Thrifty Ways to Find Painting Surfaces

We are called Starving artists for a reason. Yes, we may have jobs or even earn money from selling our work, but art supplies are not cheap. Paints, primers, canvases, etcetera all cost money and a bit more than we artists sometimes have. The good news is you can paint on literally anything with the right paint, primer and mediums. So let’s talk about saving MONEY.

Have you ever tried re-envisioning your painting surfaces? As any painter knows, the usual surfaces include canvas, canvas boards and paper, but what about glass, metal, wood, cardboard, or even foam? Learn to think outside the box, and you just may save a TON of money.

One short trip to Michael’s will show you what I mean. You might be browsing the canvas aisle and say, “Oh wow, what a beautiful canvas!” That is, until you look at the price. The average cost for a good size canvas is a bit more than I personally feel is worth paying. You might shell out anywhere from $7-$110, but the cost is usually on the higher end. Of course, Michael’s offers a membership and lots of great coupons and sales, and I take advantage whenever I can, especially if I don’t have time to build my own stretcher. When Michael’s isn’t running a sale, I often shop at Ollie’s and Odd lots, especially if I’m looking for small canvases. Here, you will play under $15 for most canvases. The problem is that you are severely limited to whatever sizes the store has in stock.

The alternative is ordering from internet sites like Dick Blick. These specialized sites give you more sizes to choose from and “professional” quality, but the costs are overwhelming. For example, a 48×72” will set you back $783.00. This is ludicrous, especially for someone on a budget.

So, what is a starving artist to do? … Let’s get thrifty!

First, you will need a few basic items: Gesso, a brush or scraper, a stapler, something to remove staples (perhaps a butter knife) and a pair of sizers. Now, you’re ready to paint on almost anything.

Pay a visit to a nearby thrift store like The Good Will or The Salvation Army, a flea market or yard sale or even a decorative store like The Christmas Tree Shop or Bed Bath and Beyond. (These kinds of stores always have a clearance section.)

You never know what you’re going to find in shops like these. For instance, there’s a documentary called: Who The #$&% Is Jackson Pollock. The film chronicles the story of a woman who found an actual Jackson Pollock painting in a thrift store for $5. Jackson Pollock is relevant to this topic for another reason. He is a true inspiration for thrifty artists. Pollock painted on absolutely everything. He utilized paper, canvases, old signs, and just about anything else he could get his hands on.

Your goal is to scout out one of those CHEAP tacky store-bought paintings that are really just a plastic table cloth stretched over a wooden stretcher. I have gotten several nice sized stretchers in this manner. All you have to do is remove the old picture from the stretcher, and you will be ready to stretch a canvas over your new frame. Keep in mind that you can use something you find around the house, anything from a stained shirt to a crappy towel, or a bed sheet or blanket. Just stretch the material over the frame and put your primer on. I like to use a paint scraper, but a brush works as well. Now, you can start painting.

Other things to be on the lookout for are picture frames with glass, mirrors, large clothing and fabrics, and cheap furniture that can be broken down or used as a whole. Let your imagination run wild. If you want to paint a vase, paint a vase. If you want to paint a coffee maker, go ahead! Do whatever your heart desires.

Remember that patience is a virtue.
Unfortunately, you will not always find exactly what you need at exactly the right time, especially if you are looking for large surfaces. It never hurts to look, though. If you have the opportunity to pick up dirt cheap materials and you think you will use them in the future, don’t hesitate.
Let’s talk about specific uses.

You can strip picture frames for their glass. The trick about painting on glass is you usually have to paint in reverse or paint on it and then press another piece of glass right over it. For an excellent example of a glass painting, spend some time studying The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (also known as The Large Glass) by Marcel Duchamp.

You can also be pretty frugal when it comes to canvas boards. At Michael’s you can find canvas boards for anywhere from $4-$20.
But keep in mind that any hard flat hard surface made of wood can be primered with Gesso and painted on. This opens up a wide array of sizes. If you go to your local hardware store, you can pick up a piece of wall paneling for around $20. This paneling is 4’ x 8’, offering a much cheaper option than Michael’s.

Sure, there is a bit of a size issue if you don’t have access to a truck or a van, but Home Depot will cut a panel up to four cuts. So not only are you saving money, but you’ve found a thrifty and easy way to procure larger sizes. If that’s still not cheap enough, there is always cardboard. More often than not, you can score it for free from the recycling center, a factory or a local grocery store.

If you are in need of a large canvas, I suggest taking advantage of Marywood’s wood shop. The tools commonly used are the miter saw, the table saw and a small air nailer/stapler. If you’re not experienced with tools, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your instructor most likely will be able to show you or point you in the direction of someone who can teach you. You can also leave a comment and I will do my best to give you some pointers. Learning how to use tools will not only save you money, but also add a valuable skill to your resume.

Just last week, I built two canvases and they cost me around $100. I know that sounds like a lot, but the first canvas is 81″ x 100″ and the second canvas is 60”x 72”. The stretchers were built out of pinewood, and I stretched canvas drop cloth over the frames.(Sheets, blankets, old shirts and curtains would work as well.)

Of course, building a canvas from scratch takes a little bit of blood, sweat and tears, but there’s just something about building my own stretchers that I really appreciate.

You many also want to consider foam as a medium. Yes, I did say foam. Yes, it is a bit unorthodox. Hear me out. Home Depot and Lowes sell insulation foam for the sides of houses. The key point is that it comes in different thicknesses. This makes it super easy to carve into and paint on top of.
It’s the perfect material for a painting-sculpture, and you can have a ton of fun with it. It was a thought that I was playing with a while ago, and I’m actually going to be attempting this myself over the next few weeks. So if you see me around the studio, ask me about the result.

I hope this post has helped you think about some new and creative alternatives to creating art. If you’ve had success with any interesting or non traditional materials, tell me about them in the comments.

Thank you for reading!

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