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Watercolor Materials and Equipment

Watercolor materials can range from the simple to the more advanced setups.

One of the advantages of watercolor painting is that it calls for but little in the way of equipment.

We'll consider briefly the other watercolor materials needed before you can start to work.

It all depends on your skill level, your commitment to the art of painting with watercolors, and your budget and needs.

The simplest setup would require you to at least have a basic range of watercolor pigments, a pencil, watercolor paper, and watercolor brushes.


If you have worked with oil colors, you should use the same selection of colors for your water-color palette. However, it you are starting directly with watercolor I recom­mend the following palette:

  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Light Cadmium Red
  • Light French Ultramarine
  • Ivory Black
  • Light Red
  • Thalo Green
  • Yellow Ochre

As you work you will find that adding the following colors is helpful in attaining many elusive shades difficult to mix with the limited list above.

  • Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Umber
  • Chromium Oxide Green
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Davy's Gray
  • Paynes Gray
  • Thalo Blue
  • Cerulean Blue

Like oil colors, watercolors are made in student and professional qualities.

Besides being tubed, watercolors are also available in pans. Both tube and pan colors are soluble in water, but the former are more popular. You can squeeze out the amount of color necessary for the paint­ing on hand, thus insuring fresh color each time you paint.

A good point to remember when purchasing your watercolor materials is that tube colors also allow you to mix large amounts of color washes in a much shorter time than do pan colors.


I have discussed watercolor brushes in another section of this site, but because of their importance, I'll add a few points to consider here.

Brushes are, of course, one of the most important pieces in your watercolor materials. Cheap ones on the whole are of doubtful value. As one needs but few brushes, you'll be better off buying the best you can afford.

Those of red sable hair are generally considered to be amongst the best type of brushes you can buy. The round, sharply pointed type is probably the most popular, but flat square ones can also be useful at times.

watercolor brushes

A rectangular space such as a door or window shutter, for instance, can often be painted with lesing a stroke of a flat, sable brush about three-fourths of an inch wide.

You'll generally need about three round red sable brushes - small, medium and large.

For any given piece of work, it is best to use the largest size brush practical.

Small brushes require too frequent dipping and can lead one into finicky ways.

For bold sketching (such as outdoor work) and for laying large washes (as on skies and backgrounds), so big a brush is needed that one sometimes feels forced to use a cheaper substitute for sable, such as imitation sable, camel hair or squirrel.

The Number 17 camel hair " dabber," for instance, costs a fraction of the price of a red sable brush the same size.

However, since camel hairbrushes lack spring and seldom hold their points well, they are not recommended except in the large sizes for bold work.

For certain types of work, particularly for scrubbing out high lights, stiff bristle brushes are sometimes used.

Advanced Watercolor Equipment

A more advanced watercolor materials setup would include an easel, and a container in which to carry water when working outdoors.

A bottle with a large cap will answer the purpose and the cap can be used as a water cup.

A small soft sponge will be found useful for wetting large areas quickly. Save paint rags to clean the palette and wipe your brushes.

All the watercolor materials purchased for painting outdoors can be used in the studio.

However, when working indoors it is more convenient to use two containers of water.

Keep one for mixing colors and the other for cleaning brushes.

You can also use a much larger palette, either a white china dish or a large white pan; paintings made in the studio are generally larger than those painted out­doors, so the larger palette will prove most welcome.

As mentioned before, paper - of course - is a basic watercolor material.

The most desirable papers for watercolor painting are usually handmade and imported, the best known perhaps being Whatman from England, Arches from France, and Fabriano from Italy.

These papers are handmade of the very best rag stock, following traditional methods handed down through the years from father to son.

Their properties are toughness, long life, surface texture, which cannot be matched by the very best machine-made papers.

A good handmade paper will withstand a considerable amount of soaking, scrubbing and erasing and will age with little deterioration.

The weight (thickness) of watercolor paper is important.

Thin papers should generally be avoided, especially for large work, since they buckle when wet and are inclined to split if stretched. Weights vary from a light "72 lb." to the extremely heavy "300 lb." and, occasionally, even "400 lb."

Some papers are smooth; these are identified by the phrase, "hot pressed," or " HP." The more popular surfaces, however, have a grain or " tooth. " " Cold pressed " or " CP " indicates a slight grain; " rough " or " R, " a heavier tooth. These last two have an indescribably sympathetic texture, excellent to work on and pleasing to look at.

Watercolor papers come in several sizes, but the most popular is the " imperial, " approximately 22" x 30". This is a convenient size for the average painting and it can be halved or quartered for sketches. Papers are also available in spiral-bound pads and in blocks that are convenient for sketching.

Paper has to be stretched before it can be a ready item in your collection of watercolor materials and equipment. Click here to learn how to stretch water color paper.

Other Watercolor Materials

Every artist soon develops his own preferences for certain ways of working and a particular assortment of watercolor materials and paraphernalia.

Aside from paints, paper and brushes, however, the only other essentials for watercolor painting are a palette of some kind (a white dinner plate will often do very well), several cups or small pans for mixing washes and rinsing brushes, blotters, rags, a sponge pencils, erasers, a razor blade or pocket knife (all of these can be useful though you may not need all of them at all times), a drawing board or easel and a convenient place to work.

Getting Under Way

Once you have assembled your watercolor materials, you will find it helpful to spend sometime becoming acquainted with it before undertaking your first painting. So, if you're done with watercolor materials, go back to the Intro to Painting with Watercolors Section and look for the exercises on painting with watercolors (coming up soon).

Rokeby Venus, by Velazquez


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