A good way to save money on art supplies is to use what you have on hand first, especially for studies and practice work. Use up those art supplies sitting in the closet! Over the years, I’ve accumulated a closetful of various supplies: pastels, water colors, ink, charcoal, colored papers, acrylics. I think artists have a tendency to horde this stuff–we see it in the store in its pretty packaging, or maybe it’s on sale, and it somehow ends up in our studio closet. A good way to avoid this happening is to make a list of only those things that you REALLY need and to order them online. This should help to stem impulse buys.
I use the supplies I have on hand for experimentation. Although I only really exhibit oils (and occassionally a pastel or acrylic), I do a lot of work that is just practice in a wide variety of mediums.
You can also get creative by looking in your recyling–cardboard boxes and paper bags make great surfaces for charcoal and pastel drawings, newspapers are also quite interesting as backgrounds for drawings. While the results are not likely going to be archival, they are great surfaces for creating studies and less permanent works.
If you like working on canvas, I highly recommend Fredrix canvas pads. They are great for doing studies, plein air and other informal paintings. Plus, they are much easier to store and a lot less expensive than working on stretched canvas all the time.
If you work in oils or acrylics, another way you can save is by switching to gallery wrap canvas for your exhibit pieces. Gallery wrap enables you to forego framing–it is especially effective with contemporary themed work. You just paint the edges with black acrylic for a professional finish. Collectors who buy your work can either hang it as is without a frame, or select one that matches their taste.
So next time you need some inspriration, take a look in your supply closet and pull out those water colors you bought 5 years ago and never used, or the pastels, or the Chinese brushes, or…