Updated: Oct 20, 2021
What I love about watercolor paints is that they're predictable in their unpredictability. I love that about life, too.
However, if you're a newbie, a.k.a. noob, to painting with watercolors, this can be a source of endless frustration. Never fear! I've got you covered. This is part one of a several-part blog series about getting started with watercolors.
This week I'm covering putting together your tool set!
Choose the right tools.
Just like athletes need the right gear and mechanics need the right equipment, watercolor artists need the right tools. To get your tool belt in line, start here.
Watercolor paint comes in tubes or cakes. Both work just fine. I prefer cakes because there is less waste involved. They simply dry and can be reactivated with water at any time. For my work, I use Winsor and Newton 14 pan student set. (Mostly because the professional set costs about as much as car payment. Ouch.)
Choosing a paper you like will take some experimentation. For beginners, as long as you have a heavy paper (100 lb or higher) you should be okay. The heavier the better, because you will really be saturating the paper with water and if your paper isn't study enough to hold the damp, it's just going to crumble into a squishy mess.
In addition to choosing a heavy paper, you're going to need to explore what it's like to work with hot pressed paper versus cold pressed. The difference between the two presses is the texture of the fibers that make up the surface of your paper.
Hot pressed paper is very smooth. There is no "tooth" to it for pigment and water to bleed into and instead, it just pools, if you're not careful.
Example of work on hot pressed paper. Notice precise line work and very little bleeding. Bleeding is when the paint runs a bit and pools in, usually, unintended places. Haha.
Cold pressed paper is toothier which just means the surface is rougher and much more textured.
Example of work on cold pressed paper. Note the hazy look of the sky in the background and how the color in the characters' cheeks gently recedes.
I've experimented with both in my work and have found that I prefer cold pressed paper to hot pressed. I specifically use 300 lb cold pressed paper for my big works. I find that it provides more flexibility and is a bit more forgiving if I need to pick up a color. (In layman's terms, "Remove it with a wet paper towel because I made a mistake." It happens. A lot. ) Because of this, I find I'm more willing to give up some control and let the paint have a mind of its own, adding a sense of looseness to the brush strokes instead of trying to precisely control every little line and mark I make. There's that unpredictability that is so beautiful about watercolors and life.
Maker, don't try to get fancy all at once. There are a crap ton of brushes out there. For starting out, all you need is a basic set of soft bristle brushes for watercolor paints. Buy a cheap starter pack of five or ten in varying sizes and call it a day until you're more comfortable with your paints.
Here's my hodge podge set.
I have a flat, wide brush for laying down washes of color, a medium round for getting my first layers of highlight, local, and shadow color in, and then several more delicate round brushes for that detail work that really brings the pieces to life.
Like I said, you don't need to get fancy. You don't need a number 003 fan brush made of unicorn hair. The ten dollar, soft bristle, variety pack at your local craft store will do the job just fine.
Blotters are used for drying and cleaning brushes, picking up wet color from your work because you want to create a certain texture in your piece, or just because that darned paint got away from you for a hot second.
Artists use everything from rags to small, natural sponges, to paper towels. Me? I keep it simple. I have a roll of paper towels next to me at all times.
Now, I use the palette that comes with my Winsor and Newton watercolor sets. When I was first starting out in high school, I would wrap a piece of aluminum foil around a plate from my parents' kitchen and call it a day. In college, I saved old egg cartons and used those as paint palettes.
What I'm saying is that there is something for every budget as far as palettes go. You don't need to buy the most expensive one at the craft store when you've got a stack of plates in the cupboard and aluminum foil in the drawer.
6. Water Cup 1 and Water Cup 2
Keep two cups of water near you as you work. One is for dirty water, as in the water you clean your bushes in. The other is for clean water, the water you use to mix and apply your colors. This way your colors aren't muddied by the dirty water you're rinsing your brushes in.
That's it! That's all you need to get your watercolor tool set put together. Next week we'll start exploring some noob watercolor techniques or mini skills.
Now, hop to, friends!
As always I'm here to answer any art-related questions on Instagram at @msrmcgaughey. Just send me a direct message. :)