Holiday gift guide for the serious artist

Santa Claus, 6X8, Carol L. Douglas

Leave this list open on your iPad, phone or computer. If that doesn’t work, I suppose you’ll just have to forward it ‘accidentally.’

Let’s talk about brushes:

Brushes are where quality matters, and it’s where most artists flinch. Why not buy a Rosemary & Co. gift card? That means they’ll have to actually pull the trigger on a brush, as Rosemary doesn’t carry much else. Gift cards come in odd increments because it’s a British firm, but plan to spend at least $130 for it to be useful.

One of the nicest gifts I’ve ever received was this set of Rosemary & Co. oil brushes.

Isabey is a French company that makes very nice bristle brushes that stand up to hard use. If your artists have no big brushes, buy a bright, flat or round anywhere between a size 10 and 14. Those big boys are the ones artists never get around to buying.

Eric Jacobsen, that incomparable mark-maker, got me a Princeton Catalyst W-06 wedge for oil painting. You can’t be precise, so it’s a great tool for loosening up your brushwork.

Inexpensive, and it packs a world of fun.

Speaking of Princeton, an excellent mid-price brush for oils and acrylics is Princeton SNAP. I’ve been using Princeton brushes for decades and they’re tough, consistent and reliable. Likewise, I find that my Princeton Neptunes are what I reach for first for watercolor.

If I could carry only one watercolor travel brush, it would be the Escoda Reserva Kolinsky-Tajmyr Pocket Brush. It’s compact, comes in a protective tube, and makes an outstanding range of marks. A close second, at a lower price point, are the Da Vinci Cosmotop Spin Travel Brushes. A hat tip to Heather Evans Davis for introducing me to them.

Heather also loves her field easel art bag by Darsie Beck. It allows her to sketch and paint while standing.

Gouache and other colorful things

Gouache is as easy to carry as watercolor and more intense in its results. That’s one I did while stuck in Argentina.

Many painters are interested in experimenting with gouache, and for good reason-its results are completely on-trend. Schmincke Horadam is a fabulous, high-pigment brand, but a starter set runs $150. Instead, you could make up a primary-color kit of Titanium White, Lemon Yellow, Scarlet (Pyrrole Red), Helio Blue (Phthalo), and Ivory Black. That’s everything necessary for limited-palette painting. M. Graham has a primary-color starter set that’s significantly less expensive and nearly as luscious.

A great combo for mixed medium experimentation is oil paint and oil pastels. Sennelier is the clear quality winner in oil pastels. A landscape or iridescent starter kit will give your artist enough information to know if he likes the combination.

Similarly, you can add chalk pastels to watercolor or acrylic paintings. My preferred soft pastel is Unison; a starter color kit is enough to experiment with. I love NuPastel for hard pastels; a set of 24 will provide a full range of color options. Of course, watercolor pencils are fun for everyone. I like Staedtler Karat Aquarell and Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer Magnus, which are fatter than usual.

Easels: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Cheap pochade boxes are a false economy. This field kit was pricey, but it’s put up with an incredible amount of abuse, including saltwater, sand, deserts, heat and freezing temperatures.

If your painter struggles with a knock-off Gloucester-style easel, you can make him or her ecstatic by buying the Take-It Easel, which costs twice as much and is worth every penny. After breaking one of the cheap ones and then buying a second one that arrived warped, I shelled out for a used version of the real thing. I’m glad I did.

As a teacher, I see a lot of pochade boxes and easels, and can steer you away from the bad ones as well as recommend good ones. I’ve had a version of the Mabef Field Painting Easel for decades and recommend it highly as a good starter tool for plein air. It has a swing head so can be used for oils and watercolor. The Leder Easel is simple, effective and inexpensive. The New Wave u.go pochade is also a simple, effective design, although it’s only suitable for smaller work.

I use an EasyL Pro on a carbon-fiber Manfrotto tripod with a ball head. It is very lightweight and has survived incredible abuse (including saltwater), but it’s not a cheap combination.

My Testrite studio easel is easily adjusted, takes huge canvases, and didn’t break the bank.

For studio work, I swear by the Testrite #700 Professional Studio Easel. It’s aluminum so it doesn’t warp or crack. I’ve had one for decades. I use its little brother, the Testrite #500, for students. The only maintenance I’ve ever done was replace parts that wandered off.


My traffic cones ride in the back of my truck, but if you drive a smaller vehicle, you’ll want the collapsible kind.

The danger of “park and paint” plein air is other drivers. One of the nicest gifts I ever received was a pair of safety cones. This set of collapsible ones are reflective, come with LED lights, and will fit easily in a car trunk.

I have an Artwork Essentials umbrella, but I’m equally impressed with the Shade Buddy. However, for many situations, I find a beach umbrella works just as well.

I have more than one taboret cabinet but my current favorite is this simple six drawer rolling cart. Mine sits under my Zoom teaching desk and holds all the art supplies I might need while teaching. Watch for discounts; I got mine on a Woot daily deal.

If your artist is starting to frame and sell work, the Fletcher FrameMaster point driver will save him or her a world of aggravation. Mine is decades old and still works fine.

I’d be remiss in not mentioning my own first foray into merchandising: Rowan Branch Brush Soap. My soapmaker daughter makes it for me, and I’ve shared it with enough other artists to know that it really works.

Mary’s soap. Just wait until you see the movie.

This is the second in a four-part holiday gift guide. Holiday Gift Guide for Budding Artists is here.

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