Watercolor painting supplies can be somewhat addictive. I try and resist but I often fail. The following list is my preferred set of art supplies. Not all are artist quality, sometimes student grade is fine and I haven’t found it affects my painting results at all. These are all my personal preferences. Other watercolor artists may have slightly different lists. If you’re already painting and have your own supplies or preferences please work with those.
Good Quality 100% Cotton Watercolor Paper
This is by far the most important material when starting to paint in watercolor. There are many different brands of watercolor papers but I recommend any one that is 100% cotton. Each brand comes in different weights and finishes and I suggest 140lb cold press. Most, if not all, watercolor paper manufacturers will have this type.
For beginners a 9×12 pad or block is ideal (maybe a little larger if your budget covers it). However, the cheapest way is to buy 22″x30″ sheets of paper and then tear it into smaller pieces. I routinely buy 22″x30″ sheets and tear them into quarters for my preferred size of 11″x15″. I also use both sides of the paper if I’m just experimenting with ideas and not painting something for sale.
Note: The link above is to Blick’s where I do buy a lot of supplies. However sometimes there are good deals on Fabriano Artistico paper at Cheap Joe’s or Jerry’s Artarama (e.g. buy 3 get one free). Right now (June 2022) I can’t see anything worth pointing you to. When I do I will update.
Good quality paper is a must and will make the painting experience so much more enjoyable.
Student Watercolor Paper
Sometimes we will be doing practice exercises that don’t call for the best paper. I recommend the Fabriano ‘fat’ pad which contains 60 sheets of 9″x12″ 25% cotton paper. It’s a steal at less than $20 and one of these lasts me almost a year.
Pointed Round Brushes
The best watercolor brush always comes to a point and holds a lot of water/paint. These properties let us make long juicy brushstrokes but also let us use the point for detail and precision work. They’re very versatile and a good one should last for a couple of years.
However, you can take out a small mortgage for some watercolor brushes. The best ones are made from Kolinsky sable hair and are indeed a dream to use. I use Escoda Reserva pointed round sables which aren’t cheap but are definitely worth it. I use mostly a 10 or a 12 and you can do 90% of your painting with one of these.
Synthetic sable brushes have improved enormously in recent years. I’ve found the Escoda Versatil and the Princeton Aqua Elite brushes have a lot of the properties of the best sables but at a fraction of the price. If you’re new to watercolor and are not sure whether you’ll like it (and I can’t imagine why not!) try one of these to start with.
(Note: These are links to travel rounds which come with a handle that doubles as a cover. They’re very similar in price to the ‘normal’ ones and I find they handle just the same. I actually prefer these as I can use them both in the studio and out and about )
A final alternative to a sable brush are the Silver Black Velvet brushes. These are made of squirrel hair and, although their bristles are somewhat floppier than sables, they hold a lot of water and point well. The bigger ones (14 and above) can also be used for washes.
Softening/Smoothing Brush (Optional)
Although you can paint perfectly well with a single brush sometimes it’s handy to have another one on the go for softening edges. Ideally it would be the same as your painting brush but a synthetic round is fine for this too. One of a similar size to your main painting brush is a good choice.
Wash Brushes (Optional)
Sometimes we want to cover a large area of paper with paint and need a brush with more covering power. Sables are eye-wateringly expensive at these sizes but alternatives do exist.
I like a mop or quill brush which are usually made of squirrel hair. They hold a lot of water and point well and can cover large areas with ease. A good size for medium size paintings is one with around 10mm diameter on the ferrule.
If you’re working at a smaller size (9×12 or below ) you don’t *need* one of these. If you have a good synthetic 10 or 12 and make sure you load up your brush before you start a wash you should be able to get a good result.
My current favorite wash brushes are the Escoda Aquario Gold mop brushes. But, unless you have a birthday coming up (as I did) these are not a budget buy.
Detail Brushes (Optional)
Putting in small details can be easier with a smaller brush. I like a synthetic brush for this as they hold paint well but don’t hold too much water. The Escoda perla series have fabulous points and one of these can last for years. I have a fairly large one for detail (12) but a size 8 or 10 also works well. Having said that if your main brush points well you can use it for detail work as well.
In the studio I exclusively use tube paints. Their soft consistency makes mixing faster and easier. If you have pan paints handy then please use those but I find them hard work if I need intense color.
I have no particular allegiance to any one brand. Any artist’s quality watercolor paint will work well. I have a lot of Winsor and Newton and Da Vinci on my palette but mainly because I can buy them in the larger 27ml tubes which works out cheaper. I also have Holbein, Daniel Smith, Blick’s own brand, Turner and a couple of others.
If you’re on a budget or just starting out student brand watercolors, although cheaper, can be hit or miss. Some of them are very good but others substitute pigments with cheaper and lower quality pigment and lots of filler which makes painting harder. I’ve found the Lukas Studio 12 tube set to be good. It contains all the right colors and comes in reasonable sized tubes. All for around $30 or less.
As for the colors to buy I work with a pretty limited palette. Almost every color we will need is possible with these colors.
Basic Watercolor Palette
(Note: All links are to Blick’s Da Vinci 15ml tube watercolors unless otherwise stated)
- Lemon yellow (or a similar greenish yellow like hansa yellow light – I’m currently using this)
- Yellow ochre
- Naphthol red (or a similar orangey red like cadmium red light, pyrrole red or vermilion – I’m currently using Vermilion)
- Quinacridone rose (or a similar pinkish red like quinacridone red, or permanent alizarin crimson))
- Cobalt blue (or phthalo blue at a pinch. It’s an intense pigment and tends to get into everything – including the carpet)
- Burnt sienna
- Black (I use lamp black but ivory black is fine)
Optional Watercolor Paints
I have these because I like their consistency and how they look on the paper. Also the cobalt turquoise lets me get intense greens on the few occasions they’re needed. Payne’s gray I like for doing value studies. It’s a very blue gray (usually a mixture of ultramarine and black) but looks good.
- Cadmium orange (I prefer Holbein cadmium yellow orange or Sennelier cadmium yellow orange. Brands vary a lot)
- Cerulean blue (a greenish blue, granulates well. Make sure it’s genuine cerulean blue – no hues)
- Cobalt turquoise
And by this I mean the surface we use to put out our paint and mix.
Nothing fancy is needed here but your palette must have good spaces for mixing and spaces to squeeze out the tube paints. A cheap plastic folding watercolor palette is fine for this. One word of warning: when new the plastic palettes may cause the paint to ‘bead’ up. After a few uses this should stop happening.
My personal palette is a luxury and cost more than my first car. It’s a pleasure to use but sadly doesn’t make me paint any better. It’s enamelled brass and hand made in England by Craig Young. Last time I looked there was a year’s waiting list for a new one.
I like the layout of this palette. It has a smallish number of large deep wells that keep the paint moist over a number of days (including a damp paper towel when you close it up helps with this). Also the mixing wells are curved so I can see the consistency of the paint at a glance. And you can close it up in between painting sessions nice and compactly.
Before I’d saved up my pennies for this one I used the Frank Herring compact plastic palette. Not as nice visually as the Craig Young one but functionally is just as good. Eventually after a number of years the hinges cracked but it’s good bang for the buck. As shipped it has a thumbhole but I glued in 4 extra empty pans to increase the number of colors you can use.
The type of palette people use is very personal and there are many other types out there. People use enamelled butcher’s trays, large porcelain studio palettes, aluminum folding palettes, even a white plate would do at a pinch.
A mechanical pencil.
I use a Faber-Castell 0.7mm HB lead but a 0.5mm one is fine. The Pentel GraphGear pencils are also good but a pencil is pretty much a pencil.
Small Spray Bottle
A small spray water bottle for keeping our paints moist and also adding texture to our paintings. Any smallish spray bottle will do.
Now technically you don’t really need one of these. The hard white ‘school’ erasers will obviously erase pencil lines. However, some people have said that they can leave a little residue on the paper that stops the paint from flowing freely but I haven’t experienced that.
Some people swear by different brands but I buy the cheapest. You’ll need these for adjusting the amount of water on your brush, cleaning your palette and, occasionally, lifting out paint from your painting.
Again you’ll get different answers from a lot of people about what kind of container to use, what size, how many etc etc. I keep with the portability theme and use a small, folding, lantern container and change the water regularly.
There’s also a bigger size if you feel you need some more elbow room.
Masking tape for taping paper to a board if you’re not using blocks. Non-essential but I like to use it to leave a white border around my work. You don’t need the fancy artist’s tape. I buy Scotch #2020 tape in packs of 9 from my local hardware store.
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