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An Essential Guide to Artist Materials for Painters: Part 1

artist supplies brushes oils acrylic

Walking into an art supply store for the first time can be overwhelming. In the larger stores the abundance of choice can leave people staring and comparing for hours and walking out the door frustrated and empty handed. This is my essential guide to putting together your first painter’s tool kit so you can get straight to work. 


In part 1 I will cover canvases, brushes and other essential tools.

Stretchers and Canvas

There are many different surfaces to work on as a painter including paper, wood and canvas. Most artists that work with oil or acrylic choose to paint on canvas. This is a type of fabric that is stretched over a wooden frame (stretcher) which is then primed to give a good surface to paint upon. Most professional artists build their own stretchers or buy one to order with their exact specifications. They then buy the type of canvas they want from a roll so they can choose each detail to get the surface and aesthetic they want. If you are just starting out I suggest getting a pre-stretched, pre-primed canvas. There are other choices such as buying a canvas board or pads.


The main factors to consider are:

-       Sizing and priming with a ground - this is the background layer that prevents paint sinking through the fabric. Each type of primer gives a different surface quality. You can choose between oil-primed, gesso-primed and glue-sized. The variants of this process are more for a professional artist that wants to choose how visible the canvas is in texture and general transparency, the type of surface they want to work upon and the materials they will use.

-       Type of canvas - there are two main types of fabric used for canvas – cotton and linen. Each fabric comes in different weights and textures (weaves). There are many different brands with their own distinct qualities. The most common choice is ‘Cotton Duck’.

-       Size of stretcher - how big will your painting be in height and width but also consider the depth of your edge (how far off the wall it will come).


Tools: Brushes, Palette Knives and Easels 



It can be tempting to purchase a starter kit that has 30 paint brushes of every different type. This however can be expensive and leave you with sub-par quality brushes with many that just sit in the pot unused. Instead, go for quality over quantity. Your taste in paintbrushes evolves over time and can change as your projects evolve. You can build and change your collection so don’t expect to get the selection right the first time.


The main factors to consider are:

-       Consider your subject. What lines and marks do you want to create? Large scale sloppy lines, delicate lines or both?

-       What type of paint are you going to use? Paint brushes are different depending on whether you use oil, acrylic or watercolor. 

-       Synthetic bristles or animal bristles? Go synthetic if you are vegan or don’t agree with animal bristles (mink and hogs are often used)

-       The shape of brushes and the type of strokes you want to create: rounded (a rounded body with a tapered fine tip), square (flat and squared off edge), filbert brushes (flat and rounded edge) and fan brushes (fan shaped edges which are popular with landscape artists that want to add texture). You may also require a primer brush (larger brush for laying down the background) and a finishing brush (for varnishing or adding a wash layer). 


-       Comfort isn’t always mentioned, but it is essential if you are going to paint for hours. Hold a brush and practice the moves, see how it feels.



Palette and Palette Knives


A palette is a wooden board or surface that you use to mix paints on and hold while you paint. Palette knives are used to mix paint on the palette but can also be used to apply paint to the canvas. The shape and size of the palette knives will give a different effect. As with brushes, they come in many different shapes and sizes. Experiment with a few different shapes to see what affects you get. Unlike my advice for buying brushes, this is something you could buy as a starter kit with a selection of 3-5 different types.




Many artists use a wall to support their canvas, paper or board they are working upon. If you don’t have the space or prefer a freestanding option (maybe you work outside on location), you will benefit from buying an easel. The most important thing in my opinion is to make sure you get a sturdy one that doesn’t move around when you work on it. Easels are adjustable so try it out in the store – if you sit, try it with a stool. Role-play until you are sure it is suitable. 

Cleaning, Maintenance, Storage and General Supplies

As soon as I finish a session in the studio I wash my equipment immediately. Bushes will deteriorate quickly and lose their shape if they are not thoroughly cleaned and stored properly.


Always make sure you have a supply of:

-       Paper towels and rags for removing excess liquid, wiping and drying your equipment.

-       Glass jars for soaking and cleaning off brushes. Use glass especially when using oil paints and solvents. I also use glass jars to store my paint brushes with the bristles up. 

-       Masking tape is very useful for masking areas off whilst painting.

-       Cleaning agents depend on the type of paint you are using. Water alone is fine for watercolor and acrylic, but for oil I use white spirit followed by washing up liquid and rinse in water (repeat until clean).


Have I missed anything off the list? Please add your tool kit essentials in the comments below. In part 2 I will cover paints, mediums and additives.


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