As an artist, one of the things that’s always been part of my life has been trash. Trash from used up art supplies, the packaging from those art supplies, and the byproduct from using them; everything from the benign, like pencil shavings, to the toxic, like dirty turpentine. As a cosplayer of several years, too, that’s even MORE trashed materials to count. Foam scraps are the biggest culprit here, and it’s one of the many reasons that I’m winding down my cosplay career. (Aside from just no longer having the time or funds to pursue it.)
And so for the better part of the past year, I’ve been on the lookout for trash-minimizing art supplies, on top of looking back over my 8 years of schooling to reconsider other tools that I maybe just never took to. What options are out there? Well, here’s a basic look.
This is obviously the toughest category of materials and supplies because it’s got such a long, colorful history of being so toxic. As art students we’re told stories about painters who went crazy or got sick from chewing on the ends of their paintbrushes (something we’re all guilty of) because of the cadmium present in some of the paint colors. If you work with oil, you’re likely to have some solvent or another on some part of you or your clothes at any given time, and most of that winds up going down the drain when you clean up. (Paint thinner doesn’t evaporate as quickly as you might think. There are countless horror stories of artists who set a rag in the sun only to find their studio on fire afterward.) But what about acrylics, which are water-soluble? Well, they’re quite literally made of plastic.
So what’s a painter to do?
You actually have a few options here, surprisingly enough. Let’s start with the weird.
For the layperson, you might think of Renaissance-era Catholic icons of saints or bizarre Byzantine scenes depicting angels and mortals in tiny buildings, all in a rainbow of colors, when you think of egg tempera. But a number of artists still use this ancient method of painting and continue to create absolutely beautiful works with it.
It’s one of the few truly do-it-yourself methods of painting, and no fancy tools or equipment is needed to produce the paint. All you need are eggs, water, and pigment. I shouldn’t have to justify the eggs and water, obviously, but the pigment is an interesting thing to note here. You can actually buy raw, powdered pigments for making your own paints with at most good art stores, and I hear that they last a long time. A little pigment goes a long way, especially, it seems, with egg tempera. For a more economical route, you could also just buy good quality chalk pastels (which can be purchased in bulk at most art stores) and grind those up to create pigments with a mortar and pestle. (The difference between all good and “student” quality materials is the ratio of pigment to filler– this is especially noticeable with oil paint, which can be stretched much thinner when you shell out for the quality stuff.)
If you’re interested, here’s a professional breakdown of making the paints, and here’s a simpler, kid-friendly method.
Making watercolor and gouache of a professional sort at home is pretty labor-intensive and requires the use of weird preservatives and binders, so I don’t recommend going that route, especially for the purposes of minimalism or zero waste. But there are options here.
The first is straightforward: buy tubes of watercolor to use. They’re small, last a long time with occasional use, and the tubes are metal, not plastic.
The second is to use watercolor pencils or crayons, which can be purchased in bulk at most art stores, and used with a wet watercolor brush to disperse the pigment after you’ve drawn on the paper. This doesn’t give exactly the same look as traditional watercolor, and is more akin to drawing, but it’s an extremely accessible way to paint with water, especially for kids.
You can also try painting with DIY dyes made from spices, plants, and other things you might have around the house. A painting made with beet juice red and tumeric yellow? Count me in.
Sumi-e is an East Asian method of painting using only water and black ink, similar to India ink, though it comes in a hard stick form. It’s rubbed on a “stone” with water to create the paint. You can theoretically create your own Sumi-e and India inks using clean soot that you’ve collected, but… wouldn’t you rather leave that sort of tedium to the professionals?
Drawing is the medium where most artists, hobbyist and professional alike, live. Whether doodling on an index card or full-on life drawing, mark-making on a ground (a fancy term for the thing you’ve chosen to draw on) is the oldest and most primal way of producing images. It’s also the most DIY-friendly!
Pen and Ink
This medium is pretty straightforward, though there are a few more specialized options for both the novice and professional. It’s actually got a few sub-categories of its own:
Traditional Pen/Dip Pen
You’ve probably seen these at office supply or stationary stores, usually under a case, and you’ve probably ignored them because they look more like corporate gifts than something someone might actually use on a regular basis. And for the most part, that’s all true. But artists and illustrators use them all the time still, and they sure as hell aren’t paying $100 for their pens! I paid $15 for my Kakuno pen online, and I love it. The fine tip is buttery smooth, its hardy, and it takes generic ink cartridges made by Pilot, which come in a rainbow of colors. The only potential downside is that the ink is water-soluble, so don’t get your drawings wet. To me, this is actually a positive thing, because a dip under the faucet is all it takes to clean the pen.
There’s another type of nib pen that’s a lot cheaper and customizable, and that’s the dip pen. There’s guaranteed to be a wide variety of these at any good art store, with a selection of both pen bodies and nibs. And of course, there’s two kinds of this pen also: the crow quill and the “calligraphy” nib. Crow quills are smaller than the calligraphy ones, and have a specially-sized body to match. Most people use these for drawing and sketching. Calligraphy nibs have the lion’s share of the selection, though, and are handy for writing and drawing in a variety of line weights. Nibs for these are usually Speedball brand and come in packs of 4.
What these two kinds of pens have in common, though, is that they have no ink cartridge, and require dipping into an ink source and “loading” the nib with ink every once in a while. This means you can change ink colors much faster and with much less fuss than the traditional cartridge pen, and it also means you’re not stuck with any one brand of ink. (See my above comment about DIY dyes.) The downside is that they’re much more likely to make a mess. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve knocked over an entire well of waterfast ink by accident? Yeah, that kind of mess. But I still use them for certain things, especially if I plan on using colored ink to fill in the line drawing. They’re almost indispensable in their versatility and cheapness.
This is an ancient tool of days gone by, the weapon of choice for many an illustrator and cartoonist before the age of computers. I have friends and old professors who swear by them. What are they, though? Well, they’re basically the Rolex of the pen world. Also called a technical pen, they give a perfect (and I mean perfect) line that some artists just absolutely love. Personally, just hearing about owning one made me want to tear my hair out! While they are amazingly precise and reliable, they are a pain to maintain. Because most every artist uses waterfast inks with them, they need to be taken apart and every tiny piece cleaned in solvent (or Windex, shudder) on a regular basis. If you don’t do this, expect to have a $40 piece of junk on your hands pretty quickly. They also tend to explode if brought on airplanes, so taking the thing apart for that is also necessary.
Assuming you take good care of your rapidograph, though, it can last you a lifetime. They can also be reloaded with all manner of inks, allowing you to buy in bulk, or theoretically make your own.
Modern Pen Liner
If you’re an artist, you probably own a few pens in this category: Microns, felt tips, even fine line Sharpies count. The problem with these is that they just don’t last long at all. I’ve been inking comics with these kinds of pens for years now, and it’s been a never-ending search for the “perfect” one: one that doesn’t start to dry out after 2 or 3 comic pages, one that gives me the line width I need, one that isn’t made of plastic and isn’t disposable. Well, enter the Copic Multiliner SP!
Other Drawing Media
Copic markers aren’t only good quality (if markers are your thing), but they’re refillable (you can even mix your own colors!) and the felt tips are replaceable for them too. Inasmuch as I know, these are the only markers on the market that aren’t completely disposable.
When buying colored pencils for general use, I’d definitely go for the wood-free kind that’s just a stick of color so that you can use more of it. Just keep in mind that the main ingredient in colored pencils, like commercial crayons, is synthetic wax. So unless you could find a kind that’s made with beeswax, they’re not even compostable.
Drawing with charcoal is fun, easy, and a totally natural way to go. For those of you who haven’t tried it, it’s a little like a cross between chalk pastel and a graphite stick. It’s as bold or as delicate as you want it to be, and even in its most basic form (the end of a stick stuck on some coals or a campfire), it works really well. Charcoal sticks aren’t generally sold in bulk at art stores because they’re sort of delicate and tend to make a mess when they come into contact with other things, but you can usually buy a lot of them at once, and depending on how hard you draw, they can last a while. But if you want, there’s always the DIY route…
Graphite is a good, classic standby. In art stores, you can by plain graphite sticks in various hardnesses; some thicker, to be used alone, and some thinner, to be used in dispenser bodies that are more ergonomic, minimize mess, and maximize your use of the graphite as the stick gets shorter. You pretty much can’t go wrong with graphite.
Well, that’s pretty much it for now. I could cover a LOT more, like printmaking, fiber arts, and sculpture, but I’ll save those for other posts. :3