June 14, 2015

I spend a lot of time online. I know. Never mind. 😉

I purchase all of my art materials online. I live in South-Gloucestershire and brick-and-mortar art stores are not found easily and if they are around they are often more expensive than online shops or they don’t stock what I need/want. Of course I am all for supporting ‘real shops’ but life sometimes gets in the way and so online it is.

art website, Sophie Ploeg
This website is too overcrowded and loud

So for as long as I can remember I have been using online shops such Jackson’sGreat ArtPullingers,  Ken BromleyRosemary & CoCass Art, (I can recommend them all but my favourite is Jackson’s which stocks pretty much everything I need and I have been buying from them for many years) and many more. However I find most art supply store websites pretty abysmal. Some are worse than others, of course, and a few are quite good, but I stay away from some art shops simply because their website is pretty bad or unusable.  Surely that is easy to fix?

Winsor & Newton’s website is tempting and full of info.

Most artists, professional or amateur, love browsing an art supply store. We feel like children in a candy store seeing all those yummy colours, those endless rows of paint tubes, pastels, brushes, the more-than-I-need choice of papers, and we dream of trying that fancy easel or that new painting surface. But Britain is a big place and art supply stores are disappearing from the High Street (but that’s a different story) fast, so our indulgent drooling is left for the odd visit to London where the historic Cornelissen is a must-visit for many – even if its just to soak up the atmosphere.

But we live online most of the time. I pretty much buy everything I need in life online: clothes, books, toys for the children, groceries, travel tickets, and art materials.  Now that we live in a digital world many commercial shops are perfecting the art of web design  and try to seduce me with slick websites. Apple’s ‘white-space’ design mantra has a lot to answer for as it pops up everywhere. There are clear trends appearing in web design that are followed slavishly by many (currently there are an awful lot of big fonts, iPad-aimed, big banners, or single page sites).  But as shop windows a website is vital in attracting customers. I wouldn’t shop at Tesco online if their website looked awful and I could not find a simple loaf of bread to add to my basket.

Yummy Photos

So why do art materials shops not take a leaf out of the book of good web design? Most art supply shops’ websites are pretty awful. Their home pages are loud, full, and look like a cheap newspaper’s back pages full of ads trying to outdo each other. A gazillion links are bombarding our eyes, competing for attention instead of seducing me to wander into the world of colour and art. There is no seducing whatsoever. It is cheap flashing neon signs instead. If only the art supply store web designers would actually be people who spend time online. People who buy online. Then they would see how other big brands seduce their customers with fancy pretty pictures, with some ‘white-space’ and clear navigation. With a world that you want to be part of. There are so many yummy photos to be made of art supplies it is a crime these web designers do not use the material they have to the fullest. Who would not want to show off the whole range of Winsor and Newton pastels in one single photograph? I’d click that picture straight away. Some art brands are actually doing this wonderfully. The websites of W&N, Unison, Vasari, Gamblin, or Rosemary & Co are beautiful and informative.

Of course a shop’s website is not just a home page with yummy pictures to draw me in. Its got to be useable. I must be able to find what I need. So what do I need? As with every website, no matter what product you sell or what info you share, it has to be easy to navigate, easy to read, and clear in structure. Menus have to be easily found and when I am somewhere in submenu number 5, I need to know where I am. Fonts have to be big enough to read for everyone, also those with poor eyesight. They should not be so large that it seems like it is shouting at us. Coloured fonts are often distracting and hard to read. Multiple fonts have the same effect. These are all pretty basic web design guidelines.


I need info. Some artists are more into this than others but I like to know as much about a product as is possible. So If I want to buy a wooden palette I want to know on the product page what wood was used, what size it is and whether it is in stock. For paint I would like to know what ingredients were used (linseed oil, poppy oil, pigments etc) and a clear picture of what the colour looks like. Despite monitor differences this is ALL I’ve got to go on in choosing a colour. I don’t want an art store to send me off to the manufacturer’s website to get a decent image and sense of the colour, ingredients and description. I want all that info on the shop’s website so I can make a choice there and then. The American Dick Blick really has got this one right, providing large colour swabs, and pigment info. Without having access to the ‘real thing’ the colour swab on a website is ALL we have to base our colour choices on, so if only art shops would realise this, and provide us with large, clear and  real-colour images of the colours they sell, adding a descriptive text about the particular characteristics of that colour. For example Daniel Smith describes their own Hansa Yellow Light thus: “Hansa Yellow Light is a bright lemony yellow with a touch of green. This semi-transparent becomes even more illuminated when mixed with white.”

I recently ordered some Unison pastels from a big art supply store. On the art shop’s website I just found a long long list of colours with tiny colour swabs. I just wanted to browse and choose what I fancied so I went to Unison’s website instead to see clear and large pictures of their colour range. I wrote down which colours I liked and then went back to the online art supply store. The list of unison colours was enormous and I could not find the ones I wanted very quickly so, again, I had to use the search function. I simply typed in the colour number and added them to my basket. It would have been so good if I could have chosen my colours on the art shop’s website. (although I am sure Unison is grateful for the art shop’s lack of info, and getting another visitor, but things get harder if the manufacturer does not have a a clear website either. The choice then really becomes a bit random.)

It is often hard to get basic information on an art store’s website. Try and find out what pigments are used in a certain oil colour or which ingredients are in a medium (since I am allergic to some substances), the types of wood used for palettes or stretcher bars, the size of stretched canvas or paper (some products are listed in inches, some in centimetres, some in A4/A3 etc etc), or the actual size of brushes, and the list goes on.

How can I choose colours in this enormous choice of tiny colour samples unless I already know what I am after?
Surely you should be able to find a palette in the ‘Studio Equipment’ aisle?


Atlantis show a very clear page of all the brands of oil paint that they stock.

Art shops stock thousands and thousands of products and I am sure it is hard to organise and list them in a clear and comprehensive way. But surely this is vital to get right. If Tesco and John Lewis can do it, so can they.  So try to use the menu to find pastel pencils at Cass Art’s website, or a palette at Jackson’s, try to find a Series 7 Sable brush at Great Art. Unless you use the search function, these things are pretty hard to find via their menus on their websites. Without the search function these websites are unusable.

It is vital that all products are clearly organised in obvious departments. A palette should be within the ‘Studio Equipment’ department, and a Series 7 Sable Watercolour brush should be within (round) watercolour brushes as that is where I would expect to find them. If I choose ‘acrylic paint’, I want to see in one clear page which brands are stocked, so I can quickly choose the brand I want. I then want a clear and large range of colours to choose from, being able to see the difference between Naphthol Red and Scarlet Lake.It is high time for art supply stores to enter the 21st century and join the world of online shopping.

Many art materials manufacturers have great websites but the art supply shops struggle to provide basic info.  They seem to forget we artists don’t always know exactly what we want or need. We also like to browse and see unexpected new things. We don’t go to brick-and-mortar shops anymore so they have to give us all the information that we would get from a real-life experience in a digital way (seeing and comparing colours, feeling textures, comparing sizes, reading labels, being seduced by stuff we didn’t come for, a clear and quick way to the aisle we need, etc).

Don’t turn a homepage in a maddening sea of bold fonts, crazy colours, ads and offers. It makes me dizzy and I leave. Give us clear menus and departments. Don’t make us search for things but put them in obvious places. I and my fellow artists LOVE art supply stores. We really do. It is as much a treat as a necessity to visit one. So please make it easier and more fun.


About the author 


Sophie is an art historian, artist, art tutor, and writer. She writes on art history and painting (oils and pastel). The 17th century is probably her favourite era, although the ancient Romans are currently fighting for the lead spot. She is currently researching lace in Tudor portraiture.

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  1. I think you are pretty spot on with this analysis. Have you tried SAA’s shop? What do you think of them?

    1. Their site looks attractive but they also suffer from some of the pitfalls I mentioned in my post. What are your thoughts?

  2. Sophie, have you seen Gamblin’s website? It is full of great information, videos & specifications for all their paint. I use it all the time as a color reference for tinting, values & intensity of their colors. Also, Robert Gamblin has created a video on color that is wonderful. I’m a Gamblin gal because they have an exceptional line of non toxic mediums & they take measures in protecting our environment. I’m with you on the websites. My mind does not like the clutter of most websites, so I go directly to the brand’s site, then order from usually Dick Blick, Jackson’s or Rosemary & Co. (my go to companies)

    1. Hi Sammy, thanks so much for your message! Yes, the Gamblin site is brilliant, highly recommended! I often do the same as you – get the info from the brand site and then order it in the shops …. Thanks for stopping by and adding the Gamblin tip!

  3. Hi David, thanks for your comment. Yes, it is a shame that small shops have to close their doors, but I doubt there is much we can do about it. There are many customers like me, who do most of their shopping online. Big shops, with a budget, need to realise this and perhaps budget more wisely. More and more people will only ever see their online shop and never their brick-and-mortar shop. So their online presence is vital. Probably more vital than their paper catalogue for example. And perhaps even more vital than their real shop as their potential (or actual) customer reach much bigger.

  4. Hi Sophie, I’m an artist by night and my profession of 30+ years is software development, and I can (and do) design websites.

    I can tell you from personal experience and inside knowledge that the leading online art suppliers, Jacksons, Ken Bromley, etc. have a continuous realistic budget for their online stores. In some ways they do treat their online stores like brick and mortar stores, with regard to running costs.

    A big misconception surrounding e-commerce is that it’s cheap to run in comparison to a shop. It’s not. A good e-commerce website will be custom designed and cost at least 10K. Running costs are likely to be £1K or more a month for content updates & general maintenance fees. An e-talier also has to set aside some of profit to cover the cost of meeting the distance selling regulations.

    When smaller shops are faced with the reality of the costs involved, combined with lower profit margins they bow out.

    It’s a shame. I’m in Birmingham and I’ve seen several small art shops forced to close their doors.

  5. I get easily frustrated by online art websites too for many of the reasons you mention.
    I suspect it has to do with any number of things. One, the people designing them and organizing them are NOT artists themselves so they have no sense how we artists shop. That can be true for any business, the designer must educate themselves to the business and the customer they are designing for.
    Two, whoever is designing the site is NOT a designer. That would be one downside to how easy it is to ‘design’ your own site these days. Just because you can does not mean you should.
    Three, it seems like some think they only need to set it up once and they are done. It must be a constantly evolving site not a static, no-change site. I have been to several that look as though they have not changed in years! Don’t they take it seriously?

    1. Good points, David, thanks for commenting! Your third point rings a bell with me – I think a lot of art shops see their online site the same way as they would see their catalogue – a listing of stock and not a shop window or shopping experience. Bring on the future!

  6. Hi Katherine, thanks for your comment. Yes I agree that the W&N site is not what it sued to be. The lack of unique url’s is really annoying. But still the site provides good colour swatches, pigment info and what not. There is worse out there. Anyway, I am mainly aiming my blog post at art supply stores – they need to up their game…..

  7. While I agree with a lot of what you have to say above, I really must disagree with you about the Winsor & Newton website

    It’s really awful! All show and very little substance.

    They have chopped about two thirds of the information from what used to be a really, really helpful website.

    I know this for a fact because I bookmarked several of their helpful articles and pages and these
    1) no longer exist at the original URL
    2) are no longer to be found ANYWHERE on the site

    Bottom line – huge photos do not substitute for factual information and really good advice.

    I used to refer people to the W&N website – and I’ve now stopped doing that.

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