Archive for April 3rd, 2009

When I was an undergraduate and graduate student at art school, spending money on art supplies was a required necessity – paints, brushes, canvas, papers, inks, copper plates, etching tools, all types of drawing media and the inevitable stacks of sketchbooks.

Although I didn’t mind the cost of decent art supplies (I’m a bit of an “art supply collector” anyway), I did balk at spending money on all the peripheral equipment needed to organize, store or haul around my art supplies, especially when I was teaching calligraphy or traveling around giving workshops.

Pen nibs, pen holders and ink can be relatively inexpensive, but artist quality papers, paints and brushes can run out a budget very quickly with not much left for studio amenities.

Since I was more inclined to spend my limited budget on a tube of beautiful, genuine azurite watercolor from Daniel Smith than a wooden art box to keep it in, I discovered making my own equipment or finding interesting items at garage sales and flea markets not only meant saving money, but also added a bit of charm, warmth and a personal touch to a studio.

Budget Studio

Budget Studio

Everything in the picture was picked up at garage sales, flea markets and auctions except the drafting table, chair and graphics ruler.  Note the wonderful old drafting table lamp picked up at a government surplus auction for about $2.00.

Of course, plastic containers and organizers are a great way of storing materials but as a visual artist, well, I don’t find them particularly visually inspiring.  I used them for a while until I found an old trunk and now I keep all my supplies in the trunk – lots of storage space with the added bonus of adding character to the studio (and keeping out the cats!)

Old Trunk for Art Supplies Storage

Old Trunk for Art Supplies Storage

Organizing Pen Nibs

I still use small plastic, divided cases (found in hardware stores) for storing pen nibs as they are very handy to separate nib sizes and helps avoid digging through a box of loose nibs to find the one #5 nib I don’t use very often.

Plastic Box with Dividers for Pen Nibs and Reservoirs

Plastic Box with Dividers for my Mitchell Pen Nibs and Reservoirs

Craft and art stores will carry divided cases, but shop around – a similar product at a hardware store is sometimes significantly less expensive.

Boxes for Pen Holders, Paints, Pencils, Fountain Pens, etc.

If you’re handy with woodworking, a very nice plan for a paint box or pen holder box can be found at the RunnerDuck Resources.

Not very good at woodworking?  How about an old wooden liquor box to hold those tubes of paint, pencils and pen holders?

Old Wood Liquor Box for Paint or Pen Holders

Old Wooden Liquor Box for Paint or Pen Holders

I can usually find a few of these and nice old cigar boxes on the garage sale circuit for pocket change – at the most a dollar or two for a larger box.

Old Cigar Box Case

Old Cigar Box Case

Brush Cases

As with paint, I would rather budget money for a high quality paint brush than a case to store it in.  A cloth brush case is preferred for storing natural hair brushes than a plastic case.  Sable brushes need to “breathe” a little and storing a damp brush in a sealed plastic container or case will cause the hairs to deteriorate.

A cloth roll up case is a better alternative for those expensive brushes.  Sometimes a suitable make-up brush case can be found, but if you have basic sewing skills it is quite easy to make your own.  I made mine from a modified make-up brush holder pattern similar to the one at Pins and Needles.

Brush Roll Up Case

Brush Roll Up Case

Note:  Unfortunately, the pattern at Pins & Needles has disappeared, so here is another pattern from Centsational Girl.  Increase the length to fit your brushes and it will work fine!

I simply picked up a remnant piece of quilted material, some edging for the seams and ties, and modified the pattern to make it a bit longer to accommodate larger brushes.  Not bad for someone who can’t sew!

Brush and Pen Rest

This is very useful especially if working with different nib and brush sizes on a project as it keeps the brushes and pens from rolling around.  Ceramic brush rests can be purchased from art and craft supply stores, but one can also be made from a couple of pieces of scrap wood.

Brush and Pen Rest

Brush and Pen Rest

Cut a few holes into the wood (or a piece of heavy cardboard) and glue a piece on the back to hold it upright.

Brush Rest Front and Back

Brush Rest Front and Back

It might not look as fancy as the ceramic brush rests, but it does the job and has lasted for years.

Art Supply Boxes

Great for storing and organizing supplies and a definite assest for the calligrapher or painter on the go!  Art boxes range from plastic craft organizers and tackle boxes to plein air (outdoor painting) pochade boxes complete with a built-in easel.

Plastic can be relatively inexpensive but a box for painting and particulary pochade boxes can cost hundreds of dollars as these are essentially a complete, portable painting studio.

I have found that most artist paint boxes are “overkill” for a portable calligraphy studio as easels, mixing palettes (generally for oil or acrylic), etc. are not necessary for carrying around supplies for lettering.

I was very fortunate as one day a former employer heard me lamenting at coffee break about the high cost of paint boxes and how unsuitable they were for calligraphy supplies.  He asked me a few questions and a couple of days later presented me with the perfect calligraphy box!

Calligraphy Supply Box

Calligraphy Supply Box

It measures approximately 11 1/2″ x 9 1/2″ x 3 1/4″ with four compartments and sturdy brass latches and handle.

I use this exclusively for carrying calligraphy supplies to classes and workshops – just perfect for pens, nibs, paints and a couple of ink bottles (thank you, Bruce!)

The dividers are set higher to fit into the box lid to keep supplies from rolling around and getting mixed up.



This is beyond my woodworking skill level – if you have the skills or know someone who can help you, a custom box is not only less expensive than a commercial box, but can be made to your requirements and specifications.

Tip:  If you are carrying around ink, put it in a plastic freezer bag in case the ink leaks.  This will save cleaning up all your other supplies.

A nice, alternative small calligraphy supply box can also be made from an old wooden cigar box.  Just attach a couple of hinges, latches, a handle, glue in some dividers, and you’re ready to go!

Calligraphy Pens

Making your own pens from quills, bamboo and metal can be fun and give you some unique lettering possibilities and custom nib sizes not available in commercial products.

Home Made pens

Home Made pens

More information on these pens can be found at the Fun with Pens post.

Papers, Ink and Paint

Papermaking is a way to recycle all those art papers you used for tests or discarded because of errors.  Hand made papers bring a unique and beautiful quality to calligraphy projects – deckled edges, including objects such as leaves or flower petals to the paper pulp, and textured surfaces.

Paper can be easily made at home with a blender, window screen and frame.  A detailed explanation on how to make paper is at the Pioneer Thinking site.

Ink, Paint and other art media such as oil paints, pastels, egg tempera, etc. can also be made, but these require working with dry pigments.  Many pigments are toxic and contain carcinogenic substances such as asbestos, mercury, arsenic, etc. and should not be attempted at home.

If you are interested in making your own paint or ink, take a class with an experienced, professional artist who can demonstrate the proper handling of materials and the use of safety equipment.

Be aware that many commercial art products, particularly professional quality, might be toxic and proper precautions should be taken before using them in your art projects.

An excellent book on the topic is Artist Beware by CIH, Michael McCann PhD and Angela Babin.

All the art supplies in this post are commercially available, but if you are working within a budget and would rather spend your money on quality pens, ink, paint and brushes instead of stuff to store it, consider making your own or recycling “vintage” items – be creative – you never know what useful object you might find at the next garage sale to personalize your studio!


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