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  • Writer's pictureHazel Manley

Buying Rubbish!

I'm generally blessed by friends and relatives who know they don’t know what to buy when it comes to art gifts and so ask me what I really want! I'm enormously grateful they don't fall for the dozens of articles listing "perfect" gifts for artists that seem to appear at Christmas. The down side of this is, I only have myself to blame for some of the rubbish I've acquired over the years!

My buying disasters usually spring from three sources:


I still have most of a sample tin of ultra soft pastels, because I quickly discovered that ultra soft is way too soft for me as I found myself, the studio space and the even the air coated with brightly coloured chalky pigments!

Although these have resulted in art equipment I no longer use, I generally feel that buying mistakes as a result of experiments are a necessary part of growing as an artist.

I have, however, learned that it's best not to buy whole sets to experiment with a new medium when the same learning experience could be gained from a much smaller scale experiment to start with. I've also come to the reluctant conclusion that, if I want to become really good with a medium, I need to put in the time to learn its quirks and strengths, which means that buying lots of different mediums can be a recipe for mediocrity in all of them. The problem with creatives is that we often want to try everything and are loathe to give up on some mediums to concentrate on a select few so we end up with dozens of different mediums sitting neglected in various cupboards.

Sets of 'everything you need' are often a mistake

False Economies

I usually buy fairly cheap brushes for blending and pushing oil pastel pigment around on the surfaces I use to avoid ruining expensive brushes. However, a while back, I landed myself with a set of brushes that were truly dreadful and gave up on them after spending ages picking shed bristles out of my art.

Or, there's the amazing bargain set that had an apron, brushes, canvas boards and sundry other bits all in a wooden box that opened out into a portable easel usually worth £(insert huge sum) but available to me for a special price of £(insert ridiculously small sum). Even as I write this, I'm still wondering how I fell for this amazing offer!

Whilst more expensive doesn't always equal better, and some of my best art buys are my least expensive, I have discovered that sometimes cheap is just nasty!

Poorly Designed Equipment - an expensive mistake!

Lured by art catalogues

Like most artists, I have various bits of equipment and supplies that I don't use as much as the glowing catalogue description persuaded me I thought I would, but I wouldn't go as far as to say I think of these as a total waste of money and storage space, but there are some buys...

For example there's my scale dividers which ineffiently do what I now do using digitally, or my folding portable, rechargeable daylight lamp which is so badly designed that the base isn't big enough to stop the wretched thing from over balancing and the the light pool is too small to be useful for painting. You can also add to this category the highly specialised brushes which only do one thing that with minimal extra effort I can do with my normal brushes.

The trouble is, it's so hard not to be mesmerised by the shiny treasures in art catalogues full of expensive, 'essential' books, brushes, media, videos and courses.

So, here are my top tips:


Inefficient Gadgets - end up in the drawer


Highly specialised, complicated items often spend more time in the cupboard than in use. (A bit like those kitchen gadgets! )


Sets tend to contain lots of non-essentials so stop and consider if you would be better off to buy only the components you actually want.

Sets of cheap (un)branded paints containing over a dozen different colours of acrylic, watercolour or oil paints are frequently disappointing because they are such poor quality. It's far better to buy half a dozen good quality products and mix your own colours.

Sets of either soft or oil pastels from brands that don't offer stocks of single colours to replace those you use up most quickly are definitely to be avoided!

Highly Specialised Items - tempting but unnecessary

Items aimed at the hobby art market

The hobby art market was worth around USD 43340 million in 2020. It brings a lot of pleasure to thousands, but sometimes we need to realise that items in hobby shops and catalogues are frequently over priced versions of things we can find elsewhere or don't need at all. (My previous blog gives examples of these.)

Seek Out


The social media hive mind is brilliant for this. Most artists are wonderfully generous when it comes to sharing their experiences.

If I'm considering trying a new product, I'll often ask people in one of the art Facebook groups I belong to if they have tried it and what they thought. This has helped me find printers for my beautiful prints and manufacturers for my scarves.

Wish & Wait List

To help me resist the lure of the latest 'must-have' art goody, I often stick it on a wish list and then review the list 3 weeks later. It's surprising how often that puts it into perspective. Offers that expire quickly are designed to push you into making poorly thought through buys.

Free Trials and Samples

Before enrolling on expensive courses, see if you can get a free taster to help you decide if you're going to enjoy it and learn what you need.

Surprisingly, some art shops sometimes get given samples of paints or papers that you can try for free, so you can check out different brands without buying anything.

Buy Used

A great way to try something different cheaply, is to look out for second hand items. My collection of expensive art books were bought for a fraction of their cost in second hand shops. My easel was given to me, giving me a chance to evaluate the usefulness of an easel without an expensive mistake.

If you've just realised your house is crammed with things you regret buying, maybe you should try some of these strategies.


Try not to make the same mistakes! If art shops and catalogues are just too tempting, avoid them, use the wish and wait list or a get a cynical buddy to accompany you when you shop. If it says it's a bargain, see what similar items cost elsewhere. Avoid unknown brands unless you can check the quality by buying a small sample.


Cheap paints with disappointing pigments can be useful for rough sketches or underpainting so may be worth keeping. I decided my natural daylight lamp which topples over too easily for artwork, is OK as a reading lamp.

Move on

OK, some things you just have to let go of, but before you bin or burn, think about donating. I discovered I had a box full of various half used paper pads and sample sheets that I no longer wanted. They went to another budding artist for them to experiment with. I think my scale dividers will follow a similar path.

So, before you head to the art store, perhaps it's time for a re-evaluation of your existing supplies!


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