A distant memory: my mother and her paint-by-numbers kits. She had two of them; one for landscape painting and one for harlequins – don’t ask me how she settled on those two subjects.
The experiment was short-lived. For about two weeks, she was full of fervour and the smell of mineral spirits filled the house, and then it was on to other things.
Most likely those kits came with preselected tubes of gouache (a sort of enhanced watercolour), meant specifically for that work. The relevance of those kits to our topic today is that they make painting easy... unlike working with the more unpredictable watercolours that are pure pigment, without the benefit of a gum arabic binder.
Shortly after Mum’s time of painting ended, our school art class started us on watercolours.
I had hoped my artwork would end up looking as precise as hers did but we weren’t painting by numbers. Ours was more of a free-for-all assault on the blank white space that was our ‘canvas’; colours running into one another, saturated paper wrinkling and, in one corner, a gouge made by the brush’s ferrule.
My early forays into art convinced me that van Gogh had nothing to worry about. Oh, if only I had had a few pointers!
That is your Superprof’s intent: to help you discover the pleasure of creating art on paper without chucking it all in the bin after the umpteenth time your cadmium yellow runs into your ultramarine blue.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Buying Supplies for Watercolour Painting
Watercolour paint sets for the (semi-) serious artist are vastly different from the sets meant for schoolchildren that you might find at PoundWorld or on Amazon. Let us discourage you from making your first forays into the world of watercolour painting with one of those sets.
Walking into any art supply store, you may become overwhelmed by the dazzling array of choices and products available for art creation.
Unless you’ve done a hefty bit of research on your own or you have a painting instructor giving you recommendations, you may wonder what selections would best suit your needs.
Consider these points...
Choosing Watercolor Paper
Obviously, not all paper is the same, especially when it comes to artistic endeavours.
Washi paper for origami is decidedly different from onionskin paper used to make kites and gliders. Copy paper is different than Inkjet paper and notebook paper is not even in the same ballpark as sketch paper.
So, while your favourite art supply store (or Amazon) may have lots of paper for sale, it would be best to bypass the many varieties of craft paper and steer toward actual watercolour paper.
It may cost a bit more but your results will make the extra expense worth it.
The Right Paintbrush for Watercolor Painting
You don’t necessarily have to go top-of-the-line – that set of Kolinsky sable brushes can wait till you get a bit more proficient. Or, at least until you are sure you want to make watercolour painting a part of your life.
With that being said, you shouldn’t scrape the bottom of the quality barrel for your brushes just because you’re a beginner. In fact, a poor-quality brush can skew your results and even turn you off of painting altogether!
Some artists recommend that, before going all out on supplies, spend a little bit of time with artificial-fibre brushes to see if painting truly is for you and to get the feel of working with paint. Once you’ve determined that you do indeed want to paint, that will be the time to invest in some really good, natural-fibre brushes.
The difference in feel and performance will so amaze you, you’ll never use an artificial brush again!
With that out of the way, which brushes should you buy?
Perhaps the best value for your money would be a set that includes small, medium and large round brushes as well as a mop brush and a flat brush. That should do, for starters.
You should, however, avoid craft brushes; the bristles tend to be too rough for delicate watercolors.
Selecting Watercolor Paints
Here, finally, you get to skimp – but only a little. You don’t need every colour of the rainbow to get started painting with watercolours; just a few of the basic ones. Ideally, you would start out with the primary colours: red, yellow and blue, and add some black. That is enough to get you going.
You have the option of buying watercolours in cakes or tubes; perhaps you could select cakes of primary colours and a tube of black or vice versa, just so you can try out which would work best for you.
Of course, you always have the option of picking up a kit. Such packs contain anywhere from 12 to 24 colours but the downside is that you won’t be able to mix them up – you will have all tubes or all cakes.
Other supplies you might pick up while at the art store:
- A palette: a flat or shallow surface to mix paints on/in
- Drafting tape: while you could use any type of tape to keep your paper on the draft board, most will tear watercolour paper. Drafting tape will not.
- Tote boards are, essentially, giant-sized clipboards; they come in various sizes
- Pencils and rubbers for making outlines and fixing mistakes, respectively.
All other tools of the trade, such as masking fluid and tools for texturing can be purchased later, once you’ve decided that watercolour painting is definitely for you.
Also, learn how to create texture in your paintings without relying on paper texture.
Prepare Your Space
You may have seen, in countless films, how an artist’s studio tends toward the messy. While that is acceptable if you work with oil paints, the very nature of watercolours demands a bit of tidiness.
Because watercolours are so fluid and fast, it will occasionally be necessary for you to have ready access to sponges, paper towels and clean water; working in a cluttered environment simply won’t do!
First, give yourself enough space to work comfortably, making sure you have plenty of elbow room.
Next, place all of your tools, colours and water pots within easy reach of your dominant hand – but not too close, you don’t want to risk knocking over that jar of water!
You may also consider hanging a small towel from your waistband or another convenient place so that you can dry your brushes as needed. One watercolour artist I know likes to keep a wadded paper towel in her sleeve for ultra-quick access without having to reach for one.
Did you know that there are vast resources available to help you master watercolour painting?
Two Indispensable Companions
In the world of watercolour painting, you should have two constant companions: clean water and spare paper.
You will need clean water to wash your brushes, to mix your paints and to wet your paper if you’re using the dry brush technique or any of the other watercolor techniques we covered in our companion article.
You may even consider using two jars; one for washing brushes and one that stays clear; used only for mixing paints and wetting your paper. If you choose to use only one water jar, beware that you will have to change your water as soon as it gets dirty.
What might you need spare paper for?
Unless you have an uncanny ability to gauge a colour’s depth while mixing it, you will need to know that you’ve attained the right shade. The way to do that is by making a few sample brush strokes on paper that is similar in texture to the one you’re painting on.
You may consider taking one or two sheets of watercolour paper and cutting them into smaller squares, that way you can use both front and back to test your paint mixing skills.
The frugal artist might believe s/he is saving supplies by mixing only a little paint at a time but experience says that there is nothing more frustrating than being fully into one’s work, bold brush strokes and all, only to realise that you’ve run out of paint.
Especially if you’re just starting out using watercolour as your medium, it is difficult to gauge how much paint you’ll need to complete that portion of your painting, to say nothing of how difficult (read: impossible) it is to match a tone exactly.
The moral of that story: err on the generous side when mixing paints.
The Last, Most Important Ingredient
We don’t presume to know the reasons why you decided to take up watercolour painting but we are glad that you’re going at it with gusto.
Besides a lot of technical advice and letting you know that Superprof art tutors are standing by to help you master this medium, there’s really not much more we can do for you other than to clue you into the crucial ingredient to make any venture a success: have fun.
We urge you to not see colour bleeds as a failure but an opportunity to experiment. Rather than paint splotches being a source of frustration, let them be a source of inspiration – what could you make of them?
Forget colouring between the lines – or, for that matter, painting by numbers!
Have fun with your new learning adventure and see where it takes you; that might be more rewarding than being able to paint a landscape or harlequin... and you’ll probably feel a greater sense of accomplishment, at that!
Now discover more about painting with watercolours...