Painter’s Toolkit: Painting Materials for Beginners
A Guide to the Painting Materials that you’ll need to learn oil or acrylic painting.
New to painting? First let me congratulate you on your decision to learn to paint! You’re now officially a beginner painter! When you first start out, it can be overwhelming. You don’t know how to begin. You don’t even know what art materials or supplies you’ll need. That’s why I’m going to introduce you to your painter’s toolkit. This will take the mystery out of the painter’s tools. I’ll show you what they are and how to use them.
Note: this information is for oil and acrylic painters; watercolor painters will have a different toolkit.
I’ll also provide a materials checklist for your painter’s toolkit that you can download and print to bring with you to your local art store. That way you’ll be armed and ready when you go to purchase your art supplies. I’ll tell you what’s essential and what’s optional. See the bottom of the page for the download link.
Painter’s Toolkit Item #1: Paint (Acrylic or Oil)
When you first browse the paint aisles of your local art store, you will see a multitude of beautiful colors. Restrain yourself from the desire to buy them all! This is a classic beginner’s mistake. Essentially, you only need a warm and a cool version of each primary color (red, yellow, and blue) plus a few other colors to get started. Later, you may choose to add a few more pigments (such as a couple greens) to your palette, though it’s not necessary.
When I refer to your “palette” in this sense I mean your range of colors, as opposed to the board on which you mix them.
I don’t recommend buying a “starter kit” because often they are a mix of useful and not-so-useful colors.
Here’s the list of the 9 paint colors you need to purchase:
- Titanium White
- a cool yellow: Lemon Yellow OR Cadmium Yellow Light OR Hansa Yellow Light
- a warm yellow: Cadmium Yellow Medium OR Hansa Yellow Medium
- a warm red: Cadmium Red Light OR Pyrrole Red Light
- a cool red: Alizarin Crimson OR Permanent Rose OR Quinacridone Crimson
- a cool blue: Ultramarine Blue
- a warm blue: Cerulean Blue OR Cobalt Blue
- Burnt Umber
- Burnt Sienna
While I’ve given you a few choices, if you want to simplify things, go with the first suggestion for each color.
This range of 9 colors is what is referred to as a “limited palette.” But don’t be fooled: A limited palette is anything but limiting. With this palette, you will be able to get virtually any color you need by learning how to mix colors, an essential skill for a painter. You will become familiar with these colors until you know them like the back of your hand. You’ll come to know the properties of each, such as their degree of transparency or opacity, their intensity, and how they interact when mixed with other colors or white.
The benefits of using a limited palette are multiple:
- You’ll become a proficient colorist who knows how to mix color. You’ll see a color and understand what it takes to make it.
- You’ll get to know the colors on your palette extremely well, using them to their fullest. This will also help to make painting more intuitive because you’ll know which colors you have and where to find them (because you will always put them in the same place).
- You will create a greater color unity and thus more harmony in your paintings.
People often ask what brand they should buy. I haven’t tried everything, but I’ve provided a list below of the brands of paint that I can recommend from experience. While I find that the student-grade artist’s paint (such as Winton, Georgian, and Van Gogh) are fairly good quality as far as oil paint goes, the same is NOT true of acrylic paint. The lower end acrylics are often terrible. Therefore, I highly recommend that you buy decent quality acrylic paints. You will notice a huge difference. The brands suggested below are all very good.
When you’re first starting out you don’t need top of the line paints, but you also don’t want the materials to work against you. This can be extremely frustrating. Don’t buy the cheapest paint. Go to an actual art store, not a hobby or craft store. If there isn’t an art store in your town then buy online. Find decent paint that works for your budget. Later you can save up and buy a few really nice tubes of paint or ask for some as a gift. Keep your eyes open for great sales, which usually happen in September and December. Higher quality paints have more pigment density, so they will last longer because you use less of them.
Acrylic Paint Brands: Golden, Liquitex Heavy Body, Winsor & Newton, M. Graham
Oil Paint Brands: Winsor & Newton, Winton, Georgian (Daler-Rowney), M. Graham, Gamblin, Williamsburg, Stevenson, Old Holland, Van Gogh
A general note about brands: Go with a trustworthy brand. There are a number of reputable companies out there that have built their reputation up over decades. They do research at the forefront of product development to meet artists’ needs. They have high quality products that can be counted on.
Painter’s Toolkit Item #2: Paint Brushes
The best paint brushes to start with are natural bristle brushes. These may be called hog brushes, hogs’ hair brushes, or bristle brushes.
The qualities or characteristics that we’re looking for in a paint brush include:
- a spring to its bristles (pliable, but with a bit of stiffness)
- long bristles (not short stubby ones)
- retains its edge and shape after repeated use
- holds a lot of paint
- a good handle (that is, it isn’t too short); the longer the better
Poor quality brushes will not retain their shape and will splay after use. They will lose bristles or their bristles will break. It is worth buying decent brushes because you will save money in the long run.
Some synthetic brushes made for acrylic and oil paint mimic many of the qualities of a bristle brush and therefore may be suitable. However, in general, synthetic brushes tend to be much softer, without the stiffness or spring of a hog’s hair bristle brush. They are good for glazing and subtle blending. We won’t be using these to start. You may want to experiment with them later when we discuss these techniques.
Shapes of Brushes
I recommend starting with filbert and flat brushes. Filberts are my favorite.
Flat: long and flat brushes with a chisel shaped (blunt/squared off) end
Filbert: Flat brushes with slightly rounded or oval shaped ends
Note: Avoid fan brushes, rounds and brights (short flats) for now.
Please, don’t buy teeny tiny brushes. I suggest sizes #8, #10, and #12 to start.
Here’s what I suggest for beginners to buy:
- 1 small filbert size #4 (we’ll use this for ‘drawing’ with the paint)
- 2 filberts sizes #10 and #12
- 2 flats sizes #10 and #12
- one house paint brush (you can get this at the hardware store. We’ll use it for applying gesso)
Paintbrush brands: Escoda, Winsor & Newton, Raphael, Stevenson, Grumbacher
Painter’s Toolkit Item #3: A Palette and Accessories
Here, by “palette” I’m referring to the board on which you squeeze out and mix your paint. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are made of different materials (wood, glass, plastic, disposable coated paper). While we traditionally think of artists as holding their palette in their hand (with their thumb through the hole), I suggest that you keep your palette on a side table. In my studio, I use a big rectangular sheet of glass as a palette which works extremely well because it is easy to scrape and clean and the paint doesn’t stick or get absorbed into it. You could get a piece at a glass store or recycle an old window. Just make sure it is fairly thick and that the edges aren’t cutting. When purchasing a palette keep in mind: The bigger the better.
If you are going to be painting with acrylics you may want to consider a ‘Sta-Wet Palette’ made by Masterson which keeps your paints moist (it is a sealed plastic container with a sponge base and permeable palette paper).
Palette Accessory #1: A Palette Knife
These are available in plastic or metal. The plastic ones are cheaper and will do the job to start but I prefer metal because they are more flexible/pliable and don’t break. Buy stainless steel otherwise they will rust. Palette knives come in many shapes. I recommend getting one that is a long skinny triangle and whose blade is at least 7 – 9 cm long. We will use this for mixing paint on the palette.
Palette Accessory #2: A Paint Scraper
You can buy these in the art store or the hardware store. We will use it to scrape old paint off our palettes.
Painter’s Toolkit Item #4: Painting Mediums
Mediums are very important in painting. They are what you mix into your paint to help it flow. They also can perform specific functions, like adding gloss, translucency, or thickness/body to your paint.
Mediums are different for acrylic and oil paints, so choose accordingly.
The basic medium for acrylic painting is water. Water thins the paint and is what you use to clean your brushes. However, there are a number of mediums out there that improve the performance of the paint. I recommend that you use a medium to slow the drying time: either a glazing medium or a retarder. I also suggest that you try a soft or a heavy gel gloss. Mixing this into your paint will give it more body.
- Acrylic Glazing Liquid
- A Gel Gloss Medium (Soft or Heavy)
The basic medium for oil paint is solvent (odorless solvent or taltine). This thins/dilutes the paint, and is good for applying initial ‘lean’ layers. It is also what you generally use to remove paint from your brushes. Do not use turpentine: It is toxic, smelly and terrible for your health. Another medium which you’ll need is linseed oil. This increases the flow of the paint while giving it a glorious glossy luminosity. Do not use olive oil or vegetable oil! It will never dry.
- Odorless Solvent (Taltine)
- Refined Linseed Oil
Painter’s Toolkit Item #5: Gesso
Gesso is what is referred to as a “ground.” It is used to ‘prime’ or prepare a surface for painting. Essentially what it does is seal and ‘size’ the surface. This ensures that the paint will adhere and that it won’t penetrate the fibers of the canvas and rot it. It can also be applied to wood and masonite panels.
Gesso comes in white, clear and black. You can also tint it. Get white gesso for now, and experiment with other types later. The same gesso is used for oil and acrylic painting.
Even if you are buying canvases that are pre-gessoed, you will need to add an extra layer. This is because of the poor quality of the gesso that is used on prefabricated canvases. I often find that the paint doesn’t adhere properly to their surfaces. Again, this is a question of making sure that the materials don’t work against you.
Painter’s Toolkit Item #6: Substrates
Substrates refer to the surfaces that you paint on. Generally for beginners this will be canvases, wood panels, or masonite boards. Choose whatever you’d like to begin, but don’t go too small. Eventually you may want to learn how to build your own stretchers and stretch canvas. I’ll discuss this in future posts. Keep in mind that your surfaces need to be gessoed (or primed).
Other Essential Supplies for your Painter’s Toolkit
You’ll need a few other painting supplies to get started. Here’s what you’ll need collect.
Save old sheets or t-shirts, anything that is cotton, and rip them up for rags. You’ll need them! We use rags for cleaning your brushes and hands and wiping paint from your paintings (like when you make a mistake).
Also good to have on hand for clean up.
Jars & Containers
If you’re going to be oil painting, you’ll need wide mouth glass jars with lids. In these you will keep your solvent and painting mediums. Save old pasta jars or mason jars.
For acrylic painting, I suggest that you save empty yogurt containers to use for water. For mediums you may want to have some small Tupperware containers on hand.
I paint with gloves. This protects my hands and my health. That way I am not absorbing solvents through my skin nor am I needing to wash my hands a million times.
That’s it for now!
I hope that this guide was helpful. Don’t forget to download the pdf version of the Artist’s Toolkit which includes a handy materials checklist. Feel free to post any questions in the comments section below.