So I recently published a blog post about the materials that I use for my watercolour paintings. However, I would like to explain to you now how what I use may be helpful to know or may be completely irrelevant to you. I'll give you some tips on where to invest your money instead!
When I was still at University I attended a watercolour workshop with a very highly skilled and accomplished watercolourist. This artist, though lovely and generously giving their time and advice to the students, did have a tendency to make sweeping, directive statements like "Do not buy student quality paints. Do not ever use granulating watercolours" and "Never let anything but your brush and the paint touch your paper!" etc. Now obviously this artist knows what they like, they produce amazing results, have good reasons for their opinions and were teaching within the context of a University level pursuit of technical painting! (So no hard feelings) But for a student who had just invested plenty of money JUST THE PREVIOUS WEEK on student quality paints *ouch*, knew little about granulating vs staining paints or that it was "bad" to use watercolour mediums with your paints or even masking tape* these dire instructions made me feel like I knew nothing about the medium despite all of my study up until that point. I was apparently breaking a lot of 'rules' that I had not known about and it seemed that the world of watercolours was more complicated than what I had hoped.
The truth is, watercolours can be complicated but they don't have to be. Beautiful watercolour paintings can be created with cheap paper, even just one colour of watercolour paint and a brush of some sort. It's certainly not the price or number of materials that you have that completely dictate the value of your work. So save your dollars! The materials that you need must be determined based on your experience and skill level as a watercolourist/artist, the effects you're hoping to achieve in your work and the purpose of the art you are creating. The most important thing is that you are enjoying the process and the end result and you can use whatever medium that is on the market that works for you!
So what should you buy? Here is a list of questions you might ask yourself before you go shopping with suggestions of what materials you may want to buy and tips for keeping costs down.
1. Am I a beginner artist/watercolourist?
Yes > You're in an experimental stage! You can happily keep your spending to the cheaper brands of watercolour materials and still get a feel for how the medium works and how you may like to use it. If the budget allows, try to sample at least cold press (rough) watercolour paper compared to hot pressed (smooth) watercolour paper as the effects that may be achieved on each are quite varied. My other suggestion is to try and avoid the very cheapest materials you can find. I still use the very cheapest if I'm painting with my 3 year old, but if the quality is in the absolute pits and there is minimal pigment in your paint and your paper starts to spoil with only a little water then both the process and results of your work will probably be unpleasant and disappointing.
No > Then you probably have a bit of an idea about what style of painting you like to do and what sort of effects you are trying to achieve. Now is a great time to invest in higher quality materials. You will find that the colours will probably be more vibrant, the paper will take a lot more water before/without spoiling or buckling and your brushes will hold their shape for much longer. You definitely do get more bang for the extra bucks.
2. What style of painting are you wanting to create? For example, loose brushwork with lots of wet-in-wet? Or much more controlled, detailed illustrations?
Loose and Washy > You'll probably want to invest in heavier weight paper and cold pressed is often preferred with these sorts of styles. Also, the better quality paints will maintain their strength of colour better where lots of water may dilute the colour a lot more with the cheapest paints. You'll also probably want larger/fuller brush sizes that will hold lots of water for you.
Controlled and Detailed > For detailed work, you'll most likely want smooth, hot pressed paper so that texture of the paper's surface does not interfere with your precise brushwork. You may not need very heavy weight watercolour paper if you're not doing lots of wet washes. You may use a whole range of brush sizes but the smaller brushes are more commonly used for the tiny details.
3. Where will you be painting? In a studio or en plein air ('in the field')?
Studio > Pick whatever materials you like best! You can have as many tubes or pans of paint, palettes and brushes as you can fit in your work space.
En Plein Air > If you're wanting you're watercolours so you can paint landscapes outdoors, or complete field journals, travel journals etc. then generally a 'travel watercolour set' (example pictured above) with pans of watercolour paints and an inbuilt palette is the sort of thing you should buy. Just the essentials that you need in a compact set that you can carry with you easily.
4. What is the purpose that your artwork will serve? Eg. Will you be selling your originals? Or just licensing the imagery? Or not selling at all?
I want to sell my work > In this instance, I would suggest you get the best materials that you can afford. Not only will you get the best results, but longevity of your artwork is important if someone will be paying to keep this artwork to look at for years to come! Don't put hours of effort into a piece to sell if in a few years your work has faded or the colours have changed! If the piece has sold you will have unhappy customers wanting a refund, and if you hadn't sold it yet you've certainly hurt your chances of ever doing so. Invest in quality for your own integrity.
Imagery licensing > I guess this one comes down to your own preferences, but if you're happy with how the mid-range brands are performing for you, and the original artwork is not needed after it has been scanned in and saved as the digital file, then you probably don't need to bother paying for archival quality paints and paper.
I'm not interested in selling. > If you're painting just for the enjoyment and to learn a new hobby then buy whatever you want to that brings you that joy.
5. Do I like the feel/look?
Apart from personal preference this one generally comes down to the price of your materials. The very cheapest paints can be chalky feeling and dull, cheap brushes won't have/hold their tips and so can be very difficult to use for fine work, and cheap, thin paper might spoil really easily and ruin your artwork. If you don't like how your materials look/feel/work then try an upgrade or at least a different brand.
6. How do you like to work? Do you love having lots of colours and brushes? Or do you mix your own colours and use only one or two brushes?
This one is all personal preference! I know some top botanical watercolorists who love to collect every colour paint tube they can find! They carefully select the colours from their collection that they will use before beginning each painting and also use a variety of flat, filbert and fan brushes for the different sections of their painting.
As for me, I can achieve everything I want to with about three, fairly small round brushes and a little over a dozen paint colours. It's just how I work and it happens to save me a lot of money. My tip is to start with my approach and then treat yourself to more and more colours and variety of brushes if that's want you want or need to do.
7. Do you intend on framing your artwork?
No > No worries. Get painting.
Yes > Then perhaps consider this when deciding how much you can spend on art materials. Unlike acrylic and oil paintings watercolours must be protected behind glass once completed. Frames are bloody expensive. Don't go painting a large 56x76cm watercolour painting if you haven't got at least a couple of hundred dollars spare for framing it! My tip for keeping the price down is to paint within the dimensions of a standard framing sizes (such as 11x14 inches). That way you can probably find a pre-made frame that complements your painting. On the other hand, if you've got the cash then a custom made frame designed especially for your particular painting can really transform your work and really give it an extra boost!
And one more thing worth considering...
When wondering how much to spend on watercolour materials remember this- one of the great things about watercolours is that your initial outlay to purchase your paints and brushes can set you up for even years of use before you need to replace very much! Obviously you will always need fresh sheets of paper, but if you properly dilute your paints (no laying it on thick like acrylics) and if you're gentle with your brushes it really is an investment well spent.
I hope this list was helpful and interesting. Have I missed anything? If you've got any other helpful tips then feel free to leave a comment down below.
Cool. See ya.
*As far as I know, there is absolutely no problem at all with using complementary watercolour mediums, or sticking masking tape to your paper etc. This person must just be super purist.