Making the Most of What You Have

Making the Most of What You Have

As an artist, it’s easy to get into that “shopping” mood for new supplies. I’m guilty of impulse buying, too! But as artists, sometimes it’s about how to be resourceful and creative with just a few tools. After all, great artists can work with whatever tools they have.


First off, there’s actually a lot you can do, even with a limited palette. I’ve written before on how to create a colour chart, but for this blog post, let me boil it down to just 2 colours.

If you had to just use 2 colours, what would they be? Hopefully not black and white! While they do contrast really well, your “white” is already provided for by the paper itself, so you can really just work with black if necessary. Or you could even limit yourself to one colour, and focus on monochromatic paintings. This just trains your sense of tonal value though, so if you do want to experiment more with colour, you’ll need at least 2 or 3 different colours to work with.

For a classic 2-colour palette, why not try burnt sienna and ultramarine blue? You can mix some fantastic darks with this, and find a good balance between the warm sienna and cool ultramarine in terms of colour temperature.

For a 3-colour limited palette, I highly recommend the primary colours – red, blue, and yellow. You can mix every other colour from these three, even though it’s less convenient.

If you have more than 3 colours, I recommend making a colour chart out of the colours you have. You may be surprised at just how many different hues and tones you can get with what you have!

Bonus tip: Have a dirty palette full of dried watercolour or gouache paint? Both these paints can be reactivated with water, so you can use what’s left on your palette to create a painting – as long as the paints aren’t too muddy to use.


How about other tools, like the paintbrush? If you had to go with just one, what would it be? I’d recommend a round brush for its versatility in creating both thin and thick brushstrokes, and as for the size, something that’s large but still comes to a point works well enough.

A larger size such as 14 or 16, or even a mop brush might be able to cover more area in a single brushstroke, but I find that switching colours is more difficult and a little wasteful of paint since you might have to wash off a lot of it to keep your brush clean.

This means a slightly smaller brush like a size 8 or 10 will work out much better, being a sort of middle ground between the small and large brushes.

However, I’d still say that it’s best to have at least 2 brushes - one smaller round brush (4-6) for detail work, and one large round brush (8-12) for better coverage. It depends on your style though - if you’re the type who loves large brushstrokes coming together to form a bigger painting, then just stick to large brushes. If you prefer smaller paintings with a lot of details, then go for smaller brushes.



As for paper, this is the one you can find the most substitutes for. For example, if you really have no other option, you can paint on drawing or printer paper. If that sounds too miserable, you can hunt for card stock paper, or something thicker that will take more water.

Tip: Surprisingly, coasters for cups (the thick card kind that’s often found in restaurants or bars) work really well in this sense! You’ll need one that’s blank on one side though, otherwise your painting will be obscured.

If you already have watercolour paper, use it! Then you can figure out its peculiarities (if any). Even if it’s not the most expensive or good quality paper, it will work in a pinch, and will be miles better than regular paper or even cardstock paper. Watercolour sketchbooks work too, and also serves as a place where you can keep all your practice pieces.

You can even paint on watercolour paper scraps, or paper samples (the kind that you can get for free or for cheap). If you don’t have any, you can also paint on the other side of a painting!

While the texture of a sheet of watercolour paper may be slightly different from the original “front” side, it’s still watercolour paper. The downsides are that the paper may have some warping already, plus it will be more difficult to use this method outside of just practicing your painting skills.

For the Love of Art

If you have no “art supplies”, you can take another look around you, or dig through what stationery supplies you own.

For example, a simple pen or pencil is all you need draw. How about a highlighter or two, to add a pop of colour? Even plain paper can be made into origami or a collage! The point is that you can still make art, even with the bare minimum.

Less is More

In fact, if you’ve never tried making art with tool constraints before, you can try it out! Let your imagination do the heavy lifting, and really get to know specific tools really well. This is one way of developing and expanding your art practice, especially if you’re looking to master a certain medium or skill.

When you feel like you’ve reached a certain limit, then you can consider getting something new. Of course, I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing if you already have a lot of art supplies.

Just make sure to give yourself enough time to use and/or learn these new supplies, and at least one opportunity for your tools to shine. You can then pick your favourites from there, and either give away or resell what you know you won’t ever use again.

As always, don’t stop exploring with the art process, and wishing you a happy and productive art-making session!

What are your favourite art tools and supplies? Do you prefer to go the minimalistic route, or do you want to try every new thing that comes out? Let us know in the comments below!

Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy.


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