There were always differences between artists with more means and those on a very tight budget. But in the internet age, we can literally see each others’ paint palettes from across the globe, and it breeds a green-eyed monster called the art supply envy.
If you’re experiencing it as well, in this episode of Nela’s Art Chat I’m sharing some tips how to deal with it, while I’m drawing this cute fantasy kitten with watercolors, colored pencils, and ink.
Listen to audio only:
Full transcript is included below!
Tools used in this drawing:
- Artway Enviro A4 sketchbook
- Faber-Castell 0.35mm Mechanical Pencil
- Faber-Castell kneaded eraser
- Van Gogh and Sakura Koi watercolors
- Van Gogh metallic watercolors
- Raphael SoftAqua 845 #20 round brush
- Cotman #5 round brush
- Da Vinci #10 round brush
- Pentel Aquash waterbrush
- Derwent Coloursoft and Derwent Studio colored pencils
- Pentel Pocket brush pen
- Pilot Metropolitan F fountain pen
- Platinum Carbon black waterproof ink
- Uni-ball Signo white gel pen
- Caran d’Ache Neocolor II crayons
There are some artist problems that are common to all of us regardless of the age we live in. And then there are artist problems that are very characteristic of our age—art supply envy being one of them.
There were always differences between artists with more means and those on a very tight budget, which reflected on the choice of materials they used, and the methods they had to use to have their supplies stretch for longer.
But in the internet age, we can literally see each others’ paint palettes from across the globe. An artist in Canada and an artist in the Philippines can compare notes on who’s using what, how well it’s working, and how much it costs.
The desire for things we don’t have is a normal human emotion.
It drives us towards progress. It’s healthy to an extent—but like most things, it’s bad when it takes over the reins. Capitalism has a great way of hijacking our desire instinct and constantly offers us new things to want. If we didn’t know these things existed, we wouldn’t want them. But advertisements keep placing things in front of our eyes, and it’s really hard not to want so many things.
Art supply companies are coming up with new product lines and new color ranges every year, which keeps artists on their toes.
Do I need this new thing?
Do I want it?
Who else has it?
Is it better than what I already have?
Each new product sows a seed of doubt. What if it is better? Am I missing out if I don’t buy it?
Artists in less developed countries are at a great disadvantage.
I remember what it was like to want certain art supplies so badly, and not be able to have them.
I was 18, on a very limited budget, living in Southeast Europe. Few brands get imported here. There was no way for me to buy what I wanted in a local store, and ordering online would cost me twice as much as someone in the US would pay for the same product because of shipping, taxes, and import fees.
But looking at the beautiful colorful art on DeviantArt where all the cool kids were at that time, everyone I admired used Prismacolor pencils or Copic markers. Those were the holy grails of traditional fantasy illustration. I was so sad that I couldn’t afford even the smallest set. I had to work around it, so I started making more digital art for a couple of years… and then I got my first full-time job.
Even though I earn a good living from my graphic design business, I still get angry when I compare how much cheaper stuff is abroad!
My country has a much lower standard than Western-European and North-American countries. Many other countries have an even lower standard. And we all pay more for imported goods. And we import all of our art supplies, because we don’t have local factories of artist-grade and student-grade art supplies. Basically, people in developing economies spend a much higher percentage of our income on art supplies than people in developed countries.
We have to work five times, or ten times as many hours as our North American or Western European colleagues to afford the exact same product.
The barrier to entry into a new creative medium is so much higher for people in developing countries. I know the logic behind this discrepancy is economically sound, but it feels incredibly unfair. We can’t escape that feeling when we look at:
- Art supply reviews.
- “Haul” videos.
- Art process videos.
- Art influencers getting free products.
Watching reviews is a part of making a good decision on what to spend money on. It’s useful information, and I’m glad to see people post honest in-depth reviews. I purchase stuff mainly based on online reviews.
Art process videos can be educational. But honestly I’m not sure how much helpful information someone is getting from a super sped-up video such as this one, that’s why I’m adding a whole podcast on top of it so your time is not wasted.
“Haul” videos are where I draw the line. I never, ever watch any haul videos, because I don’t see anything positive about looking at a bunch of stuff someone else has bought. I’m not vicariously sharing their excitement and joy. Call me a Grinch, but I just don’t care. Unless they do a proper review, the unboxing and swatching isn’t helpful to me in any way—in fact, it’s feeding my envy and my frustration because of how expensive this stuff is for me.
I’ve purchased a lot of new art supplies at the end of 2021, so I could have recorded some art haul videos myself, but it didn’t feel right to me. I know lots of people watching my videos are young and without an income of their own. There’s probably a lot of people who are dipping their toes into art and can’t justify spending so much money on supplies. I don’t want to cause envy in my viewers. I know I can’t avoid it completely, but I can at least not go out of my way to flaunt my collection.
I admit, I have some unsavory feelings towards certain artists on YouTube.
I’ve found myself thinking “But this person can’t even draw, why are they buying so many of the fanciest, most expensive paints? It’s not like they need it.”
And I know that is very judgemental of me and I’m working on becoming a better person. I understand that it’s my own sense of lack that fuels this judgment of people whom I see as “undeserving” of having so much more than me. I’m finding faults in their art because I’m envious. That’s normal, and I am pretty sure I’m not the only one who had these thoughts.
Everyone has the right to enjoy any art supplies, regardless of their skills. Nobody has to prove—to me, nor anyone else—that they “deserve” expensive art supplies. I don’t really understand the whole “collecting art supplies as a hobby” thing, but I’ll try to be more open-minded and less judgy, because it is really none of my business what someone else buys and enjoys.
My frustration and envy is my own problem to handle, and the best way to handle it is to avoid watching reviews and swatching videos as much as I can.
Today I can afford literally any art supply that I want.
But I don’t need that many art supplies, and I want to save money for the future, instead of spending it all. So right now, it does feel like a choice not to buy everything I want, and it’s easier to feel better once I tell myself “You don’t want this that badly, otherwise you’d just go ahead and buy it.”
But I remember the time when it wasn’t a choice. When I thought my ability to create beautiful art depended on having more money. It sucked.
I still don’t have everything I want, but I have most of the things I need to create the kind of art that I like. Sure, it might seem like I have a tonne of art supplies now. But considering that I’ve been making art on and off for about 18 years, my collection is still quite modest. But what I have now would feel incredible to the 20-year old me who had so little to work with, and I try to keep that in mind when I feel envious of someone who has a lot more.
I remind myself that I don’t have to save good art supplies because I can afford a new tube of paint or a new block of paper every now and then. That feels abundant, and I’m grateful that my design career is paying for all of this.
I remind myself that I made some of the artwork that I’m the most proud of with a small number of relatively cheap art supplies. It didn’t stop me from creating, and I wasn’t any less enthusiastic about making art because of it. In fact, that was one of the most prolific phases in my artistic journey. Sure, I would’ve loved to have more art supplies then, but I learned a lot about doing better with less.
Making the most out of the modest resources we have is a key art skill.
Artists have been working in scarce conditions since the dawn of time, and they got by though ingenuity:
- Collecting items from nature to make art with.
- Reusing and repurposing donated objects or garbage.
- Destroying an old artwork to create a new one from the same materials.
- Collaborating with benefactors and the wider community who provide the supplies, so they can enjoy the finished art in a public space.
I used to run creative workshops for kids and youths with some local organizations. I very rarely got paid, but I was able to expense materials to the organization, and keep some of the leftovers. That wasn’t my intention, but it just occurred to me now as an unconventional way of getting free art supplies.
For an artist on a limited budget, the most important priority is to spend our money wisely, so that we actually use the art supplies we buy.
Here’s a few ways that I recommend.
1. Try out the supplies before buying them, if possible.
I know that’s not always possible, especially if you’d have to order them online because they’re not available in a local store, or there are no local stores near you.
One of my favorite things to do when I travel abroad is to find an art store and go try out different pencils, pastels, and markers that are sold individually. They’re not packaged in boxes so you can actually test them for a bit before you buy. I test them in my own sketchbook (not on the crappy test sheets) so I get a more realistic idea of how I’d work with it.
If I like something, I buy just a few colors at first—usually black, white, red, maybe gray or dark blue—and try to learn how to work with the medium before I buy more colors. That way if I don’t like it, I haven’t wasted a lot of money.
If traveling or local stores are not an option, try to find a local artist who has the art supply you’d like to test. Find a Facebook group or a forum where local artists convene and ask if anyone’s willing to meet for a “coffee and sketch”, and let you test this thing you’re thinking about buying.
This may sound awkward, but I’ve lent my own art supplies to other people. I even lent my Wacom tablet to someone for a day. I borrowed a friend’s camera or a lens on multiple occasions. The more expensive the thing is, the more trust is required. But if we’re talking about something like pens or pencils, and especially if you’re not taking them home, it’s a small favor to ask.
2. Buy the colors you need, not the biggest sets.
I never understood the appeal of 120-piece sets because I struggle to imagine what I would do with that many colors. The biggest set I have is 40 Polychromos colored pencils, and 10 of those I bought “open stock” (by piece).
I bought all of my Neocolor II pastels individually over several years, as well as most of my soft pastels and pastel pencils. I also buy watercolors individually, though my first two sets had 12 and 24 colors.
For wet mediums (those that mix well), a good varied range of 12 pure pigments can produce hundreds of different color mixes. Those sets usually lack a good purple or magenta color, so I always buy them too. I use a lot of violet in my art, and mixes of red and blue are never as saturated as actual violet pigments. If you use a lot of one specific color, it’s great to have that color in a tube.
For dry mediums which are more difficult to mix, a set of 24 gives you a good overall range, and you can buy 10–15 additional colors you use the most in your work. I always buy extra brown and beige tones for portraits.
The price per individual tube, pencil, marker, or pastel may be higher than if you bought a huge set, but in total you’ve spent far less, so you can use the money you saved to buy some good paper!
Big sets look fancy on the shelf, but they’re unnecessary. You will never use up all those colors. I personally feel like that’s a waste of money.
3. Try out more accessible alternatives.
I mentioned that many years ago I was impressed by illustrations made using markers, which I couldn’t get my hands on. Instead, I bought a set of watercolors and started learning how to use them. It was difficult at first, but with practice I learned to love the quirks of watercolor, and some of the effects that I can create with watercolor are impossible to recreate with markers.
I wouldn’t use markers now even if someone gave them to me for free. They’ve lost all appeal, because watercolors are more versatile, lightfast, eco-friendly, and a much better value for money. I’m glad that I went down the path of watercolor, instead of markers.
Think about the art supply you’d like to use, and whether there’s something else that would give you a similar look.
Usually we’re influenced by our favorite artists, and we think that in order to recreate a similar look we have to use the same technique. We don’t. Stop focusing only on the few artists you’re following right now, and explore what else is possible with art. You may find another technique that looks interesting and is more affordable to you.
There’s an artist who creates impressive realistic portraits using kids’ crayons.
Many artists (including myself) draw and paint on recycled paper like shopping bags, folders, cardboard packaging, etc.
Crafting and creative journaling doesn’t require fancy brands. Most student brands will work great for this purpose! I often use cheaper supplies in art journals, and more expensive ones in drawings and paintings that are important to me. That way I can just crank out doodles, sketches, and studies without worrying that I’ll run out of the “good stuff”.
Envy won’t go away if you acquire more possessions.
We may think that buying “just this one thing” will make envy go away, but it always comes back. Because no matter how many art supplies you have, there’s always someone who has more. And there’s always someone else who has less.
Envy shows up when we focus on what we lack.
It’s so easy to focus on what we lack because advertisements and reviews keep bringing those things to our attention. If we didn’t see any of those things, we wouldn’t know about them, so there would be no reason to envy anyone.
The only way I know how to stop envy is to keep my eyes on my own desk, focused on the art supplies I have. That’s it. That’s the trick.
Changing yourself to be a less envious person is a very long process, and we can never get rid of it completely. We can slowly decrease it, step by step.
Envy shows up across our life. I can stop crafting jewelry and as a result stop being envious of jewelry-specific craft supplies. But then I can start mountain biking and become envious of people’s cycling gear. There are envy traps everywhere!
If you’re feeling envious, pay close attention when this feeling is the strongest.
For me it’s when I watch YouTube. For someone else it may be Instagram. Consider cutting back on the amount of time you spend doing things that make you feel envious. Instead, spend more quality time with the art supplies you own, and you may fall in love with them again.
In a just world, we would all have access to the resources we need in order to achieve the best results with our skills and talents. Sadly, the world we live in is far from being just.
Additionally, consumerism has a huge impact on our planet.
Whether natural or synthetic, our art supplies can leave a negative footprint on the people and the environment:
- Mineral mining can be devastating for local ecosystems and for the workers.
- Animal-derived materials cause unnecessary animal suffering. (Yes, cute furry animals actually die in the production of natural sable and squirrel brushes.)
- Worker exploitation—even child labor and forced labor also known as slavery—is rampant in countries with loose labor laws, or where labor laws are not enforced. Pay attention to where your favorite brands are being made. (Arteza is made in China.)
- Synthetic pigments, binders, and solvents pollute the environment. (Acrylic polymers are the actual microplastics we hear so much about.)
- A large part of plastic or metal packaging can’t be recycled because it’s contaminated by paint or ink. (Paint tubes, single-use pens, etc.)
Ever since I became aware of the horrible consequences of consumerism, I started having an ambivalent reaction to buying new art supplies. They will make me happy at the moment, but at what expense? I can’t avoid feeling remorseful about my own consumerist habits, and that’s a positive thing. Remorse teaches us to be better, less selfish people. I think about the consequences of my actions more carefully now.
We may not be able to eliminate the entire industry of unsustainable and unjust art supplies production by changing our own individual habits, but that’s not an excuse to ignore the impact we are making.
Maybe next time you start aching for a new art supply, ask yourself: “Is the harm this will cause to other fellow beings on this planet worth it to me?” Maybe it is, only you can answer that question. But it helps us interrupt the pattern of consumerism that we’re so used to, we don’t even question it.
I know it may not feel like having fewer supplies is better in any way, but there are some advantages:
- Too many art supplies may feel overwhelming when you need to choose what to work with.
- Using fewer “signature colors” instead of the whole rainbow gamut can help you develop a recognizable art style. (Limited color palette is the hallmark of my art style.)
- Your supplies take up less space so it’s easier to find things and keep your workspace tidy. This is especially important if you live in a small apartment.
- It’s easier to pack a sketching kit for a trip with your favorites. (For more info on what I pack in my sketching kits, check out the video I made about it.)
- You can truly get to know each art supply you own and learn how to use its unique properties. Switching between different mediums or different brands all the time can slow this process down.
Let’s accept that feeling envious is natural, and that we don’t have to act on it.
Usually when we experience unpleasant feelings, we’ll feel compelled to do something about them so they would go away. But if we realize that envy can’t be resolved long-term by buying more things, we can just do nothing. Experience envy and then move on with our life. It’s a temporary state of being that usually disappears soon after we stop paying attention to what has caused us to feel envious.
Here’s a practical tip for you to redirect yourself from your envy:
Pull out all your arts & crafts supplies and invoke a feeling of appreciation.
You could use this opportunity to reorganize your stash, or to clear out items that are empty or dried out.
Get it all out from boxes, drawers, and shelves and put it on a table, or on the floor.
- How many items from each category can you count?
- Did you find any lost gems you completely forgot about?
- Is there something you haven’t used in a long time that feels exciting to use again?
- Are there any cherished gifts from people you care about?
- Can you estimate the approximate monetary value of these art supplies? How much of your hard earned money did you spend on it?
- Are there any art supplies you don’t think you’ll use again that you can donate to someone with fewer means?
Do your best to really appreciate what’s in front of you, no matter how big or small the pile is.
Pick out the most interesting items to use in the upcoming week. Declutter and organize the rest in a way that will make stuff easier to find in the future. Maybe place some of the most used items permanently on your desk, either in jars or stackable containers, or tiny shelves.
If you do this, I’d love to hear in the comments: what art supplies are you going to give more love to?
I hope this has been helpful. I’ll see you again in the next episode of Nela’s Art Chat!
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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