On a recent trip to Pearl Paint in Paramus, New Jersey, I had a few sad realizations about the apathetic relationship between those who would call themselves "art suppliers" and people who actually are driven to create some sort of art.
The "art supply store" is a deceiving moniker given to any sales outlet that sells products which have an air of artsyness to them. Often, the products are paint sets, some brushes, poorly primed crap canvas, some pencils and paper. I am not against kits, how-to books, or anything that can let someone enjoy a few relaxing hours making something pretty. But, the label of "art supply store" implies that the establishment at least partially cares about supplying the means to create art. The problem is that "art" includes creative endeavors that stretch far beyond the paint-by-numbers mentality of how-to books and rigid sets of colored mark-making tools. The sad reality is that most retail outlets (particularly the big ones) don't care if they are selling art supplies or trinkets for pets. They only want your money.
When is the last time you walked into a Home Depot or Lowes paint section and looked at the thousands of paint swatches, placed neatly inside organized displays, with a color-adjusted light system that allows some compensation for the horrible general lighting of all giant stores. I am alternately amused and angered that the big-box hardware stores put more effort into helping people see colors in a broader spectrum of light, allowing improved comparisons, than my closest big "art supply store" does? Pearl Paint has horrible lighting, even by box-store standards. If I really need to compare relative colors, then I make an effort to shop during daylight. You can find me walking back and forth between the oil paint aisle and the store front window for more accurate color comparisons. The system is not perfect, particularly considering the green/brown tint to the window, but it's better than relying on blue/green warehouse lights, which distort color more than cheap fluorescent garage lights.
This might seem like a frustrated rant. Yes. It is. It does, however, have merit; particularly when you consider the narrow definition of "art" that seems to exist, and how a box store like Pearl Paint wants to keep the definition inside a box so its price can be inflated more, discounted less, and sold to those who can be turned into mindless zombies. I was willing to let my surprise go during my undergraduate studies, but when I saw this in graduate school I was astonished. I was impressed with fellow art students who did not have concept about the incredible bounty contained in hardware stores (let along any idea how to use a tool beyond a standardized oil painting kit). Those pursuing graduate studies, in art, had an idea of art that fell right in line with the packaged products sold at big-box "art supply stores".
A couple of final notes:
I will continue to rush off to Pearl Paint in Paramus when I am in New Jersey and need to replace a simple tube of paint quickly. I have resolved, next time I need accurate color comparisons at night, to bring along a flashlight that is strong enough to counter the horrible lighting.
Throughout my two years of graduate studies I only met two people who entered into a course of study at American University who did not know their way around a hardware store. And, I know those two overcame any sort of inexperience with pure curiosity about the world around them. I am still occasionally surprised when I speak to graduate art students who do not know the world that exists outside the major art supply chains.