TOOLBOX: Watercolor Basic Supplies & Techniques

Watercolor is one of my favorite mediums and since we are exploring this theme all month with our DIY Challenge, I thought I’d put together an introductory post for anyone interested in trying watercolor for the first time.

Paper

TOOLBOX: Watercolor Basics
There are three different types of watercolor paper available: hot press, cold press and rough. Cold press paper is what I use most often as it has a beautiful texture to it (whereas hot press paper is smooth). Watercolor paper is much thicker than ordinary paper which is very important to prevent buckling while painting. 140 lb is the typical weight of most watercolor paper. There are thicker options out there if you are planning to use heavy washes, but 140 lb paper works just fine for me.

Watercolor paper comes in single sheets, spiral pads and blocks. I use a Strathmore spiral pad for experimenting and practicing. Then when I’m ready, I’ll switch to my Arches block to create my final painting. I do this because Arches is quite expensive. Plus I like to carry my Strathmore pad with me if I’m painting on the go.

TOOLBOX: Watercolor Basics

Block paper is just what it sounds like. An Arches block comes with 20 sheets of paper that are sealed together into one big block. Use an x-acto knife to carefully slice a single piece of paper off the block. Usually, I’ll paint directly on the block and slice it off when I’m finished. But you can also cut it off beforehand. To prevent buckling while painting I recommend using artist’s masking tape to tape down your paper onto a hard surface while painting.

Paper Brands We Recommend:

Strathmore
Arches

Brushes, Etc.

TOOLBOX: Watercolor Basics

There are three different types of watercolor brushes: rounds, flats and mops. All are made in a variety of sizes. The best brushes are made of natural fiber, most commonly sable. Kolinsky sable pointed rounds are prized for their ability to keep a fine point, which is very useful for detail work, but they are also very expensive. I’ll admit I tend to stick with synthetic brushes and usually will stock up on cheap student brushes rather than investing in the professional quality options. Maybe some day soon I’ll treat myself to a fancy new brush but for now these cheap brushes suite me just fine.

I use round brushes in a variety of sizes 90% of the time. If I’m doing a big wash, I’ll switch to a flat brush, but otherwise I use round brushes for all my painting.

Tip #1: You will ruin your brushes if you leave the brush end sitting in a glass of water. I’d recommend storing them in a jar brush side up. If you want to store them in a closed container make sure they are dry to avoid molding.

Tip #2: Rinse your brushes under running water after each painting session. If you find any traces of dried paint near the metal band, use a little soap to rinse them clean. Dry gently on a paper towel or cloth and reshape with your fingers.

Tip #3: Sponges, cotton balls and cotton swaps are extremely helpful tools in watercolor. They can be used to apply color or I like to use them to correct mistakes and clean up any extra watery areas. Cotton swaps are especially helpful if you want to create small highlights.

Paint

TOOLBOX: Watercolor Basics

There are two different types of watercolor: liquid tubes and solid pans. One is not better than the other, so it really comes down to your personal preference. I like to use a pan set as my base color palette and then I buy tubes whenever I want to try out new colors. Winser & Newton is an excellent brand that I use often (I love the Artist’s Watercolor Compact Set perfect for traveling). The paints shown in the image above are Schmincke brand which are very pricey but worth it for their amazing quality. Schmincke is my personal favorite because the pigment of their paints is so saturated and vibrant. I was lucky enough to receive this set at a birthday gift. Professional quality watercolors (like Winser & Newton and Schmincke) are expensive but think of it as a one-time investment. A basic pan set will last you a lifetime!

Professional Brands we recommend:

Winser & Newton
Schmincke
Holbein

If investing in a professional watercolor set is not an option for you never fear! Feel free to try out a student brand. I recommend starting with Winser & Newton Cotman. Student brands differ from professional brands in that they can have a lower concentration of pigment, have less expensive formulas and smaller range of colors available. That said, they are still a great option for anyone just starting out with watercolor.

Palettes

Palettes are great for mixing colors. If you have a paintbox set, then you can use the palette included with the box. But if you are using tubes, you’ll need a separate palette or pan. Palettes come in all shapes and sizes. I use a small plastic palette in addition to my paintbox.

Colors

TOOLBOX: Watercolor Basics

You can use as few or as many colors as you like. Some artists use only a handful of colors and mix whatever shades they like. My Schmincke paintbox comes with 24 colors so that’s what I use as my base palette. I also have a few additional tubes I love and use in addition to my paintbox.

Techniques

So you’ve gathered your supplies and are ready to paint. Great! Here are some basic painting techniques to try out.

TOOLBOX: Watercolor Basics

Blending

Blending is my favorite part of watercolor. I’d suggest experimenting with blending different colors together. To do this, first paint a shape or squiggle line with plain water only. Then dip your brush into the paint and add it to the watered area. Watch it spread, then clean your brush and choose a second color. Apply this to the opposite end of your watered area and watch the colors blend together. You can move your paper side to side to help the watercolor run together.

Marks

Next I would try out all your different brushes. Experiment with different mark-making and see what you come up with. Draw circles, dashes, lines, and dots. Try mixing lots of water with your paint and then try the opposite by applying paint with a dry brush. Play with different textures, shades and colors.

Layering

My favorite part of watercolor is the process of creating different layers. I’ve painted a simple flower to give you a taste of what layering is like. First use a pencil to lightly draw a flower. I found a photo of a flower for reference. Once your pencil drawing is finished, carefully cover the entire thing in water and then apply a ‘base’ layer. This will be the bottom layer that we will then build from. I blended two different colors to create my base layer.

TOOLBOX: Watercolor Basics

It’s very important that you let each layer dry completely before moving onto the next. I use a hair dryer to speed the drying process along.

TOOLBOX: Watercolor Basics

Once your base layer is completely dry you can begin adding in more detail. Start with one petal at a time, using your photo as reference for shading and color.

TOOLBOX: Watercolor Basics

TOOLBOX: Watercolor Basics

I hope this post demystifies watercolor for any beginners out there and gives you a place to start. Don’t be afraid to experiment and play! I also recommend checking out a great watercolor series by The Alison Show.

Be sure to share any painting experiments with us by entering our April DIY Challenge!

Update 4/16/15

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to check out: 8 Watercolor Techniques For Beginners

Comments

  1. says

    LOVED reading this post! I actually read the whole thing- no skimming!

    I’m just getting started in watercolors and have a pan set from Studio Calico. It’s a cheap set, but it works well for a beginner like me. 🙂

    • says

      Thanks Katie! Glad to hear your you enjoyed this post. Hope you’ll submit a watercolor project to the DIY Challenge this month! 🙂

  2. Jennifer says

    This post definitely made me feel less intimidated to try watercolors, which I have been inching towards 🙂

    Thank you for the encouragement and the simple intro!

  3. Andrea says

    I’m not much of a commenter but I needed to say I feel inspired by your post….and thank you.

  4. says

    Thank you so much for this post! Like Jennifer, I feel much less intimidated to play with watercolours now. Much appreciated!

  5. says

    Thanks for this post I’ve found it really useful, I normally paint with acrylics or gouache but have been thinking of giving water colours a go. I will definitely try them out now.

  6. Chris says

    When I first starting using water colours I bought Cotman but my paintings were awful. I thought it was me. A classmate’s work was great so I asked what she used and she said Winsor and Newton professional. I bought a couple of tubes and guess what? my painting was as good as hers. I don’t believe there is much for a student or beginner to achieve by using student grade water colour; I’m sorry to disagree with you but there it is. I would recommend that beginners buy just 4 tubes or pans to get started although 7 is better. Michael Wilcox in “Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green” says that a cool and a warm of each primary colour plus black is really all you need to mix any and every colour. I agree but sometimes it’s nice to have a new pretty colour to play with.

  7. char says

    Thank you for a great summary. I last painted watercolors in high school (ahem, too many years ago to count!) and have always thought about starting back again. Really helps to have updated information on supplies also. Even the hair dryer was an eye opener!

  8. Mahsa says

    I always loved watercolor paintings, but didnt know how to do it… Now with this post, i can start and im so happy to find your blog

  9. Vanna says

    I’m so thankful to have found this post as well as your website! I’m new to the painting scene, and your page has been wonderful for inspiration and tips! Keep up what you’re doing; its greatly appreciated!

  10. Joan Floyd says

    I have been searching everywhere and I’m so glad I found You! Inspiring? You betcha! Thank you…oh, yes, I have saved this article on Pinterest. Just beginning in watercoloring…..your articles were so easy to understand and very informative. Again, thank you!

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