Watercolor: Getting Started
I’m a big fan of watercolor painting. I find it really fun, and very relaxing. However it can be hard to get started. Like with any art medium that you haven’t worked with before, it’s difficult to know what to do first. I’ve written up some helpful hints to get started, from my experience as a watercolor artist. I first started exploring watercolor on my own, learning a great deal online and from books. Then in college I took a watercolor art class as an elective where I learned even more and found I really loved it. Below is my advice about paints, palettes, color arrangements, brushes, and paper. So let’s get started!
There are several different kinds of paints you can use. There are pan sets that are like the kind kids get with the solid circles of each color. There is a liquid kind, something I’ve never used. As well as tubes, which are tubes of paint that you can squeeze out and either use right from the tube to create vivid color or let dry. Another kind is watercolor pencils, which can be good for accents.
I use the tubes. Which are what I suggest you get, if you’re really interested in watercolor painting.
Color mixing is really fun, from the prime colors you can mix most any color. I’ve found it convenient to buy a lot of different colors in addition to the basic ones.
The colors I suggest you have for sure are: (Red) Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red Medium. (Yellow) Cadmium Yellow Medium, Yellow Ochre. (Blue) Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue. (Gray) Payne’s Gray, Charcoal Gray. (Green) Hooker’s Green Deep.
The extra ones that I like and have in my palette are: Burnt Sienna, Rose Madder, Thalo Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Raw Sienna, Sepia, Burnt Umber, Emerald Green, Cadmium Orange, Lemon Yellow, Thalo Purple, Sap Green, Thalo Yellow Green, Cadmium Yellow Deep, and Chinese white. (You don’t need all the extra colors, you can actually mix primary colors to get many of these, I got many of them when I got a larger palette!)
There are different qualities of paints, some can be quite expensive. The brand I use is Grumbacher Academy Artists' which is the student kind. I really like it and it’s not super expensive like the artist grade can be. I’ve gotten all my paint from Blick’s art supplies online. I wait for sales or when I have a coupon though because they can be a little pricey. You can buy sets of watercolors that have basic colors; sometimes it’s a better to buy one of these especially when you’re just starting out, just to get a sense.
Something really important to remember is to not leave your paints someplace hot, like in your car for long periods of time in the summer. Keeping your paint at room temperature is ideal to keep it in good condition. Some ingredients in paint are toxic, pay attention to the information about each one and keep them away from children and pets. Wash your hands when you’re done, rinse out your water cups really well (don't leave any in the sink). Don’t let the paint get in your eyes or mouth!
Also you don’t need a lot of paint to get a lot of color! It’s my suggestion that you get a tray, not use the color straight out of the tube like ever; unless for some reason you need extremely pronounced and vivid color. My suggestion is to put a small amount in your tray and let it dry completely. Then once you do that it’s much easier to use a little water to get the color out in the amount you need.
One of the great things about watercolor paints is that you can just let them dry, and reactivate them easily with just a little water. Acrylic paints, which I also love, can’t do that, once they’re dry they are dry. A lot of that has to do with the ingredients of the paint, if they’re water or oil based and so on. Experiment with color! You’d be surprised what you can create from even just a few colors of paint. You can layer colors to get a certain look.
Speaking of watercolor trays! There are a few different sizes and shapes of palettes you can get, you can also get the wells individually but I’ve found it so much more helpful to have a palette. When you get one you want to make sure that it says it can be used for watercolor, but pretty much any that say they’re good for acrylic paint work just as well. The one I have is pretty big with 24 wells. Before I used a smaller one with 18 wells, and really liked it a lot.
I got myself the bigger one as a special treat, when I did I decided to get more colors to fill it with. Having a lot of space to mix is ideal; you can buy mixing trays and bowls separately to have more room. I like that I can use the lid in addition to the mixing area in the middle of mine. Another great thing about watercolor, it’s easy to clean up! Just use a wet cloth or paper towel, and wipe it away!
How you lay out your color palette is completely up to you. Some people like to have them like a rainbow, a color wheel arrangement, most used to least used, or even favorite to least favorite. The way you lay it out also depends on the size, shape, and how many wells your palette has as well. Mine are laid out kind of like a color wheel. I tried a few different arrangements before I found the one I was most comfortable with but really you can get used to anything after a while. Now that I’ve had it that way though, changing the layout would be really hard; it would probably make me crazy!
For the most part I have four brushes that I use. I have a lot of brushes in general so sometimes I need a different size for a specific thing so I have options. I think which brush a person uses is really tailored to their personal technique. A brush I use might be really hard for someone else and vice versa. There are tons of different kinds and sizes. A lot of stores sell variety packs with different sizes that you can test out to see what you like, but then I would suggest getting 2-3 higher quality brushes that you’re going to use the most. Also having a few different kinds, round, flat, and so on that are made of a variety of materials. Michael’s craft store has a nice selection of brushes that are less expensive than some places; I’ve gotten a few of my smaller brushes there. If you can, buy brushes in person instead of online so you really know what you're getting.
Blick’s art supplies website has helpful information about brushes, that’s where I’ve purchased most of my own:
One more note about brushes. When you’re letting them dry after using them, let them dry lying flat. When they’re drying upright in a cup the water goes downward and gets into the ferrule (the usually metal tube that holds the bristles in). Over time this can wear away the glue that’s holding the bristles in and will loosens them. It’s so annoying when you get a bad brush that’s loose and have the bristles falling out into your paint or onto your painting!
So you have your paint, palette, and brushes, now you need something to paint on!
There are several different textures of paper, and different weights. Texture generally means how more or less smooth the surface of the paper is. The kinds come in hot press, cold press, and rough. Hot is the smoothest, while rough is the roughest.
The weights are how thick or heavy paper is, for a beginner I would suggest 140 lbs (300g). The lighter weight paper, such as 90 lbs. crinkles or curls more with water. The price also varies, but for just getting started 140 lbs. is a good weight, and I would suggest cold press, or for more detailed work hot press.
There are many different sizes to choose from. Really you should choose the size based on how big you want your painting to be. Whatever you feel comfortable working with, you don’t want to waste paper. You can buy sheets individually, in a pad that is either glue or tape bound, or wire bound.
My favorite brand of paper is Strathmore; I get cold press 140 lbs. pads. (This is also the brand that my sketchbook is) I have also gotten generic Blick’s art supplies paper that’s cheaper, mostly for practice, but it doesn’t have the same quality. For bigger paintings I have the 11” x 15” size, and for smaller I like 5.5” x 8.5”.
When I paint I always have scrap pieces of watercolor paper that I test the colors on. I think that’s really a must because often the colors will look different than what they look like on the mixing tray. Then you can see how the color will look once the water has dried.
In conclusion, I hope that this information is helpful for you to start your own watercolor journey. It does take some practice, but it’s really fun and rewarding. I believe that there is no bad art, everyone can create something beautiful, as long as you’re happy with it then you should be proud.