We've all done it.
Standing in the craft store, you look longingly at a new product. The colors are pretty and you've seen a few video tutorials. Should you try it? Decisions, decisions...
But wait! It comes in other brands! And this one says "Student Grade". Wow, that one's cheaper! Half the price means I can afford 12 colors instead of 6.
I totally get the whole "gotta get more for my money" instinct. My hobby is painting gigantic Halloween props for a non-profit organization, so I'm a pro at pinching pennies in the paint aisle.
But when it comes to art supplies, you have to fight your inner Ebeneezer Scrooge. Really. Because cheaping out on paper or paint can have long term effects.
Artist Grade versus Student Grade- what's the big deal?
I've heard it said that the grade of materials you purchase should match your skill level- meaning real artists should buy artist grade and the rest of the universe should stick with the cheap stuff.
But then you look at Jackson Pollack who painted with freekin' leftover house paint, or you see someone on Pinterest who drew the Last Supper with 3 Bic pens... you kinda start wondering why anyone would ever spend $14 on a tiny tube of paint.
Why not stick with the cheap stuff, especially since we're just crafting?
Here's my take on it; this is coming from someone with close to 30 years using art materials:
You must always purchase the best quality product your budget will allow, even if that means buying fewer colors.
Here's the hard truth that no one standing in the paint aisle at the craft store wants to admit:
I've seen too many people ruin good ideas with crummy supplies.
I have a friend who is an awesome watercolorist (name redacted so that she will still send me Christmas cards). She was looking to add colored pencil over the top of her paintings. She called me, all geeked about the great deal she got on a set of colored pencils.
She purchased a great brand, but instead of the smooth and buttery artist grade pencils, she got the hard, crumbly ones they sell in bulk to elementary schools. NOT THE SAME THING.
And she wouldn't listen to me, wouldn't return them. She insisted that these pencils were her golden key to a whole new, amazing line of illustrations.
Uhm, yeah. Project Kindergarten Pencil lasted about two weeks before she gave up in frustration. She now hates colored pencils and won't touch them again.
Think about it. If you've never had chocolate and someone hands you a bag of sugar-free soy-carob candy drops, are you going to fall in love with chocolate? You can bake brownies from cheap chocolate or use grandma's amazing cookie recipe but you'll never make anything worth calling "death by chocolate".
Quality matters because quality shows.
Student Grades are made for the mass market
Student materials are developed by companies to meet a PRICE POINT. They've decided to sell tubes of paint or pads of paper for the magical price of $4.99 because that's what their marketing guys insist that you'll buy. It doesn't matter what ingredients they use, it can be anything that kinda works, as long as the value doesn't exceed $4.99.
So yes, your pad of paper may pill when dampened... but hey, it was only $4.99!
And maybe that acrylic paint is seriously transparent... but it was only $4.99!
And who cares if you markers fade after two weeks... because yahoo, they were only $4.99!
Student grade paints, pencils, and markers suffer from low pigment load. Pigments are the expensive part of the recipe, so if the manufacturer can sneak in some extra fillers at the factory, they can retail the product for less.
As for student grade paper? Manufactures can skimp on the cotton content which is important to produce a well behaved paper that doesn't melt or degrade when you hit it with paint or ink. They can cheat the processing at the factory or skip the correct surface coating, leading to papers that bleed or even repel certain media.
Artist Grade products are developed to a quality standard
Higher quality art supplies fill a desire or niche for a small segment of artists.
I want a paint that uses only all-natural binders- bingo, there's a company that makes that.
I want paper that stands up to scrubbing when fully saturated- yep, there's a company making that.
I want a marker that is vibrant, blendable, and can refilled- Hmmm, does anyone make that???
Artist grade supplies meet a rigid standard- either pigment load, durability, blendability, or some other magical quality. The manufacturer uses whatever ingredients are necessary to meet or surpass the standard. Price consideration comes after the company insures that the product performs well.
This is why the price of paint can fluctuate by color- the same brand, all 30ml size, but Cadmium Yellow costs $18 and Lamp Black costs $7. It's also why paper can get seriously expensive; paper prices are especially performance driven.
So what do you do if you're a crafter looking to experiment before making a big investment?
Buy the best you can.
But why? Why would I tell you to spend extra money on supplies for a technique you may not like?
Because cheap stuff acts like cheap stuff. If you haven't been blessed by the talent-muses or you're facing a steep learning curve, why would you add more hurdles to your learning process?
I know marker colorers who refuse to work on anything but office grade card stock. They complain that they just can't learn to blend well which makes me want to scream "You're right! You can't blend. And you'll never blend! Because you keep setting yourself up to fail every time you grab another sheet of office paper."
Quality matters. Your tools and supplies contribute to your level of success.
Frustration vastly outweighs the best bargain. The dollars you save are completely wasted when you throw your hands up and quit.
Do your research to find the best product for your budget. Eliminate the gold plated varieties but see what artists are saying on the internet about the mid range products. You'll definitely find something affordable that actually works.
Top signs that the product is of questionable quality:
- Available at a mega-mart store. If a store carries peanut butter AND lawnmowers, chances are they aren't using art experts to stock their craft aisle.
- Anything in the school supply, office supply, or game aisle. Stay away.
- "Safe for kids"- it's sad but true, quality art supplies are not delicious nor are they safe to stick up your left nostril.
- Priced significantly lower than all other similar products. Cheap at the store = cheap from the factory.
- Only comes in a boxed set. This means there isn't a demand for replacement colors. Wonder why?
- No batch number on the product. Knitters know that dye lots vary from batch to batch. Art slupplies are the same- if the company isn't keeping track of when something rolled off the assembly line, that means they don't really care.
- Same price per unit, despite changes in color, finish, content, or coating. If every pad of paper in one brand is the same price, no matter what type or weight, your alarm bells should be ringing.
- Features a "Special!" or "Low Price!" that is printed directly onto the product label. This indicates the price never varies despite market fluctuations. They'll change their manufacturing process or ingredients multiple times before they'll even consider changing the price.
- Frequently on sale. This indicates that the wholesale price is low enough to charge a supposedly discounted price and still make money.
- Store Brand. If it was a can of creamed corn, we'd call it a generic knockoff but somehow it becomes a "value line" if an art product? This rule isn't always true, there are quality products manufactured for a few national art stores, but I think it's a trigger warning if something is named after a large craft retailer. Especially store brand paint brushes- some of those are really bad!
Step it up a grade-
Look, I'm not trying to break your piggy bank but I am asking you to consider that your recent watercolor disaster may have more to do with the paint than you think. The good stuff won't turn you into Rembrandt but it can get you a little closer.
Consider stepping up a grade next time. But hey, don't go overboard; it's still pretty easy to make something ugly, even on $40 paper.
Professional artists choose artist grade products out of necessity- it produces the best results, it helps their work flow, and it increases the value of the end product.
Crafters aren't usually looking at production stats; for you, it's all about enjoying the process. You're usually making cards at 1am because you're having too much fun to go to bed. Fighting with your materials seriously decreases the fun factor.
Even more importantly, battling with cheap supplies eats away at your confidence level. If at first you don't succeed, you might try again. But after the second failure, most of us start listening to the devil on our shoulder who says "you stink".