Learning to paint seems like an expensive hobby requiring a massive painting studio and a million supplies – but it doesn’t have to be! I’ll share my Top 5 Must Haves and tips to set up a small space home art studio – just about anywhere, and on a budget.
Wishing I Knew How to Paint
I have always envied people who could paint, my mom included. As a child, I loved when our elementary school would go on a field trip to a local art show. My favourites were always the textured oil paintings. Of course I dabbled with block tempera paints at school and at home, but those were childish creations for fun with poor quality supplies. (Not to knock experimentation!)
In high school, I took a Visual Arts class as an elective, excited to learn how to paint. Unfortunately, the teacher did not give painting instruction, and I was too afraid to experiment on my own, preferring to attempt projects not related to painting.
When I’d see other people creating lovely paintings, such as my one very-talented cousin, I’d think to myself, “I wish I could do that! I wish I knew how!”
How I Learned to Oil Paint
This longing to paint continued, until one day during the pandemic, when I was researching something that led me to Miss Mustard Seed’s blog. She had been teaching free online painting classes to people quarantined at home. The paintings were all a small size, required a minimum of supplies, and were an impressionistic style that inspired me.
I immediately knew this was the way I could learn to paint, and I wanted to get started right away. But I have MANY other crafty hobbies, some of them not the most economical (*cough *quilting *cough), and I knew that I couldn’t get carried away – at least as a beginner.
But I didn’t! So I’m going to pass along my knowledge about getting started setting up a small space home art studio to you, so that you too can get inspired and start painting!
Note: My experience with painting is limited to oil paints. Most of what I’m talking about will still apply whether you work with acrylic or watercolours though, but just take that into account.
Suggestions to Learn to Oil Paint on a Budget
There are many ways to learn to oil paint. You could find local classes, or ask a painter friend to teach you. You could even watch back to back Bob Ross episodes – he’s very inspiring and so calming.
In addition, there are so many classes you can take in the comfort of your own home on sites such as Craftsy or Skillshare. In fact, that wasn’t something I had really thought of until I looked it up. I think that would be a good way to push myself out of my comfort zone as I tend to do very similar landscapes so far. I will definitely look into that for myself.
To start out on a budget though, there are also teachers who offer some free online classes, such as Miss Mustard Seed, who taught me most of what I know. I highly recommend her free beginner classes – they’re so approachable. There are also a lot of tutorials on Youtube if you search.
Check your local library for oil painting (or other painting) books. By checking out a stack and reading them I was able to learn some fundamental information such as supplies, basic painting terms, colour theory, and safety. They also provide lots of tips and step by steps to follow, as well as paintings that you can try to copy as practice.
After taking several of Miss Mustard Seed’s classes, I struck out on my own and painted several of our vacation photos from trips to Atlantic Canada. Some of them turned out better than others, but I learned things with each one.
Another way I like to practice is by doing studies of other artist’s paintings or painting in their style. I just try to paint what I see. The top painting below was a study of an Edward Seago painting as part of a Miss Mustard Seed class. I found I liked his style, so I tried some others, though the one on the bottom left is a study of a painting by Stuart James Fraser, who was also painting in the style of Edward Seago.
To see some other paintings studies I’ve done and where I like to find inspiration, check out this post.
And check out my 52 in ’22 Art Challenge!
Setting Up a Beginner Small Space Home Art Studio on a Budget
Top 5 Small Space Home Art Studio Must Haves:
To begin to learn to oil paint and to set up a small space art studio in your home, there are 5 main must haves. They are space, light, storage, supplies, and proper safety and clean-up. I’ll explain and give tips for each must have, including how to make do when you’re starting out, or on a budget.
1. (Small) Space
To begin to oil paint, you don’t need a very big space at all, especially if you plan to paint small works of art. I paint at a very small desk, just 20 inches deep and 38 inches long. It also has a pull out surface above the drawers on the right hand side which is very helpful. It’s unfinished and dinged up with marks and existing paint, so I don’t stress if I get a smear of paint on it.
My desk does double duty as my office space, and I just clear it off when I want to paint. The photo above is from before my office walls were painted white. I’ve since added a wall hung monitor above the desk, so that does change things slightly, but it doesn’t prevent me from being able to paint there. I typically throw an old piece of fabric overtop of it to keep it paint-free and tape up my inspiration photo there.
If you have a whole room that you can devote to your home art studio, then that’s fabulous! But most people don’t have that, especially during work-from-home conditions where everyone needs a quiet room for Zoom calls. A unused corner of a room where you can place a small desk or table is sufficient. Alternatively, a folding table set up temporarily for painting can work too. Or you can make a desk or table – even your dining table – do double duty if you clear it for painting sessions.
Tip: Be sure to think carefully about getting paint on your table or desk surface. Cover the surface if need be to protect it with newspaper or an old sheet. And remember – paint and food don’t mix. Never paint near food or while eating to be on the safe side. Keep that in mind if you use your dining table.
Ideally, your small space home art studio will have some natural light. But you can supplement with artificial light. I prefer painting in the mornings, and my space does get some natural light at that time, but it’s not as bright as it is later on in the day. I like to keep two lamps to illuminate my work from either side, one with warmer light and one with cooler light to balance things out.
Tip: Try changing the warmth of your lightbulbs to adjust the quality of the light you use to paint with.
3. Storage and Organization
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As a beginner painter, you won’t need tons of storage and organization yet, but you will still need some. There are two small drawers in my desk that I use to keep my paper pads, Ziplock bags, paint, painters tape, spare brushes etc. Most other things like my easel, palette, paper towel and brushes live in the top of an IKEA rolling cart beside my desk. The fewer the supplies you start out with, the less storage space you’ll need. You could even use a plastic tub if you need to tuck everything away in a space that’s doing double duty.
You will also need a place to store paintings that are drying and that are finished. I typically only have one or two paintings drying at a time so I just lay them flat on my clipboard somewhere safe for the week. Keep them out of the way of kids and pets. But I do also have plans to make a little drying rack so stay tuned for that project.
I’ve displayed some finished paintings on my shelves while I search for vintage frames for them. Extras are stored in a vintage recipe box, which you can read about in Old Wood Boxes and Drawers.
The three main supplies you will need to get started painting are: surfaces to paint on, paint, and brushes. There are also some other tools and supplies that will make painting easier. I’ll walk you through my recommendations for each on a budget, but the big takeaway here is start small.
Surfaces to paint on
I prefer to paint small paintings – alla prima, or wet-on-wet and finished in a single session. I’ve only done one painting so far over multiple sessions with drying time between. Bigger paintings would be difficult to finish in a single session – for me at least. And I have a tendency to overthink and overwork things as it is, so I like to muck around with a painting for a couple hours and then call it done.
When working in a small space and on a limited budget as a beginner, I like to keep things small and simple. Working small gives me freedom to choose a variety of painting surfaces that are very budget friendly. I’ve painted on three different surfaces so far.
One possibility is to use gesso as a primer on paper surfaces, such as index cards. Their 4×6″ size makes great small paintings. I also like using Canson Oil and Acrylic Paper which comes in a pad of 9×12″ sheets. I use a paper cutter to cut it into smaller pieces. And perhaps my favourite surface, that I’ve just started using is a Canvas Pad. The canvas is pliable cotton canvas that has been primed with gesso, and comes in a few sizes. I use a pencil and ruler to divide the 16×20″ sheets into 4x6s and 5x7s, and then I cut them apart with scissors. I like the texture of this canvas paper beneath the paint.
Working primarily on paper-like surfaces and in a small format makes it budget friendly for a beginner. Not only can I stretch my materials further, I don’t mind if I “waste” pieces for paintings that don’t turn out well. I also don’t need to store a whole bunch of large, bulky canvasses. Maybe in the future I will wish to start painting on a bigger scale, but for where I’m at with my skills, I like the small size.
Paint and Brushes
In my opinion, paint is by far the biggest investment involved with painting – go figure! But you don’t need to buy a million tubes of paint to get started. This is because you can mix a wide array of colours from just a few tubes. There are also different qualities of pigments ranging from student level up to professional artist quality. I suggest choosing lower quality paint to learn with as a beginner. If you use them all up and love painting, then you can slowly upgrade to better pigments.
The oil paint also comes in a variety of tube sizes. Unless you’re going to paint very large paintings, the small tubes are sufficient and will still last a long time. The exception is titanium white, which you need to mix lighter tints constantly, so I do recommend buying a larger tube which is more economical in the long run. I like to use my 30% off coupons at Michaels for paint tubes, buying one tube each day to save on each of them. I can recommend both Gamblin and Winsor and Newton brands.
Inspired by Miss Mustard Seed’s recommendations, I purchased a limited and typical Impressionist palette of paints. These include Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Yellow Pale Hue, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, and Titanium White. The only other colour I’ve bought was a red because I needed red for a lighthouse and to make pinks and purples for a couple garden paintings. Otherwise it’s incredible what colours you can mix from just four colours and white.
To get a sense of what colours your limited palette can mix, and to get a feel for mixing colours in general, I highly recommend making some colour charts using Miss Mustard Seed’s method. This was a fun intro activity before diving into actual paintings.
Surprisingly, you also don’t need a million brushes. Sometimes I use a number of brushes on a painting, and other times I just use one or two. You can wipe them on paper towel before switching colours. I tried a couple of more expensive artist’s brushes and I didn’t care for them. They also tend to be on the larger size, including their handles. The long handles can be unwieldy while sitting with my work in my lap. Most of my favourite brushes are either the cheapest quality of oil painting brushes, or general purpose craft brushes from Michaels. I might upgrade later on, but for now I like these ones.
Tip: Don’t invest in too many brushes right away. You won’t know what you like until you get a feel for it. Once you get a better sense of your preferences, then you can purchase more. Start with a small round brush and a small flat brush or two.
I also have a small palette knife which I use to help scrape off my palette when I’m done. A large, cheap brush is handy for toning my canvasses quickly. (Toning a canvas means to put a wash over it – typically brown, made with a mix of ultramarine blue, burnt sienna and some sort of solvent or medium. The wash means you can better judge colour value more accurately than painting on bright white.)
Other supplies for your small space home art studio:
Here are some other supplies you might wish to have to get started:
- Paint palette – you can get inexpensive ones from art supply stores. Although you can make do without one at first. Other alternatives include disposable plates, pages of a phone book, or even a piece of glass from a photo frame. I made do with an acrylic clipboard at first. Paint palettes come in a variety of materials and shapes and sizes – you’ll need to find your own preference. I have a wood one.
- A small easel and something to hold your painting surface if necessary – though you might prefer to work flat. One of my great uncles made my small easel for me when I was a child. When I started painting I asked my mom to find it and ship it across the country to me. I like to use painters tape to stick my little paper canvasses to an inexpensive clipboard, which I then either place on the little easel, or hold in my lap if I’m doing detail work. To begin, you could put your canvasses flat on newspaper, but tape them in place so they don’t slide around.
- Painters tape also comes in handy to tape off squares for colour charts or borders, and to tape up inspiration photos
A few other supplies for safety and clean-up are listed in section 5.
5. Safety and Clean-up
Oil painting has a reputation for being smelly and unsafe. It’s not as intimidating as it seems, but you do need to research the risks and precautions and act accordingly. The smelliest part is the fumes from the solvents – the paints only have a mild odour. You can mitigate this with ventilation such as fresh air, keeping your solvents in sealed containers and only opening them as needed. Or choose mediums with less fumes.
Most oil paints are not dangerous, but some pigments are more dangerous than others. Do your research before purchasing. I believe mine to be harmless. And of course I don’t eat around them and make sure to wash my hands well.
Oil paints and solvents will need to be cleaned up with rags or paper towels. Solvent and paint soaked rags are highly flammable and you need to dispose of them safely, similar to disposing of rags after using furniture stain. Again, do your own research and understand the risks. I put all my paint and medium-soaked paper towels into a Ziplock bag. Then I soak them completely with water when I’m done painting, and then seal the bag and safely dispose of it in the garbage.
Many studio recommendations will say that access to water is important. I feel it’s less necessary to have a sink in the same room. There is a bathroom right beside where I paint, but I wouldn’t want to wash my brushes there. Instead, when I’m finished, I take them down to our utility sink in the laundry room to clean them, just like we do with our paintbrushes and rollers for house painting.
If you paint with acrylics and watercolours, you can always bring containers of water to your painting space. Just be sure to think about potential spills.
Here are the supplies you might need for clean-up and safety:
- Paper towel and Ziplock bags for clean-up. You can also use rags. Be sure to research proper disposal.
- Solvent/Medium – I use Gamblin Solvent-free Fluid solely for toning my canvas prior to painting, and to help clean my palette when I’m finished. It seemed safer and less smelly than other solvents, and I’m satisfied with it despite not having tried anything else for comparison. Maybe I will try a different product when I’ve used this one up. I keep the fluid in this jar with a brush-washing cage at the bottom of it. I also keep it closed when I’m not using it.
- Some brush cleaner or soap to clean your brushes – I used to use dish soap to clean my brushes which is a great budget option to begin. I’ve also read you can use Murphy’s Oil Soap. Recently though, I have switched to a block of olive oil soap that I believe will last forever. I find it takes me less time to clean them by rubbing the brushes in the divot on the top of the soap and then rinsing.
- Apron or old clothes – I don’t get a ton of paint on myself while painting. But because I like to sometimes hold my work in my lap, it’s better to be safe than sorry. A great budget option is just to use an old pair of clothes you don’t care about anymore. I sewed myself a lovely Maria Wrap Apron, a pattern by Maven. It’s crossover, has pockets for tissues, and drapes nicely across my lap. I made it in a lightweight linen-rayon blend in a denim colour and added my own gingham accents. It makes me feel instantly creative when I put it on.
Other Nice to Haves for a Small Space Home Art Studio:
Because creating art is often about inspiration, it can be nice to personalize your mini painting studio and fill it with inspiring items. Paint your walls a colour you love. I’d recommend choosing a light colour to keep your space bright. I prefer to use my favourite Behr Falling Snow PPU18-07. The white walls give me a nice neutral backdrop for making colourful art.
You can also add pieces of art you love, or photographs. Or you can even make a collage of things you find inspiring and display them on a fabric covered cork board like in my tutorial. Adding plants, a comfy chair, or even your favourite music can help get you in a creative mood.
You might also like 11 Tips for Multi-Purpose Craft Room Organization, and DIY Art Drying Rack.
Beginner Small Space Home Art Studio
I hope I’ve inspired you that it’s possible to learn to paint and to set up a home art studio in a small space, on a budget. Then, over time, as your skills grow, and if you enjoy it, you can build from there. For me, I love the creative outlet that painting has been, the joy of learning new skills, and the way that painting calms me. I hope you consider giving it a try too!
I want to hear from you. Have you ever tried painting of any kind? What kind of painting are you interested in? Let me know in the comments below.
All the best,