When we are beginners in watercolour, we think that before reaching a high quality level we should just buy the students’ range of materials. If this can be true in other kind of arts, when you approach watercolour you cannot choose cheap entry level materials as the result you will get will be so frustrating and disappointing that you may risk of abandoning watercolour forever thinking that it’s you who is not good at it, while in fact all depends on the kind of materials you have chosen.
The second aspect of watercolour materials is that there are so many that we don’t really know where to start from. This is true especially for paper: hot pressed paper, cold pressed paper, NOT paper, acid free, cotton, weight… There are so many words that don’t really mean a lot to you and the only thing they do is to create more confusion in your head. Isn’t this true?
Here below I’ve created a simple list of some technical words with their meanings, materials you really need, quality and brand you can buy with a good compromise between quality and price.
The three types of watercolour paper
Let’s start from paper and clarify some technical meanings so you can choose the one for what you want to achieve in your art.
HOT PRESSED Is very smooth. It almost feel like velvet under your fingers. It is good for detailed work. In fact is used by illustrators and botanical artists.
ROUGH It has a heavy texture. It is very versatile and good for a wide range of loose effects. Certainly you can’t reach a detailed kind of work. So use this in case you want to enjoy expressive brushwork and looseness.
COLD (also called NOT = Not Hot Pressed) It’s s smoother than rough paper, but still textured. It is the best paper for general use.
Which Brands of Watercolour paper you should buy?
The ones I suggest are:
Saunders Waterford cold pressed block of 20 7x10in // 18x26cm
Fabriano Artistico cold pressed block of 20 sheets 9x12in // 23×31 cm
Once you decide for a brand, the other vital factor is to choose 100% cotton paper with minimum 300gsm (140 lb).
Why? Because 100% cotton paper will make pigments and water absorb beautifully without sitting on the surface for too long. If the paper is not 100% cotton it means has chemicals into it as a binder. These chemicals will affect the pigments and water in two ways:
your colours will sit on the surface for too long and you will get a frustrating buckling effect
your colours won’t get beautifully absorbed by the paper creating puddles and looking flat and too washed out when dry out.
The other question is, why minimum 300 gsm? Because you don’t want to get buckling effect. 300 gsm is the minimum weight necessary to avoid this up to a size of 30x40cm. If you want to paint something bigger than go for 450gsm or heavier weight.
Which Basic Colour Palette you should get?
One of the biggest joy of watercolour is mixing your own colours. Once your mix has dried on the paper you will be able to distinguish little tiny particles of individual colours. This is one of the key aspects to bring a watercolour painting to life and make it look less flat.
A basic custom palette that I recommend is made of 8 colours:
With only these 8 you will be able to mix a great range of colours as you can see in the picture above (something like 64 colours!!).
To create your own palette pocket box you could buy individual half pans and then stick them with double sided tape in a travel pills tin container or a tabacco box or simply on a piece of cardboard like I’ve done in the picture above.
If you don’t want to create your own custom palette as described above, but you still want to get a minimal good one then you could buy the Winsor&Newton Pocket Box with 12 half pans like this below:
Which are the best watercolour brushes?
The most common and versatile brushes are the round brushes. A round brush can produce thin and thick strokes. Next common brush is the flat brush which can cover areas in rectangular shape, unless you paint on its edge.
Synthetic brushes hold less water compared to natural hair brushes so you may need to reload the brush quite often. Synthetic brushes are usually the most affordable brushes and are a great choice for beginners, but if you are really serious about watercolour, then perhaps you can just go ahead and get a Sable or Squirrel brush.
Natural hair brushes are from animals. Different animal hair have different characteristics of course. Sable and Squirrel hair are the top quality hair for watercolour painting. They can hold a good amount of water, have a nice spring back to shape and can achieve sharp points. Good Sable and Squirrel brushes are expensive but they will last a lifetime!
Which brand for watercolour brushes?
If you are just starting with watercolours, my recommendation is to get good synthetic ones. “Da Vinci” or “Princeton” (Princeton is a new generation of synthetic that can hold a lot of water compared to normal synthetic brushes).
You could get these types and sizes:
A couple of Round synthetic brushes: (medium)#6 and (big)#12
One Round synthetic brush for details: #2
(Optional) Two Flat synthetic brushes: #6 and #12
Or you can get a full set of 6 brushes Princeton Art & Brush Nylon Synthetic – Gold Taklon Real Value. I use them and I find them great.
If you want to invest in a good squirrel brush then I would recommend “Pro Arte Renaissance Mop Brush size 8” from Jackson’s Art Shop here in London.
Even if you think you are going to paint watercolours once a week or maybe only when you travel, don’t think to get school materials. If you start with the right foot you will enjoy more and will be more inspired to experiment and push things further. It took me a long time to figure out all this by myself. When I switched from cheap paper to 100% cotton I couldn’t believe to my eyes.
I hope with these suggestions to cut some years of pointless painting for you :). Watercolour is a magic medium that has the power to surprise us constantly. Make the most of it and let me know how your journey goes. Leave me some comments below or simply send me a message via email. I’d love to hear if you find my info useful or if you have some other materials for beginners worth mentioning.