Since my beginner watercolor experience was so positive, I’m going to make a 3-part watercolor guide for those who want to start but don’t know how. In this post, I’m going to list the basic supplies you need. In the next post, I’m going to list some exercises you can do to improve your understanding of color and your watercolor techniques. For the last post, I’m going to make a shopping guide with my top recommendations.
BASIC SUPPLY #1: Watercolor Set
When you’re just getting started with watercolors, a compact student-grade watercolor set is your best bet. The difference between student-grade and artist-grade is that the former has less pigments and more fillers and binders. If money is no object or if you are truly invested in starting this hobby, there’s no reason to not get artist-grade watercolors. As good as some student-grade watercolors can be, they’ll never have that same vibrancy and transparency. The only real downside to using expensive artist-grade watercolors, other than the cost, is that you might feel a lot more pressure to not “make mistakes”. Either way, whether you choose the student-grade or artist-grade route, you can benefit from these general guidelines.
Some things to look out for when you’re shopping for your beginner set:
- At least two reds, two yellows, two blues, two greens, and two browns. Preferably, you’ll have warm and cool versions of each of the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) and the greens. There are bare-minimum sets that contain one of each color group like the artist-grade M. Graham Basic 5-Color Set. But that might be too minimalist for a beginner.
- Less is more. I personally started with a 24-color set, but I think a 12-color set is ideal. It’s better to slowly learn and understand the individual colors. Having too many colors at once can make the learning process overwhelming.
- Easy access to information about the colors.You want to have access to the name of the color (and perhaps the pigments used). You want to know whether it’s acid-free and what its lightfast rating is. And, although this isn’t typically available, information on the transparency levels are good, too. The reason it’s good to have all this information is not for the initial stages of your watercoloring journey, but for later when you’ve gotten more comfortable with your set. For example, when you run out of a color, you can easily replace it with an artist quality version of the same color if you have the name. Also, if you start watching tutorials or read up on watercolor techniques, you won’t be completely lost when they mention Quinocridone Rose or Yellow Ochre. Okay, you might still be lost, but you also might happily find that color in your set and slowly build your knowledge.
- A box that uses standardized half pan/full pans. One of the downsides to my current watercolor set is that I can’t easily replace any color. If you got a watercolor box set that uses removeable half pans, on the other hand, you could replace any color with an artist quality version. Several established watercolor makers like Winsor and Newton, Sennelier, and Holbien sell individual half pans of their artist-grade watercolors. You could also buy empty half pans and fill them with watercolor tubes, which is more economical in the long run because watercolor tubes last a long time. Either way, standardized sizes allow for more flexibility, which can be handy in the future.
Aside from these four features, you’ll need to make decisions on your budget, the size of the box, the amount of space for mixing colors, whether you want space for a small brush, etc. However, if the set has the four features listed above, you will have a functional set that leaves room for future growth.
Recommendations for Student-Grade Watercolor Sets:
- Winsor and Newton Cotman Sketcher’s Pocket Box Set (12 half pans)
- Lukas Aquarell Studio Travel Box (12 half pans)
- Pros: Very affordable, Functional color selection, Detailed color chart, Standard half pans, Compact box
- Cons: Only available at Jerry’s Arterama (not really a con), very few reviews (though the ones that exist are positive)
- Sakura Koi Pocket Field Sketch Box (12, 18, or 24 pans)
- Pros: Affordable, Widely accessible, Functional color selection, Includes water brush and sponges, Removable mixing tray (not really a pro or con)
- Cons: No color information other than their names, Non-removable pans
- Prima Marketing Watercolor Confections Tropicals (12 half pans)
- Pros = Affordable, Functional color selection, Standard half pans, Compact Box, Quality Metal Tin
- Con = No information about colors (not even the names), one more green than needed (you really only need two)
BASIC SUPPLY #2: Brushes
My first brush was the one that came with the Sakura Koi set, the Koi Water Brush w/ 9mL tank in Medium. Then, I purchased the Pentel Aquash Water Brushes in a 3-Pack of Small, Medium, and Large. And that’s it. That means I’ve only used water brushes and no normal brush. So… my knowledge isn’t extensive at all.
I have read that a red sable brush with a round #6 or #8 tip should be your first investment. Then, a smaller brush for details and a wide flat brush to cover more area. They are probably right, but for now, I will recommend you start with a water brush because I personally like them for the convenience of having water immediately at hand. Plus, for a beginner, I think it is more important to make the process as simple as possible rather than to have higher quality tools. Waterbrushes do exactly that.
BASIC SUPPLY #3: Paper
Ideally, you’d get 100% cotton, 140lb/300gsm or even 300lb/640gsm paper. However, really nice, heavyweight paper can be intimidating and that can hinder your creativity. Of course, if you use cheap and/or lightweight paper like copy paper or writing paper, you’ll probably find the paper deteriorate or warp as you draw, which can also prevent you from carrying out your vision. If it so pleases you, you can watercolor on anything. However, if you want a paper that will work with you instead of against you, I recommend paper at least 90lb or at least 150gsm, preferably 140lb/300gsm, which is great and not too cost-prohibitive.
Beyond the weight of the paper, you also need to choose how textured your paper is. For watercolors, the rougher the paper, the easier it is to control the watercolor. If the paper is too smooth, water easily runs around to places you don’t want them to be. Most watercolor paper come in Rough, Cold Press, or Hot Press, which is in the order of most rough to least rough. Cold Press or Hot Press is ideal for most students.
I personally like sketchbooks, so I will be getting sketchbooks, namely the Stillman & Birn Alpha in 8.5″ x 5.5″ Portrait-style. You should choose your own canvas based on what form inspires you the most, whether it is a hardbound or spiralbound sketchbook or just individual sheets of paper. I personally think every art student should have a sketchbook, so I will recommend several.
- Stillman & Birn Alpha or Gamma (150gsm)
- Stillman & Birn Beta or Delta (270gsm)
- Global Art Material Travelogue Artist Sketchbooks (130gsm)
- Strathmore Visual Journal 90lb or 140lb Watercolor or Mixed Media
- Canson XL Watercolor or Mixed Media Pad
BASIC SUPPLY #4: Outlines and Accents
The first essential tool for watercoloring, in my humble opinion, is an archival, waterproof black pen for outlines. The second tool is more for beginners or mixed media artists, but an opaque white pen or pencil for adding white accents after watercoloring is really handy, especially in the beginning when you haven’t mastered making highlights in your watercolor.
- Parka Blogs: Website and YouTube: A fantastic resource for reviews on watercolor supplies and for some urban sketching inspiration
- How to Choose Good Mid-range Watercolor Brushes by Michelle Morris @ Empty Easel
- Basic Watercolor Supplies @ Watercolor Painting and Projects
- Watercolor for Beginners: Basic Supplies by Rachel @ Lines Across
- Watercolor Painting Supplies @ Art is Fun
- Beginner’s Guide: Watercolor Painting Supplies @ Watercolor Painting