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Christmas Gifts for Artists: Find out what the artist in your life wants

by Brian Sherwin on 12/16/2011 3:00:48 AM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Conservative Punk, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint, Vandalog, COMPANY and Art Fag City. Disclaimer: This author's views are entirely his/her own and may not reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

With Christmas fast approaching I felt it would be good to spur a discussion about gift ideas for artists. Finding gifts for an artist can be very intimidating for some people. Needless to say, finding Christmas gifts for artists ups the ante of pressure. After all, there are so many brands of art materials on the market -- and artists tend to know what they like. True, it is the thought that counts -- but buying expensive paint, for example, that will never be used is a waste on both ends of the exchange. How do you know if the artist in your life will love his or her art-related Christmas gift from you? Simple. Ask the artist in advance -- find out what he or she needs.


I know, I know, I know -- part of the magic of Christmas gift-giving involves surprising those who receive your gifts. That said, finding an art-related gift for an artist places one in a unique situation because the artist is likely set in his or her ways as far as materials are concerned. Once someone decides on the 'tools of their trade' little else will do. For example, if the artist in your life uses a specific brand of brush you can almost bet money that he or she will not stray from that specific brand. Thus, he or she may appreciate a different brand of brush as a gift -- but that does not mean that he or she will actually use it within the context of his or her 'creative arsenal'. You want to get something the artist will use -- and in this situation that may mean asking what to get beforehand.


Buying art-related gifts for an artist can be a complex experience if you are going about it without sufficient information. Even if you know what brands the artist uses the gift-finding process can be difficult. Point blank -- basic brand info is not enough to go by when deciding on an art-related gift for the artist in your life. For example, just because you know that he or she likes Winsor & Newton oil paint does not mean that you know which grade he or she prefers -- or what specific colors he or she needs to restock. Again, I'd suggest that asking outright is the best path to take when deciding on art-related Christmas gifts for artists.


Obviously there are scenarios that dictate that you are unable to ask the artist. I recently found myself in a situation like that. Each year I select a child interested in 'art supplies' from a Salvation Army tree -- this year was different because the child is 16 years old. The situation was different because I assume that a 16 year old artist may already have a specific brand in mind compared to a younger child who desires art supplies. That experience made me think about the topic of gifts for artists further -- which spurred me to write this article.


I honestly was not sure what to get this child -- this young artist -- because I only had 'art supplies' to go off of. I eventually decided to get some basics -- drawing pads, a journal and other items that any artist may find useful. I also included a gift card so that the young artist would be able to pick a few things out that are more specific to her tastes. It would have been nice if the list had been more detailed than just 'art supplies' -- but for whatever reason those Salvation Army cards rarely list specific art-related gifts. Needless to say, the lack of details in this situation has me concerned that perhaps the young artist will be disappointed on Christmas morning. True, I'm sure she will appreciate the gifts -- but will they be something that she can actually use? That is what has me concerned -- and thinking about artist gifts in general.


Clearly I did all that I could do in that specific situation considering how vague the information was. After all, 'art supplies' is as vague as you can get when it comes to art-related gifts. "Is she a painter?", "Perhaps she is interested in sculpture?", "Maybe she just likes drawing anime inspired cartoon characters?" -- these questions and more bounced around in my head while deciding what to get. The experience reminded me how difficult it can be to find the right art-related gifts for artists in general -- and I'll admit that I was a tad intimidated by it. Me... an art writer who has critically lashed out at some of the biggest names in the art world -- intimidated by the process of buying art-related gifts for a 16 year old artist. (Keep note of this -- you will rarely see this soft-side of Mr. Sherwin.)


In closing, what are your thoughts concerning Christmas gifts for artists -- or gifts for artists in general? Do you have any suggestions? Do you agree that -- if possible -- it is best to simply ask the artist outright what he or she would desire gift-wise if the gift is art-related? Do you feel that the element of surprise should stay intact? For example, should you take a chance on giving an art related gift that the artist may appreciate... but not find useful in the studio? Have you ever been intimidated by the process when buying a gift for an artist? Share your thoughts and suggestions.


Take care, Stay true,


Brian Sherwin


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D. E-Platt
You are absolutely correct that buying art supplies for an artist is a difficult task at best. If you do decide to purchase anything, always include a gift receipt so that items can be returned or exchanged - preferably from a local source - not far from the area the receiver lives.

Other than that if you have a decent art supply store nearby, or want to get something from an online resource get a gift certificate, so the artist can make their own choices.

Doug Hoppes
Yeah... every year my wife always agonizes what to get me. She wants to surprise me, but realizes that I have a set of paints/brushes, etc... that I love. So, every year, I give her a list of brushes that I need (in my brand/size, etc) and she brings them to my local art shop (who knows me and her) and he just gets the items.

She usually tries to get one or two items that are related and that she thinks that I will like (and not too expensive... in case I don't use that material).

The part that she has the hardest time to conceptualize is that "Really? Getting a tube of paint is what you want? Nothing exotic or special?". I have to tell her that I'm extremely happy only getting tubes of paint, brushes, or canvases. Yes, it's my business... but, I love to paint.


I'll admit it would be hard to purchase for an artist you didn't know! But for those you do know, perhaps something other than materials might be considered. Some things an artist might love or need could be a single serve coffee pot for the studio, a gel mat for under the easel, a fold-up table for framing. A welcome gift cerfiticate to an art supply store can be creatively presented - put in a dollar store frame, or taped to a paint brush and stuck in the tree. How about a ticket to a show or trip to a museum (include lunch or dinner!) to help get out of the studio. I have a book wish-list to share when someone asks.

Brian Sherwin
Doug -- This part, "The part that she has the hardest time to conceptualize is that "Really? Getting a tube of paint is what you want? Nothing exotic or special?". I have to tell her that I'm extremely happy only getting tubes of paint, brushes, or canvases. Yes, it's my business... but, I love to paint." made me chuckle.

It is true for most of the artists I've known -- they prefer art-related gifts... which is why I made that the focus of this article. Obviously gifts outside of art would be appreciated as well. That said, with art-related gifts it is kind of like showing that you appreciate what the artist does as well -- which can mean a lot to an artist. It is a plus if you get them something they can actually use in the studio. ;p

I do think that non-artists, if you will, often don't understand the connection an artist may have with the materials/tools that he or she uses. For example, I remember a friend of mine was devastated when his girlfriend tossed some of his brushes in the trash. The event actually put him into a slump.

She thought they looked worn out and had bought him a new set as a surprise. The only prob is that the brushes she tossed were a gift from his late professor... and rather pricey. I recall that brushes were worth just over $300 combined. The set she replaced them with cost about $7 -- one of those hobby sets. Surprise. Ha... it was a surprise -- but not in the way she intended.

Brian Sherwin
Jo-Ann -- I like your ideas for presenting a gift card. Gift cards are always a safe bet... but they do often lack that creative edge. If you go the art store gift card route I'd def' suggest doing it in a creative manner.

A day of gallery or museum hopping provided by the gift giver could be fun... and could be bonding time if the gift giver offers transportation and dinner as well. Depending on where you live that could get pricey -- but hey... the artist in your life deserves it. :)

Any more suggestions? Again, I wrote this with materials in mind... but if you have other ideas have at it. Perhaps a small portable TV for the artist who enjoys listening to shows in the background -- one that is small enough to move to any location in the studio?

Doug Hoppes
In terms of suggestions for gift, here's some of the great ideas that my wife got me (that she surprised me with):

1) Director's chair for Art shows
2) Drawing pen to use with my iPad.
3) Portfolio case when I used to carry prints of my images to potential stores.
4) Music for my laptop so that I can listen to it when painting.
5) Gel mat since she knew that I always stood at my easel.
6) cool still life objects that I could paint.
7) gloves and umbrella for plein air painting.


Jo Allebach
I absolutely agree that art supplies are the perfect gift for me. A wish list to tell the gifter is helpful. As a real treat the gift card is great. Sometimes I get items I might normally have to go without. How fun!

Yes the best gift I got was an Ott light. I asked and asked but most family said "An ugly lamp? You have got to be kidding!" One friend went "Aha! Something I don't have to think about" and got it for me. It was the best thing ever for my work area, the perfect little spotlight right on my hands without changing the colours!
I love getting gift certificates from fabric, yarn and bead shops because the gifts from there are always wrong or just off. I have boxes of beads I can't use. Given away lots of tacky yarns and thank the gods that I make costumes where I can

jack white

I purchased Mikki two gallons of white heavy bodies acrylics for her frames and she got me a set of new tires for the SUV. (Just joking) We don't exchange Christmas gifts, because we are always together. It would be almost impossible to buy either a surprise gift. We try to make everyday, Christmas, Valentine and Birthdays. When you reach my age all days are special. (smile)

I gave my grand-kids copies of my latest historical novel and come cash.

My doctor's daughter is 15 and wants to be an artist. We purchased her three very nice sketch books and several drawing pencils for 4-H to 6-B and in between. Knowing the foundation of art is drawing we felt these would be helpful gifts. This is a good gift for artists of all ages. Artist don't buy those things for themselves.

One Christmas I gave Mikki a leather bound sketch book. When we spent a week on the backstretch at the Kentucky Derby she used the book to sketch all the trainers, jockeys, horses and several of the owners. They all signed their sketch. That book is a treasure. One day when she is old we will donate it to the Kentucky Museum of the Horse.

May the Christ of Christmas fill your home with joy this season.


Kay Hale
I rarely get gifts since the finances went south...but I loved the Barnes and Noble gift card I got from my oldest son. It enabled me to get the art magazines I have not been able to renew subscriptions to. That said..renew my art magazines would be a great thing. I have done that for artist friends especially when some offer a buy one subscription get one free. I renew mine and give away the other. Then the artist can enjoy it and decide if they want to keep it up or not the next year. I just really love to read about artists and see their work. Books are always a joy to receive and give!
I had a friend who went to Japan. She brought me back the oddest little watercolor brush ..and I was doing oils at the time so I put it away..but now watercolors are my main thrust so I have found a use for the wonderful odd little brush.
I have a friend who can get to lots of cities and art galleries. She sees artists who do similar art as me and makes me a list of them so I can see their work online or in books or if I happen to get to their gallery to look them up. I have been really inspired by this thoughtful gift of a fellow artist who cares about my vision. What a terrific friend. And it didn't cost her anything to write a list of artists!!!

Jan brieger-Scranton
Both my sister and I are artist's, she does landscapes in oil, I do still life in oil. We've worked out a way to deal with the holiday gift situation. All during the year we ask each other what we're doing and if there is something new that catches our creative muses attention. I recently delved into jewelry making and she decided to try pastels.

We write out a list of things we would like to get,'must have','could use' and 'would be nice'. Periodicaly over the year we exchange lists, as the holidays get nearer we confirm the lists are valid. Now I may remember what's on my list but I have no idea what she will pick to get me, same for her. But whatever it is I'll love it, and most of all I'll use it in my creative process, hmmmmmmm, I could use some no.4 filberts or a jewelry torch, or...=)

Trent Gudmundsen
Ha, ha.

We found a good solution for us:

My wife and I exchange long (very detailed) Christmas lists around November 1st. The idea is that if we each list enough (20 or 30) things we want, then we'll be surprised at which ones (4 or 5) that the other chooses to get. :)

Debra Snyder Heard
I always give my nieces and nephews art drawing books or some type of art supplies. They love it and look forward getting art supplies from their artist aunt every year!

Sometimes I suprise my family/relatives by giving them artwork that I made especially for them. It could be a drawing, painting, print,or afghans that I crocheted for them. Best gifts in the world are the ones someone made for you!

For years my husband alway got me some type of kitchen gadget(know where he wanted me to be). I finally got him to stop and let me pick out what I wanted. I order art supplies that I need on line. Best way to get what I need and want!

Diane Spears
I am always looking for a better way to organize my supplies, so that I can find specific things during the heat of creativity. I've looked at fishing tackle boxes, regular tool boxes of all sizes and shapes, etc. The "minature" table-top metal tool boxes (like those from Pep Boys) with easy sliding drawers is appealing. I hope my gift givers are reading this (chuckle).

Donald Fox
Christmas, birthday, anytime lists are great for spouses or close friends. If I have specific materials in mind, I'd rather have a gift card and do the shopping myself. It can be a burden for someone unfamiliar with art supplies to try to find the right brand, style, size, whatever. Art supply salespeople don't always give helpful advice.

Having been on both sides of this predicament more than a few times, I completely sympathize with your point of view, Brian. One thing I kept thinking about as I was reading it is just how varied the potential recipient artists can be.

Your 16 year old 'art supplies' recipient would probably be quite satisfied with an "Art Set" style gift, but as the giver I would highly recommend making that art set something higher in quality than most 16 year olds would be using at that stage. For example, assemble your own "set" following what would be included in the store sets, but using top grade paints rather than the ones sold in the off-the-shelf sets. And, above all, don't get the set for 6.99 at Big Lots. Most 16 year old artists are buying the student grade paints with the all-in-one brush sets. A gift that introduces them to the magic of higher quality materials would be Quite happily received.

As for the more experienced and set-in-their-ways artists, perhaps for someone who paints arrange for a professional giclee reproduction. I've found gift certificates to framing services (for artists that use framing) to work well also.

Happy Holidays to you and your readers!!

Robert Sloan
What you gave her was spot on perfect. Artist grade basics. Drawing pads, a journal, other useful things - you took her seriously as an artist. If she's signed up on a Salvation Army tree, this girl may not have the freedom to sketch as often as she wants no matter what her favorite medium is. Running out of paper, artist pencils, charcoal, kneaded and gum erasers, pencil sharpeners and other practical staples is a constant risk for anyone who's not already producing salable art.

I used to be homeless. I've stayed in a Salvation Army shelter. I have a good idea how hard life gets at that stage. You combined the necessities I chronically ran out of in high school with two big shots of confidence and respect. The gift certificate in case she really needs a tube of Winsor and Newton Ultramarine (the color that always runs out first) or she wants a set of manga pens or a block of Sculpey. You respected that artists do have favorite things.

At that age I'd have gone nuts for Prismacolors or dared to buy a whole box of Conte crayons, depending on which I was running out of.

A bound journal is a record of her artistic progress. A bound journal says "You're important. Your drawings and thoughts and mementos deserve to be remembered and preserved." Whether she's a hobbyist looking for something to fill the time or she chose art supplies desperately hoping some drawing paper would be included, the journal went beyond "important necessities" into "keepsake luxury."

And the gift certificate fills the gap of "You know your favorites, you do have a wish list somewhere even if Salvation Army was generic about it."

I know kids that sell their sketches. I've always had a few teen friends in art communities like DeviantART. At the point they know even one popular subject in a recognizable style, others start asking how much they want for a drawing. They start to have pocket money without competing for a McJob. That builds on itself.

By taking her seriously and comparing her to adult serious artists you know, you helped open the door for her. If she didn't take her art seriously, you just showed her the door is there. If she did, you opened it wide for her and invited her in.

If she already had every one of the things you sent, you gave her the relief of knowing she can freely enjoy them without worrying about where more supplies are going to come from. If this isn't her first journal, it'll be her next volume. Your article rocked and your gift was incredibly thoughtful.

Robert Sloan
Diane, you're so right. Organizers and storage methods, especially permanent sturdy ones, never go amiss. I never have enough of them. Heck, if someone gave me any art supply containment I'd be jumping for joy.

It also stays permanent because inevitable studio clutter expands to fill the space available and all of it is important good stuff you don't want to wreck with careless storage.

Robert Sloan
Memorable art gifts I've received...

I was using a variety of good taklon and nylon watercolor brushes and at the time my favorite was a size six Arches Kolinsky round brush that came with a watercolor block. I told my daughter about winter male Kolinsky brushes and she turned it into a running joke about "Special winter weasel butt hairs set in solid gold with a platinum handle."

Then at Christmas she bought me a set of Kolinsky sable brushes in a zippered sturdy brush case. Of course I put my Arches brush in with them. Those are my lifetime brushes. I think of her whenever I use them.

Robert Sloan
LOL - I'm posting too many comments. But maybe that's better than a monster long one.

For a professional artist friend, I'd just start a materials discussion. I'd bring up innovations in their medium, there have been a spate of them in the past few years from acrylics that reactivate to pastels in makeup dishes to interesting palettes, frame designs, tools, mat cutters, plein air boxes.

Also just discuss the pros and cons of different brands in their medium and ask advice for a friend who wants to try their style. Most artists open right up with their palette, brand of brushes/tools, canvas or paper. Look for things that get used up and provide them with those in the brand they advised "when price isn't a problem."

Chances are an extra tube of Ultramarine will never go amiss in any wet medium. I'm not the only artist whose Ultramarine runs out before all the other pans or tubes are even a third worn down. It seems to go into every mix. I have never met a painter who hated it. At least 3/4 of all teachers have mentioned it specifically in their palette. If they are the rare painter who prefers Cobalt Blue, then that runs down just as fast and you've given them something special because of the price of the pigment.

A giant tube of Ultramarine or Cobalt, whichever one they rant about as the best blue, will get used up merrily. And they usually mention which brand is the best too without thinking that you're pumping them for gift information.

A dead giveaway is "I use a Cobalt blue hue because it's so expensive but I love the color" but if they say "because it's toxic" get the big tube of the hue.

Brian Sherwin
Robert -- Thanks... and thanks for sharing. I do hope she enjoys it -- and makes the best of it. I always select a child who wants art stuff -- but this was the first time I picked a teen. I think that is what had me a bit nervous about my choices. I know when I was that age a stack of sketch books was a great gift... there was nothing worse than running out and being forced to draw on printer paper. :)

I had planned to get her some art books as well... but had a hard time finding any without "questionable material" at Barnes and Noble. I assume that if the Salvation Army volunteers see anything coming close to a nude they will simply throw the gift aside -- all of the 'history of painting' type books contained at least a few examples of nudity. I'd argue that the nudity found in a painting by an Old Master comes nowhere near what kids see today on MTV. Rules are rules though.

Brian Sherwin
Cornelius -- that is one thing that concerned me though... what if she is not a painter? 'Art supplies' is just so vague. True, I could have introduced her to painting with the gift -- but does someone who does not play golf want golf clubs? That is what the little voice in my head kept saying. LOL

Hopefully she will get a kick out of the journal along with everything else. When I was her age I loved receiving bound art journals... it made me feel like what I was doing was important enough to be in such a classy display.

Donna Robillard
Not knowing what the 16-yr-old wanted in the way of art supplies, I think I would have gone with the sketch journal and drawing supplies, because with them they would have had a simple way to draw what they wanted or what was on their heart. From the sketches they could then take them and develop them later into paintings or more elaborate work.

Robert Sloan
Oh yeah, Brian. You're so right about the books. I can think of hundreds of good drawing titles and not one of them doesn't have a section on the figure. It's sad really. But there are public libraries and sometimes they have a decent selection of art books. She still has access to them.

About the only thing you could've done on that was add a bookstore gift certificate and a list of suggested titles - so that they wouldn't inspect the volumes. But if she's living in a shelter she'd still have gotten in trouble or maybe had it confiscated. I lost Gray's Anatomy to school when I was a kid and got terrified because it was a library book. My dad had to go in and get it from them to return it to the library and I didn't get to see it again after he did.

Lisa Manners
It is not just artists! On Dec 12, 2011, John Tierney published an article in the New York Times "In Pursuit of the Perfect Gift? It's a lot closer than you think." Researchers at Stanford have found that people prefer to receive cash, followed by something on their wish list or registry. Givers prefer to choose a "surprise" gift. Recipients react badly to surprise gifts because they interpret it as the giver saying "I know more about you than you know about yourself."
Personally, when I painted watercolors, I always asked family for Arches paper. I could never have too much, and they got to pick the size, type, etc. Now that I am painting in oils, I tell family my four favorite on-line art supply channels and ask for a gift certificate from any one of them. Then when I need a tube of paint or some canvas, I'm all set, at least for a few months.

i think the BEST gift is to buy my art and GIVE it as gifts.
No really. The thought that some one else wants to give my art to others is much more fulfilling than a sweater or gift card.

Honestly, don't buy supplies for me. No one ever buys the right thing. I hate to seem ungrateful; so i accept i with a smile. But l'd much rather pick things out for myself. For example: brushes: there maybe 20 brushes of the same size and make. But some are made better than others. I know what to look for.
Just buy my art so i can go afford brushes and paint and canvas., etc..... thanks.

Robert Sloan
I can understand, Samthor.

I must be different though, since I love trying new things. If it's something I have and I love it, then I'm thrilled to have extra because I will use it up. If it's new to me I get a kick out of testing it and appreciate someone remembering I love new art supplies.

A dear friend of mine just sent me a full range set of colored pencils that I'd mentioned several times in chat threads as being left behind when I moved in August. She knew I'd get them back in a year or two - but guessed right that I may well wear down a good chunk of this set by the time they arrive. I love them. I am so thrilled and happy about it!


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