Art class on a budget: A common-sense guide

by James Pence

Teaching art at home can be a daunting task. One of the most difficult aspects of that challenge is in knowing how much to spend on art supplies. Some art teachers say to buy the best supplies you can afford while others say that you should get the cheapest supplies available.

Which opinion is correct?

Actually, both are. It all depends on the situation. Here are some tips that will help you determine what you need and how much to spend.

Five Tips for Controlling Costs

1. Keep it Simple

If you are just starting your homeschool art program, there is no need to spend a lot of money up front. My goal with beginning art students is for them to have fun and enjoy the process. You do not need expensive art supplies for that. Chances are you already have many of the supplies you need for basic art instruction. Watercolors, temperas, crayons, markers, colored pencils, and even regular #2 pencils are all a great way to encourage your children to draw and create. As for paper, plain copy paper works well. There is no need for a big investment when you are just getting started.

2. Focus on Drawing Supplies

When your children are ready for more challenging work, make drawing supplies your first purchase. Again, these do not need to be expensive. You can buy a basic drawing set for anywhere from five to fifteen dollars. The main ingredient of a basic drawing set is a number of pencils with different degrees of hardness. A number and letter combination identifies the softness or hardness of the graphite, for example: 3B, 2B, HB, 2H 3H. (Here’s a video from See the Light’s master artist, Pat Knepley, which explains what the letters and numbers mean: “History of the Pencil”). A basic drawing set will usually include a white eraser (which does not damage the paper) and a kneaded eraser (for shading.) Sometimes these sets will also have pencil sharpeners, sandpaper board (also for sharpening) and blending stumps (for shading.)

I encourage my students to spend time learning to sketch and draw before they move on to other media. It does not matter which media you use: oil, watercolor, pastel, or even crayon. It is all drawing. If you do not know how to draw well, you will struggle. Take the time to learn how to draw before you experiment with other media.

3. Teach a Single Medium

Whenever your children are ready to move on from pencil sketching, I recommend allowing them to experiment with different media. This gives them the opportunity to discover what they enjoy doing artistically and which media they like to work with best. However, rather than a scattershot approach, where you are trying something different each week, I suggest choosing a specific medium and focusing on that for a time. For example, you might decide to work with watercolor in the fall semester and colored pencils in the spring. This approach will enable you to control your costs.

Another advantage of the single medium approach is that it will enable your children to develop the specific skills required by that medium. Each medium requires techniques unique to that medium. Thus, what works with one may not work with another. For example, with oils and pastels you layer color from dark to light; with watercolor, it is the opposite: light to dark.

By focusing on one medium, your children will be able to master that medium more quickly than if they were trying to learn several at the same time.

4. Purchase Your Art Supplies Online

If you are on a tight budget but want to use quality art supplies, consider buying them online. Many online art supply houses such as Dick Blick (www.dickblick.com) , Jerry’s Artarama (www.jerrysartarama.com), and Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff (www.cheapjoes.com) sell painting and drawing materials at deep discounts. Some also sell supplies in bulk, which can be helpful if you have a large family or are teaching art at a co-op. You might also want to look for used art supplies on EBay or Craigslist.

5. Buy Student Grade Pigments

If you look at the prices on some items, such as oils and watercolors, you might get a case of sticker shock. The first time you see a 5ml tube of watercolor going for twenty to thirty dollars, you might wonder if the paint is made of gold. Actually, the difference in price is between professional and student grade pigments. Professional grade pigments give better results; however, student grade pigments will keep your budget intact. How do you know the difference? Professional grade pigments are sometimes identified as such. In any case, there are occasions when it’s worth paying a bit more.

When You Shouldn’t Skimp

Although I normally recommend keeping your art supply costs as low as possible, sometimes it is better to get the best you can afford. Different artists will have different opinions on this, but I can think of at least two situations where I recommend spending extra money for quality.

1. Watercolor Paper

If your children are learning how to paint with watercolor, invest in good watercolor paper. I do a lot of work with watercolor, and my experience has been that cheap paper leads to poor results and frustration. I use 100% cotton rag paper that comes in 22”x30” sheets. Depending on where you buy it, it can cost between five and ten dollars for a single sheet, but it is worth every penny. In addition, you can cut the paper into quite a few smaller sheets. I can get sixteen 5.5” x 7.5” painting surfaces from one sheet of watercolor paper.

2. Brushes

Good brushes are expensive; no question about it. However, if you take care of them, they will last for years. I have brushes in my collection that I’ve been using for over thirty years. They serve me just as well now as they did then. Synthetic brushes have come a long way, but I still prefer natural hair. It is tempting to cut corners when buying paintbrushes; however, if you have a serious artist in your family, and she has learned how to clean and care for her brushes properly, I recommend spending the extra money. These tools can last a long time.

Adding art to your home school program does not need to be confusing or expensive. By keeping your program simple and focused, you can open up the joy of artistic expression without breaking your budget.

Biographical information

James H. (Jim) Pence is a man of many talents. He is a former homeschooling dad, a published author, an accomplished singer and speaker, a performance chalk artist, and in his spare time he teaches karate, writing, and art to homeschooled children. You can learn more about Jim at his website: www.jamespence.com. James also represents and blogs for See the Light (www.seethelightshine.com).

Copyright, 2015. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, Winter 2015. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.