When should you upgrade your art supplies for professional quality ones

4:27 PM

Today I am going to address a topic that has been on my mind for quite sometime as an artist. Thanks to influencers, YouTube and Instagram, it has never been easier to jump on board and try a new hobby, or embarking on a journey to become a good designer or illustrator.
There is really no shortage of tutorial, classes, videos and inspiration picture to get you started, and that is really awesome if you ask me.

BUT!!!!! There is one pitfall to all this, and one that makes me cringe to no end : the great art supplies snobbery.

Many of these professional artists tend to let you believe that you will ABSOLUTELY need this and that brand to really get started and more often than not, they are advertising or promoting really expensive brands they use everyday.
Nothing wrong about favouring quality markers, or watercolor paint, we artists all do it. There are tools we love and some others not so much.
The problem is when these professionals tend to forget that not everybody is ready to afford a whole set of Copic markers, and that no you really don't need to have those if you are just getting started.

The same goes for every single art mediums out there, there are the professional grade ones, and the beginners grade ones, that doesn't mean you are a sucker for using cheap paint and it's seriously wrong to make people feel like they should break the bank on something expensive just because you as the influencer get paid to promote it.

There! I said it! 

What a lot of artists and influencers tend to forget is that at one point in their past, they too started with cheap art supplies and that they gradually upgraded themselves as they grew better at their craft. 

We all started drawing and painting as kids, and I'm sure you all have had a watercolor set from a cheap brand, or picked up at the local supermarket to go crazy with. 
I know I have gone through quite a few just in my childhood, I can't even deny the fact I had fun with these, and that it's what started making me love colors and doodles and artsy crafty stuff. 

Then I went to highschool in an art major class, there things not only got serious, but very snobby (I hated that time by the way). We had a long long list of "basic" art supplies to buy, all from reputed artist brands : I think the whole thing set me off about 2 or 300 Swiss franks at the time : Dry pastels, premium gouache paint, expensive Japanese style brushes, acrylic, oil pastels, ink, and paper with serious hints to always buy more. 

And you know what? I HATED most of those mediums and the only one I favoured back in those days was gouache because it was cost effective along with aquarelle pencils. When you are a student, that crap really matters. But I had an art teacher who was really a big asshole (and a pervert...different story). He kept going about how we should spend all our savings into art, that artists do not go cheap on supplies, and there was those brands that were worthy, and that we should really only really buy these if we ever really wanted to be great artists one day. 

This outright snobbery HAS TO STOP!

No seriously folks! Can we for one minute stop putting aspiring hobbyist and artist off by asking them so sell their firstborn child for a few markers?

If you make a tutorial for beginners, it's good to let them know what you use, but please oh please, do let your audience know that using cheaper supplies is not going to send them to the 7th pit of hell and damnation or worse, permanent pariahdom on the internet! 
Yes you make affiliate money from your big brand, but if you are smart, you can make that same money by promoting a cheaper alternative as well. 

So when do you know it has become time to upgrade for better supplies? 

When you are a beginner at anything, the quality of the supplies matter a whole lot less than the techniques you are going to learn on your  creative journey. 
I'm not going to lie, super cheap material will have their limitations, it's part of the game, but that should not stop you from trying to get the best out of what you have before moving on to something better. 

Right now there are 3 mediums I favour above any other: Watercolor, acrylic paint, and markers, so I decided to break it down for you and let you know what is entry level grade and what is professional quality grade and what it means in term of prices in India. 

Acrylic paint

I use acrylic paint mostly on canvas and for my dot mandala paintings and classes. For that reason, I haven't really felt the need to go for super expensive brands. In India, you really can get a lot done by using Camlin Acrylic paint (yes this is an affiliate link). 
It's basic, it's fairly affordable, and I haven't yet come accross a reason strong enough for me to stop using this brand and favour another more expensive one. I have a few Pebeo paint tubes, but only because they come in colors that were not available in the Camlin range. 


Watercolor is what I use for most of my commercial artwork, and as result, I did upgrade to pricier brands simply because the quality started to matter whole lot more when the work I painted needed to be scanned and the product needed to meet much higher standard of quality. 
Back in Switzerland, I had a good quality but basic artist set that got damaged and lost in the one too many moves across India. So for quite sometime, I made do with a very very basic "school kid" set from Camlin

It's basic, and the colors aren't really vibrant, and because it's cheap, the paint is quite chalky, but if you have nothing else or are a total beginner, it will serve it's purpose more than well enough. In fact that is the set I used to create the 2016 and 2017 calendar illustrations : 

It has it's limitation, and as my style evolved, I realised I needed an upgrade. That chalky paint doesn't let you achieve a good "wet on wet" watercolor painting. For this you are better off with either a much more pigmented water color cake set, or watercolor that comes in tubes. 
Right now I use a mix of both, I have a set of watercolor tubes from Camlin that is pretty decent, I would not go as far as saying it's outstanding, but it does a great job. Those cute stacked teacups have been painted using those tubes : 

The added advantage of these tubes is that because the color is more saturated it tends to stay put. The drawback of the chalky paint was that I needed to add a lot of water to loosen the pigments in the cake, and then add a lot lot lot of layers of paint to get to where I wanted. This meant the paper would bloat, and the paint fray. 
It's not noticeable on paper to the naked eye, but when you scan your work at 1200dpi to turn it into a commercial product it will require you to do double the cleaning work digitally...not fun. 

While I don't mind paint tubes, I still prefer watercolor cakes a lot lot more, so last June I invested into a really good quality set from Prima Watercolor. It's imported, and it's expensive, but right now as an artist I am in a place where I need that kind of quality in my life. I also know my style and my favourite colors enough so that I picked the palette that suited me the most, because yes at around  2500 a set, you can't really get them all. Added bonus of this set, you can replace each individual cake as the run out, no need to buy the whole set all over again just because you ran out of purple. 

This is the kind of quality work I get out of it by the way : 

So in watercolor alone, you can go from a 59 rupees set to a 2500 set, that's a big difference right? So now imagine how lousy it would feel if I went on an on about how you must invest into a 2500 set with just 12 shades as opposed to a set with 24 shades at a fraction of the price? 

Not so good right? Yet this is what I've seen done on YouTube. 

And guess what? I still use that type of cheap watercolor with my young students. There is no point in launching a beginner on an expensive palette if they don't even yet know how to blend and nuance their work. It would be like asking a complete beginner at tailoring to make a dress out of the most expensive silk fabric on the market. 


Ok so let's dive into the world of markers, which is by far the most contentious  territory as art supplies go

In the artist and designer world, or even the bullet journal world, there seem to be many very divided camps about what is worth using and what is garbage. And it makes it for a VERY intimidating ride if you are a beginner at it. 

A thing I was until fairly recently to be totally honest. Fortunately, I know enough about the world of influencers and sponsored posts to know not to trust everything you see on social medias.

A serious war of markers is happening out there : water based vs alcohol based, brush pens vs normal pens, copic vs anything else, tombow vs koi...and it goes on and on and on...
More than with any other mediums, the proponents and opponents of one type of markers are very vocal.

Fortunately, as an artist, I already knew what I wanted to achieve with markers, and I already knew that at my level, basic sketch pens that most kids use were a no-go.
Since I was a bit familiar with water based pens, I went for these first, my first pick was a set of "Sakura Koi" in purple and pink tones. It's not super cheap, but a set of 6 markers will set you 500 rupees, and that works at about 83 rupees a marker.

These markers were the one used to create one of my best selling design :

The original elephant is purple, and I made many variant design with that little guy, so all this with a 500 rupees set of markers, I'd say not bad at all.

If you believe the influencers on social media however, Koi is considered low quality and you should always go for "Tombow dual brush" markers instead...sigh!
Most basic sets cost around 1600 rupees in India, for 10 markers that is roughly about 160+ a marker (not all sets are equal in price).
I own a few, all purchased as single pieces at my local arts and craft supplies store and I'm going to be super frank here, I find them overrated. Tombow fanatics grab your pitchforks and vow to hunt Cyn down and burn her at the stake (I don't really care)!

They come in a wide range of color, but seriously I don't see what they have that makes them so much more special than Koi.
I know they are a favourite with the bullet journalists and hand lettering artists though, I used them for illustration purpose, and they just blend as well as the Koi, so yeah not enough of a difference for me to buy those over the others at all costs. They are great markers, but by no mean superior to Koi in term of coverage and blendability. Proof in this illustration :

In the picture above, the green is done with Tombow, the pot and the flower with Koi, the rougher lines on the pots are intentional by the way. These two brands of markers are water soluble, which means you can really get cool effect by using a regular wet paintbrush to blend and dilute them.

Right after I got comfortable enough with water based blendable markers, I decided to venture in the domain of alcohol based ones.
There the war of markers is between Copics, Touch, and Chameleon markers, with a marked disdain for any cheaper brands, imitation markers, and even between the different type of Copics.

Alcohol based markers are expensive, and at the risk of getting those fanatics to grab their pitchforks and burn me at the stake again, I'll say that I would have waited a much longer time to get to them if it wasn't for my local art supplies shop selling imitation Touch marker at 60 rupees a piece.

While the quality of the pigments in those is debatable, it did give me an opportunity to test the water and see if I wanted to invest more of my time and money to learn to use them. Because, flash news, there is a HUGE learning curve with these.
A legit option for beginners would be Brustro markers, I haven't used them, but they seem to be decent reviews about them, at 120 rupees a piece, you can't really go cheaper without going in the cheap Chinese territory I went through.

The picture above shows you a mix of cheap knockout Touch markers, and more expensive Chameleon markers. The great thing about alcohol based markers is that they will blend together regardless of the brand you use. Chameleon pens have a special system with a blending chamber to let you do gradient effect with just one pen, and in term of price, they are more expensive than Copic Sketch in India. One single Chameleon pen retails at 423 rupees on Amazon while a single Copic Sketch pen retails at 385 rupees.
Both become much cheaper if you buy them in sets though. One thing interesting to note, is that the world over Copic Ciao are considered the entry level pen in the Copic family and are cheaper, but in India you can only get them cheap IF you buy them in set. A Ciao as a single unity is worth over 1000 rupees (no idea why).

In term of quality, I think both Copic and Chameleon are great and both brands offer replacement nibs and ink refills. The advantage is that Copic has a far bigger color range as well as 3 different type of markers. I recently got a set of Pastel Ciao because I think their compact size is pretty neat, but it makes more sense for me to keep building my collection with the Copic Sketch simply because price-wise they make far more sense in India. Too bad because I love how small and travel size the Ciao is.

As much as I like the Chameleon system, they are a bit too big and bulky for my taste, but that is just my preference, ink wise, the picture bellow is a mix of Copic and Chameleon :

Now, unlike other designers and artists out there, I will not recommend those to beginners, seriously, buy the cheapest basic alcohol markers out there if you never tried them before. Because, to be frank, that style of drawing and coloring is not for everybody and there is a huge chance you might hate working with them at first. I know I did.

You'll feel less guilty screwing up with a cheap marker than a Copic, and if you end up not wanting to master the art, it's easier to give up with a clean conscience knowing you haven't spent a fortune on markers. Because one thing you will absolutely need to get started, is a few markers in each color family to achieve a nice blend on your illustration. I recommend 2-3 tones per colors you use at the minimum. I'll let you do the math to see how much that would set you off in terms of Copics.
But if you end up loving working with alcohol based markers, invest in quality ones in any of the big brands out there in the long run.

So to summarise it

You don't need to start with professional quality supplies right off the bat, and maybe you'll never feel like doing it and it's fine. 
Know that a lot of influencers on YouTube, in blogs and on Instagram are actually paid to make you believe a specific brand is the only way to go, and in an ideal world, they should disclose that fact, but some don't. 

With this post I wanted to let you all know that just because one option is poopooed by a renowned artist doesn't mean it's crap and that no you don't have to switch to a better quality or a different brand of product right away. 
The most important for you to know is what you plan to achieve in your hobby or medium of choice and know when the supplies you are using no longer meet your expectation. This is usually the sign that you need to upgrade has come. 

When that moment come, you also need to assess your budget as well and see how you can make it work. Is it more practical to invest in a full set of markers or just buy them per pieces, a few good quality ones at the time? 

As you grow as an artist, you'll understand your needs and style better, and buying more expensive supplies will be easier to figure out. 
For example, I know myself well enough to know that I use a palette or mostly blues, purples and pink, so buying earth tone markers in more than a few shades makes zero sense for me but might make more sense to someone working in sepia tones in their illustrations. As a result I know that I can safely invest in that one more shade of Aqua because I know I'm very likely to use it. 

Ditto with watercolor, I know artists that swear by the pastel tone palette or the more earthen tone one, I don't see myself buying them because I prefer working in bolder colors, which makes the Tropical palette I bought a useful expense. 

What I hope I achieved with this detailed post is to make sure none of you feel inadequate using basic supplies on a budget. 


All the links in this blog posts are Amazon affiliate links, this means if you click on them and buy anything within 24hrs of that first click, I'll get paid a commission at no extra cost to you. 
I do not partner with one particular brand of supplies over another and I only listed brands I know and I have used myself.  

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