Updated: June 14, 2015

Watercolor Painting Supplies

Most of us are first exposed to watercolor painting when we are small children, and the brushes are often our hands and fingers! As an introduction to art, this is fine, but real water-color painting requires proper materials and tools to do the job right. You can learn how to watercolor at any age, although some techniques and the patience it takes in waiting for layers to dry sometimes makes it more appropriate for adults. To get started, consider taking a watercolor painting class -- there is no better way to learn than from watching an experienced painter, seeing how they mix their paints, how they use their watercolor brushes, the techniques they use for creating different effects on the paper. Another option is to follow one or two instructional watercolor painting books, which we will take a look at below. But first, let's cover what basic watercolor supplies and materials are needed to paint, what they cost, and where you can buy them.

Best Watercolor Brushes:

As you can imagine, you can't paint without a few key supplies -- namely, watercolor paints, watercolor paper, and water color brushes (and of course water!). Let's start with the brushes. A brush is made up of the hairs or bristles at one end, a ferrule (which is the metal collar than connect the bristles to the brush handle), and the handle. Basic watercolor brushes have long, absorbent hairs. Sable hair brushes are considered the very best, and they are renown for their ability to be drawn to a fine point (by twirling the brush) and to keep that sharp point for detailed work. The main brush types are flat and round. Round brushes have a sort of cone shape to them, with a circle of bristles coming to a point. Flat brushes look like a round brush that have been squished flat and then had the ends all squared off, giving you a stiffer, rectangular painting surface. For round brushes, they are designated by numbers that indicate their relative size (000 being the smallest and 20 being the fattest). For example, a size 0 round brush has a very fine point and very few bristles, meant for the most delicate of detailed work - the diameter might be only 1/16 of an inch, with small bristles only 3/8 of an inch in length. A size 12 round brush is much larger, with a diameter of more than a quarter of an inch and bristles longer than 1 inch. Most painters have a collection of many brushes, giving them the flexibility to paint under many conditions, however you usually find that a good watercolor painter can do most of their work using just 3 or 4 brushes that are their favorites, with a smattering of additional brushes in inventory for occasional use when necessity calls. Sable brushes are the most expensive, so many artists, especially beginners to watercolors, opt for synthetic or part sable - part synthetic brushes to save on expenses. The Kolinsky red sable brush is considered the gold standard (Kolinsky is the type of sable they are made from, usually from Russia) - they are manufactured by a number of different companies, like Arches Kolinsky brushes and Escoda Kolinsky brushes. Other major brand names include Grumbacher brushes, daVinci, Isabey watercolor brushes, Rosemary and Co., Raphael, and Yarka. View a list of the best-selling watercolor equipment here.

There is nothing wrong with using synthetic brushes though some purists will scoff. But sometimes buying quality brushes that cost more and last longer and perform better is worthwhile. For beginners, we recommend going with cheaper synthetic brushes. How much do watercolor brushes cost? Most brushes come in various grades, from artist grade down to student grade (for serious art students starting out) down to scholastic grade (for kids). For artist grade Kolinsky sable brushes, one example price is $69 for a set of 3 brushes (size 4,6,8 round) from MisterArt.com - Amazon also lists a full range of Kolinsky brushes here. Or the JACK RICHESON 8000 Series White Synthetic Watercolor Brush Set (synthetic), with a 3, 6,and 10 round and one 3/4 inch flat for $30. Or at DickBlick.com, the Blick Master Kolinsky Sable Brushes (set of 6, size 1,4,10, and 14 round, size 6 and 12 flat) goes for $204. The Windsor and Newton Sceptre Gold brushes are sable blends, and a size 12 round will set you back $17, a size 4 round will set you back $5, and a size 6 flat costs $6. So you can see that the blends and synthetics are significantly cheaper than the genuine Kolinsky sable brushes. Unless you have an unlimited budget or are an experienced artist investing in a top quality tookit, save the Kolinsky's for later in your career. You can also buy much cheaper scholastic grade brushes, like a Reeves Pony kit of 144 brushes (24 of each, round 4, 8, 12 and flat 6, 8, 10) for just $50. For those just getting started, a good beginner set would include several size round brushes, like a 3 or 4, an 8, and a larger 12 or 14 size, along with a rigger brush (with long bristles for fine detail). For flats, a good one inch flat wash brush will go a lot of work for you, and throw in a 1/2 inch flat and a good squaring brush like a sho-card brush. One fan brush helps as well.

Watercolor Paper:

We've covered brushes, lets move on to paper. As you might guess, when you paint with watercolors, you use a lot of water. If you've ever spilled water on paper, you know that regular paper rips, warps, and gets generally unusable when it is wet. Because of this, special watercolor paper is required for painting. Good watercolor paper is 100% cotton or pure rag, and mold-made. Watercolor paper is designated by weight (measured by how much a ream of that type of paper weighs) and comes in a variety of types, ranging from 90 pound up to 555 pounds. The larger numbers mean heaving, thicker, more durable paper. For example, water color paper under 200 lbs weight will normally need to be stretched so that it doesn't warp and buckle when wet. The stretching process involves rinsing the paper on both sides, letting it absorb the water, and then smoothing and stapling the paper to your working board while it dries. It can then be removed the next day and cut into the sizes you want to use. 300 and 400 weight paper can be painted on without worrying about that. The paper is also graded by its surface type, in addition to its weight. Hot-press paper is smooth, cold-pressed paper is rougher, and rough paper is, well, the roughest (there is also hand-made which is even rougher). The roughness of the paper determines how easily the paint is spread across the surface, and how much white will still show through after a pass of the brush. For most people starting out, something like 300 weight rough or cold-press paper is good. Some of the big names in the watercolor paper business are Arches, Bienfang, Canson, Strathmore, Winsor and Newton, Whatman, Fabriano, and T.H. Saunders. Good paper is essential to watercolor painting - don't try and skimp here. How much does watercolor paper cost? A pad of Winsor and Newton 22" x 30" (12 sheets, 100% rag moldmade, 100% acid free) sells for about $5. Strathmore 400 Series Watercolor Pad is $10 for 15" x 22", and $5 for 9" x 12" (again, 12 sheets per pad). So plan on spending around 50 cents for a sheet of good paper. Or course, one sheet might be cut into several smaller sheets for practice work and smaller paintings.

Water Color Paints:

So we have our brushes, our paper -- all that's missing is the paints and the water! Watercolor paints come in several forms. You can get dry pans, which are what traditional childrens watercolor sets look like - little colored cakes that provide paint when water is added. Or you can get tubes called moist tubes, which look more like acrylic or oil paints, in that they are squeezed out of a metal tube. If your dollop of paint dries out, you can always resuscitate it later with a little water, just as you would a dry pan. However you get your paints, moist or dry, you normally arrange them around a plastic palette that has paint wells for putting your pure colors and then plenty of mixing areas for creating washes and special color mixtures. You can buy sets of paints to get you started. For example, a nice intermediate kit would be something like a Grumbacher Academy Watercolor Set with 10 tubes of paint (Alizarin Crimson, Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Chinese White, Cobalt Blue, Grumbacher Red, Ivory Black, Phthalo Green, Ultramarine Blue, and Yellow Ochre), selling for about $25 (DickBlick.com). Or the Winsor & Newton Cotman Deluxe Watercolor Studio set for $45, which comes in a nice box with 12 color tubes and mixing trays. At the higher end, you can buy 6 tubes (1.2 oz each) of Da Vinci Artists' Watercolor paints for $47, or a Sennelier Watercolor Box with 10 tubes of paint, a bottle of Watercolor Varnish, and a 60 ml bottle of Liquid Drawing Gum for $105, all in a sturdy and attractive metal carrying case. Again, for beginners it is recommended that you start out with some decent quality but inexpensive supplies to get started. If you plan to continue and move ahead with watercolor painting, that is the time to invest in more expensive, higher quality paints and materials. There is no reason to spend $500 on fancy brushes and paint if you are not committed to the hobby.

Watercolor Books:

You can find a lot of books on the subject of watercolor painting. What are the best watercolor books for learning? A few of our favorites (all available at Amazon.com) include The Art of Watercolor, by Charles le Clair, The Watercolorists Essential Notebook by MacKenzie, Watercolor for the Serious Beginner by Mary Whyte, and Watercolor Basic, Let's Get Started by Jack Reid. Most of these books are in the $10-$20 range. You can probably also find a collection of watercolor painting instruction books at your local library -- not a bad place to start if you are just experimenting with the art and don't want to invest a lot of money right off the bat.