Yes I paint in oils, but occasionally I teach drawing, watercolor painting, and acrylic painting. For some reason, my students have more questions about the tools and materials used for watercolor painting than anything else. And if my students are interested in this, maybe you are too — thus this blog post. Here’s what’s needed to paint with watercolors:
Paints: Watercolor paints come in tubes or a pan. There is more paint in a tube, but pans are best for portable reasons. I like to use Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolors. I also use Grumbacher Watercolors to make quick color studies, or when teaching, simply because Grumbacher paints are more affordable. And there’s the Grumbacher Starter Kits, which my beginner students seem to like.
Palettes: The watercolor paints that come in a pan have an attached place to mix color. When painting from a tube, however, a palette is needed for mixing paints. Choose a white palette, because a tin, clear, or colored palette can deceive our eyes from seeing a paint’s true color. Plastic palettes are inexpensive and easily portable, but they stain after a while. Ceramic palettes don’t stain, but they can easily break if dropped. I use plastic when working away from my studio, and ceramic in my studio. Some artists use a butchers tray for a palette, because they have a white enamel coating and are not as breakable as ceramic.
Water: When working in my studio with watercolors, I use two large glass jars to hold water. One is for rinsing my brush, and the other for rinsing it again. This makes my brush perfectly clean before mixing another color on my palette. I used to use clear plastic cups, when working away from my studio, but now I used recycled tin cans. Yes, clear glass or plastic make it easy to see when the water gets muddy and needs replacing, but tins cans work just as well. I just have to remember to look down into the cans now and then to check the condition of the water.
Brushes: There are many different brushes to choose from. I use a variety of brushes, in a variety of sizes. I like my round brushes to come to a point for making fine lines, or hold to enough paint in order to be used for layering in washes of color. I like my bigger wash brushes to cover large areas with watercolor, by laying down broad strokes of color. When painting, I have on hand at least these: 1 round, 4 round, 6 round, 8 round, 1-inch flat, and 2-inch flat. Some artists might use a fan brush for making feather-light strokes, or a rigger brush with long hairs for making delicate lines. As for the hairs, I have some cheap synthetic hair brushes, as well as the more expensive sable hair brushes. Both work equally well, but the sable hair brushes keep their shape over time. In fact, sable hair brushes can last a life time if properly taken care of, which is easy to do. Just remember to rinse your brushes after use, with cool water. Hot water will soften the glue, which in time will cause the hairs to fall out. Soap shouldn’t be necessary, as long as you’re sure to remove all traces of paint when rinsing.
Paper: Watercolor paper comes in different sizes, weights, and textures. You can cut large sheets to whatever size you like, or buy pads that come in various sizes. The weight of the paper indicates its thickness. Standard watercolor paper weighs 90 lb, 140 lb, and 300 lb. The 90 lb. paper is the thinnest, and is fine to use as long as you treat it gently — it can’t handle too much water or scrubbing. The 140 lb. paper is slightly thicker and tougher. I use this paper for my color studies, because it’s less expensive than the 300 lb. paper. I use 300 lb. paper when painting something that I hope to hang in my home or sell. Yes, the 300 lb. paper is the most expensive out of the three papers, but it can take a lot of water and scrubbing, plus it’s less likely to buckle than the lighter weight papers. As for paper texture, there’s rough watercolor paper, cold-pressed watercolor paper, and hot-pressed paper. The rough has the greatest tooth, which means it has a very textured surface. The hot-pressed watercolor paper has almost no tooth, which means that it’s very smooth. And the cold-pressed watercolor paper has a texture that’s somewhere in-between. Here are my favorite brands:
Fabriano 300 lb. hot pressed watercolor paper, which I use for professional work.
Arches 300 lb. hot pressed watercolor paper, which I use for professional work, and their 300 lb. cold pressed watercolor blocks for when traveling.
Strathmore 140 lb. cold pressed 400 series watercolor paper and blocks, which I use for quick studies and teaching.
Pencil and Eraser: Before I start painting, I use a sharp, 2H pencil to lightly draw on my watercolor paper. I draw lightly, because watercolor is transparent — it won’t hide lines. When I make a mistake I erase the lines I don’t want. I use a kneaded eraser, because a pink or hard white eraser can leaves marks on the paper. The oils in our skin can also leave marks, so when handling watercolor paper I touch only the edges. I even have a cotton glove that I wear, whenever I want to rest my hand on the paper while drawing.
Masking Tape and Fluid: Masking tape can be used to stretch watercolor paper, as described in my Stretching Watercolor Paper blog post. It can also be used to cover areas on the paper to preserve white areas while painting. Masking fluid, also known as liquid frisket, can also be used to preserve white areas. It can be applied with a brush, which makes it ideal for small or detailed areas that would otherwise be difficult to paint around. It dries fast, and when it’s dry you can start painting. When done, and the paint is dry, a rubber cement pick-up can be used to easily remove the masking fluid.
Gum Arabic: When added to watercolor paints, gum arabic increases the transparency of the paint, and adds gloss. This medium also slows down the drying time. It’s not meant to be used straight out of the bottle. Instead, add a small amount to the water that you intend to mix into your paints. Personally, I don’t use gum arabic, but if you decide to try it, know that it works well for making washes, but not so well for making several layers of color.
I could also suggest a sponge, spray bottle, a sharp pin, and other extras that I use for special techniques, but I think I’ll save these things for another blog post.