I remember the moment I dipped my first high quality watercolor brush in professional grade watercolor. Something was different. All I painted at the time was a simple color swatch, but in that moment my world changed; I fell in love with watercolor.
Now, if you’re at all like me, your biggest concern with taking the plunge and investing in high quality materials has more to do with the cost than anything — which I understand completely (trust me… I’m a pastor’s wife, and let’s just say, we aren’t in it for the money.) But we’re all familiar with the phrase “you get what you pay for,” and this is one of those things where the phrase definitely applies.
When I first started dabbling in watercolor painting, I purchased a cheap set of paint from Michaels, and equally cheap brushes and paper. Though I was enjoying myself, and quickly building my skills through practice, I noticed my work drying “chalky” and the paper warping with just the smallest amount of water. I was discouraged by looking online at all the artists I admired, whose work was so vibrant and flawless. I didn’t realize that it simply wasn’t possible to achieve the same look as the pros without the same tools as the pros.
Don’t get me wrong, starting anywhere is better than nothing, but I had no idea how much more was possible with the right materials in my hands. And now that I have seen for myself, I feel responsible to share the same information with you!
So here are my “go-to” supplies, with links where they can be purchased. (These are the same materials that come in my watercolor starter kit — which I’ll talk more about at the end of this post!)
- Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor – This stuff is so so good. I had no idea it was possible to achieve such vibrant color and consistency. You’ll never have an issue with “chalkiness” here, since there are no fillers added to professional grade watercolor. And they are about as vibrant as you’ll find, since the price is relative to the amount of true pigment that has been added to the paint. And even though the price is higher up front, you will notice these paints last much longer. It comes in a tube (rather than dried in a pan already,) and you can usually fill your palette a few times from just one tube. Even with the volume of painting I do, I still only have to refill my palette every few months, so you can imagine a tube can really last you a long time! The important thing is that you fill your palette the day before you’re ready to paint, so you don’t use too much pigment at once. Because the paint comes out of the tube wet, it is easy to pick up too much paint on your brush, and waste it. But when you allow it to set in the palette, all you have to do is “warm it up” with a little water, swish your brush around in the color a bit, and you’ll be ready to paint with vibrant, highly saturated pigments. So hands down, in my opinion, invest in professional grade watercolor. There are quite a few brands on the market, but W&N is my personal favorite. Feel free to shop around and try what works best for you — but just remember: PROFESSIONAL GRADE.
- Arches Cold Pressed Watercolor Paper – You can tell just by looking at it when watercolor paper has been made well, and this stuff fits the bill, for sure. The grit of the cold pressed paper is the most important, as that will hold your pigment in place, and allow you to use a good amount of water without it pooling up and drying strange. Be careful when purchasing watercolor paper, because there is hot pressed paper as well, which does not have the same grit and texture as cold pressed paper. Hot pressed paper is great if you’re doing illustrations or simple washes, but because of the texture of the paper, paint tends to dry much more quickly and it doesn’t hold layers as well. Cold pressed paper is most often used by watercolor artists, and the only way to go in my book! Another element to look for when purchasing watercolor paper is whether it is 100% cotton. This is important, as many cheaper brands will use fillers that make them less strong, and they will not hold your paint quite as well. Finally, when purchasing paper, you want to look at the weight. You do not want to work with anything less than 140lb./300gsm, to avoid warping paper. If you know your painting will require a heavy amount of water, you might want to invest in some 300lb. paper, which will hold a lot more water without warping. A few other brands I would recommend trying out include: Legion Stonehenge Aqua, Fabriano Artistico, Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor Paper, and Global Fluid 100 (as a cheaper, yet still good, option.)
- Princeton Heritage Synthetic Sable Brushes – These are a little bit of an investment, so I actually recommend starting with their introductory “Snap!” brushes. If you are used to cheap watercolor brushes, switching to the Snap! brushes will be a HUGE upgrade. They will hold a lot of water and pigment, and you’ll be amazed at the versatility of the round brushes! Starting with sizes 6 and 16 is a great place to begin. After a few months of practicing with good paint, good paper, and good brushes, upgrading to the Heritage brushes and adding a smaller size round brush to your arsenal will give you the ability to add finer details, and now that you’re a pro, you’ll be able to notice the difference between the Snap! series and the Heritage series.
- Watercolor Palette – A palette with space for mixing is a must. Personally, I use this palette, as I have collected a lot of different pigments I regularly use. But beginning with something smaller, and just a few different pigments is where I began, and a great place to start if you’re budget conscious. It is important to remember that watercolor is meant to be mixed. So even if you start with only 8 paint colors, you have the potential for creating at least 64 different colors with those alone! As you paint more and more, you will start to recognize patterns, and colors that you gravitate toward mixing often. That is when I recommend starting to pick up new pigments. That way, they will be a little more vibrant, since they are pure colors, and less mixing work for you.
- Watercolor Pencil – Something I did not know when I first started using watercolor is that pencil cannot be erased once it has been painted over. So if you’re laying out a project, but don’t want to see the pencil marks afterward, a little trick I like to use is a watercolor pencil! I use a very light grey for most projects, just as a guide, and because it is watercolor, it basically dissolves into your painting as you add water. Just be careful not to write too dark with it. Since it is real pigment, it could change the color of your painting if you use too much.
So there you have it — my favorite supplies, and the WHY behind them. If you’re convinced, and ready to try out some of the “good stuff” for yourself, I have listed links for where each of these items can be individually purchased. However, if the idea of navigating it all for yourself is a little bit daunting, I have made it really easy for you with my Watercolor Starter Kit!
The kit comes with a starter palette, already filled with my 7 favorite pigments, (which will last you at least 2-3 months of regular painting,) sheets of Arches cold pressed paper, and Fluid 100 cold pressed paper, a watercolor pencil, 2 Princeton Snap! round brushes (in sizes 6 and 16,) and an instructional booklet, (written by me,) with more details about the supplies you’ve received, an introduction to the basics of watercolor, and a step-by-step lesson in loose floral painting. With all the supplies you receive, and the instruction included in the booklet, this is a great investment!
More than anything, I hope you understand my passion for watercolor runs deep. This beautiful, therapeutic art has been healing to me in so many ways, but has also opened doors to opportunities I never thought possible. It wasn’t easy to start, and it didn’t come natural from the beginning, but with practice, and the right tools in my hands, I have come a long way (and believe you can, too!)
If you have any other questions about materials I didn’t cover in this post, please feel free to comment below!
Good luck on your own watercolor journey,