even plastics and metal will hold a proprietary pastel-primer.

Alternatively, paint the surfaces with clear acrylic gesso. This medium actually has a good tooth and a couple of coats will probably give you all the grip you need.

If you’re keen you can buy a bag of 4+ fine-grade pumice stone and mix it with white gesso, to paint on your surfaces.

I’ve known people use sandpaper from the hardware shop; yes it does work, but the paper is not acid-free. Pastel is however a dry medium, so if you really want to be experimental then get yourself a sheet or two of fine-grade sandpaper. Avoid the rougher grades, the grain will eat your pastels in minutes.


The main thing is that you are able to find ways of keeping your skills alive when money is a bit tight. If you can paint,… or even just DRAW… during these times, you will have a collection of work ready to sell when the dark clouds draw away and things improve again.

Christine paints and sells small artwork, at [] She enjoys using oils and pastels and has a keen interest in artists’ materials of all kinds. She keeps her artwork small to assist with material costs, but also to make them affordable to a wider range of buyers.

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