Hansen: Better art supplies just cost more

All artists remember their first time.

It's a clutching, euphoric, gut-rattling feeling.

They sold something.

For the painter, maybe it was to their doting aunt; but it still counted.

For the photographer, perhaps it was to a little-known magazine or a contest.

For the writer, well, they only get paid in beer, so it doesn't count.

The fact is, there is this hazy, unnerving time when the up-and-coming artist has not yet arrived. Their self-esteem can be measured by the hour. They often waffle between being an artist and becoming a barista manager.

It's romantic to think about starving artists, laboring for the love of it, working in lofts and wearing thrift-store chic.

But the reality often is that it's a tenuous job filled with mundane things like a budget.

When artists finally believe enough in themselves to be a "real artist," it often means going to a store like the Laguna Art Supply.

It's where grown-up artists go.

"The place is like a candy store for artists," said manager Noel Lashley. "People spend a long time in here just looking at things. It's nice to be able to touch things and not just move a mouse."

This transition from virtual to reality, from potential to proven, is the true mettle that defines any artistic pursuit. But with painting, especially, it's an ongoing lesson.

Did you know, for example, that there are rare oil paints that cost $440 for 18 milliliters?

The Old Holland company has been around since 1664, and its highly regarded paints were used by Van Gogh and many other famous painters. Old Holland sells an "ancient colour" called lapis lazuli that dates back 5,000 years to Mesopotamia. It's an ultramarine blue that was always extremely expensive, and in the past was equal in value to gold.

"But if you make it as a professional artist, some paintings will go for $15,000 or more," Lashley said. "So it's one of those things where if you want good quality products, it's going to cost a little more."

There are indeed many benefits to quality.

"Your colors are going to be more vibrant and it's going to be more condensed," he said. "A little bit will go a long way, so you get what you pay for."

While painters have their costly supplies — brushes, canvases, solvents — other artists have similar concerns.

Professional photographers have steep start-up costs with cameras, lenses and accessories running into the tens of thousands. A full camera outfit with prime lenses can easily cost more than $50,000.

So how do artists do it? And what if you're still a student, like the many who attend LCAD and gingerly walk into Lashley's store all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed?

"I don't know, I guess some of them just go into debt — or student loans," Lashley joked. He quickly added that the store offers a 20% discount to students and offers a range of pricing.

"They come in with their supply lists and they need everything. They will spend a couple hundred dollars for a class," Lashley said.

In addition to students, the store will get the occasional weekend hobbyist, maybe someone with disposable income who has taken a fancy to art.

Regardless of level or training, Lashley tries to offer some practical advice when asked, basically telling them to take it easy.

"The one thing I try to tell them to do is practice. Don't take this product and put it over your whole painting. Do a little test strip. That's always a good idea before you apply it to your body of work that you've spent hours and hours on."

Indeed, they say practice leads to perfection. For artists, however, it's sometimes more complicated.

There is the vision, then there is the reality.

How much do you need to spend to tell your story? How much sacrifice can you endure? What price is your art?

When you answer these questions, you graduate.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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