As a beginner, you need very few watercolour supplies to begin painting. That’s the beauty of the medium. To get started, just grab some paint, a brush, paper and water.
However, if you’re feeling a little mystified about what watercolour mediums do, or you’d like to learn more about different brands of paint, or you’re feeling bamboozled at the array of different types of brushes and papers available, then this guide will help you understand the options and choose which supplies will be right for your watercolour painting practice.
Learning about and understanding the watercolour supplies you use as an artist is the first step to progressing, improving and most importantly, having fun with your materials, to hone your skills and over time make incredible works of art.
So let’s break it down, as a beginner, here are all the things you need for watercolour painting.
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The very basic recipe for watercolour paint is pigment (an organic or synthetic chemical compound that provides colour) and a binding medium (a vehicle through which pigment is evenly dispersed. It binds to water and adheres to absorbent surfaces such as paper). Gum arabic is the most common binder used in watercolour paint.
Paint can vary from brand to brand. Some brands will use better quality pigments than others. Some will use single pigments, rather than combinations of multiple pigments. This is advantageous as it gives the artist the ability to create cleaner, more saturated mixes of colours.
Different paint brands can also vary in the binding mediums and additives used in the paint. For example, certain brands will add fillers, either to bulk the paint out to make it cheaper to produce, or to provide some welcomed properties for watercolour painters. Learn about watercolour paint brands in more detail here.
The best brands of watercolour paint
Professional grade: Daniel Smith
Daniel Smith stock a large range of 250 rich and vibrant colours. The purity of the colours and permanence of the pigments are high, giving you clean mixes and high chroma hues.
Best for beginners: Winsor & Newton
Winsor & Newton are a popular mid-range brand that are used by professionals and beginners.
The colours have strong pigmentation and a good level of transparency. Some colours will give a smooth wash, while others will granulate.
Tubes or pans?
There are a few key differences between tubes and pans of watercolour.
Tubed paint comes in liquid form, that you squeeze out onto a palette. You can paint straight from the tube onto a piece of paper without having to thin it with water.
Watercolours can also be bought as solid blocks of paint contained in small ceramic pans. Pans of colour have to be thinned with water to release the colour to then spread on paper.
If you like to travel, or paint outdoors, pans are a really great option, as you can pack all the paints away in a small paint box and carry it around with you wherever you go.
With tube colours, you have the ability to create stronger, more vivid mixes. A little tubed paint goes a long way. It’s the preference for most artists who like to work in a studio. Plus, tubed paint is resoluble. Once it’s on the palette you can wet it and use it again. If you are buying individual colours, you’ll find there are many more pigments available in tubed form compared to pans. However, you can get empty pans that you can fill yourself, like those from Schmincke.
The best brushes for watercolour painting are those that have soft, flexible bristles. Bristles that are soft, but have a slight spring to them are most suitable for moving fluid paint such as watercolour.
Choose brushes with short handles rather than long handles, as these give much more control when painting. Long handled brushes are reserved mainly for oil painting.
Handles aside, there are a few different attributes to decide upon in a brush. The first being the bristle (the fibre of the hair), the second being the size of the brush and the third being the shape of the head of the brush. Brands can also range in their quality. I’d advise getting some good quality brushes that you know will last, instead of getting low quality brushes that become unusable in a matter of months.
The best brushes for watercolour painting
You may have heard some watercolour brushes being described as ‘sable’. Sable refers to the type of bristle fibre that the brush is made from. Kolinsky sable brushes are natural hair bristles, that are obtained from a type of Siberian weasel.
These filaments are regarded as the best performing amongst all watercolour brushes and are favoured by professional artists. Natural sable brushes hold their point like no other brush and their colour holding ability is unparalleled. These properties come at a price, however. If you want to get a larger sized brush it could set you back a few hundred pounds. Smaller sized brushes start at less than £10 each, however.
You can get synthetic alternatives to natural sable, which are far cheaper, don’t use animal products in the manufacturing process and perform just as well. The only difference between real sable and synthetic, is that some varieties of synthetic hairs don’t hold their point at the tip of the brush as well as real sable. Synthetic bristles can be more springy too, though this isn’t a drawback, they just require a lighter touch to make the pigment release from the brush when painting.
Here are the brushes with the best bristles for watercolour painting.
Da Vinci Maestro: sable
This is an exceptional quality, high end brush that is made from kolinsky hair. The round brush has a fine shaped tip, enabling you to create delicate details. This brush has a high amount of elasticity, giving the artist wonderful control over the flow of paint.
Sizes start at 10/0, which will set you back around £10. Medium sized brushes (sizes 4 to 10) range from around £13 to around £100. Prices are high, but it’s due to the way in which the brushes are manufactured, the cost in materials, the slight improvement in performance compared to synthetic and the longevity of the brush. A kolinsky sable brush is an investment, but it will stand the test of time.
If you are on a budget or are a total beginner, I would recommend trying some quality synthetic brushes instead.
Princeton Neptune Faux Squirrel: synthetic
These brushes have a good balance of softness and spring that gives painters brilliant control over the paint flow. The brushes come in a range of shapes and sizes for a fraction of the price of sable. Princeton’s Neptune brushes hold colour brilliantly and the round shaped brushes taper to a sharp point. Another plus is, that they’re vegan.
To keep your brushes in good condition, I recommend getting a brush soap to clean, condition and preserve bristles. This will make brushes last much longer as it removes all traces of pigment that can dry and discolour the brush fibres.
Watercolour needs an absorbent surface in order to be able to bind properly. The surface should also be thick, stable and white. You can paint on canvas with watercolour, but you will need to get the Fredrix watercolour canvas, that has been specially designed for this use.
Really, the best surface for watercolour painting is paper that has been specifically designed for the job.
If you do choose to go down the route of getting paper, there are different types to choose from. Firstly, paper will vary in weight. The greater the weight (measured in gsm) the thicker the paper will be. If you can anticipate you will be painting using washes of colour thinned with lots of water, go for paper that is at least 200gsm. This will prevent your paper sheet from buckling and warping.
Paper can vary in the material it’s made with. Professional quality papers will be made from cotton or a mix of cotton and cellulose. Whereas student grade ranges will often be made from cellulose.
Cotton has better absorbency and is much more stable. All watercolour papers should be acid-free, though. This means that the paper won’t yellow over time. Paper that isn’t acid-free and not kept in optimum conditions can yellow pretty quickly (like book pages).
Watercolour papers aren’t always vegan—some papers are prepared with gelatine, but you will be able to get plant based alternatives.
For a more thorough review, read our guide on the best watercolour papers.
Hot pressed watercolour paper
Hot pressed paper is smooth and has a higher density of fibres, which means it will feel more rigid.
This type of paper is less absorbent than cold pressed paper, but as it has a smoother texture it is more suited to detailed works.
Because it isn’t ultra absorbent, the lifting technique works well with this kind of paper. Lift pigment from the surface when wet to reveal the layers of paint beneath.
Hot pressed paper is brilliant for illustrators, those who don’t use heavy washes and for artists who want to create prints of their work.
Cold pressed watercolour paper
Cold pressed paper has a rougher surface texture and is more absorbent than hot pressed paper.
The paper will absorb water and colour into the surface. This means that the dried colours can appear less saturated than on hot pressed paper.
Regardless of this, cold pressed paper remains to be the favourite among beginner and professional artists alike due to its absorbency. It’s much more suited to a variety of techniques such as glazing, washes and layering.
Sketchbooks are the ultimate place to practise, create studies and improve your skills as an artist.
Almost all watercolourists will keep a sketchbook to regularly draw or paint in. As a beginner watercolour painter, it’s important to get a sketchbook that has nice thick paper, that won’t buckle if you create washes of water in it, or worse, seep through to the other side! To prevent warping, slide a piece of board beneath the page you’re working on and secure it with a clip—that should keep it flat.
If you’re interested in reading a more detailed review about the different watercolour sketchbooks available to artists, read our guide.
You don’t have to use watercolour paper to paint with watercolours. There are a couple of other options available. So if you feel like experimenting with a new kind surface, or practising on a painting support that is guaranteed to make your work stand out, try one of these.
Aquabord is a primed wooden panel—it has been treated to make it absorbent enough to hold water and colour.
These panels are museum quality, archival and acid free. The surface behaves similarly to cold pressed paper with regards to absorbency and texture. The panels come cradled too, so you can easily frame and hang them on the wall to display.
Yupo is probably the most unusual surface on the list and it can yield some pretty interesting results. It’s completely non-porous and smooth, made from polypropylene which is a kind of plastic.
The surface is stain resistant, so staining pigments won’t be absorbed into the surface. This especially lends itself to lifting techniques. You can achieve clean whitespace, high contrasts and intricate details with this surface.
Yupo won’t take applications of masking fluid. However, this isn’t necessary as colour lifts so cleanly from the surface. As colour can be wiped from Yupo with ease, consider using a fixative medium to protect your work.
Because watercolour paint is soluble when dry, it is incredibly easy to clean from any non-absorbent surface. Squeeze tube paint into palette wells and rewet when dry.
If you are using pans, the set will usually come with a built in area for mixing. So you won’t need to get an extra palette unless you need more space to mix colours. A watercolour palette is necessary if you’re using tubed paint, however.
Ceramic palettes are sturdy, long lasting and a great option for those who work in a studio or indoors. The great thing about ceramic palettes, when compared to plastic or other alternatives is that they keep watercolour paint wet for longer.
Choose a palette with multiple wells to squeeze tubed paint, that you can keep on your palette to wet and mix again. If you get a palette with a lid, it will protect the paint from dust and dirt and keep them wet for longer.
To clean a ceramic palette, just get water, soap and a sponge and scrub the paint away. Ceramic palettes aren’t easily transportable, because they can be heavy. They are also more expensive than plastic alternatives.
If you plan to travel with your paints, or paint outdoors, you will find yourself wanting a light palette that you can easily pack away. Fold-away airtight plastic palettes that have wells and room for mixing are the best option. They won’t keep your paints wet for as long as ceramic palettes will, but they are convenient for those artists who like to move around and get out on the field to paint.
Mijello plastic palettes are airtight with wells for colour and space for mixing. They have sealing rings to lock in moisture, keeping your colours wet for longer. These palettes are superb quality, but also budget friendly.
How to set up your palette
When you get your palette, it’s difficult to envision where all the colours are going to go. Some artists work by squeezing their tubes out at random, but if you’re using a lot of different colours, as a beginner watercolour painter you could lose track of which colour is which. I’d recommend grouping colours based on their hue (i.e. red, orange, yellow) then roughly ordering them, so that like colours are next to each other and complementary colours are opposite. It’s a good idea to label your colours too if you’re not familiar with the colour names yet, so that you don’t lose track.
Watercolour mediums can be added to the paint to alter the working properties. You can take your watercolour painting to new levels with the addition of a medium and achieve desirable effects you wouldn’t have previously thought possible.
Use a medium to aid you in achieving certain techniques such as lifting colour from the surface, or making fine transparent glazes. By adding a medium to the paint, you could make it more transparent, change the drying time, increase the saturation and gloss of the colour. You can even use mediums to add texture to the paint. Some mediums are ‘all rounders’, enhancing the working properties in a multitude of ways.
Gum arabic is the binding agent used in most watercolour paint ranges. When used as an additional medium in paint, it can increase the transparency and reduce the staining properties of some colours, making it easier to lift colour and to glaze. With this medium, you will be able to control the flow of the paint much more easily.
A gloss medium can be used to extend the open working time of watercolour paint and give it a glossy finish. Watercolour is a fast drying medium, and the open time of paint can be short in hot, dry climates and when you are painting outside. Short open time is beneficial for those who like to create layers in their paintings, by applying wet paint over layers of dried paint. For painters who like to work wet-on-wet and blend colours together, this gloss medium will give this effect.
Watercolour fixative mediums can be combined with paint to make a layer that is water resistant once dry. This makes it especially useful for wet on dry layering and glazing techniques where paint layers alter the last and stay separate from one another. Spray a coat of fixative onto your finished watercolour piece to protect the artwork.
Learn more about watercolour mediums, including how to create texture in your work by reading this watercolour medium guide.
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