Emma Lazauski

Art & Storytelling

Watercolor Materials for Beginners

February 7, 2017

Shortly after the holidays I was asked on tumblr about where to start buying painting supplies for beginners. This guide weighs price point and convenience heavily to minimize the work and stress of trying this medium.

Watercolor Paints:   I like to recommend Cotman watercolor sets for people who are just starting with the medium. They come in both dry pans (very portable and they tend to come with a decent small brush), and in tubes(great for being able to mix a large amount of a darkly colored wash, though you will need to buy a pallet if you get this version). The paints are inexpensive but very decent quality and you don’t have to worry about which colors to pick right off the bat.

Paint Shopping Tip:   If you are looking to match one color of paint in two different brands, look for the pigment code instead of the name. Different companies give different names to the same pigments, and use different pigments under the same name. In example, my W&N “French Ultramarine” and Holbein “Ultramarine Deep” both carry the code “PIGMENT: PB29” and are the same type of blue.

Paper:   My go-to is Strathmore cold press paper. It’s a good weight, and I like the texture/tooth on it. Perhaps most importantly, the surface quality has been very consistent from batch to batch for me. I have never had trouble with any water-based pigments bleeding into the paper fibers, and it stands up to a fair amount of abuse (though you will still want to be careful about erasing too much). I do not use any coated papers, like “vellum” or “mixed-media,” as the evenness of the coating will be inconsistent from piece to piece and always seems to resist (bead up) my washes in exactly the wrong place. I used to love it until had a bad batch of paper that cost me weeks of time to work around on a professional project. It was a nightmare. Never again!

Pens and ink:   I personally don’t use nib pens because my hand pressure is too heavy. The sharp tips catch on the textured papers I like to use and make a big splattered ugly-sobbing-worthy mess. I use felt tipped liners like Micron, and round synthetic watercolor brushes to do my inking. For brushed inks, I’ve found that acrylic-based bleed the least, because the acrylic doesn’t dissolve into the watercolor as easily as some other binding agents.

Inking tips to keep bleeding and smudging to a minimum:   Always give your ink drawing enough time to dry before you do anything else to it, including erasing pencil lines. To be safe with felt pens, let it be for five minutes. For ink, at least ten. When in doubt, wait a little longer. Avoid sharpies – they fade more quickly in the sun than other pigments and like other alcohol-based dye inks they will more easily bleed/bloom into the paper fibers.

Brushes:   I’m adding this one in because I feel that having a decent brush is key to controlling your watercolors. A 6 or 8 round synthetic sable brush is a great place to start. You can do many paintings with just that one brush. My favorite inexpensive brand is Princeton Art & Brush Co. I prefer their series with the red handles.

On Overloaded Brushes:   I think that this is one of the most common technical mistakes that beginners make. If you find that the paints feel a little too sloppy you may have overloaded your brush. Try letting of if the paint run back onto your pallet, and if they isn’t enough, blot out some of the extra on a folded paper towel. If there is so much paint in the brush that you can see it dripping out, it will be harder to control on fine detail work. I think that this is one of the most common technical mistakes that beginners make.

For when sloppy is what you really DO want:   While not strictly necessary, a large flat sable (1.5 inches or larger) or camelhair brush is great for laying in a large wet wash quickly. If you want to do larger work, it will save you time and frustration if you want to get the whole painting wet at the same time so that you can use salt, or do wet-on-wet blending techniques.

Thanks for reading!

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