The Best Art Supply Store Doesn’t Sell Art Supplies!

If you’ve been an art teacher for more than two months, your mailbox is already filled with art supply catalogs. There are any number of both local and nationally know companies jockeying for your art department dollars. Between the front and back cover are pages filled with art supplies from acrylics to watercolors and from brushes to table easels. There is every sort of art supply you can imagine… Or is there? What defines “art supplies”?

Fine Art vs. Art Stuff

Traditional art supply dealers peddle what is commonly referred to as “fine art materials.” However, artists can create using any number of materials, and not all of them are labeled “fine.” For example, last month I wrote an article about using technology. This was not about incorporating technology in the traditional sense but giving students technology as if it were paint or a lump of clay. “Here kids, here’s some technology, go make art.” This type of art supply won’t be found in the catalog in your mailbox. It also can be a bit pricey. So where can an art teacher spend her bucks on stuff that’s both uncommon and cost effective? The hardware store.

Your local hardware store contains aisle after aisle of potential art supplies. Some of these are obvious like the supplies found in the paint department. Here you will find a variety of paint in a plethora of colors, from latex house paint to stains for wood and spray paint for graffiti. Don’t overlook those free paint samples either. There are a few projects that could come from there. The paint section isn’t the only aisle to shop in though.

Let’s take a look around and see what else this store has in store.


Building Materials

The construction supplies in this department are the perfect place to start. With the purchase of a few nails and some lumber, your students could be creating their own canvases for pennies compared to what it would cost to purchase them from a fine arts catalog. Your students could get creative by swapping out canvas for screen and gesso with joint compound. Check out the work by artist Marela Zacarías.
Marela Zacarías
While you’re in the building materials section, pick up a bag of concrete and turn your students on to the cute, yet creepy, work of artist Ross Bonfanti.
Ross Bonfanti

Plumbing & Electrical

This department could be a sculpture teacher’s dream. The wires, cables, switches and boxes from the electrical aisle come in all sorts of lengths, thicknesses, shapes, and colors. This assortment can only be rivaled by the pipes, fittings, tubing, and accessories of the plumbing aisle. Did you know that many of Theo Jansen’s walking Strandbeests are made of PVC piping?
Theo Jansen
On a smaller scale, check out Robert Matysiak’s Robolamps.
Robert Matysiak

Garden Supplies

Before you leave the store, swing by the garden supply department. Load your cart with birdseed, fencing, and even dirt. There are countless projects that can be created using natural materials. UK artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey created images in grass by projecting a black and white image on it while it grew in a dark room.
Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey
A similar technique could be achieved by using birdseed and cardboard stencils. The seed will only grow where the cardboard is not.
cardboard stencil and birdseed
Another garden center project that could be created for just a few bucks is to have your students create mud paintings on the sidewalk. Mix in a little white clay to archive different values.
mud painting

Next time you’re mulling over that pile of catalogs considering which materials to order, stop for a moment and reconsider just what an art supply is. Then, before you make your final decisions, put the book down and take a ride to your local hardware store. It’s the best art supply store that doesn’t sell art supplies.

{image source}{image source}{image source}{image source}{image source}


What non-fine art supplies do you favor?
What projects have your students created using hardware?


Ian Sands

This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.


  • Jennifer Heidrick

    I couldn’t agree more. Just had a student finish a 7 ft sculpture using Great Stuff (spray foam insulation) with a pvc skeleton. After trimming off some pieces I started to realize that those “throw away” pieces could be turned into something else. Guess who’s buying spray foam for all students to experiment with next year?

  • Brea Wadel

    LOVED this article!! There’s nothing better than creating art out of non-traditional materials!

  • Mr. Post

    My favorite brushes come from Home Depot. The 1 inch and two inch white bristle brushes that cost less than a buck. I use them a lot – I don’t mind if a hair falls out every now and then and if they get to gnarly, I just toss them out.

  • BossySnowAngel

    Sheathing, used for underflooring is the perfect weight for paintings. Many of my students prefer the woodgrain for a background. Others will use pyrography (used to be called woodburning) to enhance their compositions.

  • h2ocolorcheryl

    Ian, you are absolutely right! My 4th grade students LOVE to use 22 and 24 gauge wire, needle nose pliers and plastic coated electrical wire to create Calder like mobiles! They begin 4th grade art by asking, “When do we get to make those mobiles?” I also find that some of the kids who struggle with drawing and painting excel in this wire and cardstock art project! And….thanks for the cool modern art visuals, because alot of the time, I get so busy with other art teacher stuff, that I don’t check out new artists work.

  • Pingback: 21 Surprising Supplies You Didn’t Know You Needed | The Art of Ed()

  • Pingback: A Case for Hoarding in the Art Room | The Art of Ed()

  • Pingback: Why Every Art Classroom Needs a Shopping Cart | The Art of Ed()

  • Pingback: 3 Ways to Teach for Creativity in the Art Room | The Art of Ed()

  • Pingback: A Vision for Art Education Part One: Space and Media | The Art of Ed()

  • Joshua Kern

    just wow!

  • Amy Roadman

    My thoughts as I browsed through Harbor Freight for the first time last week. Stocked up my home studio with some cool tools. The same art supplies are often less expensive in the hardware department than the “arts and crafts” aisle.