I am currently writing from my art desk, where I am surrounded by sketches, toolboxes, vintage clay bowls, glass yogurt containers, and mason jars filled with the tools of my trade. Colors and texture everywhere my eyes stop to look. Each of my mixed-media tools carefully organized and well worn. These tools that surround me are the tools that help me tell my story.
There were years where I mistakenly believed that collecting and buying art supplies equated to creating art and being an artist. It is so much fun, though, to buy new supplies, isn’t it? I would buy more supplies and tools based on advice from another creative, and then never use them and often forget why I even purchased them in the first place.
It was only when I began showing up in my own life through practice and experimentation that I first learned about my tools, what worked within my own practice, and also how to use them together creatively. It didn’t take long to begin filtering out all of the supplies that had been purchased in haste and to know—really know—my tools and how to use them. I believe that once you figure out your palette and which tools are staples in your creativity, creating comes easier. You also spend your mental and physical energy on your work, instead of trying to decide what supply to use next.
The more I practice and create, the fewer supplies I surround myself with. I keep the supplies I use less frequently in another space in my studio, where they are accessible, but not distracting. I always love hearing what supplies and tools other artists use the most, but I am now wiser before purchasing. As creatives, we love the colors, textures, and beauty of art supplies. Hopefully we can all find what works for each of us, and never mistake the fun of buying supplies for the enjoyment of creating with them.
Here is my list of current (for now!) top 10 mixed-media tools for making art:
1. Vintage ephemera: I am a paper girl and will be until the day I die. Give me the real thing, and if it is aged and has a story, even better. I am constantly on the hunt for vintage ledgers, letters, book pages, postcards, and labels. These are treasures to me, and I include them in my collage work, journal making, and mixed-media pieces. The aged patina instantly adds depth and interest, and it gives me so much joy to repurpose something I find beautiful that others may throw away.
2. Rusty transfers: I have transferred rust onto wood panels, canvas, watercolor paper, and natural fiber fabrics such as muslin and cheesecloth, all for the love of rust and the beauty it adds to art! Using a 1:1 mixture of white vinegar and water in a spray bottle and some really rusty finds, you can create unexpected marks in your work.
3. Charcoal: Charcoal is the most lovely medium because it can be used dry, moved around with water, or even used with white gesso to create gorgeous blue/grey tones. There are few pieces that I do not start with a charcoal sketch and then make come to life through other techniques. Charcoal is inexpensive, portable, and adds drama to any piece.
4. Stabilo-All pencil: The black Stabilo-All pencil is right up there with charcoal as a staple in almost anything I create. Whether I’m creating a simple sketch or more detailed work, the Stabilo is one of my most hard-working tools. It can even write in wet mediums. Because it is water soluble (it moves with water), you can get so many values from one simple tool.
5. Mark-making tools: A sure-fire way to guarantee that your work looks like your work is to know what marks resonate with you. Often your marks will be created with a paintbrush, pastel, or charcoal. Other times you might create unique marks by cutting into your mediums with a bamboo skewer, palette knife, sculpting tool, or even repurposing kitchen or garage tools to create the marks that you are after. One of my favorite mark-making techniques is to cut into wet paint with my Faber-Castell palette knife. Whether I’m making tick marks, lines, or imagery, this technique instantly makes a piece mine.
6. Reusing my own artwork on paper: I have a hard time playing just for the joy of playing. This may tell you a lot about my personality, but I have learned a way around this. I trick myself into creative play by allowing myself to create on newsprint and watercolor paper without a plan. I gather my favorite mediums, turn up my favorite music, and just explore and play. When I am done I find the marks, color combinations, and compositions I love the most, and tear them out. I end up with mini-masterpieces, and use these pieces in larger works when I am stuck. It is amazing what having these works already created and available does for my creativity and larger works.
7. Wire: Give me 24-gauge rusty wire and I will bind journals, create imagery in my work, and bring sculptures to life. This wire is so pliable that you can almost stitch with it and create powerful marks in your work. This material is seen repeatedly in many of my favorite works.
8. Gesso: This is a simple mixed-media tool that works hard in almost everything I do. Clear gesso has a tooth to it that is difficult to duplicate, priming any surface and grabbing hold of any medium you add to it. White gesso becomes not only a primer, but a way to move watercolor pencil, Caran d’Ache Neolocor II crayons, charcoal, and Stabilo-All pencils. Once each of these water-soluble mediums dries, it becomes permanent. Love! Black gesso is great for mark making and showing off more dramatic imagery.
9. Mechanical pencil: I have a small portable studio I carry with me everywhere I go, and it includes a small artist’s journal, a charcoal pencil, a Stabilo-All pencil, a mechanical pencil, and a water brush. These are all the tools I need to create art on the go and to practice. It is so easy to reach for our phones when we have a few extra minutes, but reaching for art supplies is so much more satisfying. I have shared my thoughts about charcoal and Stabilo pencils, but I can’t imagine any piece being complete without the sketching, mark making, scribbles, and delicate lines that come from a mechanical pencil. The impact is subtle from a distance, but when you look at a piece up close, these lines and marks are always the finishing touches that bring a piece together.
10. Pastel: I’ve talked about all of these supplies, and I am just now getting to color! I love the way pastels feel in my hands, how easily they can be transparent or opaque, the way that just one intentional mark changes a whole piece, how portable they are, and how they’ve traveled with me everywhere.
And then there are watercolor pencils, plaster, watercolors, alternative mark-making tools, oil paints, cold wax, clay… I guess these will have to wait for next time. I would love to hear what mixed-media tools you can’t live without!
Jeanne Oliver grew up in rural Illinois and now resides in Castle Rock, CO. She is inspired by our personal stories, travel, and nature. Jeanne uses art to tell her current stories and also those of growing up among gravel roads, cornfields and early life surrounded by open spaces. Through mark making, layers, and mixed media, she hopes to convey that we all have a story to tell. Jeanne is married to her dream maker, Kelly, and is the mother of three funny and creative children. She homeschools her children, even though she has tried to get out of it a few times. You can often find her hiking, creating in her studio, and finding an excuse to have another cup of coffee. She speaks and teaches all around the country, and sometimes she even gets to cross the pond. She was told that she needed to find that one thing, but she doesn’t like listening to directions, so she embraces many loves. That has given her a sweet mash-up of family, art, and travel. Connecting with women and sharing that each of us has been creatively made is one of her passions. Jeanne is the author of The Painted Art Journal: 24 Projects for Creating Your Visual Narrative from North Light Books. See more about Jeanne on her website: jeanneoliver.com.
When’s the last time you had a play date with your art supplies? In this blog post, see how several mixed-media materials were given a road test.