When to upgrade basic art supplies for professional grade ones?
Updated: Aug 16, 2022
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 pictures 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 (aka students grade), but, 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 high school in an art major class.From there onwards 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. When you are a student, cost really matters. But I had an art teacher who was really a big jerk (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 a tutorial is geared toward beginners, it is a good idea to let them know what alternatives they have to the premium art supplies being used in the video. Not everybody will have the budget for expensive stuff, or even know that they will keep up with the hobby. As I said, back in art major high school I only really enjoyed working with gouache and none of the other mediums we explored.
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 budget and availability in India. The links below are all Amazon affiliate links, this means that if you click on them and make a purchase, I'll get paid a commission at no extra cost to you whatsoever. This is by the way what most influencers and YouTuber do too, it's a way to earn an income like any other but it doesn't have to be only about promoting expensive brands.
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
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. If you are a professional artist working with Acrylic more than I do, chances are you are favouring more expensive, more pigmented and smoother paints like the Windsor & Newton paints.
Watercolor is what I used to use for most of my commercial artwork between 2017 and 2019, 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 like the apple one in the picture above.
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. I have used several different brands over the years, including a still very budget friendly set of Camel watercolor tubes. Then as I needed more specific colors I got myself a Prima marketing set of watercolor pans. I would NEVER recommend these to a beginner because they are epensive but when you make being artist your living, you end up needing more art supplies and you can afford them too. That palette it the one I used to paint the iconic "Groovy Rickshaw" and a number of other designs in my portfolio.
The marked advantage of artist or professional grade paint, and even the Camel 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 it 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.
So in watercolor alone, you can go from about 70 rupees a set to way over 3k, 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 3-4000 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 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. 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 more familiar with water based pens, I went for these first, my first pick was a set of "Sakura Koi" in purple and pink tones.
The minimalist blossom design was created with these pens and has since then been selling as many color variations out of my shops.
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 1400 or so 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! Tombows did gather quite a crowd of enthusiasts in the Bullet Journal community but seriously, there are many cheaper sets of equal quality, even if you don't like the Koi pens, one set I love and also use with my art students is the Ohuhu brush pen sets, they are dual tip, with one side being a brush pen, and the other being a fineliner tip. They have sets of 36, 60, and 100 colors and the 60 and 100 sets comes in a neat storage box or pouch.
Unless you are going to dive deep into professional illustration work, my advice is to stick to water based markers because the next category of marker, Alcohol based ones, will require you to put a serious budget into them.
Alcohol markers are the choice of illustrators, graphic designers and professionals in the design field because, unlike water based markesrs, they are non destructive and won't put a hole in even a newspaper. They also blend better and again no matter how many layers you put on even the thinest paper, it would tear it, ghost through? Yes, damage the paper? NOPE. With the manga illustration trend, these markers have gained a lot of popularity and often, influencers and YouTuber will have you believe you CAN'T create manga art without alcohol based markers, which is super wrong.
There are several big brands of alcohol markers out there, the most famous and the professional industry standard are Copic Sketch markers, the complete range has 358 colors, which is not something everyone need in the first place unless they breathe, eat, drink and sleep design. More affordable for beginner is the Ohuhu markers set, I'll let you peak at the price difference between Copic and Ohuhu for a 72 markers set. Another big brand that is making wave are Chameleon markers with their unique blending chambers cartridges. Copic is professional grade, Chameleon pretty close to it, and both are refillable and you can replace nibs over time. Both also thankfully have the option to buy them in smaller sets that are color or tone specific, and back when I was working with alcohol based markers a lot, I bought them either per piece or per tone sets. Ohuhu are not refillable, so once your marker is dry, it goes in the bin and as far as I know you can't buy them per piece, always in sets. But if you are a beginner who really wants to draw with alcohol pens, then they are the best to start with. Of all the mediums I work with, alcohol based markers had the biggest learning curves and there is a solid chance of many of you hating them, so do not invest in Copics right away, it's not worth it.
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 but that buying a full marker set with several shades of brown and yellow is going to be a waste of money.
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. And, if you liked this post, please share it with your friends and take time to subscribe to the newsletter that goes out every Sundays, you'll get a cool welcome printable stickers set, never miss and update, discount and will get additional free printables every months. Simply click on the picture below.