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Getting Started with Watercolor

Welcome to this long-awaited post all about watercolor! I started in with watercolors last fall, and have been trying to learn all I could from experimenting. Many of my readers have wanted me to make recommendations – and that’s so hard! There are many good brushes, papers, and paints, and much of the decision-making has more to do with YOU and what you plan to do with it.

A little about me if you’re new to my blog: I’m an artist by training, though hadn’t really delved into watercolor; my career as a graphic designer has been exchanged in the last few years for the world of papercrafting, which is also incorporating much of my fine art talent as well. This post is intended primarily for crafters – or new watercolorists who just want to try things out. 

This is a really really really long post. Please feel free to bookmark it or pin it and come back. But scroll to the bottom, I have a little giveaway! Before I get into the meat of things, let me tell you what’s going to be coming up: this post is in a few sections, so you can scroll to the area you’re interested in, or just make your way through from the top.

  • Brushes
  • Paints and papers
  • Technique basics

As I show different product images and comparisons:

  1. Below the photos, I’ll list a little information and links to purchase that item if you desire.
  2. At the END of each section, I’ll give you my overall purchase recommendations if you don’t want to wade through all the info above it. 

Links are primarily affiliate links in this post: that means that if you purchase an item using some of these links, I receive a very small commission. There’s no extra cost for you when this happens, but it really does help defray the cost of this blog. And uhm, the cost of all these papers and brushes. LOL. None of the products shown have been given to me. Yes, my wallet is glaring at me! 🙂

I only link you to items that I think are worth purchasing. Even so, there may be some items that you purchase and think, “She’s nuts, this is horrible.” Because we all have our own opinions, right? But I’ve been using these items and do like them – some more than others, as you’ll see in the notes below each one.

Are you ready? Buckle in, let’s go!


brushes

An artist’s brush is a VERY personal choice. I mean VERY. It’s challenging to find a brush that I think other painters would be happy with, since I only live in my own skin. But….I’ll share what I learned and hopefully you’ll learn from my experience! Watch the video below, or click HERE to watch in HD on YouTube!

I decided to limit the test to round brushes only. That’s a brush shape that I think best suits papercrafters, though there are many other shapes that can work too. These are all #4 brushes:

7 brushes

The first three are student brushes, and we go up from there. Remember….this test did NOT include every brush out there. Do not be offended if your favorite is not listed here.

  1. Princeton Select – 2, 4, 6 (student grade)
  2. Robert Simmons Sapphire – 2, 4, 6 (student grade)
  3. Robert Simmons White Sable – 2, 4, 6 (student grade)
  4. Raphaël Kaërell Synthetic Sable  – 2, 4, 6
  5. Silver Brush – Black Velvet Line – 2, 4, 6 *my pick for crafters
  6. DaVinci Cosmotop – 2, 4, 6 *beveled handle
  7. Blick Master Synthetic – 2, 4, 6  *guaranteed for life, pretty sweet

aquabrushes

Water brushes or Aqua brushes:

  1. Pentel – individually or a three pack.
  2. Faber Castell Water Brush
  3. Zig – detailer, medium, large, and broad
  4. Prima – set of two, the only one I know of that has long handles
  5. Tim Holtz/Ranger – detailer or broad
  6. Caran d’Ache Museum brush – I have this one in my cart!

Other things mentioned in the video:

  1. Nesting water cups
  2. Brush roll for short-handle brushes, or a long-handle version
  3. Make your own brush roll tutorial

Recommendations:

Brand: Silver Brush’s Black Velvet line is the one I love. At least for now! All the ones listed above are great though, if you have one already or if your art store doesn’t carry these.

Sizes: My favorites are 2, 4, and 6 rounds. If you only have budget for one – go for a 4.

Water brush: I’ve had the best luck with the Pentels and Faber Castell not dripping out prematurely, but my Zig does well most of the time….I love that they have the tiny brush on the small one.


 

paperpaint

This test was a labor of love! I have bought so many papers that I think I’m stocked up for a good long while. And yet…I still can say I love all of these for different reasons. And I won’t stop buying. I am a total paper lover. Some definitions:

  • Cold press: a textured paper. It comes in fine grain or rough grain in many brands. If the grain is not mentioned, it’s most likely fine grain.
  • Hot press: smooth paper, great for stamping.
  • Weight: most watercolor papers come in 140lb or 90lb. For consistency purposes I’m using all 140lb for this test.
  • Pads, blocks, sheets: You can purchase many of these papers by the sheet; I’m using pads and blocks. Pads are attached on one side, blocks have adhesive around 3 or 4 sides – so they don’t need to be taped to a board to stay flat during painting.
  • Euro fold: a pad that folds on the short side.

NOTE: I chose to do the paint tests on the pad itself, rather than taping it to a board; that was not because I didn’t know to tape them down, but because I wanted to test and see if some papers had more ‘curl’ to them after being completely soaked with water and paint.

As for paints – I chose to only assess pan (cake) paints at this time. I’m trying to find apples-to-apples things to compare, and bringing tube paints and palettes into the mix can muddy the waters, so to speak. I kept the colors similar too, so there would be fewer factors to compare. And I did not include all the paints in the testing, I had to pick four to keep it easy to follow as I photographed everything.

At the end of this post I’ll give you my opinions on what you might like to try out! In the meantime watch the video below, or click HERE to watch on YouTube; you’ll see a few of these papers being painted (there are more here on this blog post than are in the video.) Watch below or click HERE to view it in HD on YouTube.

And now…let’s get to the paper pics! Click on the IMAGE to see it larger – I know sometimes squinting at the detail of paper texture is just too hard to see, so a click will blow them WAY up for you.

SandyAllnock 1CansonXL

Canson XL is a decent and inexpensive student-grade paper. It curls the most out of the 8 that were tested, but not much if it’s taped to a board to secure it. The paints moved pretty readily on this paper, and the Holbein paints moved out in ‘bloom’ shapes. Windsor-Newton paints held the most integrity in the paper texture. The Kuretake dried with a very even texture and coloration.SandyAllnock 2MoulinCPfine

I’m testing three Moulin du Roy papers by Canson, this one is the Cold Press, fine grain. I won’t repeat what was said above about the paints, as some paint behaviors are the same across all and only change with the texture of the paper they’re used on.

With a higher quality paper, the Kuretakes began to take on more painterly edges, which are nice. Note though with the Crayola paints – they seem to just smooth out whatever they’re used on, and colors do get muddy sometimes.

The “Enhanced Surface Cohesion” means the surface better tolerates multiple layers of paint without trashing the surface of the paper – so these Moulin du Roy papers take a lot more beating than other papers might. They’re also more erase-able than other papers. I’ll be putting that to the test over time.

 

SandyAllnock 3MoulinCPRough

Another Moulin paper from Canson – Cold Press, rough texture. It takes a little more professional control to manage on this kind of paper, and it can be a challenge to stamp on. However it affords great paint textures, and can be a lot of fun for creating traditional watercolor effects.

SandyAllnock 4CansonMontval

This Montval paper is one of the “blocks” I tested: these are paper pads with the edges sealed with an adhesive; a simple razor blade can detach the painted layer once finished, and there’s no need to adhere the paper to a board. You can see there is absolutely no curl with a paper like this.

SandyAllnock 5Arches

When getting into Arches paper (cold press rough), the quality (and price) begin to rise. The texture of this rough grain cold press moves any of the paints quickly – you can see that upon drying, this one became almost completely covered in paint as it moved out to the edges of the paper. The Holbein paints still hang onto some of the integrity of their painted texture, while most of the others seemed to quickly lose detail; though this was a fast swash of paint, and the response painting an image is obviously quite different than this. Stay tuned for me to do more technique tests this summer with these papers.

SandyAllnock 6MoulinHP

Back to another Moulin paper (satin grain hot press), with the Enhanced Surface Cohesion again. Hot Press papers are very smooth, which makes them great for stamping. This particular one gets slightly more expensive than the other Moulin du Roy papers.

SandyAllnock 7Fluid100
This Fluid 100 cold press block is now working us toward the higher end of the ones tested; the block adds to the expense. The way the color flows on this makes my little heart go pitter patter – and have you been noticing that the Holbeins have been maintaining their color a little better than the others? The Crayola are often brightest, but also are very hit-or-miss when they get mushy at times.

SandyAllnock 8artisticofabriano

The final paper pad is Artistico by Fabriano, another artist-grade paper, and just looking at the swatches of paint, it’s easy to see that the effects of the paint remain, aside from the Crayolas which only smooth out. (I think the paper quality made them wet their pants.) There are a number of other Fabriano papers I have in my collection – the company’s medium range papers – and they’re also great. But I ran out of steam and they didn’t make it for the test.

And now for paints!

paints

  1. Crayola
  2. Sennelier
  3. Koi Sketchbox – DB 12 or 24; EH 12
  4. Kuretake Gansai Tambi – DB 12 or 18 or 24: EH 12, 24, or 36
  5. Windsor & Newton Field Box, 12 pans
  6. Holbein Palm Box, 12 pans

My recommendations

Papers for papercrafters: the Canson XL is definitely the best “buy” for the money, however its performance won’t take you from a so-so painting to something beyond. If you’re itching to see what the other papers are like, the Moulin du Roy pads are an excellent choice to try out something a little fancier, but not have to spend a ton; they are less money than you’d think. The enhanced surface cohesion could be a big help in creating interesting techniques.

Paints for papercrafters: In the video I showed more paints than what was in the 4some for the test; the two paint sets that I like a lot for crafting are the Kuretake Gansai Tambi paints (they come in 12 or 18 or 24 or 36) and the Koi Sketchbox (which comes in 12 or 24). Both are very affordable, and both will achieve what we need them to as crafters. I used the Koi for a lot of my painting while travelling in Europe, and the paints produced very well!

My personal favorites: The Holbein paints are on my love list. I didn’t expect that, but hoped for something good when I spent that much on them. (And now I need to buy more….aaaaah!) The Artistico paper is also a favorite, and will be a regular paper I use for my fine art work, and will likely be meandering about with all these papers for a while. I’ll be using the Canson XL in my classes that I teach, as it’s affordable – and in my Watercolor Flowers for Cardmakers class, students will get to try out a couple different papers.


Techniques

Please understand that just buying good paper, the “right” brush, and quality paints — even these are not enough to transform you magically into an amazing painter. Good tools do go a long way, but you’ll still need to work at it and practice techniques. In this video, I’ll show you a few basics about the ways that *I* paint – you may or may not do things this way since there are many ways to skin a cat! But I hope this will help. Watch the video below, or click HERE to watch in HD on YouTube.

Used in this video:

  1. Flower stamp from Bohemian Garden
  2. Acrylic block
  3. Canson XL Paper
  4. Black Velvet Brush Round 4
  5. Koi Sketchbox
  6. Some inks that are good to use with watercolors: Ranger Archival or Versafine

Giveaway

Just because I wanted to celebrate actually getting this far in my research, I purchased TWO extra Round 4 brushes – the Black Velvet ones! And I’ll give them away to two lucky commenters on this post. Come back in a week and find out if it was YOU who won!

Last week’s winners

On THIS post, I was giving away two Copic Multiliners – and the winners are (drumroll please!)….VikkiCH and poconopam! Email me your addresses and I’ll get your pens out to you.

And now….I rest. This has been a heroic post, and I congratulate you on getting to the end of it. And me as well. I’m pooped! Chat later, peeps!

SandySignature

162 thoughts on “Getting Started with Watercolor

  1. Very informative Sandy, thank you. I have several of the products you use and your videos help me learn how to use them.

  2. Very informative videos. Thank you for putting this together for us novices.

  3. […] Silver Brush, Round 4: Kim Sharabba and Kelli Okumura […]

  4. […] Started” posts nearly do me in! I remember this feeling after finally finishing the Getting Started with Watercolor post….I need a nap! There’s enough info here to overwhelm anyone, so be sure to […]

  5. I am sure that it is too late to ask this question, but what the heck.
    I have heard other watercolor people talk about a “hardboard” being essential to watercoloring, but they do not go one to explain what one is or how it is essential.
    Is it just a piece of Masonite? What do I use it for?

    1. I wouldn’t say “essential” – but it sure helps me. I tape my paper down to it and it helps keep curling to a minimum. You can also paint hardboard with watercolor ground (a type of gesso) and paint directly on it. (Though I prefer paper…haven’t figured out a way to apply it that I like enough).

      1. Thank you for answering! I looked on Dick Blick tonight and the hardboard wasn’t expensive but I have dealt with DB before and know it takes forever to get the order!
        I guess I should just get the board and some drafting dots or tape from DB and practice my patience. I could always watch some Dr Who episodes while cleaning my art room out! That should take a month or so!
        Thanks again.
        PS if you ever want to possibly snail mail me one of your beautiful cards, I would love it and probably frame it like I did to a card Karen Burniston sent me 2 years ago. The problem is, I have no sneaky way to put my address into your address book!!

        1. Weird—I don’t have trouble with Blick at all! I’m sorry you have.

  6. […] Getting started with watercolor […]

  7. I’m watching the watercolor video now – I noticed you were struggling to get the paint out of the Winsor & Newton travel set – it’s actually really easy… notice the little tab in the center above the paint, below the notch where the water holder goes? You just have to pull that towards the paint to unlatch the center, row holding the center paints – the side paints come out. To get the middle ones out, slide them up while it is unlatched and pull the out at the top. Hope this helps!

    1. A few more notes: if you want the paint pans not to move around, try using a very small amount of removable wall putty (the kind used to hang posters) put under them to keep them in place. Personally I wouldn’t recommend the Canson XL paper; in my experience the paint tends to soak into the paper and spread (especially with thin lined designs). For example, if you are painting a stamped image, the paint may seep beyond the stamped lines. Good paper will allow you to lift paint more easily, will not absorb the paint so readily, and will not pill up when doing normal watercoloring. You may want to use a palette knife to separate the papers from the pads (blocks) rather than a razor (razors tend to cut into the paper sometimes).

  8. Hi Sandy, I love your videos! Thank you for sharing your ideas and experiences. I wanted to mention that you probably shouldn’t lick your brushes – for several reasons. I’m not sure if you are actually putting them in your mouth (or if others are) but be aware that paints have chemicals in them, some hazardous. Also, getting germs in the brushes can transfer to the paint – wetting and rewetting the paint may cause them to grow and multiply, allowing mold and other nasties to form. Especially do not do this with tube watercolors since they don’t have the preservatives in them that pan watercolors do. I recommend purchasing a “leave in” brush cleaner/preserver like The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver (if your local craft store doesn’t carry it in their art department, you can get it at an art store or order it online). Of course, never leave your brushes in your water glass – the tips will bend and ruin them – just lie them flat on your work surface. My favorite brushes for watercoloring are sable or sable-synthetic. Quality brushes have great spring and hold a lot of water/paint.

  9. […] Started” posts nearly do me in! I remember this feeling after finally finishing the Getting Started with Watercolor post….I need a nap! There’s enough info here to overwhelm anyone, so be sure to stay […]

  10. Thank you so much Sandy for this great video series, it’s super helpful. I would love to see more videos like this! Could you do a video showing the brush included in the Holbein box in action? You said that is a really nice one so I would love to see you work with it.
    I personally wouldn’t get the Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle waterbrush (I have this one). While it is the coolest looking waterbrush I have seen, it has some major drawbacks. First, the pumping mechanism only works if you press it really hard (I often have to take it into both hands to be able to push it), so it’s not very intuitive imo. Only very little water comes out at a time which might be to the advantage for patient people, but impatient me just ends up squeezing a couple of times -> water puddle.
    Then there is the brush head which comes to a fine point but the brush head is very stiff so you can’t use the point, so I only use the “belly” of the brush head to paint.
    The water filling mechanism works like a syringe, you unscrew the brush head and then you can pull up the water by pullying the end of the brush handle. It will only fill up to half the size of your now double the original size brush handle, so you need to turn the brush handle around and squeeze out the air, then repeat the water filling process. Again, not very intuitive.

    1. Oh thanks for the heads up on that brush – it’s on my list to get and I still might, but now I don’t feel like I’m missing out 🙂

  11. OMGosh! I have been having sooooo much fun playing with your AWESOME HEX CHART that I forgot to check the blog! I am sooooo excited that I won! Thanks Sandy!!!!!!!!!!!!! YOU ROCK!!!!

  12. This is very helpful. Thank you so much for testing this out for us!

  13. […] on $89+ orders – use code CDWR til Friday. Some of you were waiting on a coupon to shop for watercolor stuff, now’s a good […]

  14. Thank you for sharing all your research. Your watercolor posts have inspired me to try some myself.

  15. Thanks so much for sharing your talent with all of us. Good luck to the winner. donn

  16. Thanks for doing the work for me. It would have taken me years before I thought of trying all the comparisons you have shown. Good job!

  17. Thank you so much for all this information. I’ve really struggled to find good brushes. I’m definitely going to try the Silver brushes.

  18. Thank you so much for all this info and everything you do for us.

  19. Hi Sandy, I can make cards of any scrap of paper you put in front of me, I made 200 birthdays cards from the baskets of paper scraps I had all over my craft room for a local charity in 10 days, however I’m completely artistically challenged when it come to working with pens and watercolors. This is the kind of information I need to get some confidence that I’ll have the right tools to attempt trying to up my card making game. Thanks for the time and effort and money you put into bringing us this very valuable information. Well Done!!

  20. I am so glad I read this before I placed my order at Dick Blick for all the supplies for your upcoming classes in California. Thank you!

  21. Thanks so much for the in-depth descriptions of products. I’ve just started watercolors and the array of choices is unbelievable. I bought the St. Petersburg watercolor set and have been really pleased with them. I’m also curious about the peerless watercolors papers (paints) which seem to be quite beautiful to work with. Thanks so much for sharing; it is truly appreciated.

  22. I never realized just how versatile watercolor is! And so many different brushes! wow!

  23. I signed up for a watercolor class! You have inspired me to jump in and give it a try. I really appreciate these videos with your tested recommendations. With all the supplies that are available, it was almost impossible to figure out on my own which products to purchase. Thanks so much!

  24. Such great detail…I so appreciate the time that you take to help us out! And it is so true about personal preference…I have had such poor luck with Canson XL. Strathmore 400 is my current go to paper but I have been playing with Arches as well. It really depends on how it is being used! Thanks again for sharing your talent!

  25. I watched each video and was amazed at all the information. I have never taken a class in watercolor. I am clueless! Thanks to you, I now have a better understanding. I love watching you teach. You’re an amazing artist. As always’ TFS

  26. Oh, wow! What a fab post chocked full of info. Thx!!! Bookmarking for future ref!

  27. Hi Sandy. Thank you so much for all of this info. I have read a lot of it but decided to bookmark it for future reference. (I want to watch these videos soon. I have been trying to teach myself how to water colour for some time. I have bought good paper and need to invest in better paints/brushes but I CAN see some progress already. You are absolutely right, its the practice that will make the difference. Thanks again for the info!

  28. Thank you so much for sharing your research! It is so great to be able to visit your blog and get the “real scoop” on different items we use in papercrafting! I so appreciate your honesty!

  29. I pinned this as well, but WOW. So much fantastic information and amazing looking brushes. Great tips and video and ideas….eep. I keep seeing watercoloring and it looks so amazing. Suddenly I can see myself getting to that place too! Thank you!

  30. The Black Velvet brushes look awesome! Thanks for the chance to win! So many great tips and ideas… anxious to try out some of these techniques!

  31. Thank you for all of the work you have done on the comparisons, it has been extremely informative.

  32. I am beginning to fall in love with water coloring. Another new way to create and have fun. Thank you for sharing.

  33. thanks for all the work you have put into these videos to help us understand water coloring and the supplies better, I do appreciate it very much. I have dipped my hand into this media but am easily frustrated and I have learn so much from you thanks again

  34. Wow! We are blessed daily with your talent and love for art. I have always struggled with a lack of confidence that I can make something beautiful. Quite simply put you have inspired me to believe in myself as someone who can accomplish art. Thank you.

  35. My words for you are “quirky perfectionist”. Love your style!

  36. Thank you Sandy for such detailed info. Very informative and much needed. You are a very talented lady and I hope that soon you will teach a class in Cleveland Ohio.

  37. My word for you is …. INFORMATIVE! So love the growing and understanding that you have given me with my artsy projects.

  38. Just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate all the work you put into this so I have someone to learn from that makes it understandable to me. Bless you and your talent!.

  39. Wow! After these videos and instruction, I can’t wait to get going! Thank you so much!

  40. So much information! That was great, thank you!

  41. Thanks so much for all the info on watercoloring. Always love your videos!! I think your new name should be Color Strokes!!

  42. Thank you so much for this. I found it on YouTube, and really needed the information. I am a total beginner, but have discovered that something happens to me when I play with color. And I like it! I really enjoyed your scrap-wrangler videos and found them really timely as I am in the process of setting up a craft room. I really love the idea of cutting papers into some standard(ish) sizes and getting rid of the rest. (Are ALL papercrafters hoarders?) Anyway, Thanks again.

  43. Thi s is a awesome post! SO much great information for new watercolorists! Of which, I’m one. I’ve recently purchsed the Gamsai Tambi watercolors (LOVE) and a #4 round Black Velvet brush, all thanks to you and your blog! 🙂 It’s amazing what a difference a good brush makes. I’m still a novice, but, I hope to keep getting better. Thank YOU for all the informative videos/postings. And, for taking the time to document it all. Between you and Jennifer McGuire, my wallet is empty. LOL!

    1. You’re most welcome! LOL!

  44. I love that you are willing to do product reviews! You always provide helpful hints and are cost conscious. Thanks for the chance to win one of the wonderful brushes you reviewed!

  45. Sandy! All of the research was amazing! Thank you for taking me on this journey to learn!

  46. My all in-one teacher!

  47. Wow ! What a compilation of information! I have saved the page so I can refer back to it often. Thanks for doing all this work .

  48. So much valuable information in this post. Thanks Sandy

  49. Eeek Sandy! Didnt know there was a generous giveaway until I read your email today regarding the one unique word that describes you….Thank you for the videos regarding watercolour (my favourite and most hated medium) I need to practice more to get it to even look like it hasn’t come out of the bin. I think I might just watch those videos again!

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