Watercolors are very beautiful and can be relatively easy to use since you don’t need a lot of supplies. They do, however, require a lot of patience so as not to muddy your colors and to learn the correct amount of water to use in different situations.
Buying new art supplies is the most fun—and most expensive—part. Don’t think that if you don’t have a lot to spend you can’t still make art. You can! It’s just about being selective and making good choices.
Everything you need to get started painting with watercolors can be found on our Amazon idea list here.
Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:
You will need:
- Two water dishes—these can be an empty sour cream container or you can purchase different water containers from the art store. One container will be for clean water and the other for your dirty water. You want a large container with a wide mouth so you have a large target area when you go to wash your brush out. Short and squat is better so it doesn’t tip over easily!
- An old rag (or two). This can be an old washcloth, dish towel, or paper towels. You can even purchase painter’s rags at an art supply or hardware store.
- A few brushes. Watercolor brushes differ from brushes used for acrylic and oil. Bigger brushes are better. We recommend a 1.5” – 2” flat wash brush to wet the paper, a ¾” flat, a size 16 round, a size 8 round, and a size 2 rigger. You can read more about these later in our Watercolor Brushes lesson and download a printable version of our Watercolor Recommendation List.
- Watercolor paper. This is different than the paper in your printer as it’s more absorbent and won’t wrinkle (ideally). See our Watercolor Paper and Other Surfaces lesson for more about the different types of papers you can use. When you are just starting, get a watercolor block. The paper is already stretched for you so you don’t have to worry about stretching it yourself. It’s also a good idea to have some loose sheets of 140 lb. cold press paper to practice on. It’s important to practice on the same paper you’ll be executing your final painting on, so be sure to buy both 140 lb. cold press Arches block and 140 lb. cold press individual papers. In another lesson, we suggest you also purchase a sheet of hot press and rough paper to experiment on, just to get a feel for the different paper types.
- Spray bottle. You will use this to wet and re-wet your paints and paper to help the paints flow more smoothly when you apply them to your paper.
- A palette. You will want a plastic palette with deep enough wells to fit your brush and with ample room for mixing paint. We recommend this broad, white palette, but if you prefer something different that’s okay too. See the Watercolor Palettes lesson for more information.
- Pencils and erasers. You’ll want at least a number 2 or HB pencil and a gum eraser to draw out your composition before you start painting. Draw lightly—you can always erase your pencil lines after your paint is dry.
- Small sketchbook to do value sketches before you start painting. We’ll discuss the value sketch a little later when you’re ready to start your first painting.
- A board to stretch your loose paper on (more about stretching in the paper lesson)
- Paper tape or a heavy-duty stapler and staples to stretch the paper (again, more about this in the paper lesson).
- Don’t forget the most important item in learning to watercolor—the paints themselves!
Colors To Buy; Artist Versus Student Grade Paint
Watercolors are available for sale in tubes and palettes.
From left: Artist grade, student grade, scholastic paints.
What’s the difference between artist, student, and scholastic grade paints?
A lot of beginning painters are nervous to buy good quality paints because they’re afraid of wasting them, but good quality paints can really change your work for the better. Artist or professional grade paints have a full pigment load (as much pigment as you can get) in a quality binder such as natural gum arabic. These are generally sold in moist form (in a tube) and need to be poured out onto your palette to be thinned or mixed with other colors.
Student grade watercolors have working characteristics similar to artist grade paints, but with lower concentrations of pigment, less expensive formulas, and a smaller range of colors. Some of the more expensive colors like cadmium red will only be available as hues in Student grade paints. A hue means that it is an imitation color and not the real thing, so you won’t get the color saturation or mixing quality with a hue that you would with the actual pigment.
Scholastic paints contain inexpensive pigments and dyes suspended in a synthetic binder. Not recommended for fine art.
We recommend that you buy artist or professional grade watercolors. They’re a little more expensive, but will last you a long time. A small tube may well last you one or two years. Of course, if you simply can’t afford the extra cost, there are a lot of good quality student grade paints available too. Some good brands we trust are Winsor & Newton, Holbein, Daniel Smith and M. Graham.
Here are the colors we will use in our exercises:
Winsor Green (blue shade)
Note that you don’t need to buy white because white will come from leaving your paper blank.
Winsor Green (blue shade) and Alizarin Crimson mixed together make a really nice black that can be pushed either warm or cool depending on the amount of red vs green. Don’t buy black paint in a tube—it’s always best to mix your own so that it’s nice and rich, not dull and flat.
We are starting you off with all transparent colors, but later on, you can add some opaque watercolor paints. You can read more about this in Watercolor Palettes.
A more intermediate palette could include some secondaries and opaque colors: Yellow Ochre, Quinacridone Gold, Burnt Sienna, Winsor Violet, Cadmium Red, Ultramarine Blue, Sap Green, Peacock Blue (Holbein), Cerulean Blue, Azo Orange (M. Graham), and Naples Yellow.
Exercise One: Scavenger Hunt
Have your own scavenger hunt! Review our Watercolor Recommendation List so you have a reminder of items you might scavenge. How many of these items can you find already in your house? For example: instead of buying a plastic palette, look in your kitchen for an old ceramic plate (should be white so you can see your colors better). Instead of buying rags, find an old beach towel or dish towel you can rip into smaller pieces. Before you buy a plastic storage bin for your brushes, palette and water container, try using an old backpack or clean out a dresser drawer.
Exercise Two: Budget
Come up with a budget. You’ll need to consider your personal budget before determining what supplies you can afford when shopping at your local art store or online. Download our budget Excel Watercolor Budget Worksheet. You’ll notice our Starter Budget came to $132.79, and the Full Budget was $237.37. Click on the tab at the bottom of the worksheet to see the other budget (see tabs circled in red in screenshot below).
As indicated on the Worksheet, enter the supplies you need under ‘Enter Quantity’ in Column G, and the Price per item in the adjacent column H. The Worksheet automatically computes your budget. See the screenshot below that shows you how to change the currency from US dollars to your currency, after highlighting Columns H and I.
Exercise Three: Our Recommendation List And Let’s Go Shopping
Now that you know what you need to buy, it’s time to go shopping. Download and print our Watercolor Recommendation List so you have it handy when you do your shopping. You may choose to go to an art store near you or do your shopping online. I fyou choose to shop online, we have an Amazon list with all of our recommendations ready for you right here!
Key Lesson Learnings: You’ve learned about the painting supplies for your chosen medium, the difference between artist and student grade paint, then budgeted and purchased the supplies you need to continue your studies. Great start!
Next lesson: Watercolor Palettes