Saturday, March 26, 2011

Basic Setup for Watercolor Painting

For those of you who are new to watercolor painting, here's a list of things you'll need, as given to me by various teachers. Another post lists resources that might be helpful to you starting out.

First of all, if you want to make a minimal investment just to try out watercolor painting, I suggest getting one of these sets from Cheap Joe's. They have everything you need to get started, except the stuff that's listed in "Misc" at the end of this post.

If you're ready to get started and really get set up, here's what you need:

It's a good idea to get a big palette with good-size paint wells. I use the Robert E Wood palette. I also have a small palette to travel with. I'm ogling Cheap Joe's porcelain palette at the moment, and may spring for that one soon, as my plastic palette is totally stained after five year's hard use.

I started off with totally synthetic brushes, which I was frustrated with by the end of my first class. Synthetic material holds a limited amount of paint and tends to be somewhat stiffer than you might ideally want in most situations. Michele Cooper suggested that I buy Kolinsky sable brushes. This is a good choice if you have lots and lots of money to spend. You'll love them forever. I have gradually added this type of brush to my collection. It's the kind of thing to put on your birthday and Christmas wish list. If you have a budget, like most of us, I suggest getting a set of brushes made of a combination synthetic/sable hair.

When I first wrote this post, I recommended these basic brushes to get first:
  • 1/4, 1/2, and 1 inch flats
  • Small, medium, and large rounds 
After taking three classes with Kathy Collins, I'd add a 2" synthetic brush to the list. She uses that brush to create long straight edges. If you look at her paintings, you'll see what I mean.

  • One or two riggers or a rigger and a script brush
  • A big flat brush for laying water or washes down.
Don't try to economize and get student-grade paints. It just isn't worth it. Buy Daniel Smith Watercolor Paints, Windsor Newton Artists, or Holbein. I haven't tried Cheap Joe's American Journey, but I understand they work beautifully and are a good value. Be aware that Holbein costs more.

Every teacher has their own favorite set, but here's a basic list: cabriole violet, French ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, perylene green, olive green, alizarin crimson, cadmium red, aureolin yellow, raw sienna, burnt sienna, sepia, or burnt umber.

Again, don't buy student-grade paper. I recommend either Fabriano or Arches 140 lb cold-pressed paper. (Strathmore is made with more paper fiber and less sizing, so you may have trouble trying to do layers or wet-into-wet. I still have a pad that I bought for my first class and gave up using shortly thereafter.) For details about watercolor paper, see this article. You can get it at fine art supply stores.

You will also need some gator board or other stiff flat surface to either clamp or tape the paper to. I like the gatorboard because it's easy to cut into the sizes I want using an exacto knife, and it is light weight so I can easily carry it around with me. You will also need some big clamps and/or some artists tape. A lot of people use masking tape, which is probably OK to start with, although you might just want to break down and buy the real stuff.

You don't need to have an easel. Many watercolorists just paint flat on the table, propping their gatorboard up an inch or so on one end. You can also get a table easel or a floor easel. The one that's on my wish list is Joe Miller's Signature Easel. I've looked at a great many watercolor easels, and have seen nothing better than this.

For plein air painting, you can use an easel, or you can just buy a beach chair that sits low enough to the ground so you can reach your paint and water sitting by your feet, and hold the gator board in your lap. That's what I do, and it works fine. You can see my blue chair in the photo to the right.

Tom Hoffman Plein Air Workshop on Lopez

You need a bag to hold your supplies, a non-breakable water container, something to keep your brushes in so they don't get trashed in your bag, a small spray bottle for water, paper towels, a small sponge (sea sponges are great), sketch pad, sketch pencil, kneaded eraser. You might want something to hold your paper that will keep it flat. I cut two thin pieces of gatorboard and taped them together on one side. I slide my paper and paintings in there to keep them from getting damaged in my bag. I also recommend having a camera handy (optional, but highly recommended) for taking photos of scenes or still life's you want to work on in your studio (which for me is the dining room table). The camera can be a simple point and shoot. Digital is best for immediate gratification.


Anonymous said...

Your article is very thorough, but I was wondering if you had a list with a run down of everything you mentioned in this article? Thank you

Megan Davis Seagren said...

I'm not sure what you mean, Anonymous. Would you give me an example of the type of information your looking for? Thanks! Megan