Notes on watercolor equipment

watercolor

Published on September 26, 2021, last updated October 6, 2021

When I was starting out as a watercolor painter the first thing I did was searching online for the best supplies: paint, paper, brushes, etc. Ironically, by following the advice from the top search results I ended up buying completely wrong things. This article contains recommendations that I wish I had access to when I was in the beginning of my watercolor journey.

The choice of painting equipment and materials is always personal. Here, I share my approach to painting. I’m not trying to give universal answers that work for everyone. One’s preferences are formed after trying and comparing many different brands and types of supplies. This is a continuous, and likely never-ending process. Because of that, this article is subject to changes.

Paper

Early frustrations with watercolor are often because of low-quality paper. Indeed, paper is the single most important watercolor material as it has the biggest influence on the final result. Watercolor paper determines how paint flows and mixes and how long it remains wet on the surface. Good watercolor paper is not cheap and typically will only be sold at shops that specialize in high-quality art supplies.

Material and sizing

I started with something like Canson XL Watercolor block simply because I wanted to start painting as soon as possible and that’s what was available in the shop nearby. I was quite traumatized by the experience of using this paper. The paint did not want to form smooth transitions and it would dry rather quickly. Any delay with mixing colors would result in nasty and weird transitions. The paper is merciless—not a place to start for a beginner, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, if I was to use this paper now, I’d probably make something decent out of it just because I know how to work with watercolors. However, for a beginner painting is already a battle of proving to yourself that you can create something that doesn’t “suck”, so adding to that fighting with your supplies, namely paper, is not worth it.

Soon after my frustration with Canson I invested some time to learn what is the best watercolor paper, this way I found Arches. Arches is a big name in the world of watercolor, and one thing you keep hearing about Arches is that it is 100% cotton. This may lead to the belief that 100% cotton paper is the best. In reality though, quality of paper is determined by a number of other factors, such as sizing. Sizing, simply put, is a layer of substance (usually gelatin) that is put on the surface of watercolor paper to prevent paint from being immediately absorbed. The take away here is that one should not reject non-cotton papers by default. Try different papers and see how they feel. For example, after using Arches exclusively for 6 months, I have recently switched to Bockingford—0% cotton paper. Bockingford is made of wood-free bleached chemical pulp. It is a bit less forgiving, but it “eats” the color less than Arches, and gives a fresher, more old-school watercolor look. I believe that Bockingford matches my vision of what I want my paintings to look like.

Texture and weight

Watercolor paper typically comes in three different textures:

  • hot pressed (HP, grain satiné in French), which is absolutely smooth and lacks any texture.
  • cold pressed (CP, or NOT, grain fin in French), which has some texture.
  • rough (grain torchon in French), which has even more texture.

Here are some examples of the papers I usually use these days:

Arches HP 140lb texture Arches HP 140lb texture

Arches CP 140lb texture Arches CP 140lb texture

Arches Rough 140lb texture Arches Rough 140lb texture

Bockingford CP 200lb texture Bockingford CP 200lb texture (full sheet)

Bockingford Rough 140lb texture Bockingford Rough 140 texture (pad)

I enjoy painting on all of these. Hot pressed paper is a bit special though, because paint doesn’t move much on the surface, so every brush stoke is visible and will stay exactly where you put it. If more paint is used it will tend to flow on the surface in a rather uncontrolled fashion:

Paint flow on hot pressed paper

For these reasons, I reserve hot pressed paper for special moments when I am in the mood to paint something less serious and to just fool around. Most of the time though I use cold pressed or rough type of paper. I think that there should be at least some texture so that the paint gets distributed on the surface evenly and the “dry brush” technique can be used. With Bockingford I feel like their cold pressed paper doesn’t have enough texture, so I tend to prefer rough. With Arches even normal cold pressed paper has a lot of texture.

Another important characteristic of watercolor paper is its weight, or thickness. Weight is usually expressed either in g/m2 or in pounds (lb). Some common weights are:

  • 185 g/m2 = 90 lb
  • 300 g/m2 = 140 lb
  • 425 g/m2 = 200 lb
  • 640 g/m2 = 300 lb

I think watercolor paper should be at least 140 lb to prevent excessive bulging. You might be tempted to use the heaviest paper available, but remember that thickness will also influence the texture. For example, the texture of Arches CP 300 lb will be more rough and pronounced than that of Arches Rough 140 lb. I tend to use 140 lb and 200 lb papers.

Size and formats

Watercolor paper comes in different formats:

  • Spiral blocks (pads) and 1-side glued blocks (pads). Pads and blocks are the same thing, there is no unified terminology on this. I do not believe that you can fix the paper reliably enough on a spiral block or 1-side glued pad without separating it from the pad. What you likely need to do in these cases is take the sheet of paper from the block and then fix it on a drawing board with something like washi tape. This is extra work and it wastes the usable area of the paper (paper sold in this format is already relatively small) by adding a border to it.
  • 4-side glued blocks (pads) do not suffer from this problem. Take the block and paint on it right away. No bulging will happen because the surface is reliably glued on 4 sides. You do not need to waste washi tape nor usable area of the paper. After you are done painting, take a palette knife and separate the paper from the block. I use pads for small paintings around 9”×12” or so.
  • Rolls are problematic because you need to measure the paper to cut it in standard sizes and you need to straighten it afterwards, too.
  • Sheets are a great way to buy watercolor paper. They usually come in standard size 22”×30” (56cm×76cm), called imperial sheet, and it is easy then to obtain half-sheets (15”×22”) and quarter-sheets (11”×15”) by folding the paper in two. Buying paper in sheets, especially in packs of 25 full sheets, is very economical. This is also the only way I use to get paper for larger paintings. Good place to buy watercolor paper in sheets is Jackson’s art supplies. The shop provides a vide variety of different papers and it delivers them nicely packaged to your home. You can also ask to cut the paper and they do it for free.

In case you need to fix a piece of watercolor paper to a drawing board or table, mt washi tape is the best tool for this. It will hold the paper reliably and will not come off in the middle of painting process because it got a bit wet. However, in the end it can be easily removed. Some papers are delicate though and you need to pull the tape rather gently to avoid damaging the paper. I used to rely almost exclusively on fixing paper with washi tape, but now I prefer 4-side glued pads. I describe my approach to fixing paper for larger paintings in the section about my drawing board.

Sketchbooks

Sometimes I paint in a sketchbook. It is rather hard to find one with high-quality watercolor paper. I buy my sketchbooks from the Koval shop. It is a little independent business run by a single person who binds sketchbooks manually. The sketchbooks are rather expensive though, for example one 6.9”×9.8” with Arches CP 140 lb paper costs about 86€. Availability can also be a problem as the sketchbooks are regularly sold out.

Brushes

First, here is some terminology:

  • Capacity—how much mater/pigment a brush can hold. This depends on the material the bristles made of and the size of the belly of the brush.
  • Snap—how quickly the bristles snap back after they are bent at an angle. Squirrel and goat have very little snap, while sable has more of it.
  • Spring—how well the belly of the brush controls itself on the paper. Not every quality brush has snap, but they all should have spring.

Unless you are doing botanical watercolors, if you want a painterly, fresh look, you want to use a fairly big brush, probably the biggest brush you can control. There is no universal scale for brush sizes. Within a single lineup by the same manufacturer a bigger number will correspond to a larger brush. That’s about as much information as you can get from the number on your brush.

Quill mops

I favor large quill mops. These are all about 15 mm in diameter and about 40 mm in length. They all come to a nice point, so I can cover large areas and paint little details with the same brush.

The round shape is the most versatile brush shape. You can’t go wrong with it. I used to use a large flat brush because it allowed me to fill large areas easily. I also have a special brush (goat hair) just for applying water. I do not use those often anymore as I rarely pre-wet big areas of paper and my round mops are large enough to do the same job as my large flat brush.

When it comes to the bristles, I prefer to have more snap for better control. Therefore, if I were to opt for natural bristles, I’d need to buy sable brushes, which are rather expensive. For that reason I prefer synthetic brushes. They are less expensive and they do not encourage killing of animals, such as the poor kolinsky sable. Of course, there is another side to this natural vs synthetic debate: production of synthetic brushes requires a lot of energy and petrochemicals and results in toxic byproducts and waste. Synthetic brushes themselves do not decompose and have a shorter lifespan which results in even more waste.

Mops in the picture above (from top to bottom):

  • Rosemary & Co. Red Dot Collection mop size 6. This is my favorite watercolor brush. Unlike most synthetic brushes that are branded as synthetic squirrel, this one is synthetic sable. Therefore it has more snap and gives me more control. This is the biggest mop of this series. I can also recommend size 5. However, I have also tried smaller sizes and they all split their point, making them almost unusable—probably it is a side-effect of having more snap? Make sure you are getting at least size 5.
  • Borciani Bonazzi Unico Infinito size 8. This is my second best brush. I have only one complaint about it: its handle feels very cheap and plastic. I find this ironic, since they brand their handle as “not a simple plastic tube.” This is synthetic squirrel, hence it is much softer than the Red Dot Collection mop.
  • Princeton Neptune size 8. I expected more from this brush. It is synthetic squirrel and a very soft one at that. The brush has very little snap and its spring is not great. If you load it with paint and then try to paint with its whole belly only the middle part will leave marks on the paper. I plan on giving this brush away as I don’t really use it much.
  • Winsor & Newton synthetic squirrel medium. A very good brush. Overall, this is similar to Unico Infinito, but the bristles are a little bit less fun to work with. Unico Infinito’s fiber is just superb.

Lately, synthetic brushes have improved considerably. All of these have excellent capacities and can carry a lot of water, but not too much.

Some smaller brushes

Occasionally I want to paint smaller details where I don’t want to “overdo” it by accidentally holding my big brush too close to the paper. Then I use one of these.

Smaller brushes in the picture above (from top to bottom):

Rosemary & Co. brushes are great and very reasonably priced. My favorite mop cost me 19.90€. This is significantly cheaper than all other mops from the list. Similarly, the riggers are very affordable—size 4 (on the picture) cost me 4.20€.

Finally, for storing brushes nothing beats a simple bamboo roll:

Bamboo roll

Keep it open for a while to let the air dry your brushes after you rinsed them after painting.

Paint

Various tube paints

I use tube paint. Only tube paint allows me to achieve the full range of paint consistency. Pans do not allow us to quickly mix intense-enough, toothpaste-like paint. You have to rub and rub with your brush to pick up enough paint. This wears out the brush and is just slow and annoying. I made the mistake of buying pans at first and then I regretted it bitterly.

My opinion is that one has to use a limited palette. 12 or 16 colors maximum is all you need. In the beginning though, I would start with even fewer colors and concentrate on understanding how they mix.

The most economical way of buying paint is to go to a specialized shop and pick the tubes you want individually. For this, you need to have an opinion about what colors you need. If you buy a set you will soon discover that it doesn’t have the colors you want and you will have to buy more. Some of the colors that came with the set will be abandoned.

Tube paint needs to stay in a paste-like state. This is important. If it dries it becomes just like pan paint and thus loses all its advantages. To keep tube paint in usable condition spray it with a water spray generously every day, but avoid excessive puddles. Obviously, store your palette closed to limit access of fresh air that can dry your paint.

With regard to brands, I have used tube paint from 2 brands for a while (both artist quality paint, don’t bother with student-grade):

  • Sennelier. This was the first tube paint I used. It is great paint, but I found that it is not intense enough. Honey-based paint is also, in my opinion, worse than gum arabic-based one such as Daniel Smith and Winsor and Newton. It tends to re-wet worse and after a while it dries weirdly and cracks. I don’t know what happens there, maybe the honey gradually gets washed out or something.
  • Daniel Smith. Intense and superb. Re-wets beautifully, stays moist for a long time. With some spraying you can always keep tube paint in usable condition. In my opinion, this is the best paint on the market. Some people complain about its high price, but remember that you get 15mm tubes, not 10mm tubes like with most other brands.

I’m not going to talk about how to put together a palette here because this deserves a post of its own.

Palette

My current palette is (I believe) Holbein 1130-40, it looks like this:

Holbein 1130-40

And here is how it looks inside:

Holbein 1130-40 (opened)

It is possible that this is not a genuine Holbein palette. I bought it here in Paris from Magasin Sennelier, which is a respectable shop with a long history, but you can never be sure, as there are many fake palettes that purport to look like Holbein.

I am, however, not satisfied with this palette because it doesn’t have enough paint wells (only 13) and only 3 usable mixing wells, 2 of which are insufficiently separated from each other. When I paint standing and use rather diluted washes, e.g. for painting a sky, the paint flows all around and it’s a big mess.

I chose this palette because others with more paint wells had some of the wells on the lid of the palette. Since I keep my palette closed when I’m not painting to prevent the paint from drying, paint wells on the lid would be problematic. I don’t know who came up with this nonsensical idea of putting them there.

A palette to crave is a hand-made brass one. There are a number of one-man companies that manufacture these palettes. I have to say, they are all rather expensive and there is always a long (about 1 year) waiting list.

Here are some companies that make brass palettes:

In my opinion, The Little Brass Box Company makes the best palettes. I’m currently on the waiting list to get a Binning Monro style palette in summer 2022:

Binning Monro style palette

Pencils and erasers

Lead holder KOH-I-NOOR Versatil 5640 and kneadable art eraser Faber-Castell 10003496

Oftentimes, you will need to do some drawing before you start painting. This is usually done with a pencil. I recently switched to using a mechanical pencil, or a “lead holder”, instead of normal pencils. The benefits of a lead holder are the following:

  • No wood wasted.
  • The tool always stays the same and feels the same in hand.
  • It is heavy and solid and inspires free and painterly movements.
  • You can use fairly thick graphite, e.g. 5.6 mm, which feels softer and lasts longer.

On the picture you can see KOH-I-NOOR Versatil 5640.

If I had to use a pencil, I would use 3B or softer.

Also, it is useful to have a way to erase certain lines. The problem with normal erasers is that they can easily damage the paper and then it will show in the final painting. This is not a problem with kneadable art erasers. They have great plasticity and are sort of sticky. You can tap them on the paper gently and they will lift graphite without damaging the paper. My favorite is shown on the photo above, it is Faber-Castel kneadable art eraser.

Drawing board / easel

My drawing board

I paint standing. I feel like when I paint sitting I’m more stiff and less free. Another consideration is the angle of the drawing board. In the beginning, I started flat by attaching paper to my desk with washi tape, but once I tried to paint at a 30-45° angle there was no going back. The paint doesn’t tend to form puddles in random places and flows down which is something you can leverage when e.g. painting sky. Typically, there are little drops of paint forming but they are obvious and easy to deal with, whereas on the rest of the surface paint gets applied in an optimal way.

Because of all that, I need a drawing board that can be fixed at different angles and different heights. Unfortunately, there is no good solution on the market that I can recommend. It is my understanding that everyone who is serious about watercolors builds something themselves. Fortunately, it is not hard to do.

In my case, because I love doing photography, I already had a very good tripod. So, the easiest solution for me was to buy a compatible quick release and glue it onto a piece of thick carton or MDF with epoxy glue:

Quick release glued with epoxy glue

It then can be attached to my tripod:

Drawing board is attached to a camera tripod

I still fix paper on this board with washi tape unless I work with a block of paper glued on 4 sides.

Another type of drawing board I made is also based on thick carton or MDF with a quick release glued onto it. On top of that foundation I attached a piece of organic glass of matching size with scotch tape acting as a hinge. I cut a window in the glass, so that the paper is sandwiched between the carton and the glass during painting. I discovered this idea when I was watching this video by Andrew Pitt.

Drawing board for half-imperial sheets

I decided to take advantage of the fact that there’s going to be a rather significant “deckle edge” around paintings with this setup to change the aspect ratio in order to make it more appropriate for painting landscapes. I also chose to make drawing boards of this type bigger, with sizes matching full imperial and half-imperial sheets, because it is otherwise hard to work on paintings of this size.

  • My larger drawing board takes full imperial sheets with the window for actual painting 15”×24”.
  • The smaller one takes half-imperial sheets with the window for actual painting 11”×17”.

Here is an example of a painting on a half-imperial sheet of paper featuring the “deckle edge”:

An example of the deckle edge on a half-imperial sheet

Regarding stretching paper, I do not find it necessary.

Misc

Some indispensable items that are hard to put in a separate category:

Brush holder, a piece of tissue, pieces of a sponge, and a water spray

  • Brush holder. You need some kind of brush holder.
  • Water spray. As mentioned in the section about paint it is absolutely necessary to keep your tube paint moist. This little spray is my way of doing that. It is also occasionally useful for spraying water onto paper for artistic effects.
  • A piece of tissue is the best way to control the amount of water/paint in your brush. This is crucial. I never paint without a piece of tissue.
  • Pieces of a sponge that I use for cleaning my palette.

Also useful, but not required:

Palette knife

A palette knife. My instrument of predilection for lifting paint by scratching and for separating sheets of paper from a pad.