Your questions answered :: art supplies

Your questions answered about various art supplies, how to use them, what kind to get and where to buy them.

These days I receive a lot of lovely emails and messages on social media asking me questions about the materials I use. So as a way to make sure your questions are answered, and as a useful reference and resource, behold! A Q&A post dedicated to materials!

To be clear, these are the materials I’m using right now and have been for a while; a post about all the art supplies would basically go on forever.

{Some of the links in this post are affiliate links.}

So here’s what you asked when I put out a request on social media for questions, and my responses. {Oh, and there’s a very quick video at the end of me using many of the materials mentioned.}

1. When you are working in media like the Neocolor crayons and Inktense blocks – perhaps in a sketchbook – does it tend to smudge from page to page and therefore need fixing? And if so would hairspray do the trick, or what do you recommend? Also do you spray anything over your finished paintings?

I don’t fix the work in my sketchbooks, and don’t tend to find it smudges much. I only use one side of each page. However, if you wanted to fix it, and this goes for paintings on loose sheets of paper too, I recommend using a fixative like this one from Daler Rowney. I also hear good things about this one from Spectrafix for soft pastels.

I haven’t yet found a fixative that will 100% prevent smudging, but it does make a significant difference. You can use hairspray but I’ve never found it to be as effective or reliable as dedicated fixative. Make sure to hold it at least arm’s length away and go for several very light mists rather than one smudgy one. :)

2. On canvas when mixed media is used and some Inktense [blocks] used dry, what would you seal it with?

Again, I use fixative spray, and generally only over the areas where there is charcoal or pastels.

3. I wonder how you varnish your mixed media paintings? For example, when you mix acrylics with oils or pastel or some other combination?

Again, I recommend fixative spray, whatever your substrate, if you’re using dry pastels {or charcoal}, or anything that will smudge easily. If you’re using materials that dry and won’t smudge, you might like to use a varnish. I like Liquitex Matte Medium because I like matte, and also it’s multipurpose; it acts as a glue and a glazing liquid as well. Plus it’s cheaper than Golden.

Another option would be spray varnish. I don’t actually use varnish to seal my paintings. Because I use acrylics, they pretty much seal themselves, I mostly use Golden which are light fast, and I like the contrast between the gloss of the acrylics and the matte of the gesso I use.

4. What paper do you use for your taped paintings? Mine rumpled up as I was painting and yours didn’t appear to.

I use and love Seawhite of Brighton’s Acrylic tear off pad in the A3 size. Amazon sometimes stocks them, and they’re easy to find in the UK, although possibly less so elsewhere. At 360gsm, the paper is very thick and slightly textured, a bit like watercolour paper but perhaps less absorbent; it withstands many layers and doesn’t suck the paint in. It’s not completely ‘rumple-proof’, but is easily flattened under some books when dry.

If you can’t get hold of Seawhite, this one by Winsor and Newton also looks very similar, although in full disclosure, I haven’t tried it myself.

5. What is the coloured tape you secure the paper to the board with?

It’s low tack masking tape by Cantech. You still have to take a bit of care when peeling it off, but it’s the best I’ve found so far.

6. Which oil bars do you prefer?

I’m not fussy about make. I have one or two by Sennelier, but I also have several much cheaper Markal Artist Paintstiks and quite honestly I don’t notice a difference. That said, I tend to only use them for embellishment. The cool thing about the Markal ones is that you can buy them in tiny inch long versions to try before committing.

7. What’s the difference between oil bars and oil pastels?

Oil bars are basically solid oil paint – they smell like oils and are slower to dry, they have a lovely slick feeling and are easy to blend. Oil pastels are generally smaller, harder, and tend to be a little harder to blend.

Cheap oil pastels are not worth the savings; it’s definitely worth buying the best oil pastels you can afford because they are easier and more of a pleasure to use, and look better. I like these by Mungyo for a good mid range oil pastel.

8. What baby wipes do you use? Would they be water or alcohol based?

Honestly, whatever’s cheapest when I do my grocery shop! I use the own brand make from Waitrose currently. They’re fragrance free apparently; I find they do have a smell that I don’t love, and I’m pretty sure they’re not alcohol free, but they do the job.

9. I’m wondering what type of charcoal you use. The charcoal I use just disappears completely when I try to use it with water. I saw on the net something called compressed charcoal. Would that make a difference?

Oooh charcoal! I love it so much! I use willow and compressed. Willow is the kind that feels very light and snaps easily, and makes softer marks that are much easier to remove. That’s probably the one you were using that disappeared when it came into contact with water.

Compressed charcoal is dense and heavy, and creates lovely bold dark marks that are harder to remove, although still smudgeable. Compressed charcoal is better for use with water I’ve found, as it doesn’t remove it all, but moves it around for different values. I like Jakar compressed charcoal; it’s affordable, and you can also get a set of greys for something a bit different.

10. Are Neocolors crayons or Inktense blocks? I’m also interested to find out if you spray your work when finished. Do you let painting dry in between layers?

Neocolors are like wax crayons; I find them better for lines and small patches than for covering large areas. The Necolors II type are the water soluble ones. I have loved them for ages, although they got a bit sidelined when I discovered Inktense blocks. See the next question for more on those!

I only spray the paintings I sell; partly because I tend to forget, and partly because they’re safe in my studio. :) See questions 1 and 3 for more on spraying paintings.

I work fast with no waiting time, unless I get stuck and walk away for a bit, so I don’t worry about letting it dry between layers. Besides, I like the unexpected outcomes of mixing on the canvas. Also the water based materials I use dry pretty quickly. When I’m painting in thick layers I might wait for a section to dry or use a hairdryer, especially with gesso, because adding white to colours creates a lot of pastel colours {otherwise known as tints}, and unless that’s the look I’m going for, I want to avoid that.

11. I would like to know more about the Inktense blocks: what is this exactly, what brand do you work with, do you have a link where I can buy them and which colors should I buy to start with?

Inktense blocks are water soluble blocks, also available as pencils, by Derwent. I prefer the blocks because I like to work fast and messy, and the blocks allow me to both draw lines and cover larger areas with the same material. They’re easily available; you can buy them on Amazon or at most art stores, and I recommend Jacksons if you’re in the UK.

Inktense blocks are one of my favourite art things of All Time. They come in rich, saturated colours, and look positively jewel like when you add water. Working them into a wet surface is SO fun and satisfying. Plus you can lightly drag one on its side over a dry layer to create a lovely broken texture.

In terms of what colours to buy, if you like and use many colours already in your art, I’d start with a set. You can also buy them in singles, so once you know which colours are your favourites, or which you wish had been included in the set, you can buy those separately, which is what I do.

12. What is the difference between a layer and a glaze? I have some glazing medium to add to the acrylic paint but I don’t really understand what it’s all about to be honest. Sometimes I bung a bit in if I don’t want an opaque covering.

Exactly – a layer is generally opaque, whereas a glaze is translucent. You can decide the degree of translucency by how much glaze you add to the paint. Glazes are fantastic for bringing a painting, or an area of a painting, together in a subtly cohesive way. They can also create a rich depth, and can look beautiful when partially overlapped. There may be technical ways to measure ratio of glaze to paint, but I don’t bother with any of that. I make it up as I go along, and adjust as necessary!

And here’s a little bonus video, using some of the discussed supplies, because why not. :)

Thank you very much to everyone who submitted a question; you are helping lots of people! {Including me. :) } If you have a question not answered here, please feel free to add it to the comments too, and I’ll get back to you with an answer.

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  • Catherine says:

    Thank you Tara! And I love the video – so inspiring, it just makes me want to get all my stuff out and start playing. One more complete newbie question – how do you look after your brushes when using eg acrylics/gesso – do you wash them out just with water or should I be using fairy liquid or something? Thank you. I hope you’re having a great time of explorations/discoveries in Mexico!

    • Tara says:

      If you’re inspired make art, my work here is done. :) Regarding brushes, I just use water and push the paint out with my fingers under a running tap. That said, my brushes probably don’t last as long as they might! I’m really bad at remembering not to leave them in the water jar overnight. You can certainly use soap or washing up liquid to give them a thorough clean.

  • Ellen says:

    What a fun post! I am pretty sure I will have to get some of those Inktense blocks.

    As to brushes left too long, I have found that a soak in a mixture of Murphy’s oil soap and water will clean them and make them soft again.

  • Alison Miyake says:

    Hi, Tara:
    I’m such a beginner… I bought opaque gesso yesterday and plan to use it to “prep” my canvas, but they also had clear. I’m wondering if this is what I see in videos or people attaching paper or cutouts to their paintings, putting it on both the front and back and then attaching. It dries clear so I was wondering if that’s what it was for? They also had black! which really surprised me…
    Also, what kinds of pens or pencils can you use to make marks over acrylic paints? They had lots of pastels and poster markers and regular pencil crayons and water colour ones… so many choices, I couldn’t pick anything!
    Thanks in advance for your help and advice. :-)

    • Tara says:

      Hey Alison! If you have a ready stretched canvas there’s no need to gesso it – they’re already prepared with gesso. {Unless you’re after a rougher/more textured base.}

      The commonest thing people are using in videos to attach collage pieces is gel medium; Golden does one, and Liquitex does a cheaper one {which I prefer as the Golden ones tend to be thicker than I like}. Gel medium is great because it can be used as a glue, as a sealant between layers, and as a varnish/protector. Gesso is designed for preparing a canvas as you say; I use it as white because it’s cheaper than white paint and I like that it’s matte. And yes, you can get clear and black gesso too. Clear is good if you’re using something like coloured pencils for example, and want to seal a layer before adding the next layer so they don’t mix together. Black just provides a different base to work from.

      To make marks over acrylic paints I personally will use oil pastels or Neocolors {which tend to be slightly less effective but it depends what look you’re going for}. You can also get a chinagraph pencil which is waxy, or acrylic markers which are basically acrylics in marker pen form.

      Hope this helps a bit! Here if you have further questions.

      • Alison Miyake says:

        One more question before I hit “buy” on matte for the gel medium or regular (would it really be shiny?). Sorry for such basic questions, but I was so excited to get your reply. I feel a couple of steps closer…!

        • Tara says:

          No worries! I’m here to help when I can. Gloss is shiny, and I think you can get satin, which is between matte and gloss.

  • Stacey says:

    I love the sound of the Inktense blocks! I’m a fan of watercolour pencils but I love that the Inktense blocks look like they’d be more vibrant when they dry. I might have added them to my Christmas wish list… 🙈

    • Tara says:

      Yes I find Inktense blocks more vibrant and more versatile than watercolour pencils. They cover greater areas and the colours are amazing!

  • Paul Topping says:

    This is an incredibly helpful website, but I still have a question that I have not found an answer for.
    Is there a difference between the spray varnish for acrylic paints and spray varnish for acrylic fingernail paints? The fingernail varnish is so much cheaper!

    Thank you,

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