Christmas/ Chanukah gifts for artists part 2

November 11, 2012

Above: “The Suitor’s Gift” by Louis-Léopold Boilly, c.1790

Art materials to buy for the new or aspiring artist

If your friend is learning to draw or paint then a gift of art materials would be most welcome. Perhaps they are just starting out, and as yet have nothing more than pencil and paper? Or they may have bought a few bits in the past but are finding them limiting.

An art gift is fantastic, as each new colour provides new possibilities, and each new medium that your friend receives opens up a whole new avenue of exploration.

Just looking at an art catalogue can be overwhelming so where should one start? It is unnecessary and daunting to start with the most expensive materials, but some of the cheaper ranges are so inferior that they are not up to the job. Here I recommend good buys for the artist who is just starting out. Clicking on a picture will open up the seller’s website in a separate window.

The basics

For the friend who is just about to take up art as a hobby, I suggest that you buy the following essentials:

A set of graphic pencils

HB and softer pencils are the most useful, so avoid buying a set that includes too many H pencils. These Derwent pencils make good, rich lines:
Derwent : Graphic Pencils Set of 12 in Tin : H to 9B : Soft

For any pencil work, your friend will also need a rubber, sharpener and paper, and possibly some sprayable fixative. so you may choose to buy these at the same time. I generally recommend starting with a pad of white cartridge-type paper for pencil work.


Coloured pencils

I like the way that you can just grab coloured pencils and start working without any worry about mess or any need for water and brushes. This is quite encouraging for the beginner. Indeed, in my opinion, coloured pencils are useful for artists at all levels, both for producing finished work and at the sketch or planning stage.

A boxed set of coloured pencils makes a perfect gift. Of the brands available, I can suggest Derwent. Click on the pictures below to view further details with option to purchase at Jacksons or Amazon website.

Basic but very good quality coloured pencils:

Derwent Artists 24 Coloured Pencil Set in Metal Tin
As an alternative, you could buy a set of water-soluble pencils. These can be used dry as coloured pencils, or wetted for a painterly effect. Derwent ones are good:
Derwent Watercolour Pencils : 12 METAL TIN SET

There are other varieties out there, including Inktense pencils, which are a little more expensive but are a favouite of mine because of their permanence and vivid colours.




If you plan to give your friend one new medium to work in, I suggest buying them a set of pastels. By this, I mean “hard” or “soft” pastels rather than oil pastels. They come in a wonderful range of colours, can be used in many different styles and the pastel sticks store well (so that they can be returned to many years later).

There are many brands of pastel on the market. Some are luxuriously soft, crumbly and blendable, and for some you pay a premium for interesting colour tints. For someone who is new to pastel work, I suggest getting a set of good-quality but quite basic pastels. Unison and Schminke pastels are gorgeous, but their crumbliness and high cost can be daunting when just starting out. In choosing lower-priced pastels, it is important to pick ones that have a good, blendable texture and pure colours, such as the Cretacolours, pictured below:

Cretacolor Carre Hard Pastels set of 36 SPECIAL PRICE

If your friend enjoys this pastel set and wants to take this medium further, they will be able to buy individual sticks of Cretacolour, Unison and other brands from good art shops or online.

Pastels can be used on many types of white, toned or coloured paper or board. I recommend the Daler-Rowney Ingres ring-bound books of pastel paper as their sheets are interleaved with translucent paper to help prevent smudging. The version containing 6 assorted colours of toned paper is good:

Daler Rowney : Ingres Pastel Paper Spiral Pad - 6 Assorted Colours 16x12in 160gsm - 24 sheets - acid free

For the life-drawing class

If your friend is about to go to life-drawing classes, then they will probably be expected to bring materials that allow them to work in quite a “loose” manner such as charcoal. I can recommend the following products:


Charcoal is the preferred medium in many life drawng classes. Sticks of willow charcoal seem to be the most useful. I prefer these to fiddly charcoal pencils. Click on the picture below to take you to the selling website (in this case, Jackson’s):

Willow Charcoal : Coates Natural : MEDIUM 25 sticks : 4 - 6mm diameter

Conte crayons

These are also great for bold drawing and can combine well with both charcoal and soft or hard pastels. 

Conte Carre Crayon Set : hard-baked square pastels : Box of 12 Assorted Traditional

 Other life-drawing class essentials are paper (I would suggest a pad of A2 sheets, preferably with some grain to the paper for charcoal work) a putty rubber and sprayable fixative:

W&N : 150ml Spray Soft Pastel Fixative - (UK Only)


Contrary to popular belief, watercolour paints are very challenging to use. For beginner use, I have several problems with them, the main one being that it is difficult or impossible either to erase or hide mistakes.  This can be extremely disheartening. I strongly recommend becoming proficient at another painting medium before learning watercolours. As an alternative non-toxic, fairly clean medium for colour work, I would suggest coloured pencil or soft pastel.

If your friend really wants to take up painting, then the other options are oils, acrylic or gouache paints.

 Oil paints

For someone who wants to paint and does not mind some mess or smell, I first recommend oil paints. These can be used thinly or thickly, overlaid or scraped back for effect or to hide errors. It is easy to lay work aside and come back to it at a later date.  I consider oils the most forgiving paint medium for beginners, though of course they can also be used to create masterpieces in expert hands.

The main drawback of oil paints is their messiness. White spirit or turpentine are required to clean brushes and surfaces, and the painting room will need good ventilation.

If you do set your friend up with oil paints, they will hopefully remember you in years to come when they are producing great paintings! As an introductory set of paints, I can suggest Daler-Rowney “Georgian”. This smaller tube size should provide enough paint for plenty of work and, if your friend wants to take oil painting further, they can buy more colours individually and perhaps start to investigate the more expensive brands for themselves.


Georgian Oil Introductory Set 10x22ml Tubes

As for brushes, a basic selection of hogs and perhaps some synthetics should get your friend started. Here are suggestions for reasonably-priced brush sets:

Pro Arte : Brush Wallet set - Studio Hog : 2-8 Rnd 6-10 Flat & 4 Filbert
Daler Rowney Graduate 3 BRUSH Synthetic Round SET

There are various “painting mediums” available to mix with the oil paint and improve its flow and drying time. A good one to start with is liquin:


W&N : 75ml Liquin Original

It is also very useful to have either artist’s turpentine or a “low odour thinner” for oil painting:

Daler Rowney : Low Odour Thinner 175ml

and a bottle of linseed oil:

Pip Seymour : Refined Linseed Oil 250ml

As for palettes, I suggest buying a simple tear-off paper one. If your friend eventually wants to buy their own non-disposable palette then they may prefer to choose that themselves (the weight and balance vary so it helps to hold a few in the shop before buying):

W&N Tear Off Palette : Medium 11 1/2 x 8in 50 sheets for oil and acrylic

A suitable surface for oils is essential. You may treat your friend to one or more stretched canvases. These are lovely as they can be hung on the wall without framing. However, it can feel rather daunting to be faced with a special stretched canvas as a beginner. Books of canvas paper are great for trying things out and for those who like to experiment as they are relatively cheap. For early “good work”, canvas boards are very convenient. Just click on the picture links below for further information and for pricing details:

Arches Huile : Oil Painting Paper Pad 9x12in 300gsm Fine
COTTON ART BOARD canvas on MDF with sheared edges 24 x 30cm : box of 10 (save 10%)

The new oil painter will also need white spirit for cleaning up (available from hardware stores), plenty of cotton rags (torn up old shirts or sheeting are fine) and a basic barrier ointment or cream to protect their hands (Vaseline or other liquid paraffin-based ointments are good).


Acrylics are used as an alternative to oil paints in many schools and classes as they are water-soluble, do not produce any unpleasant smell and there is no concern about toxic fumes. They can be used thinly or built up as thick impasto in a similar manner to oil paints and, in skilled hands, similar finished works on canvas or board can be created.

However, many people (myself included) find acrylic painting more technically difficult than using oils. Their almost-immediate drying time makes some traditional oil-painting techniques very challenging, and they change colour slightly on drying, making it tricky to match colours when adding to a piece of work.

On discovering oil paints, I thought that I would not use acrylics again. However, I now find that acrylics are indeed indispensible for layering in multi-media work, combined with collage, or to provide rapid-drying layers of paint under an oil painting.

Which acrylic paints to buy?

I personally like the Daler-Rowney “Cryla” range and the “Liquitex heavy body acrylics” and have been buying these as individual tubes.  At discounted prices such as are currently available at Jacksons  (click the colours below to open) they are not over-priced for beginners. I would recommend the following cryla tube colours to start with:

cadmium yellow pale:

Daler Rowney Cryla Acrylic : 75ml tube Cadmium Yellow Pale

 yellow ochre:

Daler Rowney Cryla Acrylic : 75ml tube Yellow Ochre

 phthalo blue (green shade):

Daler Rowney Cryla Acrylic : 75ml tube Phthalo Blue (Green Shade)


Daler Rowney Cryla Acrylic : 75ml tube Ultramarine

cadmium red:

Daler Rowney Cryla Acrylic : 75ml tube Cadmium Red

 and burnt umber:

Daler Rowney Cryla Acrylic : 75ml tube Burnt Umber

Few people would recommend them to start with, but I find the quinacridone colours very uplifting. They have a glowing quality and mix well. I use plenty of quinacridone deep purple:

Daler Rowney Cryla Acrylic : 75ml tube Quinacridone Deep Purple

and quinacridone burnt orange:

Daler Rowney Cryla Acrylic : 75ml tube Quinacridone Burnt Orange

A tube of white is essential (go for Titanium White), but the black in many sets is, in my opinion, not needed. Greens, pleasing greys, skin tones and other colours can be mixed from the suggested tube colours, above, though the acrylic painter may choose more tubes to add to their collection as they gain experience.

For acrylic painting, a stay-wet palette is extremely useful:


And I would suggest starting with either hog or synthetic brushes. System 3 do a good range for acrylic use:

System 3 Starter Brush Set

Important for new acrylic painters: All brushes must be very thoroughy cleaned at the end of each session or they will be ruined. Brushes in use must be kept wet or the paint will harden on them. Replace paint tube caps immediately or the paint will solidify in the tube. Do not use valuable palettes for acrylic work as remaining paint will set hard and ruin them (I recommend stay-wet or disposable palettes). Paint spillage on clothes or furniture will be difficult or impossible to remove so be careful. These are facts that I discovered the hard way many years ago…

Gouache paints

Gouache paints make a practical alternative to watercolours. Being opaque, they can be layered more readily, allowing for the correction of mistakes and for additions to a painting. They are water-soluble and not too messy, making them quite appropriate to use in the home or at a group art class.

Reeves make very cost-effective sets as an introduction to the medium, though there is the option to switch to a higher-end brand once these small tubes of colour run out:

Reeves Artist Gouache Hangpack 24 x 12ml Tube Set

For gouache painting, choose watercolour-type brushes. Sable brushes are the most sought-after but are usually expensive. A good first choice would be these mixed synthetic and sable ones made by Winsor & Newton:

Winsor & Newton SCEPTRE Gold Short Handle BRUSH WALLET 1-4-6 Rnd 6mm Flat

In getting started with gouache, you friend will also need a palette (plastic, ceramic or metal with wells), and card, board or robust paper to work on.

Any other thoughts?

Do you have further suggestions to add to this list of art materials for the new artist? If so, please do add your own comment below.

In particular, I would love to hear from anyone who has experience with Alkyd Oil colours, “Golden” acrylics or other relatively new materials. Would you recommend these to the beginner as good alternatives to standard oil or acrylic sets? Can anyone recommend the lower-cost acrylics these days (I was put off “student-quality” acrylics years ago so have not recommended them here)?

Do you disagree with my suggested starter tube choices for acrylics? By all means, add your own suggestions below.

The next art gift blog post from me will give recommendations of presents for the more established artist.

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