How to get started with watercolor
Some of my favourite questions from people are “How do I get started with watercolor?” and “My cousin loves art. I’d like to encourage him. What do you recommend getting for his Birthday?”
I've been told that watercolor is one of the easiest mediums to pick up and hardest to master. But have no fear, these supplies will give a solid foundation to practice and experiment.
For many years, college and a very demanding job limited my time and space available for art. With that in mind, I’d like to recommend the following tools which have been thoroughly tested and approved.
Yes, you can get a bigger and better one. But honestly, you can buy it for about $16, and it will serve your for years. The limited number of colors will not overwhelm the budding artist, but at the same time they won’t feel limited. Though you’ll likely rarely use Chinese White, some artists prefer to mix it in to give a hazy quality to their color or use it on toned paper. This palette is perfect for traveling, available in most art stores and you won’t feel too guilty if you lose it.
Since you really don't have any glazes in watercolor, you really need to understand your pigments. This color chart has actual samples of paint on it that you can play with, as well as their descriptions - lightfastedness, granulation, permanency and transparency. It has been invaluable to me.
Paper - get the right stuff
Not to be a bearer of bad news, but paper is not something you can skimp on in watercolor. Sorry. Printer paper you used as a kid will buckle. Student varieties are ok, but you really have to work them into submission. Different paper formulations will give you different effects and will make you either love or hate the medium. Nothing is more frustrating than working on the wrong surface.
To negate the need to stretch the paper and limit warping, I strongly recommend getting a watercolor block. It’s a stack of paper that has glue on two or four sides, sheets are peeled off when dry, and it’s perfect for traveling. Arches is a wonderful brand that I prefer for classic illustrations, but it's not easy on the wallet for someone starting out. A relative newcomer is Fluid 100 which is 100% cotton and one of the best ones that I’ve tried so far.
You get also cut large sheets to the size you need and use artist tape to secure the paper on all sides to a solid waterproof surface.
For beginners, I recommend cold-press. It can make mistakes feel like happy accidents and doesn't need as much intent behind the stroke. Hot press, rough, and handmade papers are some of the other available choices.
Why don’t I recommend a watercolor sketchbook? Good ones are often pricey, and you’ll be afraid to make a mistake which will haunt your pristine pages. Sketchbooks have to be perfect right? Nope, but it’s a tough expectation for beginners to overcome.
*special note: as of January 2016, Fabriano paper underwent some changes and is no longer recommended by many watercolorists.
Brushes - Stay away from brush packs
Beste — Round — Creative Mark — Size 6 You can spend $20-$30 per brush, but unless you are a professional artist working on highly detailed works day in and day out, synthetics will serve you well. One of the better and multipurpose ones is Beste line from Creative Mark. I have found them back in high school, and they have served me well for the past 9 years. These brushes come to a rather sharp point at the end, which makes them incredibly versatile. I recommend getting a size 6 round and 1/2 flat brush for washes. That’s all you really need to get started. These brushes are widely available, low cost, and once again you won’t cry over loosing one (or two the way I did) in a creek in the Smoky Mountains.
If you do want to give a lovely and nice gift for someone who likes to include a lot of detail and is careful with their tools, purchase Winsor and Newton Series 7 brush in size 1. It is made with hair from the tail of a little mink, and as much as I try not to use animal products where I can, I have been using this brush and another sized 0 on many detailed paintings for the past year and a half, and it shows no signs of wear. Otherwise, I’d have to purchase a new brush at the start of each painting which both creates a lot of waste and adds up quickly. This is the preferred brand of many contemporary watercolor illustrators working today.
There are a lot wonderful in-between brushes available on the market which provide a great value as well. But the ones mentioned above will lay a strong base for further experimentation.
Books - you can never have enough right?
Anything by her is wonderful. This book is comprehensive and easy to understand for beginners and pros alike. I’ve looked through many of her works, and this is the one I own.
This will not teach you how to paint, but it gives a thorough, well illustrated, and inspirational information on different media and techniques. I have spent many hours pouring over it.
“Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter” by James Gurney
James Gurney spent many years studying the effects of light and compiled the information into a wonderful resource that many professional artists keep within an easy reach. It took me forever to discover it, probably because it is not in stock at most major art supply stores. Strongly recommended.