Catalog and online art retailers are usually the most convenient and inexpensive way to buy art products, and it isn't long before you're using them regularly for your art supplies.
You'll be surprised when you first compare direct order prices with those at your local art store: the price discounts of the direct order merchants can be substantial. But a good local merchant deserves your support. They can work with you to get products not often stocked by the mass direct merchants, such as Fabriano's Esportatzione papers, or M. Graham & Co. paints; and they can help you get in touch with other artists, art workshops, art marketing consultants, and other community resources. Many small retail owners are very experienced and knowledgeable, and worth getting to know personally for their guidance. For that reason, I've included some exemplary local retailers in these reviews.
Finally, there are art collectives or membership societies that provide retail services to their members, such as the Society for All Artists in the UK and 60 other countries around the world.
Here are some of the better online art supply dealers, and a few unique "brick & mortar" art retailers. To compare prices, I priced an identical shopping basket of art products at each retailer. (Reviews and price comparisons current as of April, 2004.)
Where Do I Buy Stuff? I often get emails asking where one can find art materials described on this site. The short answer is that every art supply I describe was purchased at one or more of the following retailers; you just have to visit their web site (or get their mail order catalog) and check.
I also suggest you search for the art supplies using Google make sure you spell the brand name correctly. This will return inventory or display pages for the product from all online retailers, which allows you to do simple price comparisons.
Art Supply Warehouse 1-800-995-6778. One of many up and coming art retailers, ASW is a direct order operation located in North Carolina (just a stone's throw from Cheap Joe's, it seems). They have a direct order web site that claims a selection of over 10,000 products.
The web site (no longer hosted by the Yahoo! Shopping infrastructure) still has room to improve. The front page and product display pages have been nicely redesigned to look spiffy and showcase sale items, but the many shopping pages are still very slow to load (busy web servers and large page listings are the usual culprits), and it took 4 pages to work my way from the home page to a specific brand and tube size of watercolor paint. The site search function is half useless, returning several pages of site links for generic phrases such as "watercolor paper" but no results for brand keywords such as "winsor, watercolors" or "winsor." However, the sectional design and navigation are easy to understand, and the category placements are more consistent (watercolor papers are now listed in the "canvas, papers & boards" section). The product pages list all the brand items on a single page, with quantity numbers for each item; put in the quantities you need and click the "buy" button, and all are folded into the shopping cart. (You may have to wait while all the fussy product images load.)
The solution? Turn to ASW's 200 page print catalog (request it at their web site), which is well designed and easy to use. ASW offers a large selection of watercolor paint brands (including Blockx, Daler-Rowney, DaVinci, Grumbacher, Holbein, Lukas, MaimeriBlu, Marie's, Old Holland, Rembrandt, Schmincke, Sennelier, Van Gogh and Winsor & Newton) and at very good prices (they're a penny lower than the big three on the high end Winsor & Newtons, at $11.97). Their prices on watercolor papers are also competitive ($20.37 for the 10"x14" size of Arches watercolor blocks), and they have a couple of interesting offerings my favorite is the Amatruda watercolor paper (still misspelled at ASW as "Armatruda").
Cheap Joe's Art Stuff 1-800-227-2788. Once one of the homier and least pretentious art venues on the web, the current Cheap Joe's web site has evolved into a full fledged corporate presence, offering a slick, compact layout and most of the conventional design tricks (eye catching icons and rollover navigation buttons).
Although Joe's is now swimming with the big guys, the user experience is still informal and involving, including pages on a kids' studio, online art postcards, a large listing of art workshops, information about Cheap Joe's "Brushes for Vincent" charity program, free reproductions of Cheap Joe's landscape watercolors, and high country photos and weather reports from Boone, North Carolina where former pharmacist Joe Miller does his thing. (The business originally started as a selection of art supplies offered in Joe's small drugstore.)
The buyer will discover that Cheap Joe's web site is a highly sophisticated commerce engine. Online product selection is easy to do: the full page menus and sectional design let you quickly find the single page for the brand or product category you want. Each page usually consists of a detailed, clear and easy to use listing of all products and prices in a single large ordering table, often with an icon signaling available inventory and a list of discount prices for large quantities. Enter the quantities you need for each item, confirm the order with your name, address and billing info, and your confirmation email is on its way. Most orders arrive within a week, packed in Joe's custom brown cardboard boxes.
Joe's web site has an online support function that includes an FAQ page and an email connection to the customer service staff. If you choose to make a phone order, phone inquiry, or have a problem with your shipment, Joe's sales personnel (most of whom are also practicing artists) are very user friendly. For example, they promptly replaced a completely empty (!) tube of Winsor & Newton paint without asking me to return the thing as proof of my predicament. Thanks, Joe!
Cheap Joe's print catalog and online shopping catalog offer a variety of top name art products, including a few products not available elsewhere (those fine Rembrandt watercolors), and their prices are occasionally as low as at the price slashing sites like Jerry's Artarama. In unexpected ways, too, Joe's treats their customers graciously free paper samplers, trinkets like sponges and pencil sharpeners, and last year, an entirely unexpected Christmas wreath.
Joe's house products (including watercolors apparently manufactured for them by DaVinci paints) are whimsically named the paints have color names such as "Red Hot Mama" and "Bumblebee Yellow"; the brushes are called the "Legend" or "Dragon's Tongue." Hey, art is supposed to be fun, right? Joe's lists their "American Journey" paint ingredients (including color index names) in their Reference 2002 print catalog, but inexplicably that information is still unavailable on the web site.
Although they are now among the fastest, least expensive and easiest to use art retailers operating on the web, mostly I like to order from Cheap Joe's for the spirit of their business, and their obvious commitment to put the customer first in all ways. reviewed 04/2004
Daniel Smith Artist Materials 1-800-426-6740. The Daniel Smith marketing strategy is disarmingly simple: make the whole shopping experience cheerful and pretty enough, and customers won't notice the occasionally higher prices and continuous marketing pressure. The pricing in turn seems driven by the high quality of the house brands, the efficient fulfillment operations, and the extensive marketing across all aspects of the Daniel Smith operation.
With a few notable exceptions (watercolor papers and sketchbooks, mats and frames, easels and books), you basically go to Daniel Smith to buy Daniel Smith products. Their kolinsky and red sable watercolor brushes are superbly manufactured by the Da Vinci brushmakers in Germany. They also offer Isabey, Da Vinci, Winsor & Newton, Black Gold, Robert Simmons, the Quiller Richeson line, and a variety of Japanese goathair brushes.
Their watercolor paints are very high quality, but to focus your interest they exclude their real watercolor competitors: no MaimeriBlu, M. Graham, Rembrandt, Schmincke or Holbein paints, only Sennelier and Van Gogh less popular paints that can't compare in quality. They do sell Winsor & Newton paints, simply because so many professional painters use them, but until recently only in the annual catalog and online only in the small tube sizes (they were typically "out of stock" when I tried to order the larger sizes online, and even sent me a free tube of DS paint as a substitute).
For other products, you need to comparison shop carefully. Their prices have recently come down significantly, and their prices on watercolor papers were always among the lowest I could find, but their prices on competitor brands of brushes and paints are sometimes not the lowest ... which makes their paints seem more attractive. Marketing considerations are never far from the Daniel Smith presentation.
For many years Daniel Smith had one of the worst designed and least convenient commerce web sites, despite having gone through many, many design changes. This year (2004) things got moving in the right direction and many basic problems were finally solved, thanks to the work of webmaster Dan Keseloff. The current Daniel Smith web site now lists the watercolor paints on a single page, with parallel prices, small sized paint out images, lightfastness ratings and pigment ingredients, all in color sequence yellow to red to blue to green, then the dull or earth pigments in yellow to red order, and finally near neutrals and specialty pigments. It's now a breeze to find the color categories and colors you want, browse for new ones, verify the lightfastness ratings and pigment ingredients, fill in the desired quantities, click the purchase button, and get back to painting.
The rest of the Daniel Smith retail operation is one of the best in the business. Their full color catalogs an annual reference catalog and update catalogs every four months are informative and stimulating to browse. The ordering telecenter is staffed by personable and relaxed agents who know the products in depth and are often artists themselves. Once you order, everything comes in custom Daniel Smith brown boxes and biodegradable starch packing peanuts, shipped promptly with a full invoice. DS usually does not hold orders to fill backorder items; in my experience, no other company ships faster or more reliably.
Daniel Smith now lists all its informative technical and instructional materials, formerly housed in a separate .net domain, under a "Learn" subdirectory of the .com site. The "See" subdirectory includes featured artists and listings of art societies (oddly, in the watercolor section, the NWS is listed but the AWS is not...). The DS art talk bulletin boards, which never seemed to garner much customer interest, have been taken down. reviewed 02/2004
Dick Blick Art Materials 1-800-723-2787. A chain of 29 retail art stores, headquartered in Galesburg, Illinois (USA) and found in the north midwest, northeast, Atlanta and Las Vegas (fastest growing retirement demographic in the USA), the company founder Dick Blick began selling lettering pens in 1911, and in 1948 sold his mail order business to Robert Metzenberg, whose grandson Bob Buchsbaum is the current CEO. The family obviously takes pride in its mission of helping artists fill the world with beauty; this comes through in the overall earnestness and excellence with which the company is run, and the corporate promise of "savings, fast shipping, a huge selection, customer service, product knowledge, and a guarantee of satisfaction."
The Dick Blick retail outlets have expanded to California by acquiring the Art Store chain (including three stores in the Bay Area), but my experience is still limited to their excellent direct order web site and printed product catalog. The latest (2004) edition of the annual reference catalog is an impressive, encyclopedic work (624 pages!), with a vast product coverage that rivals any other retailer (such as Jerry's Artarama or Pearl Paint); the web site is nearly as comprehensive. Both are excellent references for art materials. The web site inserts into many of its directory or index pages information on brush types, brush hairs and bristles, printmaking, painting media, painting techniques and product specific safety warnings. Blick's prices are now toward the low end (in fact, most retailers are now close on price; the recent economic downturn has given discounters a big advantage).
After several design iterations, the Dick Blick marketing site is now exceptionally well organized, easy to navigate, and quick to load. You can dip into an alphabetized index of art materials and manufacturer brands, or use the site search function to find relevant pages, listed with a snippet of descriptive text for each link. These key navigational tools appear at the top of every page, providing convenient transitions from one product or category to any other. Product order pages list paints alphabetized by manufacturer name, with HTML colors to suggest paint colors; you can also sort the list by catalog or manufacturer item number or size. Entire product lines, such as all the paints in a specific brand of watercolors or all the brushes in a specific brand and type of brush, are listed on a single order page, with parallel prices and order quantity boxes: simply insert the quantity of each item you want on the page, click the "add items to cart" button, and the order is ready for payment.
Dick Blick's fulfillment system is, in my experience, among the fastest and most accurate in the industry. The web site notes every product as "in stock and reserved" or "on order" when you make your payment. Each order is immediately confirmed by email, and the staff usually sends prompt follow up messages regarding special orders or delivery instructions. Orders are sent via US Postal delivery or FedEx, packed in plastic airbag padding, with a full invoice and the most recent seasonal catalog. Shipments are not held for backordered items, and shipping is free for orders of $200 or more.
Overall, the sheer range of products offered, the low prices, ease of ordering and prompt fulfillment along with a unique emphasis on K-12 educational supplies makes Dick Blick perhaps the best art retailer operating online today. I suggest you always check their inventory and prices before you buy elsewhere. reviewed 04/2004
Japanese Paper Place 1-012-99-253-583. Although a niche interest, I mention William McCracken's paper store in Kidderminster for its rather large stocks of "vintage" British papers manufactured by Whatman, J Green, Hayle Mill and Barcham Green between 1915 and 1974. Those with an interest in old reserve papers should give him a call.
Jerry's Artarama 1-800-827-8478. Judging by the astonishing variety of items in its print catalog, Jerry's Artarama may have a wider selection of products than any other art retailer in the world. They offer many products you can't get elsewhere and lower prices on the products you can. In fact, Jerry's offers to beat any competitor price by 5%, if the competitor's price is lower than theirs.
Recently, Jerry's significantly upgraded their commerce standards. They now have a full color, 331 page print catalog, fully indexed and designed around attractive, full page display ads, which replaces their previously ratty, black and white, 150+ page newsprint catalog with its crowded three column layout, incoherent alphanumeric page numbering system, and skimpy index buried deep behind the front cover. Sometimes change is for the better! Jerry's also touts their growing chain of retail outlets 10 stores from Connecticut to Florida, with Tennessee and Colorado thrown in. (Hey guys, painters live in San Francisco too!) All this positions them closer to competitors such as Dick Blick or Daniel Smith, armed with the three deadliest weapons of art retailing: selection, discounts, and glossy marketing.
Ah, then there's shopping convenience. I can't assess the retail stores, but Jerry's online presence has made huge strides. They have replaced the site hosted by Yahoo! Shopping with a new, fully integrated web site of their own. The new site is quick to load and adopts many of the standard retail site design techniques. Item listings within a single brand or product line all appear on a single page, with quantity boxes by each item and an "Add to Cart" button at the bottom. Insert the desired quantities for every item you want and they all go into the cart with a single click. The search function appears at the top of every page, and it works very well: a single keyword such as "Arches" returns every product under that brand, 20 to a page, with the catalog number and price. You can add each item to your shopping cart just by clicking on a small shopping cart icon. (Click the back button to add more items.) My only complaint is that the decorative images, for example the pictures of watercolor paint swatches, are still too large and too numerous.
It's been two years since I've used Jerry's telecenter, but I hope it has kept up with the improvements in other areas of Jerry's operation. The fulfillment accuracy of the Jerry's warehouse is now quite good, and size permitting, nearly every shipment I've received from Jerry's has come with a copy of their catalog. If there is a backorder item, Jerry's will sometimes just hold the whole order, leaving you wondering what's happened; if you don't call them, nothing gets resolved. Even so, they usually get things out faster than Pearl Paint, though a few days slower than the big three (Cheap Joe's, Dick Blick and Daniel Smith).
Overall, Jerry's selection and discounts make them useful to know: they almost always offer the lowest prices you can find. And it's always a good idea to check Jerry's catalog before you buy anywhere else they seem able, through their large sales volume and low overhead, to offer access to many unusual brands, again at exceptionally low prices. However, because their prices are sometimes only a penny or two lower than the other direct order merchants (remember the wording on that guarantee!), I've come to rely on Jerry's only for the art materials I can't find anywhere else. reviewed 04/2004
Ken Bromley Art Supplies 011-084-53-30-32-34 (United Kingdom). For the complete selection of Winsor & Newton tube & whole pan colors, pan sets, palettes, brushes and other products, go to Ken Bromley (and his son Richard) in England. Ken is one of the few online retailers I know of where you can order every Winsor & Newton watercolor even nickel titanate yellow, cobalt green or ultramarine violet in whole pans. (Jerry's Artarama sells only the most popular whole pan colors.) If you use Winsor & Newton and prefer whole pan watercolors, then you may find it easiest to order direct from Bromley.
(I have recently become acquainted with Jackson's Art Supplies in London. They also sell Winsor & Newton, Schmincke and Rembrandt whole pans and folding metal paint boxes, and a useful range of brushes. I haven't purchased from them yet but suggest them as an alternative European supplier in cases where USA prices or availability fail your needs.)
The KBAS web site, recently redesigned, is now commensurate with any modern commerce venue: the home page lists specials and announcements, with shopping and product category links tucked into a sidebar frame. A click here takes you to one or two product category splash pages (which load quickly), and then to a listing of individual brands or products. From there you must click to a separate page to order specific sizes, colors or quantities, using a checkbox form that allows you to order different quantities of several products at the same time. This architecture is pretty much standard with online merchants nowadays and is much more convenient than the previous site design. In addition, KBAS replies to email inquiries and orders promptly and ships your purchases punctually. The first order I emailed to them arrived in California within a week; subsequent orders have kept to that high standard. One problem: the purchase registration form rejects USA phone numbers as invalid! (I just pasted in the Bromley UK store number.)
The principal reason for a USA consumer to use a British merchant is product selection. KBAS carries Whatman and Bockingford sheet and block watercolor papers, the complete line of Winsor & Newton half, full ("whole") and "large" (ceramic container) pan watercolors. However the recent weakening of the dollar has eaten up the discounts that you used to get through Bromley. They have never been competitive for USA buyers on Winsor & Newton tube paints (KBAS charges about US$14.68 for the series 4 14ml. Winsor & Newtons, while Cheap Joe's, Dick Blick and Daniel Smith all charge US$11.98), but now their prices on brushes are also equivalent: KBAS sells an Isabey #8 squirrel mop for US$61.80 and a #8 Winsor & Newton Series 7 sable round for US$109.23; Daniel Smith charges $59.57 and $106.99 for the same items. (Prices do not include shipping and handling, which are comparable to Daniel Smith; KBAS deducts the 17% European value added tax from all shipments to the USA.) However, KBAS offers the Winsor & Newton Series 7 watercolor brushes up to size #12; in the USA I've only seen sizes up to the #10.
One problem: the company registers shipments through the British postal system, which can be a Bleak House remedy for international missing goods. (I notified Bromley of a missing package shipped around Christmas, but two weeks later the package still had not been traced.) However, Bromley proudly asserts he has never lost a shipment, although he came very close in my case! (The package stumbled to my home in the middle of January.) I suggest you don't order in the weeks before the Christmas holiday. reviewed 12/2007
Village Art Supply 1-707-575-4501. Located in the Montgomery Shopping Center, just north of Highway 12 in Santa Rosa (CA), Village Arts is one of the best small art stores I've come across. My good luck it's local! Owned and managed by Simmon and Robin Factor, himself a practicing artist, Village Arts is well stocked, handsomely furnished and professionally run. The staff are knowledgeable and provide advice without bias. The store hosts workshops by manufacturers and visiting artist/teachers. The inventory is not as extensive as you might find at the fatter retail chains, but it's carefully selected to provide high quality student and professional grade products. (They carry Da Vinci paints along with Winsor & Newton and Holbein.) I am lucky to be located in an area known for its active artist community and two fine arts programs (at Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University), and many of the Village Arts staff are students or graduates of those schools. I often stop by for an emergency art purchase, but usually end up chatting to catch up on events and shows in the area, or learn about new products. The community support and educational efforts of small retailers make them unique, and Village Arts is one of the best. reviewed 12/2007
New York Central Art Supply 1-212-473-7705. This was once a cozy, narrow, ramshackle art store on 3rd Avenue & 11th St. in lower Manhattan, known for its superb paper department their motto is paper spoken here which offers a vast stock of handmade, custom, historical and Asian art papers, including some items manufactured before World War II. (A complete list of papers, by manufacturer and country of origin, including dozens of papers in rolls, was provided as a site map.) They published a fine papers catalog (compiled with enormous industry expertise by David Aldera) that is separate from and as large as their fine art supply catalog. It takes 9 pages just to list all the papers available in rolls! NYCAS is also known for its stock of handmade pastels and specialty brushes.
I say "was", because New York Central is no more. Someone wanted to build a new hotel for the world traveling tourist and executive class; someone sold the building that stood where the new hotel was to be built, and NYC Art had to vacate the premises. So they sold off as much of their inventory as drastic discounts allowed, and sold the rest to Jerry's Artarama. And the new venture is known as "Jerry's NY Central."
Until things sort out at the new location and under the new management, I enthusiastically pass on David Dewey's recommendation of the NYC Art custom sketchbooks. These are a little pricey ($45 for a 48 page 8"x12") but well worth it: bound in a durable, natural (soft brown) linen with dark green endpapers, the Arches 140 pound text laid is a receptive, resilient ivory surface for pencil, pen or watercolor sketching. They are listed in index to the fine papers catalog under "Arches text laid sketchbooks," or ask the staff for the product by name. reviewed 12/2007
Pearl Paint 1-800-451-7327. Established in 1933, for me Pearl Paint will always be their funky red & white facade art store on Greenwich Village's Canal St., rambling up through flights of stairs and down into side rooms of paints and brushes, artists of every caliber queued up along the narrow aisles and gabbing with the colorful and dedicated staff. However, Pearl Paint is actually a chain of stores in several states (my local San Francisco store, on Market St., is also spacious and very good).
Pearl Paint is distinctive for the breadth of its inventory, which goes deep in almost every category of product. With the exception of competing retail brands (Daniel Smith, Utrecht, Dick Blick and Cheap Joe's), and historical watercolor papers, the selection covers almost all major brands available today, and should be quite sufficient for any artist's needs.
Pearl has recently issued their 2002-2003 fine arts catalog, the largest yet: it runs to 222 pages, well organized and compactly typeset (with a detailed index and manufacturer paint color swatches, making it a great reference). The section on watercolor paints alone runs 21 pages ... and it still doesn't hold everything they sell!
Pearl was playing catch up in the direct order business over the past few years, and has successfully covered a lot of ground. They now take phone orders at a call center separate from the retail store, and like Jerry's Artarama, Pearl Paint now has its own devoted web site. However the home page is a horrid mosaic of fat, animated gif advertisements and specials announcements that takes forever to load on a dial up (rural) connection. The best strategy is to click on one (any) of the navigation tabs at the top of the page to get you out of this clutter; the product category pages are much more humane to work with. You still have to order one item at a time each quantity checkbox on the product order page has a separate "add to cart" button which is not the industry standard of convenience (the whole page should have a single form submit button).
Pearl's direct fulfillment is much faster than it used to be, with an email order confirmation (but not an email shipment confirmation), and items come in blank or manufacturer cartons stuffed with paper packing. They clearly intend to hold their own against Daniel Smith, Cheap Joe's and other direct merchants online as well as off, and have improved their direct order operations a significant amount over the past three years; further improvements are sure to come. reviewed 12/2007
Utrecht Art Supplies 1-800-223-9132. Started by two artist brothers in the 1950's, Utrecht is a chain of 37 retail art stores across the United States which also offers art supplies through its mail catalog and web site.
The Utrecht print catalog is easy to read and use. Their prices on equipment, papers, paints and brushes are usually competitive, and while Utrecht offers only a few brands besides their own Winsor & Newton, Van Gogh and Holbein watercolors; watercolor papers from Arches, Canson-Montval, Fabriano and Winsor & Newton these are all either top drawer or popular basic brands. Utrecht aims to provide the best quality materials at great prices, rather than cater to arcane brand tastes.
The quality of Utrecht's own products is uniformly high. Their watercolor paints are bright, moderately priced and easy to use, and their line of sable watercolor brushes (made in Europe) are a pleasure to work with.
The Utrecht commerce web site has been redesigned, and the home page now resembles Cheap Joe's or Dick Blick (low on glitz, high on concise information and easy navigation). There are few fat image files or silly background textures, so pages load quickly. There's a text search box in the banner and an exhaustive clickable index along the lefthand side of every page, which makes jumping from section to section of the site extremely convenient. The shopping interface is excellent: no marketing clutter, all products clearly identified, and all items within a single brand or product line listed on a single page with quantity boxes next to each item. It's easy to change an order before purchasing, and log back in at a later time. My one complaint: clicking on a category such as "watercolor paper" takes you to a listing of packaging formats (sheets, blocks, sketchbooks, etc.) first, and then to a listing of brands ... why not list brands and formats on a single page?
Utrecht's print catalog lists its paints with full pigment ingredient information (color index name and lightfastness ratings); unfortunately this information is not on the web site. Their paint names are also accurate and easy to interpret ("quinacridone magenta," "perinone orange," "cerulean blue chromium" and their "hooker's green" really is the impermanent PG8!). The single problem: they use the lightfastness indication "NR" (not rated) on 11 out of 42 colors, to mean either "a paint rated as fugitive" (alizarin crimson, hooker's green) or "a paint that hasn't been tested yet." (In many cases, the ASTM rated the "NR" pigments in 1999.)
Utrecht ships quickly by UPS ground in plain brown boxes. Orders are filled accurately and everything is packed in crumpled paper with care and a complete invoice. The stock picker and shipment inspector are identified by number, a sign that Utrecht works hard to keep shipment errors to a minimum.
Everything about Utrecht strikes me as professional quality, without pretense. A rare combination! reviewed 12/2007