09/20/2011 02:28 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2012

Art Supply Shops

Back in art school at Pratt, we would wander the acres of Pearl Paint lusting after art supplies, which were expensive on a student budget, and those in desperation would shoplift, showing devotion to their craft. I still get goose bumps going into art supply shops, not only because of the idea of making things, but the idea of how they can be made and how the materials spark design ideas. I see a palette knife and think of scraping ink along a white surface to cover another print. I see spray paint and think of ghostly images I made with black spray paint and string on white paper, I see buckets of thick white gesso and see it lumped up into landscapes rubbed with color.

The primary colors of chalk create their own color combinations; I can stumble upon a purple-orange only because they are sitting quietly next to each other in their box. Solid deep lead pencils create shiny black/grey lines like an old master etching. One of my favorite shops, that moved right below my studio, is Kramer. In the window, they lure me in like the red light district in Amsterdam with small bottles of pure pigment catching my eye. Powdered dry and intense -- it's a conversation that cannot be replicated on fabric, but I will try. Silks can achieve this luster. I buy some jars to put on my desk and remind me to go deeper into color.

Another must of the shop is their hand-made color charts. Each square is hand painted and irregular in the most ideal way. I see gradations of fabric dip-dyed when I look at these charts, which are divided into colors, families or types of paints. Colors sit next to each other on the chart and start conversations that invite me in and spur me to try new colors together. Heavy hand-made paper sketch books with rough jagged surfaces that take color reluctantly remind me of heavy hand-woven fabrics in India that I buy. They are all irregular, unevenly dyed, and perfect to print on. Further down the aisle I see a glass mortar and pestle, which is a sculpture too perfect to actually use, but imagine it in action -- the color being ground and mixed in the pure glass.

Even the attitude of art store employees peaks my curiosity -- mostly artists or art students, nonchalant until you dig into how to use the materials, and they perk up and glow as they describe their own technique, style and, possibly, artwork.

I have to mention one store down on Broome Street, Sweet Bella, who sets out on lonely expeditions to the end of the world in search of the rare, almost extinct, stationary products. In her Aladdin cave I have to buy her German chalks in deep smoky colors and blood-red crayons.

Visit John Robshaw's website at and check out his Facebook page here.