Do-It-Yourself Art: Make Your Own Art Supplies, Locally

One might argue that in philosophical terms, art is one of the ultimate do-it-yourself (DIY) activities, as within it we are essentially giving birth to new ideas or our own interpretations of old ones. But in practical terms, most art forms require us to defer to others for our tools and materials, which can get extremely costly and cuts us off from the experience of art that our ancestors had. When it comes to creating or harvesting our own materials, there is the advantage of saving money―however what I believe to be even more valuable is the experience that results from building and customizing your own tools.

Ceramics offers probably the simplest DIY road to take, with tools often comprising basic applications of wood and metal. Pretty much everything can be reproduced by using dowels (tons of twigs around, this is Oregon after all) as handles and then setting in tips. Drilling a small hole with a knife into the end of a dowel creates a perfect spot to set in the head of a nail with super glue for a cleanup/drawing tool (i.e. pointy needle thingy). Various sizes would be easy to make, as would alternative tips if you have some muscles laying about and want to go at the end of the nail with a hammer. Simply pounding a thin nail through the side of the dowel would create a beam by which to anchor wire, or really just anything else, to the end in order to make a plethora of shaping and scoring tools. Leave it raw, stain it, wrap it with cloth or twine for comfort, and so on. Put your name on it and give yourself a pat on the back. You just made a custom set of tools tailored to your own hands for a fraction of the cost―and chances are you’ll have created something that you can’t even buy.

Painting gets a bit more complicated, but there are many methods out there for cheap paint making. One common example is tempera, as egg whites can be used as a binder. The ability to mix your own custom binder to add anything from traditional pigment to oxidized clays, sands, and ground stones from local rivers is invaluable, as it acts as a platform for mixing painting materials that are non-traditional by most standards and very, very cool. Brushes are my favorite part, however; they are easily made by setting real hair into the end of carved dowels (glue again) and then securing it with a wrap of twine. Snip the end of the hair to your desired length and shape. Odd as it may seem, human hair is my preference when working with thin paints such as watercolor, or ink. Human hair tends to move much more fluidly and with a long, sumi-like length of hair you can really exceed the maneuverability of normal brushes. For more traditional painting styles, thicker hair seems to work best and so you might need to chase down the neighbor’s dog and put it in a sweet headlock. If you choose to give any of this a try, be sure to seek out sticks that fit into your hand ergonomically; you’ll be amazed at how much more comfortable it can get when your brush fits you like a glove. Oh, and if you’re an illustrator, do the same thing but don’t set any hair in… that small, carved-out reservoir is perfect for ink.

Right about now I’m sure there’s a guitar player reading this who’s congratulating himself for his pedalboard and the fact that it’s encrusted with kit-based stompboxes. I salute you, but there’s another level to take things. Amplifier kits aside (there are a lot of great, cheap ones out there!), one of the most fun and useful tools to make as a musician is a spring reverb. A lot of different low-cost methods are available, most which require under $20 worth of parts to pull off―and best of all, only some semblance of common sense is required. What’s great is that the materials are pretty broad in definition and you can spend hours on end switching out material types in order to alter the sound. Audio is perhaps more sensitive than just about anything else to the most minute of changes.

I could go on forever, but the point that’s being made here is that we all live in one of the greatest, most resource-heavy, progressive-minded and DIY-empowered states in the world―and within it, one of the most interesting and art-friendly cities. Everything from our local rivers, forests, and mountains to our own backyards are rich in what we need to not only take more control of our art, but to include a bit of why we love living here in it. And it isn’t to say that we should go full hillbilly on things and forgo art supply stores―not only because commercial products offer a lot of what we can’t manufacture on our own, but because these businesses are of and by the same people this is being written to. This is simply about expanding our palettes and deferring to who and what we are, perhaps a little more than a lot of us already do.

By Johnny Beaver