Watercolor painting can be very inexpensive. The materials you need are: paint, paper, and brushes. Other supplies can be helpful, but don’t be afraid to start with one brush, three colors and a piece of paper. Get the best quality watercolor painting materials for the best price with these tips below.
- Is it Okay to Use White
- Best Primary Palettes for Set Up
- Best Brand of Paint
- How to Mix Black (video)
- Watercolor Paper
- Watercolor Brushes
Watercolor paints come as dry cakes of color or tubes of liquid paint.
I use tubes of paint. I keep a palette (filled with paint that has dried – like the cakes) and only use fresh paint from my tubes for when I need a thick washes of color.
Either type of paints can be purchased in student or professional grade.
Should Beginners Use Student Grade Paints?
Student grades paints are fine to paint with, with three cautions (below). You may need to paint more layers of color to get good color saturation. Professional grade paints (especially the store brands) are actually a better buy.
Caution – 3 Problems with Student Grade Paints to Avoid
Hues – ‘Hue’ means it’s not really that pigment. (Cobalt Hue does not contain any cobalt and will not behave like cobalt in mixtures.)
Bad Yellows – Most student sets contain poor yellow pigments. You need a good yellow.
Invest in a big tube of a good yellow. At the time of this writing, here are some good ones:
- Dick Blick’s Aureolin Yellow (PY151)
- Daniel Smith Azo Yellow (PY151)
- Cheap Joe’s Bumblebee Yellow (PY97)
- Pigment PY3 is okay – if you have it, use it, but buy a better one next time.
White Paint Added – If you read the tiny pigment number on the side of the paint tube and see PW with a number, that means opaque white was added. These adulterated colors do not mix well and cause a lot of students to think they just can’t paint, when it’s actually the poor quality supplies.
What Colors Do Beginners Need for Watercolor Painting?
For the best start, begin with primary colors (red, yellow and blue).
But, I want more than three colors!
You can set up a COMPLETE FULL PALETTE with only three primary colors OR a six color warm and cool primary palette – see the video below for how to do this. (Adding Burnt Sienna can help make primary triads more user friendly.)
Sets – Many paint companies sell sets of colors that work well together for a good start. (They usually include primary colors and a brown or black.)
BEST PRIMARY PALETTES FOR BEGINNERS
Soft, delicate triad:
- Cobalt Blue
- Quinacridone Red
- Benzimdazolane Yellow
Bold, vibrant triad:
- Phthalo Blue (sold under many names)
- Pyrrole Red or Quinacridone Red
- Benzimdazolane Yellow
or use the popular
Warm and Cool Primary Triad:
- Cobalt Blue
- Phthalo Blue
- Quinacridone Red
- Pyrrole Red
- Benzimdazolane Yellow
- Transparent Pyrrole Orange
Which Brand of Watercolor Paint is the Best?
Most professional brands of watercolor paint are excellent.
Less money, better value – Store brands (Cheap Joe’s American Journey brand or Dick Blick’s Dick Blick brand, etc.) are the same excellent quality as the other professional brands at a lower price.
Art Supply Companies (like Cheap Joes, Dick Blick, etc.) are usually cheaper than Amazon, but shop around for the best prices. I watch for sales.
Watercolor Paint That Doesn’t Fade Away as it Dries – Qor!
A common issue with watercolor paint is that it looks great while wet, but dries to washed out color.
Qor brand watercolor paint by Golden Company is made with a new binder that lets the color look the same wet as it does when dry. I use less Qor paint than other brands to achieve the same intensity, which makes it cost effective. The paint does spread somewhat differently but I’ve used it with other brands of paint successfully.
Qor sells several different sample kits that you can try. The high chroma kit is my favorite!
Can Watercolor Painters Use Opaque White?
Yes, watercolor painters have used opaque white for hundreds of years (including Turner and Homer). Some artists feel using white is ‘cheating’. Decide for yourself – there is no right or wrong, only opinion. Any opaque white watercolor paint that covers well is fine, and many artist use white acrylic paint.
Do not use white to lighten areas or colors.
Mixing opaque white with colors results in a muddy mess. If you need to lighten an area, lift the paint back up by rewetting and dabbing or use Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser.
Do use opaque white for touch up or white objects.
Opaque white is excellent for touch up or adding white to snow, clouds, etc.
Here’s a video showing how to mix black and how to use white.
These whites come in a jar and need to be stirred well about once a month. Keep the rim clean and add water if it starts to dry out. Add a few drops at a time and stir well.
What Kind of Paper is Best for Watercolor?
Good watercolor paper will ‘take’ a smooth wash of color.
There are many good brands, but I recommend Arches or Strathmore 140 lb. cold pressed paper – it’s great for everything from smooth washes of color to fine detail. You can paint on both sides of the paper, and it holds up well to erasing mistakes, sometimes multiple times. Many other good brands are less expensive – so try some and pick your favorite.
Best Value is Full Sheets of Watercolor but Store It Carefully
The surface of watercolor paper is easily marred by scratches or the oil from your fingertips.
- Buy Arches paper in 22 x 30″ sheets from an art supply store.
- Tear it in half, then tear each half in half until you get 8 pieces. These will fit in most 11 x 14″ mats.
- Store your pieces of Arches paper in a cellophane bag between two pieces of cardboard.
Watercolor Paper Weights Explained
The smaller the weight number, the thinner the paper will be.
- 90 lb. paper is thin and while you can paint on it, it’s fragile.
- 140 lb. paper is the medium weight that most artists use. It may buckle without stretching but generally holds up well.
- 300 lb. paper is quite thick and soaks up a lot of paint. It doesn’t buckle when wet, but may bow up in the middle.
- Illustration board – illustration board is a light weight watercolor paper mounted on mat board, giving you a firm painting surface that doesn’t buckle. This comes in different brands. It is more expensive than paper and the surface varies according to the brand.
Watercolor Paper Surface Textures
- Rough – bumpy surface with a lot of texture. Rough paper lends itself well to textures like trees or rocks, but less so with the fine detail in a portrait.
- Cold Pressed – medium surface with some texture but still gives you enough control for fine detail
- Hot Pressed or smooth – the smoothest of watercolor papers, great for detail but doesn’t handle layering – your detail may smear if you go over it with another layer of color.
Best Watercolor Brushes – You Don’t Need Many
You don’t need many brushes for watercolor painting. You can start with just one brush. I use my favorite two brushes for 90% of my painting.
Brushes you’ll find in my tutorials:
- Wash brush – oval or flat (hake)
- Round or flat watercolor brushes (your choice)
- Fan Brush (be sure it’s a watercolor fan brush)
- Script (AKA Rigger or Liner) brush
MY FAVORITE TWO BRUSHES – a 3/4″ oval wash brush by Silver Black (paid link) and a size six round synthetic sable watercolor brush (store brand.)
3/4″ oval Silver Black Velvet wash brush (paid link) – fairly expensive, but still a great buy as it doesn’t wear out. This wash brush becomes student’s favorite brush once they purchase one.
Round watercolor brushes with a sharp point. I buy the store brand size 6 round, usually half a dozen at a time because I use them a lot and they do wear out. Buy inexpensive and replace them after the point wears off.
WASH BRUSHES should be soft and hold a lot of water.
- Hake brushes are flat wash brushes that come in many sizes.
- Oval or round wash brushes may be mops or have a sharp point
Useful Specialty Brushes
Fan brush, for painting grasses, wood grain and tweaking wet watercolor washes.
Scrubbing brushes – you can cut off most of the bristles on a worn brush to make your own scrubber to clean paint off an area.
Liner brush (AKA rigger or script) – makes a fine line for tree branches, ship rigging, etc. The hair is much longer than regular brushes.
Toothbrush – okay, it’s not actually a paint brush, but an old, stiff toothbrush is excellent for spattering or scrubbing.
What Palette is Best for Watercolor?
The best watercolor palette is the one that meets your particular needs, not the most expensive. A palette should hold your colors and have a surface (usually white in color) to mix your puddles of paint – you’re only limited by your imagination
Most common – Plastic – light weight and inexpensive. They come in different sizes from small to large, some with lids and some without.
Most expensive – Porcelain – a great painting surface but very heavy and can break.
Least expensive – Kitchen Plates – white plastic or ceramic plates make a convenient palette.
My Favorite – has 12 to 24 wells for color, several deep spaces for mixing, and a lid.
Different Palette Options Other Artists Use
Palette for workshops – An artist friend sets up a new palette for each workshop she takes that has the instructors recommended colors.
Plate for each painting – One student puts paint on a white plastic plate for each painting, which she labels and keeps. If she doesn’t finish or needs to touch up that painting, she doesn’t need to remember which colors she used.
Make Your Own Palette
Hot glue guns can be used to make wells that hold paint or many wells for an entire palette. You can make your own tiny palette with a hot glue gun and small mint tin. I’ve added extra paint wells to my old palette to add colors.
Bottle caps glued to a plate have also been used as make do palette.
What Does A Beginner Need To Paint Watercolor?
Watercolor is user friendly and affordable. I began with an inexpensive student set of paints, paper and brushes many years ago. Anything that gets you started painting is a great buy for the amount of joy it will add to your life.