Watercolor paintings are beautiful to look at, and relaxing to create. Not only do you get the fulfillment of making something with your own two hands, but you have the ability to capture color, light, and motion in a single image, reflective of the world around you. While seasoned professional artists don’t think twice about jumping into a new painting project, it can be quite intimidating for a person who is new to watercolor painting to start out. To get started you will need the right equipment, and below I have put together a beginner’s guide to the equipment needed to start creating watercolor paintings so you can be confident when picking everything from your watercolor kit to your liquid frisket.
Table of Contents
- The Importance of Having High-Quality Supplies
- Watercolor Paints
- Watercolor Brushes
- Watercolor Paper
- Other Useful Watercolor Supplies
The Importance of Having High-Quality Supplies
When it comes to doing anything, carpentry, baking, skiing, or yes, even painting, having the right supplies makes all the difference. Not only will good supplies help you learn the proper techniques needed for watercolor painting, but it will help set the foundation needed to create high quality paintings that you are pleased with. From the right paint, to brushes, to paper, the right equipment take your time and choose supplies that are right for the task at had. Having the right supplies can also prevent you from becoming frustrated with your new hobby. Take advice, and if possible, buy the best high-quality supplies you can comfortably afford.
There are many different types of watercolor paints available, including different medium forms, colors, and grades of paint. Before setting off on your creative endeavor it is important to understand what you are buying and how it will impact your final product. Of course, each paint type, grade, and format will have pros and cons associated with it, so it is important to understand what you are buying before it’s too late.
Grades of Watercolors
Watercolor paint is made two main parts: pigment and binder. Pigment comes from a variety of different origins from natural insects, as seen in carmine, to manmade pigments like indigo. The binder is what hold the pigment together and makes it usable as a paint. Binder can be made from a variety of different recipes, but gum arabic is the most common ingredient. However, some paint brands use honey as the base for their binders. The grade of the watercolor paint is dependent on the various ingredients, their concentration, and the way the ingredients make the paint perform. There are usually three different grades of watercolor paints available: elementary, student, and artist grades.
Usually elementary grade paint will be the most basic and least expensive watercolor paint available. While it would seem intuitive that this is where beginner painters should begin their hobby, I don’t recommend using elementary grade paints. Not only do these paints have very little pigmentation, they often do not perform nearly as well as higher grades of paints. This can leave a new artist feeling like they must be a bad artist when it’s actually the paints that are to blame. This is the perfect of example of how having the right supplies can make all the difference.
If you are a beginner and don’t know if you will enjoy watercolor painting, I recommend starting with student-grade paints. While these paints includes real pigments, they also use a lot of fillers that can make them a bit more difficult to use. These paints are usually moderately priced and can be a good starting point for most students.
Also called professional grade, this type of paint will be the highest performing. Not only do artist grade paints contain the most amount of pigmentation, giving rich and deep coloration, but they will perform the best when trying to work with this medium. Artist grade paints have superior transparency and will outperform lower grades of paint. Plus, artist-grade paints have higher lightfast ratings. Lightfastness refers to how much a pigment fades when exposed to sunlight with higher ratings meaning less fading. It follows though that artist grade paint will also be the most expensive option.
Pans or Tubes
While watercolor paint comes in many different formats, two of the most commonly found formats are either pans or tubes. Other paint formats might be better suited to your style and preference as you expand your ability, but I would recommend starting with either pans or tubes as a beginner. Pans and tubs are both easily accessible at the art supply store, and both options are easy to work with. While both options are perfect for beginners, which one you choose is purely up to preference.
Using pan paint is ideal for many beginning artists. Pans are the most common type of watercolor available, and they’re often a bit less expensive than tubes. Pans are also much more easily portable than tubes, which is why some artists buy tube paints and squeeze them out into pans. Pans come in two sizes: half pans and full pans. As the name implies, half-pans are half the size of full-pans, and they’re also a lot more common than full pans.
Tubes contain already moist paint in a tube that can be squeezed out onto a palette. These paints contain the same amount of pigmentation and are equal in quality to the pan paints. These tubes do run the risk of potentially using too much at a time, but the great thing about watercolor paints is that if you use too much, you can just let it dry and reactivate it again later. Some people think that tube paints are more vibrant than pan paints, but this isn’t very noticeable—especially for a beginner.
How Many Colors Should You Start With?
When you’re a beginner and you’re choosing your first palette, it an be extremely tempting to get the one with 48 or 72 colors. After all, the more colors, the better, right?
Well, not necessarily.
As a beginner, you should try to learn how to mix your own colors instead of relying on convenience colors, and because of that, I recommend starting with 12 colors initially. One of the beautiful aspects of watercolor painting is the ability to create color, tone, and depth simply by building and blending colors together. At the very most, I could see a beginner getting a set of 24 colors because it’s enough to make you feel spoiled, but not so many that you aren’t learning how to mix your own colors.
What About White?
When you are first beginning in watercolor painting, try to choose a set that doesn’t have white in it. Watercolor is unique among paint types because white isn’t needed to lighten colors. If you want to make your phthalo blue lighter, you simply add more water to lighten the shade. White Watercolor is inherently opaque, while watercolor as a whole is known for its transparency. If you mix white into a transparent color, that color will become more opaque. This can be used intentionally to give your painting a foggy look, but aside from that, white is most often included in paint sets because it’s expected.
Just like any new hobby or project, the tools that you use can make a world of difference. Having the right watercolor brushes in your arsenal can make the difference between a successful piece of artwork and a frustration laden disaster.
If you look online or go to an art supply store, you’ll commonly see pre-assembled sets of paint brushes, but try to avoid these. A lot of these brushes are made to be “all purpose”, but it’s impossible to make a brush that is good for every type of paint. If you can’t find a set that’s specifically made for watercolor or just want to start with one or two brushes, start with a #6 or #8 round brush and either a 1/4 or 1/2-inch flat brush, depending on how big you like to paint.
Once you decide you love watercolor, you can start branching out into some of the other shapes like dagger stripers, filberts, fan brushes, quills, and so on.
Synthetic Hair Brushes
The cheapest option when it comes to watercolor brushes, synthetic hair brushes are designed to mimic the look and feel of a natural hair brush. These brushes come at a much lower price point, but they don’t hold very much water in comparison, and they can sometimes unload their pigment unevenly. However, these brushes are going to have the most snap, which refers to how firm the bristles are. A lot of snap means more control over the brush, while less snap makes control more difficult.
Natural Hair Brushes
Using natural hair brushes will be the best option when it comes to performance. Unfortunately, these brushes are also the most expensive. Natural hair brushes hold a massive amount of water and create more consistent lines than synthetic brushes do. However, they have little to no snap at all, so if you like firm bristles, you may only want to invest in a natural hair mop brush. Natural hair brushes come in a variety of different hairs, but the two most common for watercolor are kolinsky sable and squirrel.
Blended Hair Brushes
To combine the best of both worlds, blended brushes have both synthetic as well as natural hair. These brushes carry a moderate price point, and they’re an excellent choice even for beginners who don’t mind spending a little more to have one or two nicer brushes in their arsenal. When it comes to snap, these brushes, as you may have already guessed, will be between natural and synthetic.
When it comes to choosing watercolor paper it is important to remember that thick paper does not always equate to high-quality paper. Different papers can be used to create different finishes, so it is important to select the right paper for your individual project.
The weight of the paper can either be measured in pounds, or in grams. While heavier paper does a better job absorbing paint and water, it can also be more costly.
- 90 lb(190 gsm): This is the lightest weight paper that can be used for watercolor paints. This paper usually requires regular stretching in order to keep its shape. 90 lb paper is less absorptive and does not hold water or color as well as heavier options.
- 140 lb (300 gsm): This is a good weight for beginners. 140 lb paper rarely needs to be stretched, but can be avoiding by taping the paper down before you start. 140 lb paper is still heavy, but is not quite as expensive as 300lb options.
- 300 lb(640 gsm): 300 lb paper is typically used by professional artists. This weight of paper does the best job when it comes to holding moisture and paint. Heavy paper like 300 lb paper is more expensive, but does not need to be stretched.
I recommend 140 lb paper for general use because it’s more affordable than 300 lb paper and is also the easiest weight to find.
Aside from the various weights available for paper, there are also different types of paper to choose from. The various types of paper can make a big impact on your final project, so be sure to choose a paper with the right look and attributes to make your final project successful.
- Hot Pressed: This is a smooth, hard paper that is great for working with small details. While this is great for intricate paintings, many artists do not like how slippery the surface is.
- Cold Pressed:Compared to hot press paper, cold paper is slightly more textured, providing a good compromise for texture and detail both. Cold pressed paper is a happy medium and often a good choice for beginners.
- Rough: This paper has the most texture option and is often an excellent choice for large color washes.
Which type of paper you use is completely up to taste. One type isn’t inherently better than another despite how price an vary between them. Most beginners will start with cold-press paper and then branch out to either rough or hot-press depending on what they think of the texture.
In watercolor paper, there are two main materials that it can be made from: cotton or wood fiber. Wood fiber is the less expensive option, but it’s also not as absorbent as cotton. Acid-free, 100% cotton paper is seen as the gold standard of watercolor paper because it holds pigment well, lets you layer paint without the previous layers reactivating, and is capable of absorbing a lot of water. If you can, try to get some cotton watercolor paper, because it’ll make learning to paint a lot easier.
Many people prefer watercolor blocks to individual sheets of paper. Watercolor blocks are unique because they are stacks of paper that are glued together on two or more sides to keep the together. You paint directly on the top page, which is stabilized by the rest of the paper in the block, helping reduce buckling. When your painting is dry, you can take a palette knife, bone folder, butter knife, or anything similar and separate the page from the block. Watercolor blocks are especially useful for artists who want to take their supplies out into the world and paint on the go.
Can You Use Normal Paper with Watercolors?
The short answer to this question is, no. Normal paper does not have the same texture or thickness necessary to hold the sheer amount of water required for watercolor paintings. Not only do colors have trouble adhering to the surface, but paint also is prone to running and seeping through, which can stain your work surface. Furthermore, normal paper is too lightweight, which will lead to distortion in the shape and surface of the paper. Compared to watercolor paper, this paper is not able to be stretched to retain its normal shape.
Other Useful Watercolor Supplies
While paints, brushes, and paper are the most basic supplies needed for watercolor, there are also some other supplies that will help the experience even more enjoyable.
Multiple Water Containers
Having multiple water containers will be key when working with watercolor paints. Each time you clean your brush off, that paint goes into the water and discolors it. Contaminated water will discolor your paints when you rinse your brush, so the best way to avoid it is by having multiple containers of water. Personally, I use three: one for the first rinse (the dirtiest water), one for the second rinse (the cleaner water), and a third that I only use for mixing my colors so it stays completely clean.
Using a porcelain palette is ideal when mixing colors, especially if you’re using tube paints that didn’t come with a palette. While many people use plastic palettes, porcelain provides a better working surface because the paint spreads evenly across the surface and lets you see the color more easily. With plastic, the paint beads up and is much more difficult to see. You can get porcelain palettes that are molded with spaces for individual colors or a large, flat palette that makes mixing easier.
Also known as masking fluid, liquid frisket is a necessity for any watercolor artist. This is a latex-based liquid that you paint onto the parts of your painting that you don’t want to get paint on. Once it dries, you can paint over it, and the frisket protects those spots. Once your paint is dry, just peel the frisket off, and the paper will be completely white underneath.
White highlighter is often used as a final step through the painting process. This can be used to add the appearance of natural lighting hitting trees, water, or surfaces. White highlights can be accomplished with several different mediums including pens, inks, or gouache. The white highlighter used is the preference of the artist.
To create your initial sketch and outline, you will most likely be using a traditional pencil. This is where selecting the right lead grade for your pencil can make a big difference on your final project. Softer lead types for pencils can smudge in water, creating a streaky or distorted coloration.
A problem many beginner watercolor artists experience when starting out is that their paint doesn’t stick to the paper properly and looks blotchy. There are several reasons this can happen, but one of the most common is because the eraser they used while sketching was too harsh on the paper and damaged the surface. When sketching, try to only use kneaded erasers to erase. Kneaded erasers are much more gentle than traditional rubber and polymer erasers.
The addition of colored pencils can be quite nice to help start out the initial sketch for your painting. Colored pencils are great for dong undersketches. The colors are more subtle so lines are hidden much better compared to using a traditional graphite pencil.
Waterproof Fine Liners
If you like lining your art, you need to make sure you’re using waterproof ink before you start painting or the ink will get smeared across the page. When looking at drawing pens, make sure they say waterproof. And before using them on your art, test them to see how long they take to dry to avoid smudging. Sakura Pigma fine liners are a favorite among watercolor artists due to how quickly they dry and that the ink is archival, meaning it won’t fade over time.
A sketchbook can be a great addition to any artist’s arsenal. Many watercolor artists use sketchbooks to practice painting, draw out thumbnails, swatch colors, and so on. Sketchbooks are great for when you don’t want to waste your expensive paper on doodles and color testing.
When it comes to taking up a new hobby, watercolor painting is an excellent choice. Not only do you have the satisfaction of creating something with your own two hands, but you have the ability to channel a creative outlet. Just like any other project or hobby, having the right tools can make all the difference. Do your homework, test out supplies, and get a full understanding of the necessary tools needed to paint a beautiful watercolor masterpiece.