Getting Started with Watercolors - The Basics & Art Supplies
Thinking about starting to paint with watercolors? Excellent choice!
Here are a few tips to get you started.
WHAT ARE WATERCOLORS?
- Watercolors, as their name suggests, are water-soluble colors, that consist of pigment and gum-arabic as a binder to hold the pigment.
- Watercolors are transparent, meaning layers blend together rather than covering the previous layers completely, which is why, when layering, we go from light colors to darker colors.
- The higher the quality of the colors, the more pigmented they are, which means you will get a higher concentration of color in artist grade paints than in student-grade or cheap paints. Also worth noting, artist grade paints are lightfast, which means that they are less likely to change over time when exposed to light. There are different ratings of lightfastness and while this is not the main reason to get these paints as a beginner, it's still worth mentioning and knowing what the term refers to.
- Watercolors are available in either tubes or pans.
THE PROS AND CONS OF USING WATERCOLORS
- Portable - You can take them anywhere.
- Although artist-grade paints are pricey, when using high quality paints, a small amount goes a long way.
- Reusable - As opposed to acrylic and oil paints, if you have some dry paint left on your palette, with watercolors you can always rewet and use the paint at a later time.
- Easy setup - all you need is watercolor paper/sketchbook, a water jar, a paintbrush and a piece of cloth or dry wipe.
- Difficult to control
- Unforgiving - Once a drop or stroke of paint has been absorbed in the paper and dried, there's no going back. As opposed to oil, acrylic and gouache paints, watercolors are transparent so painting over the "accident" will only help if you paint a darker and concentrated layer of paint over it. Learning to embrace mistakes and seeing them as part of the process is an art-form in itself. Find creative solutions to turn painting accidents into "happy accidents" or be very quick in lifting the paint from the paper with a dry wipe before it dries.
- Learning curve - Be patient and enjoy the process.
WATERCOLOR PAINTING SUPPLIES
As I see it, while art supplies don't make the artist, they can certainly limit/affect the results.
What kind of watercolors should I start with?
Well, there isn't one right answer to this question. Depending on your budget, I would recommend getting an artist grade (high quality) starter set of 6 paints or even buying just the the 3 primary colors (red, yellow and blue), rather than using hobby paints since the latter will not provide the same results or experience as they react differently to water and paper.
There are quite a few brands that have artist-grade paints. Here are a few that I've tried and recommend -
- Daniel Smith - Made in the US - 3 Tubes of Primary Colors, 6 Tubes Essentials Introductory Set
- Schminke Horadam (Horadam is the artist grade line) - Half-Pan Paint Metal Compact Set with Brush, Set of 12 Colors, if you find their set of 6 at the local art store, that's a good option too. I couldn't find the smaller set on Amazon when writing this blog post.
White Nights - Made in Russia (especially recommended for those on a budget) -12 Pans Plastic Box,
Disclaimer: If you click on the links and then decide to purchase, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. I have only linked to products that I have personally tried.
Wait, No White?
No, there's no white in watercolors, or at least officially there isn't. Watercolor artists leave parts of the paper white, sometimes with the help of masking fluid (I might make a separate blog post or video on that). Other options for white are white gouache or a white gel pen (such as Uni-ball Signo).
I can't stress the importance of paper enough when using watercolors. If you went out and got the best paints but try to use them with paper that's not meant for watercolors, the paper will buckle and the thin paper won't be able to handle the water. Watercolor paper is at least 200/300 gsm and idially 100% cotton. This is in order to handle the water and multiple layers when painting. Among the papers commonly used by artists - Arches, Fabriano Artistico, Saunders Waterford.
There are two main types of watercolor paper - Cold Pressed (CP) and Hot Pressed (HP)
- Cold Presses - Textured paper that has small bumps in it which capture some of the paint and water.
- Hot Pressed - Smooth paper
There's no one option that's better than the other. It's purely a matter of personal preference.
However, if you're just starting out, I would recommend using cheaper paper for practicing. Two types of paper that I would recommend that are not cotton but are 300gsm and good for practice are Canson XL Watercolor Pad and Canson Montval.
When it comes to watercolors, brushes are not as important as the paper and paint. There is a wide range of prices but there are very reasonably priced options that will still deliver good results. The big brands such as Da Vinci, Escoda and Windsor & Newton have both high-end Kolinsky Sable brushes as well as more affordable synthetic brushes. The mid-range ones include the Cotman Series by Windsor & Newton while you might want to wait for a special occasion to order a brush from their Series 7 or the Reserva series by Escoda.
The important thing with watercolor brushes is that the bristles return to their original shape when bent while wet and don't stay bent as the super-cheap brushes tend to do.
If you're just starting out and you're looking for brushes that won't break the bank, Black Velvet set is a good option and I've also seen Arteza brushes being widely used although I haven't tried Arteza brushes personally. I have a varied selection of brushes - from expensive to relatively cheap ones.
In the end, what's important is getting started. You can always upgrade or experiment with new art supplies later. The most important thing is to start and trust the learning process.
If you start painting, feel free to share the process and thoughts with me here in the comments below or tag me on Instagram - @beeandoak. Also, If you have any questions or requests for the next blog post, let me know in the comments below.
Thanks for visiting and good luck on your art journey, :)
About me -
Hi, I'm Dana. The artist behind this website and blog.
I'm an avid collector of paints, especially watercolors. I feel I "have" to test every artist-grade watercolor brand out there. Luckily for you if you're reading this post (and not as lucky for my bank account), this means I have gained quite a bit of experience and insights over the last 20+ years, which I'm happy to share with you :)