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  • Writer's pictureSara

Start Better

It's overwhelming when you walk into the art store and visit the painting aisle. SO many brushes, paints, and papers to choose from. Which ones do you go with?! Why is everything so expensive?! This is just a hobby, it shouldn't be this confusing!!

Believe it or not, it's not you, it's the materials you use when learning watercolor.

🔔 Important Fact: When painting in watercolor you're using an earth element. Water. Most pigments are also created using ground up minerals from the earth.

Most of the "cheaper" supplies that lure you as a beginner are made with synthetic elements. Mixing something natural with something synthetic rarely gives great results. Add your own apprehensiveness and well, the painting looks like mud and you give up. But hey, little money wasted right?

To make good watercolors it takes natural materials. Just like good food takes fresh ingredients.
Watercolor painting mermaids at Mary Rose's shop
Watercolor set up at La Poste, Perry Iowa

I'm going to give you my list of the bare bone supplies needed to start off successful with watercolor. If you're willing to hang in there with me, and trust me, you WILL find your mark and method within this medium!

Buy the best materials you can afford & choose quality over quantity

Most academic and student grade materials are full of fillers such as glues and plastics which hold back the true nature of the medium.

  • This applies to most art supplies.

  • Working with academic grade materials will inevitably frustrate you and make you think you can’t paint in watercolor.

It all starts with the paper!

Arches, Blick, and Winsor Newton watercolor blocks

Student grade vs Artist grade paper

  • Student grade paper is made:

    • wood pulp or a combo of wood and cotton.

    • Not acid free or archival, generally

    • Can not take the abuse most beginners have on paper

    • Best student grade paper

  • Artist grade paper is made with:

Pad vs. Block vs. Sheet

  • Pad

    • Glued on one side, typically student grade

    • Will need to peel off, baptized and taped down to board then left to dry before painting

  • Block

    • Glued on 2 or more sides

    • Sheet doesn’t need to be removed to be painted on

    • Transportable

    • When done you have a folder for current WIPs

  • Loose Sheet

    • Challenging to transport

    • Must cut down to a more obtainable size for exercises

    • Will need to be sized - baptized and taped down to board then left to dry before painting

Hot Press vs. Cold Press

  • Hot Press

    • Smooth surface

    • Very thirsty paper

    • Tight fibers

    • Great blooms

  • Cold Press

    • Textured surface

    • Holds water longer

    • Looser fibers than hot press

    • Can take a lot of water and abuse

We will use cold pressed paper to start

On to the paints!

Watercolor tubes by Daniel Smith, Winsor Newton, and QoR

Student grade vs Artist grade paint

  • Student grade paint is:

    • Filled with synthetic fillers and binders

    • Less color choices

    • Not as permanent, fades faster, less pigment

  • Artist grade paint is:

Tube vs Pan

  • Tube

    • Rich pigment already moist straight out of the tube

    • Very little work to rewet or mix

    • Use any size brush on any size palette

    • Can get messy

  • Pan

    • Can rearrange palette without breaking off paint

    • Transportable

    • Takes more work to rewet

    • Small color space, so must use a smaller brush to transport color to mixing surface

Purchase DOT SHEETS by Winsor Newton and Daniel Smith to test out professional watercolor choices

Choosing your brushes

Simply Simmons, Black Velvet, and Cotman watercolor brushes


  • Types

    • Synthetic

      • Usually made of nylon or some kind of plastic

      • Keeps shape and has bounce back

      • Doesn’t hold much water

    • Sable

    • Blended

      • Best of both worlds for the price

      • Holds water well

      • Keeps shape and has bounce back

  • Shapes

    • Rounds Used for details and fine lines

    • Flats Used for washes and solid strokes

  • Sizes I Use Most

    • Round size 1

    • Round size 6

    • Round size 12

    • Flat size ½ inch

Don’t use craft brushes, fancy looking brushes, brushes for anything other than watercolor, or get a brush set. It’s better to get each one individually so you only pay for what you need.


Metal watercolor palettes by Meeden and from Amazon


  • Plastic

    • Most budget friendly

    • Lots of wells to place paint

    • Hard to get paint to stick, it beads up

    • Can be frustrating to use and hard to transport

  • Metal

    • Paint sticks very well

    • Limited mixing space

    • Wells can be rearranged\removed

    • Easy to transport

  • Ceramic

    • Most expensive

    • Visually pleasing

    • Limited wells and mixing space

I use and recommend the metal palette. The ones I use are by Meeden. It gives the most flexibility and sits in the middle price point.

Setting it all up

Sara Burrier's painting set up during winter, artist studio.

Fill in palette

  • Wells

    • Fill half way, if slanted (a lot of plastic palettes have slanted wells), fill at the top of the slant, not the bottom

    • Leave mixing spaces open (the large flat open spaces)

  • Arranging Colors

    • Set up colors in the order of a rainbow or color wheel

Set up Workspace

  • Layout

    • Place paint, water, and towel on the side you write with

    • Brushes and other items can be placed on the opposite side

    • Paper in the center

  • Keep it Simple

    • You don’t need to make your set up elaborate, just functional

    • Have out only what you need

    • Try to set up where you can leave it out

    • Use a bag or box to place your supplies in for easy access and clean up


Notes on where to purchase supplies

*Do not purchase any brushes on Amazon. There's a risk they will be bent or unprotected. *If you have a local art store like Blick or Utrecht purchase there. Here in Des Moines we don't have any official art store because too many consumers chose the big box stores over them. Support your local art store, even if it's a big name one. Plus they will have far more options than Hobby Lobby or Michael's. *Use coupons when you can! Especially if you shop Michael's or Hobby Lobby.

*Some great online stores are Jerry's Artarama and Cheap Joe's.

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