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Saving Time and Money on Art Supplies

by Lori Woodward on 9/12/2017 9:40:47 AM

This article is by Lori Woodward, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. She is a member of the the Putney Painters, an internationally known group of a dozen artists who paint under the mentorship of Richard Schmid. Lori authored and illustrated step-by-step articles for Watercolor Magazine from 2007 to 2012. She has taught art marketing seminars at Scottsdale Artist School and at the 2012 Oil Painters of America national convention and show.



Today, I'll talk about how systematizing your buying of supplies will save you both money and time. In a previous blog, I talked about how I'm not the greatest at math. Well, I have to admit that although I try hard to be organized, it's just not in my nature. Be it that way or not, it's important for me to run my art business in a way that causes me less stress, and being organized and planning my art supply buying helps.


As I write this, I'm aware that many of you have systems set up for buying and handling supplies. If you do, feel free to share your experience in the comments section - what works and what doesn't. Blogs are a great place to help each other out.


When I recently attended Joseph McGurl's workshop, I noticed that most of his plein air studies were on 9x12 linen panels. If a master painter like Joe can simplify his work process, so can I.


It's said, "Time is Money". It occurs to me that if I were to order most of my supplies, frames, and materials once or twice a year (in bulk), that I'd systemize that process and save myself a lot of time and frustration.


This last week, when I needed to quickly ship a 12x12 painting on panel, I realized how out of control my process is. I couldn't find exactly the right sized box for the framed painting. It was too large for the priority mail boxes I'd picked up at the post office. I could've gone to a packing store and bought the right sized box, but I was also packing for a short vacation - time was of the essence. Fortunately, I did find a box in the basement that would work, but had I planned ahead by having adequate shipping materials in stock for 12x12 square paintings, things would've gone a bit smoother.


This is just an example for discussion's sake. Let's say that I'm super organized, and I'm about to order a year's worth of canvas, stretchers, panels and frames for my art business. I like the idea of ordering in bulk because I usually get discounts from the distributors. When I order a box full of the same sized frames made with the same moulding, I can get significant savings from the frame maker. I've done that in the past and sometimes paid half of what it would cost me to order one or two different sized frames at a time.


Why should I paint in one or two standard sizes? Doesn't that stifle my creativity? Not really, and here's why. When I can reach for a prepared panel from the shelf, transfer my study onto the surface and know that as soon as I finish the painting, I have a frame and the right size shipping box for it, I feel calm and able to focus on my painting. If someone buys the painting from my website, I know I'm set up to ship it within a day or two without complication.


Let's say that I paint in two sizes: 9x12 archival linen panels and 18x24 canvas over deep stretchers (gallery wrapped). I sell the 9x12 works unframed from my website, but I also offer a framed version for an extra fee. All the frames are exactly the same. If the buyer doesn't like this frame, it can easily be ordered unframed, and they can choose their own.


Let's say, once a year, I order fifty 9x12 panels from an art supply website, and then I also order fifty 9x12 frames - all the same moulding - from a frame maker. This framer is someone I can speak with directly, the frames are made by hand nearby and I establish a business relationship with that company. I enjoy working with folks I can talk to directly.


For my larger works, I order rolls of high quality canvas and deep stretcher bars. I order fifty 18" and fifty 24" stretchers bars. I have enough to make 25 canvases, so I make sure I have enough canvas to cover all of those stretchers. I take a few days to stretch and gesso 10 canvases at a time so that they're ready to use.


Then, I go online and bulk order shipping supplies to specifically ship these two sizes of paintings. By keeping the size of my paintings standard, I take the guesswork out of my shipping process. I never run out of shipping supplies and can ship on a moment's notice.


When I order in bulk, I can easily figure out the cost of my materials, frame and shipping for each painting. I divide the amount spent on these three categories by the number of paintings I plan to complete. I'd calculate one set of of expenses for the 9x12 works and another for the 18x24. Because I'm using the same materials and frame for each, my costs will also be standardized.That way, it's easier to see whether I will make a profit when I sell my work. The lower the cost of my materials, the easier it is to make a profit, and when I order in supplies in bulk, the less expensive these materials are. 


Is this boring? It could be, but I think I'd rather have "calm" and simplification in my work routine than chaos, confusion and an endless stream of choices when it comes to framing and shipping. 


So you might be thinking... what if I want to paint in a custom size? For myself, I'd choose to use deep stretcher bars and make my own gallery-wrapped canvas for custom sizes and sell them unframed, but other than that, I want my paintings to be standardized so that I don't have to think much.


So again, feel free to share how you streamline your supplies, framing and shipping practices. We can all learn from each other and then choose the option that works best for each of us.




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Related Posts:

Pricing Your Artwork For Direct Sales

Current Framing Options - Part 1

The Advantages of Selling Two Bodies of Work

Your Profitable Art Sales

Planning For Profit - Doing The Math

Topics: advice for artists | Art Business | FineArtViews | Lori Woodward | art supplies 

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Marilyn Rose
Really helpful information, Lori! Thank you so much. I bet this makes tax time easier too, with inventory and cost of goods sold already in place.i like standard sizes too, in case a buyer wants to choose their own frame they won't have to pay for custom framing if they don't want to. I also like the calming feeling of an organized studio and business so I can be free to enjoy the painting process.
I would love to hear how you, and others, organize you business to streamline tax time, which I dread each year. I cant seem to grasp baskc bookkeeping.

Lori Woodward
Hi Marilyn, I'm not especially good at keeping records either, and if it weren't for my husband, I'd probably be crying at tax time. He's more left-brained than I am.

Yes, having a system would indeed make tax time much easier. The fewer times I buy supplies, the fewer calculations I'll need to make.

Thank you for such an eye-opener. I have sort of thought about this, but hadn't considered the advantages. I am a member of a co-op gallery where space is allocated, and once something sells, another of the same size must take its place. So this is a perfect way to deal with that, too.

Lori Woodward
I used to order my frames from a large distributor that sells to the frame industry. An artist must have a tax ID and be registered as a business with their state in order to work with these wholesale distributors.

Although my frames will cost more, I'm planning on working with small framing business owners who sell to artists. Not my local framer who works with non-artists and charges 4 times what a framing company would cost me... I do need to keep costs down.

There are two such companies I'm researching now. I can't mention the names of those businesses on this blog because it would be the equipment of free advertising, and that's a complication I would not like to deal with. That said, these companies are "mom and pop" style and cater to artists, and when artists buy many of the same size, same moulding at one time, these folks offer discounts.

Instead of stretching my own deep gallery wrapped canvas, I can opt to buy high quality canvases from art supply companies. Being as lazy as I am, I'd probably do better to buy them ready made and have them on hand.

If you're into do it yourself, than stretch and gesso canvases - as many at a time as you can, so that you have plenty of stock to paint on.

Luann Udell
Years ago, I read about standardizing frame sizes as a way to manage costs and inventory. Non-standard sized artwork not only calls for special packaging/shipping, it often calls for custom framing--NOT an economical solution!

This often applies to many other media and fine art/craft forms, too.

Your point about this not necessarily limiting our creativity is a good one. The folks I see the most who struggle with "standard sizes" are people new to the work. They end up getting bogged down trying to work around these "limitations", and often end up limited in their own options. They can't produce or sell as much work, and they end up, as you said, spending more money for their cost-of-goods-sold, which further stresses their small business.

And Lori, I always smile when you say you are not "math-minded" and struggle with these aspects of making art. Because your solution is always to WORK EVEN HARDER at mastering it BECAUSE it doesn't come easy. And then when you share it, you spare the rest of us all the anguish of going through it ourselves! :^)

Ellen Hinson
Lori, you have certainly simplified the way you frame paintings. My one concern is that frames of one kind, size, color do not match all types of paintings. I realize customers have the choice not to buy framed paintings, but don't you like to put the right frame with the right painting for yourself? In the long run, when you sell a lot, I guess this is not a problem?

Lori Woodward
Hey Luann! Good to hear from you. By the way friends, Luann knows me IRL (in real life)... all the good and the bad.

Jason Horesj's dad has been stretching his own canvas over deep stretches for years. He tapes around the edge of his canvas, leaving a white border around the painting. The sides are the white canvas too. The great part about his way of framing is that he can paint in any size he wants and not have to worry about ordering custom sized frames. Jason's dad is a traditional painter, but not having a frame has never hurt his sales at all.

Some of my buyers have bought works unframed from my website. In that case, it makes sense for me to paint those in a standard size so that the buyer can get a frame for it at any price that suits them. It also keeps me out of the framing business - which I'd rather not be part of.

There's also another option if I work with a framing business... I can order a custom size in bulk (same size, same moulding) that enhances my work. Let's say that I like my landscapes in a 2/3 ratio, I can order ten 10x15 sized frames from my framer. This means that I'll offer those 10 paintings with the framing because to sell a non-standard size unframed would coz my buyers some stress and probably more money than they want to spend.

I've done the custom sized frames in bulk before, but it does make the price of my art go up, and I need to buy an extra set of shipping materials for that size work.

It's all a matter of how much variation one is comfortable working with and how complicated it gets.

Lori Woodward
Hi Ellen, I had participated in outdoor shows for many years, and this is what I learned... having one or two styles of frames in my booth enhanced the overall look of my body of work.

I find that most of my buyers want a simple frame. I can't chase their tastes, and what I deem looks best on my work is often not their preference. If I were a really high priced, superstar artists, I of course, could afford the type of frames that cost hundreds of dollars and are works in themselves. My buyers are more interested in the art than how it's framed and most of them are not wealthy, so they're happy with the choice of my frame.

I have used custom, hand made frames that were $200 or more in the past, but when the painting didn't sell, my investment didn't pan out. I sell a lot more with simple frames. I choose one and if it doesn't sell well, I'll try another the next year. That's what I'm thinking at this time.

All art selling these days is sort of an experiment. We really can't totally anticipate what OUR collectors/buyers will want. We have to choose what our paintings will "Wear" and see how it works.

Although we'd love to think that our art is about us (and it is to an extent) most of today's buyers choose what they do because it defines their taste - it's really all about them! And I'm hearing this from successful artists. The buyer/collector demographics has changed in the last 5 years. That's pretty much why I'm doing research - to see what's actually happening.

Sandra Cherry Jones
I think that your information is very practical and I plan to use it.

Aline Lotter
Standardizing sizes simplifies the painting process for plein air painters, especially classic oil painters. Transporting wet canvases from the field to studio, or packaging a wet painting for a buyer becomes a nightmare if you have to juggle different sized paintings.

Lori Woodward
Aline, it sounds like you speak from experience. All good points, thanks for sharing.

Lori Woodward
Thanks friends for commenting. Please feel free to share your framing and shipping practices if you think it'll be helpful to others.

I am about to leave for the studio now. I'll check back later and read comments.

Robert Sloan
Loved this post! It's not boring at all. From the start of my art career back in the seventies to its height in the nineties on into my retirement now, I've always bought supplies in bulk. Often from mail order sources or online shops.

I was always a big-palette painter. The more colors I have, the more inspired I am. Nothing puts me in the mood to paint more than looking at, say, all my pastels organized in their trays and boxes, each in spectrum order separated into saturated spectrum and muted. Or my full range set of Prismacolor Premier pencils, or a 48 color set of pan watercolors.

What I found out, especially in dry mediums like colored pencils and pastels, is that if you start out with a small set and limited palette, you will run through essential colors very fast. White, a sky color, certain greens will vanish so fast I might as well be smoking them. On portraits, white and brown will go the same way, if there even is a peach for flesh highlights it's gone too, also a gray-violet that I thought was a useless color turned into one of those must-replace ones.

But when I followed the assortment of 30 colors with an assortment of 30 skin tones, browns with different values leaning reddish, yellowish, greenish, wow. That box didn't wear down as fast and neither did the white, because I had several lighter value skin tones and that all important gray-violet.

I own about 1,250 unique pastel pieces or sticks now, some secondhand gifts and swaps with other artists, others bought on clearance or deep discount whenever I saw a good online sale. When I do visit art stores, I look at the clearance bins, look for broken sticks or discontinued supplies.

That latter, they're still artist grade. The more variety I have in supplies, the less brand-specific I become in what I'm using. I have favorites, but I start having multiple favorites. Watercolors, I loved Winsor and Newton for years, then discovered Daniel Smith, then started getting a few tubes of other artist grade brands and using those too.

I always worked to standard sizes. Sometimes I framed my own works for sale and display, ordering the frames in bulk cost a lot less. Sometimes I bought frames used from flea markets and thrift shops - but most of those were also standard sizes.

How I handled odd sized "find" frames was by cutting my own mats. I'd cut standard interior openings for my precut papers and surfaces, then cut a multi-layer mat that looked good with the frame and might suggest a subject. I'd look at that matting project and get ideas for paintings, then treat those as one-offs to sell in galleries or out on the street as finished works. But when I sold online or by mail, it was a lot easier to pack up standard size unframed works and let the buyer frame as they liked without too much trouble.

My mat cutter was another good cost cutting measure. I'd buy the big boards and stock up, sometimes watching for sales. Then do my own cutting. Logan mat cutter systems are very easy to use and I'm disabled, so if I can do it, any artist who's abled can cut mats pretty easily. They cost a lot less than prepackaged mats and I can get the best museum quality boards for it if I'm doing the labor. Some galleries only want white mats, but in that case you can still bulk order the big boards and not be limited by size.

Then what I'd have is what framers do - the interior piece from a big mat for a big painting is a nice smaller size for a different standard size. Occasionally they'd need a trim to come down to next standard, but I'd use up almost all the board before I was done with it. Also those center pieces can become good surfaces for pastel or colored pencil paintings in their own right, another good reason to get the top quality all-rag museum boards. You never know when the board will turn into a great painting and earn you a lot more than it would have as the mat!

The other effect of bulk-buying supplies and clearance raiding was that I would not run out. Never letting myself run out gave me the freedom to relax and experiment.

I'm not saying "big palette" is a good thing for everyone. That bit works for me but I've known some beginners to get very confused and frustrated at handling too many different colors while starting out in a medium. Bulk buying works though.

It cuts costs and knocks out that miserable moment of realizing that you don't have what you need to do the project that just came up. It means not having to worry about being broke or having a cash flow problem. Supplies are in the closet, I don't really have to wait for them. I waited for the sale back when I didn't need it and got it all cheap.

For a professional artist, the supply flow-through becomes a sizable expense. Anything you do to trim it will pay off big time - and that's the other reason to let go of brands and watch for discontinued or clearance artist grade stuff. No, that exact thing can't be replaced, but the more variety, the less often I need that exact brand thing so much as hue, value, transparency, texture.

Delilah Smith
Gee whiz I thought I had gotten organized by buying once a month, You are the king or should I say Queen.



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