Daydreaming on Paper
August 2002
The Frugal Diary

Once you start playing around with the idea of keeping a creative diary or journal, it is easy to go wild and get swept away by the sheer number of products, tools, and other fun stuff available for making art. It's easy to get a little overwhelmed, too. Pick up any art magazine, and every how-to article lists dozens of exotic-sounding things that are required for making the projects on its pages. You pour over the lists and wonder what the heck half those things are and where you could possibly get them if you wanted to. And you do want to. Those glossy, full-color photographs of art journal pages, handmade books, and tag art are extremely inviting. They are designed to inspire run right out and buy whatever product was used to create the object pictured. Online and real-life artists communities are great ways to meet other people and to share ideas, but sometimes they can trigger art supply lust, too. If someone uploads a wonderful page that they created by using a selection of rubber stamps, you could get the urge to "update" your own stamp inventory. There is nothing wrong with this. Inspiration is a good thing, and experimenting with different techniques, and therefore different products, can be fun. But it can also get mighty expensive.

For a variety of different reasons, many of us don't have an unlimited budget for buying art supplies. This, of course, does not stop us from wanting to make stuff. It also doesn't stop us from coveting all those lovely goops, sprays, widgets, and geegaws to make stuff with. Therefore, it pays to have a few tricks up our sleeves for figuring out how to get the goods without having to forgo those little incidentals like food and rent. Recently on Purple Ink, we talked about this very thing. Each member was invited to list their Top Ten ways for acquiring art supplies on the cheap. Everyone came up with some really good ideas, and you can read them all here.

Below are my own thoughts on frugality in the creative realm. I tend to take a passive approach to this, as I do with practically everything else. I don't have any advice about clipping coupons or where to get stuff for half off, but I can provide a few ideas about making art with more imagination than money. These ideas aren't necessarily original, but having them here to read and re-read may come in handy the next time you're pea-green with envy over somebody else's shiny new set of whatsits.

  1. Less is more

    The first rule of thumb when it comes to thrifty creativity is to remember that it does not take a lot of money to produce something beautiful. All you really need for creative journal-keeping is something to write with and something to write on (and even those two things are negotiable). Sometimes having a plethora of art supplies is actually a hindrance. More products equals more stuff to store and organize (or waste time trying to find); more stuff to choose from when making decisions about a new project; and, more stuff to feel guilty about not using. Before you go crazy at the art supply store, take a few minutes to think before you buy. Do you really need all those things? Try limiting yourself. Contrary to popular belief, boundaries are actually very freeing. Choose one medium and explore it fully. Learn all of its intricacies and variations. Instead of buying the complete set of 100 watercolors, buy only the basic colors and learn to blend and create your own rainbow. Want a real money-saving tip? Challenge yourself to see how interesting you can make your diary or journal without spending any money at all.

  2. Put your money where your heart is, or at least where it will work the hardest

    Become more selective about which art supplies you choose to buy.
    • When it comes to products, buy only what you truly love and will use. For example, I reserve more money for beads and paper than anything else. A choice between crystal beads and something like Modge Podge is no contest. I really don't even spend too much time browsing the other aisles at the store. Things like colored pencils, ink, and paint only get replaced when they are used up.

    • Invest more money in tools than products. Tools are items that will depreciate in cost over time and will enable you to create other things. Let's say that you enjoy making your own stationery and greeting cards. It might make more sense for you to spend your money on a paper trimmer than to keep buying packages of blank greeting cards or cardstock. With a paper trimmer, you can buy the big sheets of drawing, watercolor, and other art paper and cut them to the size you need. In the long run, you'll probably save more money and waste less paper. Along the same lines, a bone folder or an X-acto knife will reward you many, many times over for their cost.

    • Buy the reusable/refillable version. You can get an inexpensive fountain pen and then buy a whole rainbow of cartridges for the same price or less that you would pay for a pack of colored pens that won't last nearly as long. By the same token, a bottle of ink will last you a long, long time. If you like to change colors frequently, a dip pen may work for you (it does take some getting used to, though). If you prefer pencils, try a mechanical one. You can buy an assortment package of colored leads for it and have a nice sketching set that takes up far less space than a set of regular pencils.

    • Stock up on the pack mules of the art supply realm. Glue, tape, and thread aren't as sexy as gold leaf or gesso, but if it's midnight and you're trying to finish a project, which ones do you think you're more likely to miss?

  3. Know your purpose

    Most of us are keeping diaries, journals, and sketchbooks for our own personal pleasure. It pays to keep this in mind. The next time you are at the art store, ask yourself one simple question: "Do I really need to use the same stuff that the pros are using?" Sure, it's fun to experiment and to learn the "right" way to do things, but when it comes right down to it, who are you doing this for? There are simpler, less expensive options for just about everything.

  4. Make it yourself

    There are very few things that you can't make for your journal. You can make the book you write in, carve your own rubber stamps, make your own stickers (with or without a computer), make your own envelopes to hold ephemera, whip up a batch of glue or paste, make your own decoupage medium, make your own paper, make your own stencils, and even grind your own ink (this is actually much easier to do than it sounds)! Best of all, many of these things can be made from scraps, salvaged materials, or things you already have around the house. Don't know how to make any of this stuff? It's easy to learn. There is a wealth of information available, both on the web and in print. A visit to your local library (especially an older branch that still has those great crafty books from the 60s and 70s) should prove to be quite fruitful.

    Before you skip over this section thinking, "I'm not creative enough" or "I can't make things like that", consider this:

    Maybe it's not you.

    If you've been frustrated in your attempts to make things before, consider the idea that maybe you simply have not come across the right instructions. What I mean by this is that no one set of instructions is going to work for everybody. We all learn in different ways. If I am to make anything more complicated than a peanut butter sandwich, I need step-by-step instructions that assume that I don't know how to do anything. And, I need pictures! It's hard for me to visualize somebody else's words in my head. So, if you find yourself having trouble getting a particular project to work, stop and look for other directions. It can make all the difference.

  5. Learn to see the possibilities

    One of the best things that you can do for your creative self is to learn to salvage and re-use the "stuff" that drifts through your life. Trash and waste can be an artist's smorgasbord. I regularly save things like cardboard, styrofoam, small boxes, and empty containers. These things can become stencils for painting on, the backbone of a hardcover book, stamps, paint palettes, and storage units. Junk mail can be turned into paper beads or collages. Unwanted promotional CDs (and their cases) can become greeting "cards", shadow boxes, or mosaics. Before you throw something away, think about how it can help you on your creative journey.

  6. Use every little bit

    I save even the tiniest paper scraps. I have an old briefcase that I use for this purpose. When I finish a project, I simply toss the remaining bits and pieces into the case. I have been ridiculed and laughed at for this, but I can't tell you how many times I've dug around in that briefcase and come up with the perfect something for the project at hand. Sometimes, just the digging around process inspires ideas for new projects. The same principle applies to everything else. I use every single drop of bottled ink, and then I fill the bottle with water and use it for background washes or to make "marbled" paper. No "mistake" is wasted either. If I'm making postcards and mess one up, the cardstock gets recycled - good side up - as a notebook decoration. "Bad" paintings can be cut up and used as backgrounds for something else. "Waste not, want not" is definitely the name of the game here.

  7. Find a good thrift store (or yard sale or charity shop)

    Even though thrifting is currently coming into vogue, many people still think that thrift stores contain nothing more than musty old clothes and broken appliances. Here are a few things that I have purchased at the thrifts:

    • A Creative Memories mini paper trimmer
    • A grab bag of colored paper and colored pencils
    • Packages of adhesive labels that I use to make handpainted stickers
    • A new, purple Swingline stapler that goes for $12.99 at OfficeMax
    • Several hardcover craft books in excellent condition
    • Several mini metal lunchboxes for storing my beads in
    • Glass, wood, and metal beads, either in the form of old necklaces or boxes full of assorted beads
    • Unopened packages of that crinkly paper that you use as filler in gift baskets
    • Brand-new or like new 3-ring binders
    • Sturdy storage boxes
    • Etc., etc.

    Now, let me clarify one thing. I am always a LazyGirlTM at heart. When I say that I shop at thrift stores, what I mean is that I go into the store that is closest to (and most convenient for) me and take a leisurely stroll up and down the (relatively clean and well-ordered) aisles. I do not stoop, bend, or dig unless I have to. My purchases have all been things that just happened to catch my eye, and they have all been things in new or very good condition. I'm not one for scrubbing. The most effort I'm going to expend is to remove the price tag, and sometimes even that is Too Much. All that being said, if you want to use guerrilla bargain-hunting tactics to find even more art supplies at the thrifts, by all means, be my guest. :o)

  8. Make your hobby pay for itself

    You might not be able to get rich off of your creative ventures, but you can surely make it self-sustaining. Decide that you will only buy art supplies with money earned from your art. If you've finally mastered stamp carving, for example, try making a few extras and selling them to people who don't have the time or the inclination to make their own. Use the money you get from those sales to buy more stamp materials. Maybe you could get your local craft store to let you teach a workshop in exchange for a huge discount on supplies (or for money, of course). If you like to draw or sketch, consider doing portraits or caricatures for extra money. Book yourself at a party or buy booth space at a local crafts fair, and you can keep yourself in sketchpads and charcoals indefinitely.

  9. Ask and ye shall receive

    Sometimes art supplies are available just for the asking. This usually applies to something that someone else has an abundance of and is about to discard. For example, you may be able to get a free source of all the decorative paper that you could possibly use. How? Call your local home improvement or home decorating store and ask them what they do with their discontinued wallpaper sample books when new ones come in. Nine times out of ten, they will tell you that they simply throw them away. Ask them if you can come pick up a couple of books the next time they're about to discard the books. You might be pleasantly surprised. When I did this, the saleslady saved me two entire shopping carts full of sample books! I could take as many as I wanted. She was glad to get rid of them. This same tactic can be applied to other things. Just keep your eyes open for opportunities.

    There are 3 rules to keep in mind when asking for things:

    1. Always, always, always be polite!

    2. Keep your request reasonable. Requests work best on things that people are planning to discard anyway. Even then, ask for 2 or 3 of whatever it is - let them be the one to say that you can take more. If they seem receptive, you can leave them your number and let them know that you are always willing to take whatever it is off their hands in the future.

    3. Always accept a negative response gracefully. Don't stand there and rant about how the items are just going into the garbage anyway. If you really feel strongly about something going to waste, go home and write a letter to the manager or whoever's in charge. They will probably just restate the company's policy on the discards, perhaps offering a reason behind it; however, your letter just might make them change their mind.

  10. Always check the clearance racks

    Whenever you're out shopping, whether for art stuff or groceries or household needs, always take a few minutes to scan the clearance shelves. You may have to really look for these. Sometimes they are all together; sometimes they're scattered throughout the store. Wherever they are, make it a habit to check them before you leave. You never know what you'll find, and it most likely will only cost pennies. I've plucked stickers, beads, gel pens, blank books, and specialty Post-It note pads from the clearance table. This is a great opportunity for experimentation. If it only costs 40 cents, what do you have to lose?

When all is said and done, the bottom line is that money or the lack thereof has absolutely nothing to do with the art of making art. The Muse waits for no one, and when she's tapping you on the shoulder with her magic wand, she is equally unimpressed with your 200-color pencil set or your whining about what all you don't have. The creative process is in everyone's birthright, and whether you are a prince or a pauper, you have what it takes to produce beauty and art. Don't be ruled by your wallet! With a little patience, a little thought, and a lot of imagination, nothing can stop you.


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© 2002 Dawn R. Vinson. All Rights Reserved.