Contributed by Bonnie Morano / Years ago, when I first learned about the “pink tax” – the price mark-up on razors, deodorant, shampoo and other products marketed to women – I was outraged. A recent trip to the art supply store had me cursing the $96 price tag for Cad Yellow Deep (it is like a tube of sunshine, though) I wondered whether I was being charged an art tax. Oil paint, of course, is unique, but what about other art necessities? Do art supply stores charge more for materials that can be found elsewhere at lower prices? If so, would it be feasible to curb such price discrimination? After all, California just passed a law banning the pink tax.
Before I became a painter, I thought wood was cheap. I now understand that it can be expensive. Heavy-duty stretcher bars from the art supplier are about $5.30 for one 2” x 12” piece. By comparison, a two-by-four from the lumber yard is $7.98 for a ten-foot strip. Mid-size stretcher bars from an art supply store are $68, $82 with a cross brace. At the lumber yard, 20 feet of two-by-fours – roughly the same amount of wood – runs about $16. The specialty version, of course, does add value in the form of kiln-dried pine, bull-nosed edges, and notched corners. But are those features worth the 500% mark-up?
Certainly it strains artists’ budgets. As a graduate student, Miles Debas learned to economize on supports. “I am a hard-core dumpster diver,” he says. “I would just cruise around [for discarded materials] like a shark looking for a whale carcass at the end of every semester.” At his current show at Freight + Volume, roughly 60% of his supports are from found objects.
Some frugal artists use safflower oil as an alternative to linseed oil for its slower drying rate and lighter yellowing in pale colors. A 32-ounce bottle at a local grocery store is about $10, against $11.25 for an 8.5-ounce bottle at an art store, which translates to a 400% mark-up. Jessica Babé uses walnut oil, which is hypoallergenic, for her oil paintings. She bought the art-store brand for four times the food-grade price because it was supposedly extra pure. Subsequently she learned that what she bought was food-grade. The cheaper substitute in the grocery aisle might have worked just as well.
A 75-square-foot roll of wax paper, good for kneading dough and freezing burgers, is $2.29. A 9” x 12” disposable palette pad with 50 sheets, totaling 37.5 square feet, is $7.71. Half the area of the wax paper roll costs three times the price in the art world. My studio neighbor gloated about getting her 3” natural bristle brushes from a home improvement store at $10 each, when an art supply store would charge far more. Those little plastic squeeze bottles painters use in abundance are 99-cents each at a dollar store, ten bucks at a major art supplier. I could go on.
Some artists have chosen creative ways to cut costs on surfaces. One classmate avoids the cost of cotton duck by stretching unconventional and generally less expensive fabrics such as felt or damask around her supports. Cost can also influence aesthetic decisions. For example, Jared Friedman has taken to affixing Astroturf to his stretchers and painting on that. “It’s not necessarily why I chose to paint on Astroturf,” he comments, “but it is cheaper than linen or canvas.” And cost can affect one’s art practice. Michael Anthony Simon feels compelled to use the finest linen for his highly detailed, hyper-realistic work, but he waits to stretch the work. “Pragmatically, to save money and space, I stretch when a show nears.”
It’s nothing new for artists to improvise creatively when faced with challenges, financial and otherwise. As a young painter, Picasso famously favored blue pigment because it was more affordable – a decision that yielded his iconic Blue Period paintings. One artist I know wanted to make super-size paintings and, unable to afford oil paint in the requisite high volumes, opted for housepaint. It was good enough for Jackson Pollock.
Avoiding art stores would be impractical. It would also be unwise and even unfair. The one-stop-shopping convenience, expertise, networking, and job opportunities for young artists that a good local art store provides justify higher prices for materials – especially those for which there are no satisfactory generic substitutes; there is no cheap alternative to Cad Yellow Deep. But it seems reasonable for artists to object to outright gouging, and to ask for good products at fairer prices.
About the Author: Bonnie Morano is a Hunter MFA candidate who paints and writes about painting.
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