The following are some of the resources that I have found to be useful and inspirational in my artistic development. I don’t receive any commissions from the external websites I have linked to here, and my recommendations are based purely on my own personal opinion and experience.
I suppose the brand of paint you choose is quite personal. I tried and liked Old Holland, and have made a conscious decision to almost use their paints exclusively ever since. The reason for this is that different brands may call their colours by the same name, but there will be differences. Once you are used to the nuances of a particular colour from one brand, you can begin to trust your knowledge of how that pigment will respond to your treatment of it, and make uncertain results less likely.
Raw Umber is an example of how different brands vary, but it is one that I actively exploit. The Old Holland version is probably a truer representation of what you would expect – earthy and brown, with a very subtle greenish hue when mixed with white. It is great for use in portraiture when used in blond hair. Williamsburg (another brand that I like and recommend), produces a colour that is slightly more grey, however. The texture is different too, and dries quite matt and almost powdery. I don’t exactly know why, but I always reach for this colour for my laying-in and underpainting. I love it.
In terms of price, I personally don’t find either of these brands excessively expensive. They use quality pigments, and they are more concentrated than other well known brands, meaning a little goes a long way. The earth colours in each range are competitively priced, and the expensive pigments (Cerulean Blue for example is over £40 a tube), are just that: expensive. You get what you pay for, and if you’re buying true pigment and not a synthetic replica, it will be an expensive paint whichever brand you choose.
Finally, for figure and portraiture I like to use Lead White. It is softer than Titanium White, and has a transparency that is beautiful to use when painting flesh. It’s a pretty toxic pigment though, and is difficult to get. I use Old Holland’s Cremnitz White (which comes in a tin and is quite a luxury at something like £50 per tin), or I grind my own with Walnut Oil and pigment I buy from Cornelissen. You can achieve a consistency this way that is entirely suited to your requirements, and it is a lot more cost effective. Either mix enough for a few days painting, and cover it with a little cling film at the end of each day, or make a larger batch and tube it for use over a longer period of time.
I buy my brushes mail-order from Zecchi or Rosemary & Co. I think both offer quality products at a good price. My preference is for hog filbert brushes, with sable for finer work in the later stages of finishing.
Buying several brushes of the same size is a good tip for speeding up your workflow and keeping your colours a bit cleaner. Of course there’s more cleaning up to do at the end, but you can’t have it all.
In terms of brush care, I don’t clean mine with mineral spirits at all. I squeeze paint residue out of the brush hair and clean with hand-soap and water. Once clean, I wrap the brushes with paper towel, which helps them to keep their shape as they dry. Looked after properly, brushes will last for years.
I have experimented with all kinds of mediums, and have a sizeable collection of abandoned sticky jam-jars to prove it. A good ‘fat’ all-rounder that I like consists of 1 part stand oil, 1 part turpentine and 1 part damar varnish, with the diluted ‘lean’ version using turpentine at a ratio of 5 parts.
I am currently using a medium similar to the one made in the following video by Marc Dalessio. My version is more like 2 parts sun thickened linseed oil, 1.5 parts turpentine, 0.5 parts Canada Balsam and a touch of mastic (less than 5%). I arrived at that through experimentation, and for the moment enjoy using this recipe. The diluted ‘lean’ version again uses a ratio of around 5 parts turpentine.
I make life easier for myself by stretching my canvases using Claessens preprimed linen (I prefer a weight with a little tooth to it), which I then tone light grey or bone by rubbing on a wash of turpentine and Old Holland’s Scheveningen warm grey oil paint. In order to make use of any linen off-cuts that are too small for stretching, I make my own panels by gluing them to MDF boards. I’ve had quite limited success with this, but have so far found Golden Soft Gel to be the best adhesive that I have used. Here’s a great post by David Gluck on how to make ‘panels that will blow your face off’. I’m not sure if all the materials listed are available in the UK, so I haven’t tried this out. It’s a great read though. Of course, buying ready-made linen panels is another option. Some of the best quality ones come from the US, but once you add shipping and Import Tax to the cost, they are really a bit too expensive. If you’re feeling extravagant though, you might like to try Raymar or New Traditions.
In contrast, making simple gessoed card panels for quick alla prima sketches is much easier and more cost effective. Use basic grey board from any art shop, and coat 2 or 3 times with an acrylic gesso primer on both sides (to minimise warping). You can then cut the card down to whatever size you like and make several panels in one go. These won’t have great archival properties, so are best suited to studies.
Charcoal and Paper
Nitram fine art charcoal is arguably the best quality there is. It comes in a range of softnesses and can be sharpened to a point for detailed work. Roma (expensive but hard wearing) and Fabriano Ingres are both good papers to use with charcoal. Like Nitram, suppliers in the UK are limited. I have listed reliable stockists below.
Schools & Suppliers
Focusing on the UK, the following are suppliers that I have found to be reliable, helpful and who stock quality, traditional materials.
LARA and Lavender Hill Studios
These are also UK schools of art working in the atelier tradition, and both supply a range of quality art materials including casts for drawing. These have been quite difficult to get in the UK, so it’s great to see that both schools are building a selection for purchase. Check them both out for costs and availability.
There are, of course, several other schools that specialise in the discipline of drawing from life and teaching the craft of painting. I have listed the above simply because I have greater experience of these in particular. Schools that I would be interested in checking out further include The Royal Drawing School, Heatherley’s, The New School of Art, and The Art Academy.
My local supplier, Pegasus stocks Old Holland, Williamsburg, Pip Seymour, Claessens preprimed and raw linen, Nitram charcoal, and much more. Online ordering is also available.
L. Cornelissen & Son
Based in Central London (but able to fulfil remote orders) Cornelissen’s is like an amazing sweetshop for artists, with shelves of pigments in glass jars adorning the walls. This is the place to go for specialist, quality materials.
The famous Florentine supplier to many of the Italian academies of art, there is a great range of fine materials available here. I have ordered brushes and oil, which have all arrived in the UK safely, and at reasonable cost.
Trade Stretcher Bars
Good quality, competitive pricing, and fast delivery.
Please share your own feedback and recommendations by commenting below.