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So you want to learn to use watercolors, but where to start? What kind of paper should you use, and paints? Are those cheap ones like you used as a kid good enough? What about brushes? Well hopefully I can help you a bit. I’ve written details below of what to look for when shopping around and getting your first watercolor art supplies together!
In brief, the watercolor supplies you’ll need include:
- 140lb Watercolor Paper
- Watercolor paint: pans or tubes
- Plastic paint palette, preferably white
- Good quality brushes that won’t shed
- Paper Towels
- Container for water
- Pencil & eraser
Optional items in addition may include:
- Fine line markers
- White gouache paint
- Artist’s tape
- Spray bottle with water
- Masking Fluid (also known as Liquid Frisket)
Stop! Put that printer paper down! Don’t use just any kind of paper for watercolors!
The paper needs to be thick enough to handle all the water you put on it. Yes, there are differences in quality here (cheap vs. more expensive-which will hold up better), but the main thing you want to make sure of when choosing paper is that the pad does indeed say it’s meant for watercolors, and it should be labeled as at least 140lb paper weight, or 300gsm.
If you’re a beginner, by all means buy the cheapest 140lb paper you can find! It’s great for practice, you won’t feel bad about using it as you get used to painting. I usually buy the “Master’s Touch” brand found in Hobby Lobby, you can get a few small pads for under $10. Another option is Arteza’s “Premium” quality. It’s really not very premium and tends to warp easy..but again, it’s cheap and great for practicing, I do recommend it for that!
For intermediate paper qualities, I like Arteza’s Expert, Strathmore 400 series, or even some other budget brands hold up quite well! Don’t be afraid to try any out when you’re just starting to see what you like best.
Arches watercolor paper is the top of the line, but pretty pricey. It comes in both hot & cold press 100% cotton blocks, and is excellent quality used by professionals. I recommend waiting on this paper until you get a good feel for watercolor painting.
There is a big variety to choose from and lots of different brands. I’m only going to mention below ones I’ve personally tried, however I’m sure if you have or try a different brand you’ll be fine!
So…should you go with a cheap palette-the kind you had as a kid? Or a slightly more expensive professional looking version? Or tubes? Yup..watercolor paints can come in tubes too!
So in brief, the biggest difference I have noticed with student vs. professional grade watercolors is the pigment density. The more expensive pro paints have a much stronger, denser pigment. Meaning you can get darker, richer colors, and the paint will go a much longer way too (so that can balance out the higher cost). With the cheaper paints you might find yourself dragging the brush on the watercolor pan time after time to get a deeper pigment.
With all that said though, if you’re a beginner, it’s perfectly ok to use one of those cheap watercolor pan sets. Get a feel for the paints first and how watercolors work. Maybe you won’t like it and at least you won’t have spent much money.
If you want to try tubes instead, I found Reeves to be a good beginner set-they were my first! Tubes do behave a bit differently in that when you first squeeze them out onto your palette, the paint is wet, and has a denser pigment. After they dry the behaving more similarly to pans. And that’s the cool thing about watercolors, you can just rewet them and reuse!
Maybe take a step up if you’re really serious about learning watercolors. Get yourself a pan set that’s a step up from the ones in the kids section, and/or a beginners tube set-that way you can try both and see how you like them. I really like the Van Gogh watercolor tubes. They’re said to be student grade but I found the colors to be nice and vibrant, and you can get a nice set for a good price!
Winsor Newton Cotman brand is labeled as a “student” grade paint, but it handles quite well and can be purchased in pans or tubes. I have a small travel sized pan set that works great for doing plein air work.
High Quality brands
Daniel Smith, and Sennelier are two more professional brands I’ve personally tried along with White Nights-a Russian brand of paints. They’re excellent quality at a much more affordable price, I highly recommend them!
I also have a set of 6 Daniel Smith paint tubes, and with just these colors you can mix so many. I love the colors and results I get from them!
Sennelier watercolors use honey in their paints as a binding medium. I thought that was really interesting and wanted to see what the fuss was about so I bought a set myself. The colors are indeed nice, and pigments are rich, but they don’t stand out any more than the others do for the price.
One thing to note: some watercolor sets do not come with white. White watercolor paint is not actually used to make a white color-it’s not opaque enough. It’s used to dilute other colors to more pastel shades(like making pink from red). You’ll need to be able to do this, so make sure you have white.
Also, if you DO want an opaque white-and I recommend it because sometimes we make mistakes and cover up a small part of the paper that should have been left white- get an opaque white Gouache paint such as Holbein Gouache, permanent white. Gouache paints are basically opaque watercolors
Another thing you can try, is to get white gel pens. I have this Gelly Roll set and they work really well for small accent details after the paint is dry.
This is the one item I would never recommend totally cheaping out on. Really cheap brushes usually have bristles that will fall out and get stuck on your painting…just as you’re making that nice, fine, brush stroke. Then you’ve got to try it get it off without smudging the paint! Argh!
Also the bristles can separate too, good luck trying to get a nice consistent line or border with that!
So I would go for a decent quality brush. They don’t have to be very expensive, but just try picking out ones that you see in individual dividers at your local art store, instead of the ones in premade packs(well, unless they’re the same brand lol). I’ve had good results using the budget store brands Master’s Touch and Premier, and detail brushes by Arteza.
Another type of brush that’s great for watercolors are water brushes. Basically the top screws off and you put water in the handle. When you want to use it you just squeeze it a little and some water comes out at the bristles. They’re perfect for travel as you don’t need a separate water container!
The watercolor brushes I tend to use the most are:
- Flat Square Wash brush, 1″, 1/2″, and 1/4″ sizes- for larger sweeps of surface coloring.
- Oval Wash brush- For large areas with a softer edge
- 1/2″ Round brush and smaller sizes – My favorite because it’s so versatile! The tip comes to a nice sharp point, and even though the brush part as a whole looks rather large, it can make nice fine lines-as well as fill in larger spaces!
- Liner brushes – These are thin, fine brushes useful when you want to get very small details.
Over the years I’ve used plastic lids to empty recyclable containers, then upgraded to the cheap round palettes you can find in most stores. I recommend a white surface so you can easily see the paint color, and plastic works best. Don’t use paper plates with watercolors!
I recently got this nicer palette though, the one in the right in the picture above, which has plenty of spots to put the different colors and places to mix. It’s even got another side with a lid that I can close and carry with me. Fancy! But convenient and I like it.
Secondly, some paints come with their own built in palette trays! They’re usually pans, and not tubes, so if you get tubes you’ll still need your own palette.
Pencils & Erasers
Before you start painting, I highly recommend starting a painting with a background sketch. It’ll make the painting stage go so much more smoothly. Pretty much any pencil will do that’s a standard #2 (2B) or harder. If you want the sketch to be really light you can get a 4H or 6H which will leave very light lines.
For an eraser, I love using the soft kneaded erasers. They don’t leave shavings and can be used a very long time! Sometimes other erasers can work a bit better though, so getting a few in a set like this is a good option too.
Paper Towels & Scrap Paper
I find both of these pretty necessary! In addition to drying your brushes off at the end, you’ll need these to dab your brush on to get the right balance of water on it. You can also use them to soak up mistakes if you laid the paint on in the wrong spot in your painting(it will pick up most of it!)
I also like to have a piece of scrap paper to test colors on every now and then with my brush before I put it down on the painting.
Fine Line Markers
These are optional. But I came to the conclusion that I really like how putting the darker lines down after I’m done painting really holds the piece together. A lot of watercolor artists use this technique–but it’s just that. A technique or style. If you don’t like it you don’t have to go with it!
The marking pens I have and use are Faber-Castell with a variety of thicknesses. Whichever you use make sure they are permanent and not water based-so if you decide to paint over them with more watercolors your lines won’t dissolve!
Water spray bottle
This is also a totally optional tool that has more to do with style. It allows you to easily wet the paper and put the paint on-wet on wet-which is a technique. It’s fun to experiment with and see the different effects you can get! It’s also fun and easier to blend colors this way.
Clipboard, artist’s tape, ruler
Ok so the last set of extras are a clipboard, artist’s tape, and ruler. I almost always use a clipboard when painting to hold the paper. You can of course put it flat on a desk–or maybe you have an angled art desk which is great! But if not, a clipboard let’s you angle the painting on the edge of the table, or on your legs, etc.
The cheaper watercolor papers tend to curl up and warp due to the water on them, and that’s what the artist’s tape can help with. Use it to tape your paper to a clipboard. But be careful, some cheaper papers can tear when you peel it off..even with the artist’s tape which is supposed to be less tacky.
I also like to use a ruler a lot to give some of my painting’s a nice clean border. That’s totally up to you of course. Sometimes it’s nice to have that directly on the paper though.
So what is masking fluid? Well, when you want to preserve the color of the paper, or paint that you’ve already put down, you can use a masking fluid so that you can paint areas around it and not disturb those that you want to protect. It’s kind of like a liquid rubber. It dries very quickly, and once you’re done with your painting, you can “rub it off” with your finger or gently use an eraser.
It’s not so easy to use however. First, you need an old brush or some sort of tool to apply it. Don’t use any good brush you want to keep! The stuff will ruin your brushes! And I just use an old plastic lid as a palette to put the medium on. And like I said, it does dry quickly, so you have to work fast with it too.
It can create neat effects, and definitely helps if you want to blend colors in broad areas and not worry about ruining the parts you want to remain white.
The one I have experience with using is Winsor & Newton Colourless Art Masking Fluid.
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