You Get What You Pay For

Caveat emptor — let the buyer beware — was probably the first Latin phrase I learned. I was no more than five or six years old, and those words upset me. They spoke of greed and corruption, showing me a grown-up world I didn’t want to see.

Of course, I understand caveat emptor better today, and I see it not so much as a dire warning but more as a common-sense reminder to exercise good judgment when we go shopping. It goes hand-in-hand with that oft-heard expression that “You get what you pay for.”

When it comes to art, I’ve learned, that old adage couldn’t be more true.

I first learned the importance of buying good quality art supplies before I was actually “an artist”. Since I couldn’t draw, I thought I could scratch a few creative itches with one of the new “grown-up” coloring books that have now become all the rage. I bought a coloring book, went to Wal-Mart, and picked up the cheapest set of colored pencils I could find.

Big mistake. Oh, they worked, but all I got for my efforts were dull, barely-there colors. No, that’s not quite true. I did get a lot of enjoyment from the first few pages I colored. But the pleasure I found was marred by frustration, too. I wanted brighter, bolder colors. Finally, after truly agonizing over the decision for several weeks, I broke down and bought a 12-pencil set of Prismacolor Premiers. I think the price was about $15.00, and I couldn’t believe I was spending so much money for something so simple. After all, colored pencils are colored pencils, right?

Using a single Prismacolor Premier pencil was the start of my artistic journey.
Using a single Prismacolor Premier pencil was the start of my artistic journey.

When I got home and used one for the first time, I found out exactly how much difference there can be in quality from one pencil to another. Within five minutes, I’d gone online and ordered a complete set of the pencils. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I couldn’t help myself.

That’s where my journey began. Once I’d spent so much on colored pencils, I figured I’d better learn to do a little more with them than simply color illustrations in a $6.00 coloring book. For what it’s worth, I don’t regret buying those good pencils. I love the journey I’m on, and the last year has been filled with creative fun.

But, back to the subject. I was lucky, I think, to learn early on that it’s always good to buy the best art supplies you can afford. If you’re just starting out, you might think much like I did and wonder “Is there really any difference?” Yes, there is.

Yet, I must confess, there’s still a “thrifty” side of my nature that goes around looking for bargains anywhere I can find them. And sometimes that includes art supplies.

The old lessons of caveat emptor and “You get what you pay for” came back around recently when I decided to pick up a cheap set of soft pastels. I was excited by the purchase and couldn’t wait for them to arrive on my doorstep. When they were delivered, I hurried off to my art room, eager to give them a try. A short time later, I was staring at a blank sheet of paper, watching the “pastel” simply fall off the page. Yes, I was using pastel paper. Yes, it had a good tooth. It wasn’t the paper that was the problem. It was the cheap pastels. Within minutes, I’d contacted Amazon, arranged for a refund, and an hour later those cheap pastels were repackaged and on their way back.

Never again will I buy an unfamiliar brand without at least reading reviews or getting opinions from artists who have used them. With those pastels, I could have saved myself a bit of trouble had I read the reviews before buying them. Several other customers had reported the same problems.

Another little “bargain” that wasn’t so great was a book on color theory I downloaded from Amazon through the Kindle Unlimited program. With the program, I was able to read the book free, and I’m glad I didn’t buy it. Although it was only $1.99, it wasn’t worth the price, I realized. When the author wrote about “lighter shades” of a color, I knew she didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. I didn’t bother to finish the book.

Along with cheap art supplies and bargain-priced books, aspiring artists can also find lots of “freebies” online. Several months ago I signed up for an online “art event” that promised to show how artists could take their work to the next level. What I got for my time was an hour-long “infomercial” from an art tutor looking to recruit students into her classes. Or, for a few thousand dollars, she would provide individual mentoring.

Recently I downloaded a free PDF tutorial on creating floral watercolors.

  • Step one: Find a photo reference.
  • Step two: Draw the flowers.
  • Step three: Paint them.

Excuse me? I could have figured that much out on my own. I thought the tutorial was going to show me how to do these things. Again, thank goodness I hadn’t wasted money on this. I’d spent nothing, and that’s what I’d received in return.

Now, I don’t mean to disparage all free tutorials or classes. There are some excellent free resources for aspiring artists. Matt Fussell has many wonderful free videos at The Virtual Instructor, and Learn To Draw is another great site. I’m currently enrolled in “The Joy of Watercolor“, a free course offered by Angela Fehr. I’ve only recently started the course, and it looks promising.

I recognize that a lot of artists who share “free” information or offer “free” tutorials are doing it as a form of advertising, and I don’t have a problem with that — so long as there actually is a bit of information or instruction shared. I am, in fact, extremely grateful to these artists who share their time and talents. When I find ones with whom I “connect”, those whose teaching styles somehow resonate with me, I’ll gladly purchase their books and DVDs, and sign up for their online workshops.

Overall, I know that good quality supplies are worth the money, and the same is true with good quality art instruction. I’ve learned that caveat emptor means making good decisions about the products and services I buy. Of course, I still appreciate the bargains and sales when I find them, but price isn’t the deciding factor when it comes to art supplies.


  1. Yes I agree with you in buying good art supplies. It is so hard for me to choose which of the good tools fits my style and my way of working on art. I look in my cabinets and see 1 to 3 of many different kinds of paints trying to figure out which kind of paint I like the best. Do I have a set of paints with more than the primary colors? Nope, but Im having fun learning about the different products.

    You mentioned colored pencils above and I don’t know how I colored anything without the Prismacolor pencils in the past. They are so smooth and soft and they blend so beautifully. The colors are vibrant too. Great post. Thanks for sharing!


    1. I love my Prismacolor Premiers. I have a set of Faber-Castell Polychromos, too, but overall I prefer the Prismacolor. I’ve heard people say that the quality has gone down and that they break easily. I haven’t had any problems with mine, and I’ve used them quite a bit.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very thoughtful post, you go into depth and I really like that because I am a detail orientated person. I need to go more into depth on my blog but sometimes I get so impatient! I agree with you on getting artist quality because there is nothing so upsetting as using student grade or cheap paints or pastels. It is worth the money spent to get artist quality art supplies! I thought one time that I would buy a “reasonable” priced watercolor paper….what a deal, I thought! I was sorely disappointed especially after having worked on good watercolor paper for years, that paper was horrible! What was I thinking? I gave some to my grandson and kept the rest to sketch on. I have learned not to fall for that again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad I learned about buying quality art supplies early on. I know I’ve saved myself a lot of frustration. It really does pay to do a bit of research before shopping. The first watercolor paper I bought was totally worthless. It was only 90 lb. weight, I think, but at the time I didn’t know there was a difference. LOL I sure learned that lesson real fast. It was for a pen-and-ink project using an ink wash. Talk about buckled paper! When I started doing watercolor, I bought 140 lb. weight. It’s not the most expensive, but I think it’s suitable for all the practice painting I’m doing.

      Liked by 1 person

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