Welcome to this long-awaited post all about watercolor! I started in with watercolors last fall (2014), 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.
UPDATE!! I’ve also put together a great Watercolor Jumpstart class with tons more information. Use coupon code START for 10% off (cannot be combined with other coupons.)
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 to work as an independent artist and crafter. 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. 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.
- Paints and papers
- Technique basics
As I show different product images and comparisons:
- Below the photos, I’ll list a little information and links to purchase that item if you desire.
- 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!
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:
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.
- Princeton Select – 2, 4, 6 (student grade)
- Robert Simmons Sapphire – 2, 4, 6 (student grade)
- Robert Simmons White Sable – 2, 4, 6 (student grade)
- Raphaël Kaërell Synthetic Sable – 2, 4, 6
- Silver Brush – Black Velvet Line – 2, 4, 6 *my pick for crafters
- DaVinci Cosmotop – 2, 4, 6 *beveled handle
- Blick Master Synthetic – 2, 4, 6 *guaranteed for life, pretty sweet
Water brushes or Aqua brushes:
- Pentel – individually or a three pack.
- Faber Castell Water Brush
- Zig – detailer, medium, large, and broad
- Prima – set of two, the only one I know of that has long handles
- Tim Holtz/Ranger – detailer or broad
- Caran d’Ache Museum brush – I have this one in my cart!
Other things mentioned in the video:
- Nesting water cups
- Brush roll for short-handle brushes, or a long-handle version
- Make your own brush roll tutorial
- 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 now 8 and 12 rounds. If you only have budget for one – go for an 8. I used to recommend smaller ones but if you want to get loose, go bigger.
- Water brush: I’ve had the best luck with the Pentels
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
- Koi Sketchbox – DB 12 or 24; EH 12
- Kuretake Gansai Tambi – DB 12 or 18 or 24: EH 12, 24, or 36
- Windsor & Newton Field Box, 12 pans
- Holbein Palm Box, 12 pans
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!
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:
- Flower stamp from Bohemian Garden
- Acrylic block
- Canson XL Paper
- Black Velvet Brush Round 4
- Koi Sketchbox
- Some inks that are good to use with watercolors: Ranger Archival or Versafine
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!