The best watercolor supplies for beginners are;
- Silver Brush Black Velvet which will handle all wash types
- Silver Brush #10 pointed round
- Six tubes of Cotman’s paint by Windsor Newton (see list of hues below)
- Fabriano studio watercolor ‘fat’ pad
- Medium size gator-board
- Large John Pike palette
- Miscellaneous supplies include water reservoir, masking take, spritzer bottle, cellulose sponge and paper towels
Does this list seem conservative? Yes, it does. And that’s because it covers everything you need for your first several months. You don’t have to spend a fortunate to learn the basic watercolor fundamentals. And that’s more important than purchasing a $125 squirrel mop brush you saw on YouTube. Expensive paper and brushes will not improve your work in the beginning. But learning the basic skills will!
You can get a good setup for about $125. This is a much better solution to beginner watercolor supplies than opting for top of the line materials that cost well over $500. Especially if you don’t know if watercolor is something that you want to explore long term.
Let’s dive deeper into the four big purchases beginner watercolorists need to make which are:
Below is a description of the four biggies! These are the materials you will most likely not have sitting around the house and will cost the most money. To get a better sense of the options we will look at different options and determine what some of the pros and cons are for each one.
This information will help guide you into making smart decisions and educating you on future purchases.
What Beginners Need To Know About Watercolor Paper
There are four things you need to know about watercolor paper. Below is a quick description of each one. It’s so easy to become overwhelmed in the beginning but hopefully this will bring some clarity the many watercolor paper options you have. Here’s what we will cover about paper;
- Grade – the overall quality of the paper and key differences between student and professional grades.
- Weight: this obviously refers to how heavy the paper is and more importantly, what it means for your watercolor paintings and sketches.
- Texture: get to know the three types of textures and how they are different.
- Format: getting the right paper means knowing the difference between the three options which are blocks, pads and sheets.
As you would imagine there are student grades papers and then there are professional grades. Without getting too technical student grade papers are usually created with wood pulp, or a blend of wood pulp and cotton.
Professional grade is 100% cotton. There are many differences between the two types but like a quality undershirt, cotton will absorb more and take a lot of abuse because it has longer fibers. Wood pulp papers tend to buckle when wet and break down much easier.
There are also student/professional grades that simply blend the two materials. This grade usually has more cotton and less pulp but still doesn’t respond as well as 100% cotton rag paper.
Some watercolor papers are thin while others are thicker, or heavier. The weight of paper is measured in pounds per 500 sheets. For example, if 500 sheets of paper weigh 90 pounds, then it is is classified as a 90 pound paper.
In a nutshell lightweight papers will buckle easier when wet. Heavier papers will buckle less and absorb more water. Most watercolor papers weigh 90 – 300 pounds. 140 pound paper is most common and works well if it’s a decent grade.
Obviously, this refers to the feel of the paper. The three main textures are cold press, rough press and hot press.
Hot-pressed watercolor paper has a fine-grained, smooth surface, with almost no texture. Paint dries very quickly on it. This makes it ideal for large, even washes of one or two colors, and very popular very painting details.
Cold-pressed watercolor paper has a slightly textured surface, while rough-pressed has even more texture than cold-pressed and less suited for details.
Papers come in sheets, blocks and pads/sketchbooks.
Sheets are usually 22 x 30 inches but sizes(s) can vary. Some sheets have deckle edges while others do not.
Blocks are fashioned from sheets of paper which are glued together on all four sides and supported with a strong backing.
Pads/sketchbooks are loose sheets of paper typically glued on one side, or wire bound.
The best watercolor paper for beginners
Winner: Fabriano Studio Watercolor Fat Pad, 9 x 12 inches.
This pad is outstanding and has 60 sheets of paper. Just an incredible deal the strikes a perfect balance of quality and affordability.
Made from a blend of 25% cotton and high-quality, lignin-free cellulose sourced from sustainable forests. Fabriano Studio Watercolor Fat Pad is internally and externally sized for optimum absorbency. Recommended for both beginning and advanced artists and fine art students.
Price: $16.78 (price may fluctuate depending on vendor)
What to avoid when buying watercolor paper.
Many instructors will say get the best paper! But this is a mistake for beginners. Now this doesn’t mean you run out and purchase the cheapest paper in the store. It just means you want a paper that is affordable and has just the right amount of cotton to maintain a level of quality so that your best efforts shine!
Bottom line here is avoid expensive watercolor blocks, full sheets of paper and whatever you do please don’t buy 300 lb. paper.
Why? Because you will focus on learning the basic watercolor fundamentals and skills in the beginning. Your time will be invested in doing various wash techniques, color swatches, small studies and so on. This means a small sheet of paper is perfect.
What Beginners Need To Know About Watercolor Paint
There are two options for purchasing paint and they are;
Also, there are obviously many grades of paint as well from student to professional. So, you need to decide on which one will do and what quality is best suited for beginners before shelling out the bucks.
What are pans?
Pans are firm and require activation before using. Some watercolorists will mist the pans to loosen them up before a session.
Pans can be purchased individually, or they come in a pre-defined set.
You need to keep in mind that pans are hard paint. This means you will have to activate them with water and loosen them up with a brush. Over time this can put a lot of wear-and-tear on your brushes.
What are tubes?
When tube paints are squeezed onto the palette they are soft and ready to go! No need to mist, or loosen up. Plus they don’t put a lot of wear-and-tear on your brushes which is a good thing.
Tubes are recommended by most professionals because they are easier to use.
The best watercolor paint for beginners.
Winner: Cotman’s by Windsor & Newton
A mid-grade tube paint will do just fine. Most instructors would recommend Cotman’s because it splits the difference between student and artists grade perfectly so that you get good results but without the big investment.
And you only need six hues! Get three cool primaries, and three warm primaries. If you are unsure which colors, or hues. to purchase be sure to check out the common questions section below.
With a combination of three cool and three warm hues you will have the freedom to mix all the colors you need.
Why tubes? Tubes because they’re much easier to use and don’t wear out brushes. You will appreciate having the luxury of being able to setup quickly and the buttery texture of the tube paint(s).
Cost: $2.99 per 8 ml tube, Total cost for six is $17.94 (prices may fluctuate depending on vendor)
What to avoid when buying watercolor paints.
Low grade watercolor paint! That’s because it will have more filler and less pigment. This makes painting very challenging because you don’t truly see the best results from your efforts. It can often be very misleading because inferior paints simply do not respond well and have noticeably weaker color intensity.
Fortunately there are some fantastic options that respond well but don’t cost a lot.
A lot of colors! You don’t need to go bonkers with every single color. Yes, it’s exception to browse all the wonderful options but do you really need them? No! Below I will recommend just how many you need and breakdown why six hours will do the job just fine.
The Best Watercolor Brushes For Beginners.
Your head will spin when you start browsing the different watercolor brush options. The goal here is to simplify! You only need to know about two two types of brushes and they are;
- Pointed round brush
- Wash brush
- Natural – these are more expensive natural hair brushes made from animals such as squirrel, camel, and Ox. There are others but this should clarify what natural means.
- Kolinsky – high-quality and expensive brushes made from the tail of the kolinsky (Mustela sibirica), a species of weasel rather than an actual sable.
- Sable – expensive natural hair brushes made for the sable (Martes zibellina) which is a species of marten, a small carnivorous mammal primarily inhabiting the forest environments of Russia, from the Ural Mountains throughout Siberia, and northern Mongolia
- Synthetic – usually less expensive brushes these are often made from nylon, polyester, or a combination of both.
- Alternative synthetics, blends – less expensive than natural brushes but usually more than pure synthetics. Brushes have come a long ways in the past ten years and now you can get fantastic brushes that blend natural and synthetic materials. More on this below.
Get to know the pointed round watercolor brush.
This brush is designed to handle the details and refining edges. It’s necessary because a wash brush is bulky and suited for larger areas.
They come is a variety of sizes and that’s where it can get a little confusing. But again, simplify the choices and look at the bigger picture. You will be doing small studies in the beginning. And you won’t need to get too fussy with painting minute details either.
It makes perfect sense to get a medium size pointed round. No need for a smaller, or larger size brush. This will handle all the tasks for the beginner watercolorists.
*My recommendations for a pointed round are below.
Get to know the wash brush.
So, what is a wash? In watercolor painting terms a wash, whether flat of blended, is a series of brushstrokes applied quickly and evenly across the paper surface to achieve a smooth uniform result.
That being said you will need a wash brush to lay down larger areas of paint.
There are several shapes, and styles, to choose from. The most common are flats, mops, quills and cat’s tongue. That means it’s easy to underestimate what you need, or to over pay for unnecessary materials. Bottom line is any of the common wash brush styles will do. Just know that a flat is fantastic for square edges, mops are more organic as well are quills and cat’s tongue.
Also know that you don’t need an extra large brush nor would you want something too small.
*My recommendation for wash brushes is below.
The best pointed round watercolor brush for beginners.
Winner: Silver Brush Golden Natural #10, or #12 pointed round is the best option.
Versatile and durable, these brushes duplicate the needle-sharp points and fine chisel edges of the best Red Sable. They contain a special blend of natural hair and Golden Taklon. Choose these brushes for exceptional color-holding and extra spring.
Cost: $15.21 (prices fluctuate depending on vendor)
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The best flat watercolor wash brush for beginners.
This brush is crazy affordable and worth every penny. It’s an extremely thirsty brush, meaning it can absorb a lot of water, that delivers plenty of color to the surface.
They come in three sizes from 1″ – 2″. The 1 1/2″ is perfect for completing fundamental exercises and small studies. You seriously can’t go wrong with this brush. And it’s 4.9 rating (out of 5) with over 95 reviews is very impressive!
Cost: $22.97 (prices may fluctuate depending on vendor)
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The best round watercolor wash brush for beginners.
A blend of natural squirrel hair and black synthetic filament combines to provide excellent carrying capacity with control, spring, and precise pointing.
This series comes in various sizes but I recommend the ‘Jumbo’ size because it will do both small and larger washes. Plus it will provide excellent carrying capacity with control, spring, and precise pointing. Making this a very versatile wash brush for just about any project.
If you prefer a pointed wash brush this is for you. An incredible watercolor mop brush that absolutely does the job. You will be amazed at the quality and results.
Cost: $37.18 (prices may fluctuate depending on vendor)
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What to avoid when buying beginner watercolor brushes.
Avoid firm, synthetic brushes that are designed for crafts, acrylics and oils. These types of brushes do not absorb water that same way as watercolor brushes and will typically cause your washes/work to appear choppy.
Avoid specialty brushes likes riggers, filberts, brights, swords, liners and so on. These are great brushes but suited for experienced artists. As I mentioned before you should eliminate unnecessary supplies and wasting time on making decisions.
Expensive squirrel mop brushes! There’s absolutely no need to splurge on a $175 brush. If you decide down the road that watercolor is for you then fine. Get one!
The best watercolor palettes for beginners.
As with everything palettes come in all shapes and sizes. They’re even built-in with some watercolor pan sets. But the solution, and choice, is a simple one.
To help guide you with the purchase know that watercolor paintings are mainly created with a series of washes. Meaning you will need to mix many washes and often times two on the same palette.
To do this successfully you need real estate. Space to mix one, or two, washes.
The best watercolor palette for beginners.
Winner: John Pike Big Well Palette
This palette checks all boxes and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. It’s durable, easy to clean and has all the real estate you need to handle small and large washes.
And you can grow with it. meaning you will use it as long as you paint.
Cost: $24.50 (prices may fluctuate depending on vendor)
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What to avoid when considering watercolor palettes.
Small palettes. Yes, these are wonderful if you need to stuff your paint supplies in your backpack but useless in the studio. And many artists use a large Pike palette even when painting outdoors, or traveling.
Avoid paper plate palette and anything that will absorb the waster and pigments.
You will need a firm support for your paper.
When painting with watercolor you will use lots of water. This means your paper will become saturated which will cause some buckling. Once the paper starts to buckle paint will settle in the depressions, or lower spots.
This will cause an uneven wash because more pigment will pool-up in the lowers areas. To prevent this many watercolorists tape their paper to a firm board.
What to avoid when choosing a firm board.
Cardboard is not suited for watercolor painting and should be avoided. Once it gets wet you can forget having a flat surface.
Foam-core – This is another mistake as the foam-core will also become too wet to withstand bending. It may last a time, or two, but in the end it will deteriorate and you lose money.
That covers the big items, now you can check out the miscellaneous supplies.
Now let’s dive into other materials you will need to paint with watercolors. You may have a lot of these supplies sitting around the house, too. So, no need to spend cash if that’s the case.
Atomizer spray bottle
Occasionally you will need to rewet paper to achieve a desired effect, or texture. A mist bottle works well for this.
It’s also handy to mist the palette should your paints start to skin over, or dry.
A good atomizer bottle creates a stippled mist which is good for many painting techniques.
Important: If you opt to recycle a mister that once had chemicals in it such as Windex, be sure to clean it thoroughly to avoid tainting your paint and paper.
Cost: $2.79 (price may fluctuate depending on vendor)
Useful for taping paper to gator foam board. Some artists prefer archival tape but since you will mostly focus on exercises and basic fundamentals just get a generic brand from the local Target, or department store.
Important: Get at least a 3/4″ wide roll. Most artists use 1″ wide which will give you 1/2″ on paper and 1/2″ on gator foam board.
Cost: $2.50 per roll (prices fluctuate depending on vendor) Have a few rolls on hand!
Absorbent sponges that are suited for watercolor painting. They’re also very durable and less likely to fall apart.
Most professionals keep a sponge near their water reservoir because it’s useful for removing excess water from brushes. Rinsing brushes is something you will do over-and-over so you need a system for managing excess water.
Cost: $3.09, 6x4x1.6 inch size (price may fluctuate depending on vendor) Two sponges should suffice.
You will need water to dilute and mix paint(s), and for cleaning brushes.
Many professionals prefer a collapsable reservoir (see image) because they are easy to tuck away and perfect for traveling and painting outdoors.
A good alternative is a glass mason jar. Use a medium, or large, size jar and avoid small jars. The smaller the jar the more quickly the water becomes contaminated and excessively dirty.
Cost: $5.99 (prices fluctuate depending on vendor) Price is for collapsable water reservoir and not a Mason jar.
Probably a no-brainer but figured it’s best to cover all bases. Obviously these are ideal for cleaning up and dealing with drips that start pooling up on the paint painting area.
They’re also useful for wiping off excess paint from the edges of your gator foam board which I will cover in a future lesson.
Cost: $1.75 per roll (prices fluctuate depending on vendor)
Common questions beginners have when purchasing watercolor supplies.
Learning watercolor painting can be expensive and being smart with your money is always a good idea. Beginners usually are confused and full of questions when making purchase decisions about supplies.
Let’s answer some common questions many beginners have when buying supplies.
If you see that we missed something please do let us know in the comments section below.
The short answer is no. I mentioned this earlier but it’s worth repeating. Synthetic brushes and other natural brush alternatives have come a long way. Yes, there are expensive squirrel mop brushes that are fabulous to paint with but you can get incredible results from natural and synthetic blends.
The trade off is longevity. A quality #12 Isabey squirrel mop quill will set you back $125 but it will last a lifetime you you take care of it. While a less expensive option may be half the price but it doesn’t last as long.
Another thing to consider is how the brush responds when applying paint. A quality watercolor brush will easily come back to a point while inferior brushes tend to spread out and take more effort to reshape into a point.
When you start out watercolor painting you will most likely paint small. Also you will, and should, do a lot of exercises and charts versus creating finished art. In other words your goal is to practice the fundamentals and basic techniques and not worry about painting your next masterpiece. There will be time for that later on.
That being said it would be smart to not invest in expensive, natural brushes in the beginning. You will get these later on when you start painting more polished, larger paintings.
Paints are where most professionals would suggest quality over quantity. Basically you can opt for six tubes of medium grade paint over a pan of twenty-four colors that cost twice as much. If you get three warm and three cool hues that mingle nicely together you can mix all the hues you need.
Student grade paints have more filler while professional grade has less filler and more pigment. Avoid the dirt cheap watercolors if you want to really experience watercolor painting. As I mentioned earlier Cotman’s will do the trick if you are on a budget.
It’s very challenging to get results with inferior/student grade watercolor paint. However, many experienced artists would suggest Cotman’s by Windsor Newton because it splits the difference between artist and student grade.
The main point you need to take away here is the quantity. You don’t need a lot of tubes to get going. Six hues will do the job. Toss in some yellow ochre and/or burnt Sienna if you want to spice it up.
Tubes! So much easier to work with and put less wear on brushes. This is the short answer but read the full explanation below.
Pans are tidy. Many pan options have a built-in palette as well which folds up nicely when you’re done with a session. But pans can also put some wear-and-tear on brushes. Because pans are firm/hard, they need activating with water before using. You will also need to loosen the paint up using a brush. Over time this will break down your brushes. The constant softening will damage the bristles so, it’s something you need to consider before opting for pans.
Tubes are perfect because it comes out soft and ready to use. It can however dry up in the palette if you aren’t careful. But the experience of using soft watercolors is more pleasant and that’s why most experienced painters would suggest tubes over pans.
Average grade watercolor sketchbooks will work fine. And plenty of them! When beginning your watercolor journey you need lots of paper because learning time will be devoted completing various exercises and small studies.
Having as many watercolor sketchbooks on hand will do the job. It’s affordable and you can use the front and back of the paper. This doubles the amount of paper and isn’t going to harm your work.
Note: Most instructors would say pass on sheets of premium watercolor paper for now and opt for as many watercolor sketchbooks as you can afford. And if you must have single sheets of good paper get Blick premium watercolor paper. It doesn’t cost as much as other brands and is very absorbent and durable. A sheet of paper is 22 x 30 inches and can be divided into four 11 x 15 inch pieces which is the perfect size for small studies and paintings.
Avoid lightweight watercolor paper. It just doesn’t respond well to watercolor washes. And whatever results you get it would have been much better if you had a decent grade paper. Plus light-weight paper tends to buckle when wet. This makes it very difficult to work with.
As you guessed the answer is good quality but no need to get top-of-the-line paper in the beginning. It’s just a waste of money so opt for as many watercolor sketchbooks as you can afford.
A watercolor wash, whether flat of blended, is a series of brushstrokes applied quickly and evenly across the paper surface to achieve a smooth uniform result.
They tend to be transparent, or semi-transparent. And in order to achieve a quality wash you need to control the level of wetness of your brush and paper. And you can’t waste time applying the wash or you risk having bad results. Washes are said to be one of the fundamental techniques in watercolor painting, and they can be difficult to master!
You now have a better understanding of a wash. And make no mistake about it, washes are king! It’s essential you have the tool(s) to achieve a quality wash if you want to take on the task of learning watercolor painting.
Higher end brushes are hand-made with more natural materials. This means the manufacturer has to pay workers to make each brush individually. Also, natural materials are more difficult to supply while synthetic materials are man-made.
Why? Because you can load them with enough paint to cover a very large area.
As you can see you don’t have to break the bank to get started with watercolor painting. I hope that this article brings some clarity to making smart purchase decisions and answers some questions you may have.
Did I miss anything? If you still have questions, or would like to make a comment about this article please do so.
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