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Watercolor Materials Made Easy


If you’ve ever browsed through an art store, you’ll know there’s an absolutely overwhelming amount of materials to choose from.

Even when you’re sticking to just one medium, like watercolours, you’re faced with hundreds of different colours, dozens of brushes, a plethora of paper surfaces and a smorgasbord of “essential” extras.

It’s enough to put the newcomer off before they start and it’s little wonder the more experienced artist is often drowning in a sea of barely-opened paint tubes.

If you’re a newcomer, you need to start with a very limited range of materials.

If you’ve been painting for a while, but you’re frustrated by your results, you need to get back to a very limited range of materials.


Because the more materials you own, the more thinly spread your skill with each of them becomes. Or put another way...

You’ll produce more accomplished-looking artwork by mastering a few key pieces of equipment than you will by dabbling with dozens.

You’ll get quicker ‘wins’ and that builds your confidence and that means you’ll stick at it with more enthusiasm.

And besides, a small number of wise choices will give you all you need to paint virtually all the subjects and styles you’ll ever want to.

This guide shows you what that choice should be (at least in my experience). It will save you time spending hours deliberating over what you need and what you don’t need.

It will stop you from spending money on equipment you simply won’t get value from. It’s not a comprehensive guide to watercolour equipment. You don’t need that to paint stunning watercolours. It’s short and to- the-point so you can spend less time reading and more time painting!


Here are the 8 colours I recommend starting with.

There’s a cool and warm version of each of the primaries (red, blue and yellow) and there’s a couple of earthy browns.

You can mix hundreds (thousands!) of variations from this limited selection.

• Ultramarine Blue • Pthalo Blue (Green Shade) or Prussian Blue or Monestial Blue • Cadmium Red or Vermillion or Scarlet Lake • Permanent Rose or Alizarin Crimson or Quinacridone Rose

• Cadmium Yellow or New Gamboge • Lemon Yellow or Cadmium Yellow Light • Burnt Umber or Burnt Sienna • Yellow Ochre or Raw Sienna

You can buy sets of watercolour paints but you’ll get more value for money purchasing individual tubes or pans (see below for tubes vs pans).


Artist Quality or Student Quality?

Go with student quality. Artist quality have richer pigments but are considerably more expensive. Modern student quality watercolours are excellent. When you feel your paintings are more accomplished, you might want to switch to artist quality for your best pieces and when you’re painting for other people.

Tubes or Pans?

This comes down to personal preference. Tubes contain liquid watercolour paint that you squeeze out onto your palette. Pans are cake-like blocks of dry watercolour paint that typically sit in a paintbox. Pans in a paintbox are great for plein-air (outdoor) painting and for travelling. However, you have to work a little harder to activate the paint, which gets a bit tedious for large washes .

The vast majority of watercolour instructors use these tubes and that’s my preference. You’ll find it easier to create stronger mixes but you have to be careful not to be too wasteful when you squeeze the paint out.

Both tubes and pans can be bought individually, although there tends to be greater availability for tubes sold separately compared to pans.

Brands to Look Out For

While we stay brand-neutral at ArtTutor, there’s an obvious brand of student-quality watercolour paints that I suggest you look out for:

• Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolours

These are affordable but still very high quality. Other good brands to look out for include:

• Daler-Rowney Aquafine

• Reeves Student • Van Gogh


Here are the brushes I recommend.

I’ve chosen a mix of rounds and flats and a mop brush for large washes.

Sizes for the round brushes are more consistent between manufacturers than with acrylic and oil brushes, with the higher numbers representing bigger brushes (i.e. a number 16 round is bigger than a number 8 round).

Flats are measured across the width of the ferrule (the metal bit that holds the hairs in place).

Mop and wash brushes tend to be numbered in their own world, so a number 6 round mop could be equivalent to a number 16 conventional round brush, for example. I’ve suggested a size in cm / inches, which you can judge by eye when purchasing:

• Number 4 and number 8 round brush • 1 inch and 0.5 inch flat brush • Mop brush about 1cm (3/8 inch) diameter

• Number 1 rigger brush

Sable or synthetic?

Sable is much more expensive than synthetic nylon but is the ultimate in quality. Synthetic brushes are very good quality these days and pretty hard- wearing so definitely start with these.


Watercolour paper choices can be confusing and there’s a bit more to consider. Here’s an overview of the important characteristics that will affect your buying decisions:

Hot, Cold or Rough?

Watercolour paper typically comes in 3 surfaces:

1. Cold Pressed or Not (denoting it is not hot pressed) This has a medium texture, ideal for most work and is by far the most popular.

2. Hot Pressed This has a much smoother surface after being run between heated rollers during manufacture and is ideal for pen and wash.

3. Rough This provides much more ’sparkle’ and freedom to a painting as the brush bounces over the heavier texture of the paper. Go for Cold Pressed (Not) paper most of the time, with perhaps a few sheets of Hot Pressed and Rough to see how they work for you.

Light Weight or Heavy Weight?

Watercolour paper comes in a variety of weights or thicknesses. Lighter paper will buckle and distort when you add a lot of water. You can overcome this by stretching the paper before you start or using a gummed block (see below). Heavier paper is much more robust and won’t usually need stretching beforehand. As such, it’s quite a lot more expensive. The the most common weight of watercolour paper you’ll see is 140lb / 300gsm. It’s towards the lighter end of the scale but will stand up to typical watercolour washes, especially if pre-stretched. This is the weight I recommend you go for most of the time. If you ever experiment with a very wet style of watercolour painting, with multiple layers of watery washes, then consider 300b - 400lb/ 600 - 850gsm paper.

Artist Quality or Student Quality?

If you’re a newcomer, student quality is more than good enough and a lot less expensive. It’s ideal for practising and learning how to handle watercolours. Page 9

Student quality paper is usually machine-made and typically less durable than artist quality (meaning you can’t throw as much water at it and scrub away it with your brushes). Artist quality is typically hand-made and will handle the paint more effectively. It also won’t deteriorate over time (which student quality sometimes, but not always, can). If you ever paint a picture to hang on your wall, or to give to a friend, definitely invest in artist quality paper.

A great compromise is Bockingford watercolour paper. This is machine-made but very good quality. If you can get it where you live, it’s a good all-round choice.

Sheets, blocks or pads?

You can buy watercolour paper as loose sheets, either individually or as a pack of, say, 10 sheets.

If you want to work upright at an easel, you’ll need loose sheets. And if you do use a loose sheet, you’ll need to stretch it first if it’s less than 600lb / 300gsm.

Blocks are pads of watercolour paper that are gummed together around the edges. This allows you to paint on the top sheet without it buckling (i.e. you don’t have to stretch the paper even if it’s less than 600lb / 300gsm).

When you’ve finished you’re painting, there’s a small gap in the glue which lets you tease the top sheet away using a craft knife. Then you simply paint on the next sheet.

Watercolour pads are like drawing pads - loose sheets of paper that are either spiral bound or gummed at one end. They’re great for sketching and practising because they act like a mini record or your improvement.

You’ll need to tear out loose sheets and stretch them if you don’t want them to buckle and distort as you paint.

My Recommendation

If you’re a newcomer, get yourself a pad of student quality watercolour paper, 140b / 300gsm. If it’s available, Bockingford is a great choice.

Don’t bother tearing out sheets to stretch them. Yes they will buckle a bit but that’s fine while you’re practising. A pad will give you a nice record of your watercolour journey! Then get yourself a gummed block (either student or artist quality - whichever you can afford) and use that for your ‘main’ paintings. No need to worry about paper buckling because it’s already gummed down.

If you’re a little more experienced, get the same as above but perhaps treat yourself to a few loose sheets of artist quality paper as well. You’ll feel like a pro artist!


You don’t need anything fancy for your watercolour palette. You’ll find perfectly acceptable plastic palettes at any art store or Amazon for just a few dollars / euros / pounds.

You can even use an old plate or saucer - just make sure it’s white and doesn’t have a pattern that will throw you off when mixing colours.

Porcelain palettes do have a nice, solid feel to them but they can be expensive and they won’t make you a better artists.

Other than this my only tip is to go for a palette with fewer but larger wells, rather than lots of small wells.


Here are a few other items that you’ll need for watercolour painting and cost very little:

  • Two water jars - one for cleaning your brush and the other for making washes.

  • Kitchen paper - for blotting, lifting out and cleaning excess paint off brushes.

  • HB pencil and kneadable eraser - for marking out your initial drawing (i like Prismacolor and Faber-Castell kneaded erasers best).

  • Masking fluid and applicator (optional) - for preserving the white of the paper. Or you can use a piece of clear candle wax, though you can’t paint over this once it’s on the paper.

  • Hairdryer (optional) - to speed up the drying time between washes, although many watercolorists feel it disturbs the paint too much.


Here’s a checklist of the essential supplies from above:


• UltramarineBlue • PthaloBlue(GreenShade)orPrussianBlueorMonestialBlue • CadmiumRedorVermillionorScarletLake • PermanentRoseorAlizarinCrimsonorQuinacridoneRose • CadmiumYelloworNewGamboge • LemonYelloworCadmiumYellowLight • BurntUmberorBurntSienna • YellowOchreorRawSienna Student quality to start with. Stick to tubes unless you know you want pans.


• Number 4 and number 8 round brush • 1inchand0.5inchflatbrush • Mopbrushabout1cm(3/8inch)diameter • Number1riggerbrush Synthetics are fine but go the most expensive you can afford.


• Spiral-bound watercolour pad, 140lb / 300gsm, cold pressed (Not) surface (A4 / American Letter size is fine) • Gummed watercolour block, 140lb / 300gsm, cold pressed (Not) surface (go for a larger size i.e. A3)


• Cheap plastic palette with large areas for mixing Other Items (if you don’t have them already) • Couple of glass / plastic jars. Jam/coffee jars are fine. • Kitchen paper • HB pencil and kneadable eraser • Pot of masking fluid


The suggestions below are based on either my own experience and/or the experiences we hear about from the artists we work with and ArtTutor members. We don’t have any affiliation with any art supplies company. The links below are not affiliate links (i.e. we don’t get any commission if you buy from these stores):

North America

DickBlick DickBlick has a fantastic range of art materials at very competitive prices. You’ll find almost anything you need here. Amazon You won’t find quite the same level of specialism and choice as you will with DickBlick but they do sell Bockingford watercolour paper.

Blog by Artist Bob Davis -Instructor at

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