Painting for Beginners: Basic Supplies

Posted by on Dec 12, 2013

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Have you ever wanted to get started painting, but don't know where to start? We've got some helpful hints from Timothy Callaghan, author of the new book "One Painting A Day."


I highly recommend using a water-based paint like acrylic or gouache, which is like a hybrid between watercolor and acrylic paint. For smaller works on paper, I use an acrylic-based gouache, which is very versatile and works great for quick paintings. Gouache’s best quality is its opacity and flat saturated color. The downside of gouache is that it is impermanent; if you try to layer paint on top of paint that has already dried, the fresh paint will mix with the dry and make your colors muddy. Acrylic paint is also opaque and dries very quickly, but it’s permanent, so you can layer the paint. What I don’t like, though, is its glossy look when it dries. You can add a matte medium to an acrylic paint to reduce the gloss, but this sometimes reduces the saturation of the color. An acrylic-based gouache combines the best of these two paints, so you get a permanent, opaque paint that is very rich in color and dries flat.

You will need a wide range of brushes, varying in size and shape. The best affordable brushes that will last are made of synthetic hog’s hair. You can use them for both acrylic and oil paints. In addition, I would get a few watercolor brushes; they are softer and are great for working with thin transparent washes.

I prefer to paint on paper; a good, sturdy piece of watercolor paper like an Arches or Stonehenge is great for learning how to paint. The advantage of paper is that you can easily crop it down to any size or shape you like. If you prefer to work on pre-made canvas, you can usually find them in assorted sizes. You should get as many different shapes and sizes as you can find. Another option is to work on a sturdy piece of cardboard or thin piece of wood that you can prepare with a coat of gesso. The advantages of these grounds are that you can cut them down to any size and they are extremely affordable—in a lot of cases, they’re free!


You can find these items in any art supply store. Palettes come in a variety of sizes and are made from varying materials. Disposable palettes are very convenient and make for easy cleanup, especially if you’re traveling with your art supplies to paint on location. The type of palette I use depends on the circumstance. The bare essential for a palette is a neutral surface that will not absorb paint. You can simply attach a piece of gray or white paper to the back of an old windowpane.When searching for jars to hold water to clean your brushes, look for ones that have the widest mouth to accommodate many brushes. It’s also a good idea to have a few; one for washing and one that stays relatively clean to thin the paint. You will also need a good supply of rags; you can buy shop rags at any hardware store or use old T-shirts and rip them into small pieces.

I prefer a smaller sketchbook that I can easily transport and always have in my back pocket. The leather sketchbooks that are bound, like Moleskine, are nice because they are very durable and the pages don’t easily tear out. It’s also a good idea to have a few pencils for drawing in the sketchbook as well as doing preparatory drawing on your paintings. I prefer very light graphite pencils when drawing directly on the surface that I plan to paint on. A point-and-shoot digital camera is also essential, not only so that you can take reference photographs for paintings, but also so that you can photograph your paintings and share your progress.

I prefer to paint directly on the wall or on a table, but sometimes I need to use an easel. For the exercises in this book, a portable easel might be a good investment, but it isn’t required. You can create makeshift easels from chairs and even ladders; a drawing board can also function as an easel. In addition, a tackle box is a good idea for when you have to travel with all your materials. Essential items to carry in your tackle box along with your painting materials are masking tape and a small drop cloth. A personal computer is another helpful tool, but it isn’t required. It can come in handy if you want to print your own reference photos quickly and affordably. You may also consider using some social media element and start a simple blog page to document and easily share your progress with your community.
Studios come in all shapes and sizes. Having a studio outside your home is a luxury but certainly not a requirement. I have worked in all types of studios throughout my career, from large warehouse spaces to garages—even a small corner in the basement. A separate room in your home can be ideal because you can leave your work and supplies set up permanently and come back to them whenever you have time. Or, a studio can simply be a table in your home, with some wall space adjacent to it so that you can pin up in-progress works. Whatever space you choose to work in, you want to make it inspirational and comfortable, a place you feel like going to every day to make paintings. Whenever I move into a new space, I like to pin up postcards and pictures of paintings that I admire. I also like to designate a place for all my favorite artist books and a comfy chair to sit in while looking through those books when I need a break or feel stuck when I’m working on a painting. Music is also very important when I work, so a stereo is a must for me in the studio. Plants are great to have in a studio space too: They are forms to paint and include in still lifes, and they add to the atmosphere of your space by providing inspirational color.

To furnish your studio, you may want a drafting-style table that tilts and is specifically designed for making art. In my studio, I have a large, sturdy folding table so that if I want to work on a larger scale and need more space, I can easily fold it up and move it out of the way. It’s also a good idea to have a few smaller tables, preferably with wheels, but you could instead use fold-up TV trays or something similar. Easels also come in different shapes and sizes and vary in price. I don’t have an easel in my studio; when I want to paint upright I prop the painting on the wall with cinder block. If you choose to purchase an easel, look for one that is collapsible and easily portable for working on location.

Somewhere in your workspace, you will need to designate a place for storing finished and in-progress works as well as your art supplies. A small shelving structure for holding materials will work well; you can usually find one at any hardware store. You should also designate a space to store your work safely. If you’re working on paper, a flat file is a great shelving system to sort and stack paintings. Another option is to store your work in a few large, flat portfolios.

Good lighting is one of the most important elements in the studio. A space with one or two windows that receive a lot of daylight is ideal. In addition, you will also need clamp lights for working late into the evening and lighting your subjects. The clamp lights that you can find at any hardware store are the best because they can be moved around the studio easily as needed throughout the day. It’s a good idea to get a few different bulbs to use in the clamp lights. Get both fluorescent and daylight bulbs so that you can balance warm and cool light.

A comfortable chair is a must in the studio when you’re working at a table; a chair whose height you can adjust will be very useful. In addition, a chair that has wheels is a good idea so that you can push yourself back from your painting periodically to look at your work from a distance. A tall stool is another piece of furniture you might want to consider when you’re working on an easel or directly on the wall. Whatever type of seating you choose, it’s important to also stand once in a while when you paint. That way, you can look at the work from different distances and see the painting as it is developing.
This article is excerpted with permission from "One Painting A Day: A 6-Week Course in Observational Painting--Creating Extraordinary Paintings from Everyday Experiences" by Timothy Callaghan and published by Quarry Books.

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