Welcome to “Getting Started: Watercolours”, my first article aimed at newcomers to art as a hobby. While I don’t claim to be an expert artist by any means (my skills are somewhere between the beginner and intermediate level, depending on the medium I’m using and the subject I’m drawing or painting), I have already learned a lot through trial and error, and I feel like I can at least give a few tips and pearls of ‘wisdom’ (hah) that I wish I had known back when I first started. Hope you enjoy this article and find it useful 🙂
Choosing Watercolour Paints
When you decide to buy your first watercolour paints, you will need to decide whether you want to limit yourself to only a few colours or buy a larger range and whether you want to choose individual colours or just pick a pre-arranged set, as well as the difference between student grade and artist grade products. I’ve talked more about this in my previous post, Choosing Your Palette (which also gives more information about different pigments and their lightfastness, as well as opacity vs transparency, which is particularly important for watercolours). That post deals with most types of paints in general, whereas the remainder of this post deals specifically with watercolours. I do want to re-iterate one point I made in that post, though; you can mix pretty much every colour from a handful of colours, provided you choose the right pigments, so there’s no need to spend big bucks on buying all the colours available.
Tubes vs Pans
When buying your first lot of paints, whether in a set or individually, you will need to decide whether you will buy tubes or pan paint. Much of this will depend on where you mainly intend to paint.
Some artists buy tube paints and use them to fill pans or the wells of their palette and let them dry so they can be used as pans. This is a good option for those who want to do studio and field painting, but make sure you check the paint formulations first. Many brands use the same formula in their tube and pan paints, so they can be left to dry and still be reconstituted with no issues. However some brands (eg. Winsor & Newton) use different formulas for their pan and tube paints, or may not make pan paints at all, and their tube paints do not rewet well when dried, instead setting up to become hard lumps of unusable colour. Also, a few brands like M Graham may not dry completely in the palette due to the honey binder, so if you take them into the field or live in a humid climate, you may find them running and spilling paint everywhere (I have found that this doesn’t happen if I only use a tiny blob of paint, though).
(my favourites: W&N or Schmincke pan paints for field painting or a set I can easily take with me, M Graham paints for painting at home, and Daniel Smith paints for a good all-rounder that I can either use from the tube or create pans from)
Once you have your watercolours, you need somewhere to mix (and possibly store) them. If you bought a tube or pan set in a metal paintbox, this shouldn’t be an issue, as these boxes usually have ample mixing space in the lid or on a lift-out tray for you to mix colours or make up washes. However, if you bought your paints separately or the box you got them in is very small and has no mixing area, there are plenty of options available. If you bought pans or half pans, the best option is to buy an empty metal box made specifically for this purpose; some of these can be a little pricey, but it’s possible to find a good one for under $50 if you look around, and many major online art supply stores carry these in various sizes.
If you’re using tubes, you can either go for a metal box (like with pans, some manufacturers sell empty metal tube boxes, though they are often only designed to hold 5ml tubes) or you can simply buy a plastic or porcelain palette. Plastic is cheaper and lighter but porcelain tends to stain less. Some palettes are just flat with a number of wells, while others fold open like normal paint boxes and often have spaces to squeeze a blob of each colour in addition to larger areas to mix in. Whatever type you get, I’d suggest one with at least 5-6 decent-sized mixing areas, so you don’t have to keep stopping and cleaning out your palette when you need to mix a new colour. You can also get disposable palettes, which are palette shaped pads of what feels like baking paper. Instead of having to clean the palette when it gets dirty, you can just tear off the messy sheet to reveal a fresh palette beneath. These are designed more for oil or acrylic paints, which can be harder to clean off palettes, but there’s no reason they wouldn’t work for watercolours, and they are quite cheap ($5 for about 36 sheets). Some artists just buy a big white butchers tray and squeeze their tubes out around the edges so they can mix big pools of colour in the centre.
(my favourites: metal pan/half pan box (most of which came with my paints) or a plastic folding palette with several mixing areas and at least 10 wells to fill with individual colours)
The number and type of brushes you need will depend heavily on your painting style; some artists use only two or three brushes, whereas others have 10 or 20 brushes in their collection. It will most likely take you a good year or so of painting and playing with your paints and brushes before you settle on what works for you, but it’s worth knowing what types of brushes are available for you to choose from. The examples I’ve shown here are only a small selection of what’s out there, but hopefully it will help you decide which brushes you might like to start with.
First up is the pure Kolinsky sable brush, with the bristles made up of the hair taken from a species of weasel. Many consider them to be the best quality (although some synthetic brushes are now being made that closely rival the quality of the real thing, without the need to involve animals), but due to this high quality and the fact they are difficult to harvest, they are the most expensive brush (brush A in my photo below is a Creative Mark Kolinsky sable I got free with an order from Jerry’s Artarama. Creative Mark is a ‘budget’ brand but most artist grade Kolinsky brushes are horrendously expensive; for example, a size 10 Winsor & Newton Series 7 sable will cost almost $300). Kolinsky sable brushes typically hold their point much more effectively and for longer than synthetic bristle brushes, and they can hold more water than synthetic bristles as well, allowing you to cover larger areas or make longer strokes without having to stop and pick up more water or colour. Though soft, they have enough ‘spring’ to hold their shape and snap back into position.
Next we have squirrel hair brushes. They possess similar qualities as Kolinsky brushes in terms of keeping their point and holding a lot of water (they are often used in Mop brushes like example B, which are good for creating big washes) but are much more affordable. They are also a bit softer, so they don’t have quite as much spring as Kolinsky brushes do.
Some manufacturers have started creating hybrid brushes whose bristles are made from both natural and synthetic hairs (usually the natural hair is from squirrels). This gives you the best of both worlds, making the brushes a bit stiffer and springier but still allowing them to hold a larger quantity of water than synthetics alone. So far I haven’t seen many hybrid brushes around; brush C in my photo is a Silver Black Velvet brush and I had to buy it from eBay because the only other seller I could find was in America and they don’t ship to Australia. Like my Kolinsky sable above, my Silver Black Velvet brush is a Round, which is the most common brush shape used by artists.
I mentioned earlier that some purely synthetic brushes are now starting to reach the quality of natural hairs. Brush D – my Princeton Neptune Quill – is an example of this. As you can see, the brush head is large but it still comes to a fine point, making it a versatile brush that can be used for large washes and small details.
Brushes E, F and G are synthetic bristle brushes. There are a number of synthetic types but mostly they seem to be either white or a golden colour; the golden-bristled brushes I have are takklon. Brush E is a Flat, which is good for covering larger areas or for dabbing in straight lines like fence posts or window frames, while brush F is a Fan brush. Fans are good for textured effects like dabbing foliage onto trees or creating clumps of grass or clouds. G is a Liner (sometimes called a Rigger), which is good for fine lines or details when you don’t want to use a tiny round brush (which you would have to stop and get more colour with every other stroke). Some uses for Liner brushes include flicking up long bits of grass or drawing tree branches.
Brush H is a hog-bristle brush more commonly used in oil painting. You could probably get by without one of these, but they can be useful for lifting out watercolour by wetting the brush and scrubbing at the colour you want to remove. The shape of this one is called a Filbert; similar to a Flat, but it has rounded edges.
A number of manufacturers now make travel brushes. The brush is stored inside the tube, but this tube becomes the handle when the brush is pulled out and clipped on backwards. Most of these that I have seen (such as my Jackson’s Arctica travel brush in example I) are synthetic bristles, but there are a few that are made from squirrel or sable.
Taking the concept of the travel brush a bit further are waterbrushes, like brush J below. The first one I came across was made by Sakura and came in the Watercolour Pocket Field Box, but they are available from a lot of other manufacturers. The handle of the brush is actually a water reservoir, and when you screw the brush head onto it and squeeze it, water gradually soaks through the bristles. You can get bigger waterbrushes than the one I have, but even this little one holds a decent amount of water (easily enough to do two or three sketchbook paintings, I have found).
Finally, we have the Hake (brush K). Made with fine goats hair, these broad brushes are excellent for doing large washes of colour (eg. skies or seas) or even just for wetting the surface of the paper with clean water so you can start working wet into wet with your colours.
For most beginners, synthetic bristled brushes are usually just fine. You can often find packets of 5 or 6 synthetic brushes in different sizes and with different tips, so it might be a good idea to buy one of those to start with, and then once you settle on your favourite size or shape, you can gradually upgrade those brushes to natural hairs or better quality synthetics. you might also want to try one or two squirrel hair brushes to get a feel for what a natural bristle is like; Jackson’s in the UK sell a number of squirrel hair brushes, and though their price has gone up a little since they were released, they are still pretty reasonable.
(my favourites: Jackson’s Squirrel Oval/Mop, Silver Black Velvet Round, Princeton Neptune Quill and Sakura waterbrushes).
Paper is something that beginners often feel like they can ‘cheap out’ on, but using good paper makes a huge difference to the quality of your work and how your paints perform. In my view it is more important than what brushes you have and at least as important as what paints you choose (maybe even more important). Printer paper or cheap sketchbook paper is really not suitable for watercolours; not only will it curl up like a pretzel and fall to bits as soon as it gets wet, it also absorbs too much of the paint, making the colours look dull and flat. Buying proper watercolour paper is essential, but as with paints and brushes, there are a lot to choose from. Arches, Stonehenge, and Daler-Rowney are some well-regarded watercolour brands but there are plenty of other good quality choices. The type you buy will depend on your preferred subjects and painting style.
Watercolour paper is generally available in either pure white or a creamier off-white. While many artists don’t have a strong preference, some prefer pure white so as to make their colours look as bright as possible.
Hot-pressed paper has an extremely smooth surface and probably feels the most similar to standard paper, though it is usually thicker and can therefore cope with heavy washes with little to no curling. The smooth surface allows for very fine detail and is therefore probably best suited for those who do more illustrative work or intend to use ink and/or coloured pencils along with the watercolour.
A lot of artists use cold-pressed paper and it’s often recommended for beginners. It has a noticeable texture but is still relatively smooth (the degree of ‘roughness’ often varies by manufacturer, with some being closer to hot-pressed while others are more coarse). It’s a good all-rounder, suitable for most subjects and painting styles, and it seems better able to cope with glazing techniques than hot-pressed paper. After playing with it for a while, you’ll know whether you want to stick with the cold-pressed paper or try a smoother or rougher surface.
As the name would suggest, rough paper has by far the most textured surface and is not often used by beginners. It is probably suited to larger paintings and is especially useful for creating various textures; for example, when painting water on a rough paper, artists can lightly brush over the paper, with the raised sections absorbing the colour while the valleys remain white, adding the impression of light sparkling on water. The coarse texture means it is the least suitable for illustrative or fine detailed work.
The weight of the paper is also an important consideration when making your selection. The heavier the paper, the more water it can take. 140lb/300gsm is probably the most common and is, again, a good all-rounder type of paper, but if you know you’ll be soaking your paper with thick, heavy washes, a 300lb/620gsm paper or heavier may be recommended. Some places sell 90lb/200gsm paper but as this isn’t much heavier than most sketchbook paper and will therefore curl more rapidly, it’s best to avoid it.
Watercolour paper is available in a number of sizes and in a variety of formats. Pads are good for beginners as they are often reasonably cheap. You can also get blocks which are similar to pads but are glued on all four edges (each sheet can be removed by sliding a palette knife between the top sheet and the next one). This has the added bonus of preventing the paper from curling. Watercolour paper can also be purchased in individual sheets or in rolls, with these two options being best for those who like to paint large; pads and blocks range from about business card or postcard size to A2 or A3 size.
(my favourites: Daler Rowney Aquafine paper and Arches watercolour blocks)
Once you have your paints, palette, brushes and paper, you’re set, right? Maybe; many artists use those things and nothing else, and you don’t need anything else to get started. Still, there are some other bits and pieces you might want to try as they could come in useful. Most of these things are inexpensive and probably lying around your house already, so if you find you don’t like them or don’t really use them, you won’t be out of pocket too much.
Masking fluid (sometimes called ‘frisket’) is a clear bluish or yellowish liquid available in small bottles. When applied to paper and left to dry, it acts as a barrier and protects the paper underneath. This makes it very useful if you’re painting a dark background like a forest but want to save thin, delicate shapes like branches or tree trunks to paint in a pale colour. Simply put the masking fluid onto the areas you want to keep white (use an old or cheap brush and wash it as soon as you put the masking fluid on, as it can quickly ruin brushes), wait for it to dry completely and then paint around and over it as you normally would. Once the paint has dried, carefully rub your finger over the masking fluid to lift it up and peel it off, revealing your nice white paper.
This one may seem obvious, but having a greylead pencil can allow you to faintly sketch out a composition before you start painting. HB or 2B is best, as they are hard enough that they won’t smudge and soft enough that they won’t damage the paper. You may also want to have a small selection of coloured or watercolour pencils, so you can draw these outlines in a colour closer to the paint you intend to use (the added bonus of watercolour pencils is that they will dissolve once you paint over them with watercolour, erasing any unwanted lines). If you do decide to get some watercolour pencils solely for use with your watercolour paints, you don’t need to buy a whole set; you can probably get by with one green, one blue, one red, one yellow, one brown etc.
White Gouache/Watersoluble Crayon
Sometimes after you’ve finished a painting, you may discover you’ve painted over an area you wanted to leave white, or perhaps something just needs a highlight or sparkle. Most white watercolours are only semi-opaque at best and don’t really cover the colour below them. Keep a tube of white gouache or a white watersoluble crayon handy and you can easily put a touch of opaque white anywhere you want it (dip the tip of the crayon in a little water before drawing with it).
If you’re not using pencils, you probably won’t need this one. When you use a normal eraser, the rubbing action can damage the paper, causing paint to look darker if applied to this spot as it absorbs differently. With a kneadable eraser, you can use it to lift up unwanted pencil lines without ruining your paper (just be careful not to press too hard on the paper when drawing in the first place).
Though most would associate palette knives as being more for oil or acrylic painting, they can have their uses in watercolour. For example, by painting a layer of rocks or stone wall and allowing it to dry, then painting a darker layer over it, you can use the knife to scrape back some of the paint, creating a nice, rocky texture. Some artists also use an old credit card to do this.
Hopefully this article has given you an idea of what materials you might need to get started in watercolour painting. It doesn’t cover techniques; that would pretty much be a whole new article on its own, though maybe one day I’ll write something about techniques. It’s always worth looking at a few books (preferably ones that show step-by-step processes for paintings) and watching demonstration videos on YouTube, but as with many things, the best way to learn is to practice. So get some paints and start sloshing them onto your paper, and don’t be discouraged if your first efforts turn out poorly; even the best artists had to start somewhere, and the more you paint, the more your skills will improve.