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So many different watercolor art supplies are available that choosing supplies can be overwhelming when a student is just starting out. So much to choose from! Some artists suggest that you need to buy this brand and never that one. Some teachers hand out a materials list with 25 different brushes, 30 other pieces of equipment, and dozens of paint colors. Nobody seems to agree. And the costs can be astronomical! What can you do?
First, be assured that you DON’T have to buy everything at once.
Second, however, don’t buy inferior equipment, whether brushes, paper, or paint, to try to save money! You need the right tools to have success in your painting. If you buy the cheapest brush you can find, for instance, because you don’t know whether you’ll like watercolor, I guarantee you will struggle with painting. Even an experienced artist will have trouble painting well with a cheap brush. It is so much easier to paint with the right tools for the job! Therefore, instead of buying lots of inexpensive materials, buy FEWER items that are BETTER quality. (You need not buy the most expensive equipment, either, as you can work up to the best quality as you go along.)
But how do you know what is ‘good’ quality? You probably can’t afford to try everything or experiment.
Below are my suggestions. I offer the ‘Bare Bones’ and ‘Extras.’ The lists are not written in stone; often I will tell you several good choices you can try. It’s fine to pick and choose – if you try something and it doesn’t work for you, try another option. After all, your goal is to make watercolors work for you. Don’t, however, give up prematurely or without giving yourself the chance to practice with these materials.
But wait! Where do you find art supplies to buy? While you can pick up some materials at local art supply stores, I LOVE to buy my supplies online! The variety offered is amazing! My favorite site is jerrysartarama.com. Order online, or call in an order if you prefer (800-827-8478). Other excellent online sources include dickblick.com or cheapjoes.com, and sometimes amazon.com; the different sources often carry a slightly different selection of items, although there is a lot of overlap. (Hint: If you think you might like to continue buying art supplies, make sure to sign up to receive emails from the first three – they offer REGULAR sales!)
Paint and palette – The easiest and quickest option is a travel palette already filled with pans of paint. (I would recommend a Winsor-Newton Sketcher’s Pocket Box with 14 half pans for $12.98 fulfilled by Amazon from Supplier Central, or $16.97 from amazon.com.) You can buy palette and paint separately also. The John Pike palette is a great option – it is very sturdy and has a cover, in case you want to paint outdoors or take your supplies to a class or workshop! (It is available from all of the above-mentioned online art suppliers. Today at jerrysartarama.com the price is $15.48; Amazon’s price is $37.20.) Paint in tubes to fill your palette could be limited to five colors to start out, especially if you are willing to begin learning the fun of mixing your own colors. You DO NOT ever need any white or black! As you progress, you can add more varied colors. (Available from jerrysartarama.com in 5ml. tubes, I recommend either Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolors – Burnt Sienna, French Ultramarine Blue, Hansa Yellow Light or Lemon Yellow, Payne’s Gray, and Quinacridone Pink costing $32.71, OR Winsor-Newton Professional Watercolors – Burnt Sienna, French Ultramarine Blue, Lemon Yellow Deep, Payne’s Gray, and Permanent Rose costing $32.23.)
Brushes – You don’t need to purchase a lot of brushes. Start with these four brushes: size #4 and #10 Loew-Cornell La Corneille 7020 Ultra-round brushes ($5.69 and $8.89, respectively, at jerrysartarama.com). Also purchase a 1″ Flat Loew-Cornell La Corneille 7550 wash brush ($11.79 at jerrysartarama.com). Finally, round out your first brush collection with a Creative Mark Original Scrubber #6 (today for $2.59 at jerrysartarama.com).
Brush easel – If you can afford it, get a brush easel to protect your investment in brushes. I like the Creative Mark Folding Long Handle Brush Easel (today $5.24 at jerrysartarama.com, usually $8.49).
Watercolor paper – Paper could be one of your more expensive purchases. But remember not to buy inferior quality! If you do, you invite unnecessary frustration in your painting and dissatisfaction with your final product. For my classes, I ALWAYS use Arches 300 lb. Bright White Rough watercolor paper, which is sturdy enough NOT to buckle when wet and can withstand rough scrubbing and lifting without damage. (Arches 300lb. paper costs $64.51 for 5 sheets – or $3.23 for each 11X14″ picture – on jerrysartarama.com.) Yet another good paper option would be an Arches Bright White Rough 140 lb. Block of 20 sheets. 140 lb. paper is thinner and less sturdy than 300 lb., but since it is a block, the sheets are held together until you separate them after painting, so they do not buckle. (Cost would be $37.25 for a 20-sheet 140 lb. Arches Bright White Rough watercolor block sized 11X14″ at jerrysartarama.com. – or $1.87 for each 11X14″ picture.)
You will also need a pencil (#2 or 2H) for sketching lightly before painting. Along the same lines, get a good eraser that will not scratch your paper (e.g., Factis ES20 Artists’ eraser at jerrysartarama.com for $.89). You may already have similar items.
Some type of water container is a must, but you needn’t buy one unless you want to. Use a jam jar or any plastic container you have on hand.
You also need paper towels, tissues, or rags to use when blotting extra paint or wetness.
To start with, these ‘Bare Bones’ supplies would cost you about $80, or a bit more depending on which choices you decide on.
The first extra I would recommend is masking fluid, used to preserve whites before you paint or to protect a painted area when adding darker color. I use Pebeo brand Drawing Gum ($6.85 for 45 ml. on jerrysartarama.com). You could also purchase Winsor-Newton Masking Fluid ($9.47 for 75 ml. on dickblick.com). When you use masking fluid, do not leave it on your watercolor paper for more than a couple of weeks. As time goes by, it gets harder to remove; eventually it will not leave the paper without damaging it.
Clear Scotch tape #810 (not original Scotch tape) is also a very effective way to mask or protect a portion of your watercolor painting. It should be applied when your paper is dry and can be burnished to prevent any paint from leaking under the tape. It can be carefully cut to the desired shape with an X-acto knife. Remove with a palette knife.
To lift off your dried masking fluid, you will need a mask pick-up, also called a rubber cement pick-up ($1.99 at jerrysartarama.com).
To apply the masking fluid to your watercolor paper, DO NOT use a brush. Even if you apply soap to your brush beforehand as some recommend, your brush becomes ruined; the mask dries on your brush, and you end up with globs of mask and little control in applying the masking fluid to paper. What a mess! Instead, apply your masking fluid with a ruling pen, which is easily cleaned. A ruling pen is available on jerrysartarama.com for $9.89, or try to find an Alvin 5.5″ #959 ruling pen. Ebay is an excellent place to find a vintage or new ruling pen. (Some of the best ruling pens were made in Germany.)
A Creative Mark Painter’s Edge 15T palette knife from jerrysartarama.com ($2.49 today, usual price $4.49) has many uses.
A cork-backed ruler is an aid to your sketching and, with the cork back, is elevated slightly off your paper to prevent smears and smudges from paint or ink. A 12″ stainless cork-backed ruler is available on jerrysartarama.com for $4.99. On amazon.com a 6″ metal cork-backed ruler costs $4.37.
Spray bottles come in handy to soften paint in your palette or moisten watercolor paper. Small spray bottles can be found in the travel sections in drug stores. At jerysartarama.com a Holbein spray bottle sells for $2.49. One of the best sprayers I have found, however, is an empty Windex bottle.
An X-acto knife (with cover, or retractable) is a desirable tool for use in watercolor painting. The cheaper #1 X-acto version with cover can be found on jerrysartarama.com for $3.64. My favorite version is the retractable X-acto #9, available from dickbkick.com for $12.68.
At some point, you will want to have a bag to help you organize your materials. I like a large carrying bag to corral everything, including my palette, AND a pencil box to keep my smaller items (pencil, eraser, tape, masking fluid, mask pick-up, 6″ ruler, X-acto, etc.) within easy reach. I got my pencil box at Walmart for $.99. You could use any large tote bag that you already have or get a bag that is designed to hold ALL your equipment and keep your John Pike (or similar sized) covered palette upright to avoid messy spills, such as the Pittman Field Bag (14X18X11″). Get the Pittman bag at jerrysartarama.com today for $19.99, or from amazon.com for $40.96.
Finally, I recommend getting yourself a simple, sturdy portfolio for storage or transport of your art or watercolor paper. Amazon.com carries a weather-resistant Prestige portfolio (23X31X1.5″) for $33.22. An similar alternative, with shoulder strap, is available on jerrysartarama.com – ArtOne portfolio (23X31X1″) for $46.19.
While there are many other FUN tools, like sponges, toothbrushes, combs, Mr. Clean Magic Erasers, erasing shields, metal screens, canned air, watercolor mediums, etc., the above-mentioned items are a wonderful place to start your watercolor adventures! Remember to start slowly and enjoy the process.
Some painting teachers start students at the beginning and show them how to mix a paint puddle and how to paint a simple flat wash. Other teachers show how to do all the techniques without explaining anything. Still other teachers just set up a still life and leave students on their own, not even knowing what questions to ask. As a student, I have known ALL of these types of teachers. And I have to say, I have learned a number of things on my own that I truly wish I had been taught earlier in my painting adventures. I would like to share some of these tips with you here, in the hopes that you find them helpful.
1. Watercolor painting almost always involves layers of paint. When I began to learn, I assumed as a painter you put down everything at once, and if you didn’t get it right, you were in trouble. Not true. Often, in watercolor, painters will put down a layer of color, let it dry, and apply another layer or partial layer of color. Gradually they build up part after part of the painting, for example, varying shades of color to add interest or emphasis. Shadows would be added to a painting in this way. It is important to let layers DRY before applying the next layer – this new layer over the dry layer would be one example of glazing.
2. With watercolor, you usually paint from light to dark, leaving the white of the paper as the lightest light.That means you really have to plan ahead – you need a very clear idea in advance where those light areas will be so you can either paint around them, tape, or mask (with masking fluid) over these areas to preserve them. It does not work very well to make up a picture as you go along or to change your mind in the midst of a painting (unless your intention is to create an abstract or a picture with little realism).
3. You can fix almost any mistake in watercolor! If paint is still wet when you notice a mistake, simply blot it up with a paper towel or tissue. If paint has dried, you can carefully re-wet and with a damp “scrubber” brush gently tickle the area and blot straight up and down (never rub or you will damage your paper) with a paper towel to lift the mistake. If paint has begun to dry (it’s damp), then letting it finish drying is best before proceeding to correct a mistake (in order to avoid creating “cauliflowers” or blooms). Another correction technique that can dramatically change an area of your painting is applying another wash of color to your picture.
4. Always try to mix A LOT more of the desired color of paint than you think you need. I would encourage you to double or triple the amount that you think you need. Don’t be stingy!! There’s nothing good that happens when you need to stop in the middle of a wash to try to mix more paint of a similar concentration or color.
5. Always have “test” paper at hand to try out your mixed color and the technique you plan to use on your painting BEFORE you apply it to your painting. The color may look perfect on your palette but may look quite different when applied to watercolor paper. It’s better to check BEFORE a mistake happens.
6. There are several ways to add color to your painting – each technique creates a different effect. You can A. Mix two colors (sometimes more) on your palette before you paint, B. Mix on the paper or charge one color into another on the paper itself, or C. Glaze a second layer of color (or more) over thoroughly dried watercolor paint.
7. When mixing colors on your palette: If you intend to mix a LIGHT color, it is quicker and easier to begin by putting some water on your palette first, then gradually adding pigment to it until you reach the desired color. If, however, you wish to mix a DARK color, dip into your pigment first, only adding enough water to make your puddle of paint the desired consistency.
8. Many beginning watercolor students have quite a bit of trouble understanding how to judge wetness and its effects in watercolor painting. While experience helps you to learn how to control wetness, even experienced painters need to follow the laws of physics. If painters try to fight the law of hydrodynamics and force the water to do their bidding, they will struggle! This rule is fairly straightforward, but it is not to be ignored. Simply put, greater wetness ALWAYS flows into lesser wetness. Use this knowledge, and you become a more successful painter. Use this knowledge, and your skies will be fluid and smooth, you will avoid “cauliflowers” or blooms, and your washes and glazes will not have hard edges.
9. Some paint pigments stain your paper. Mistakes made using staining colors are NOT easily corrected or lifted off. Staining colors are often transparent, bright and strong, so they are very useful. It is probably best to take the time to learn which of the colors on your palette are staining and which are not, so that you know what the characteristics of your colors are. Common staining colors include permanent alizarin crimson, permanent rose, phthalo blue or winsor blue, phthalo green or winsor green, winsor orange, quinacridone gold, winsor red or pyrrol red, Indian yellow, and gamboge hue.
10. If an edge in a painting is sharp or well-defined, it is called a HARD edge; it attracts the eye, which will follow along its length. If an edge is fuzzy or indistinct, it is a SOFT edge; a viewer’s eye is not drawn to a soft edge. Painters tend to use hard-edged details for the center of interest in a painting – painters do NOT want detail in every part of their picture. Thus, knowing how to create soft edges when you paint is invaluable! I use this technique in almost every watercolor that I paint. The technique is called “softening an edge” or pulling out or fading out color. When softening an edge, you are not actually moving any paint. You are using water to encourage the paint to move on its own. Painters try to put just the right amount of wetness (not too much or too little) in the right spot at the right time to allow the paint to ‘sigh’ into the wetness. This approach works best if the paint area is very wet (just painted) and the brush is less wet (just damp). With the clean damp brush, try to lay a line of dampness down just barely touching the edge of the paint. Don’t go too far into the paint, or your brush will act like a sponge, soaking up and spreading the paint around – not your intention. You want to produce a smooth, graded effect – so instead, with a clean damp brush make additional damp strokes farther and farther from your initial stroke. The dampness makes a path for the paint to soften into.
11. Watercolor paint needs water in order to flow – paint will not move without the water. You can use this knowledge when painting to stop the flow of paint on your paper. In other words, dry paper creates a dam where paint stops moving (and simultaneously forms a hard edge). If you pre-wet part of your paper then apply paint to the wet area, the color will stop flowing as soon as it touches the dry paper.
12. The most realistic and interesting watercolors are not taken directly from a tube or pan! They are MIXED from a combination of other colors! Don’t try to buy every color you think you need! Many beginning painters don’t want to bother learning how to mix colors themselves. They prefer to buy already mixed colors because they don’t know where to begin to create different colors or why they should bother. That’s okay in the beginning, but as painters become more experienced, they notice how hard it is to find a tube of green paint that is not gaudy or is the right shade for their grass or tree. They start to notice how a black straight out of the tube is dead, flat, and lifeless. They come to understand that since everyone’s skin is a different color, they can’t use the same flesh tone for every person they paint. In the end, they also realize that making combinations of colors is FUN!
While watercolor painting has a reputation for being unforgiving and difficult, I believe anyone can learn to paint using watercolors. It’s NOT a matter of having some inborn “talent.” Painting well is a skill that is learned step by step, and it must be pursued with attention and effort. Skills improve naturally with practice. It takes time, and, yes, you may struggle in the beginning and be unsatisfied with your first attempts. However, keep practicing, and at some point, all that you have been learning will come together into a gorgeous painting.
I find that the attitude of each of my watercolor students makes a huge difference in their success in class. Students who become successful painters begin with a more open attitude. They try to relax, are willing to try new techniques, and accept that they have a lot to learn. These students understand that they are beginners. They don’t expect themselves to be perfect. In fact, they expect that they will make mistakes, that mistakes are inevitable. They are much more likely to ask, “What can I learn here today?” than state, “This picture is awful.” They keep trying, ask questions, and do not give up. No matter what, they keep painting. They understand that the more they paint, the better they will get. Successful learners are willing to try, take a chance, and not take themselves too seriously.
Believe me, nobody starts off as an expert; everyone begins as a learner. I can still remember one of the first paintings that I did on my own. I set up a still life that included a pair of old work gloves arranged on an antique redware milk pan. I had high hopes. I mixed my colors, and they were spot-on, but when I was finished and stepped back, what I saw looked like dead bananas on a huge pretzel bun! Very frustrating and disappointing! But, after all, it was not the end of the world.
What do new students tend to get impatient with? Many difficulties arise involving students’ ability to judge and control the amount of water used in mixing paint or applying paint to their pictures. Even executing a smooth and even flat wash can be tricky. Softening or fading an edge well can also be challenging. Understanding how to avoid blossoms or cauliflowers also depends on controlling wetness.
Further, beginning painters often are disappointed when their paintings don’t look exactly like their reference photo or the objects that they have painted. But keep in mind: we don’t want a photograph! Painters with some experience strive to create an impression to express how they feel about their chosen subject. They simplify, often eliminating some details while focusing on what they feel are the salient ones. They may emphasize lighting or specific colors or soften some edges to help focus a viewer’s attention on what they wish to have noticed in their picture.
I always encourage students to use quality materials when they paint, as doing so makes success much easier to achieve. While many teachers recommend starting with student-grade materials, I think that is a mistake. Don’t buy the cheapest brushes, paper, or paint to try to save money. You will instead frustrate yourself. (Look for my post about what materials a beginner should look for.) On the other hand, just because materials are the most expensive does not necessarily mean they are the best.
Becoming a skillful watercolor painter does not happen overnight. When students make learning to paint a priority, they commit themselves to the effort even when it seems that for every two steps ahead, they take one step backwards. They organize their lives to meet their goal of becoming skilled painters. They try to stop making excuses not to go to class or not to do the painting. They may at times feel unsure or afraid or discouraged, but they are determined to keep going. They promise themselves to finish what they start! And as time goes on, these painters produce better and better pictures. Their work becomes consistently amazing!
I really do believe anyone who has desire and the willingness to put in the necessary practice can learn to paint well. Give it a try! You can do it – one step at a time. Take a watercolor class, and you’ll get support and help all the way, AND you’ll have fun doing it. If you want to learn to paint, you can!
Thanks for joining me!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton