From Vincent van Gogh to Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe and Cecily Brown, the list of art world superstars who've experimented with watercolors is endless.
But the great thing about watercolors is that you don't need to be a master to have fun with them and to create beautiful work — even if you're a beginner. To set yourself up for success, though, you need the right supplies.
The quality of the supplies makes all the difference when you're painting watercolors. It's best to buy professional-grade, archival materials if you can. That way, if you paint something you really like, you'll be able to save it forever.
Here's what you need to get started.
Using pads of paper instead of individual sheets is cheaper, and probably makes the most sense if you're a beginner. Paper comes in different weights (90, 140 and 300 pounds) and textures (rough, cold press and hot press).
To choose a weight, consider that the number is actually the weight of 500 pieces of 20-by-30-inch sheets of paper. The higher the number, the thicker the paper.
- 90-pound paper: very thin and a good choice for students and anyone who wants to practice a lot; needs to be stretched.
- 140-pound paper: medium-thick, and the most popular weight; needs to be stretched.
- 300-pound paper: more like cardboard and doesn't require stretching, but pricier and takes longer to dry.
As for the texture, the surface or grain of your paper matters. Rough watercolor paper will add texture to your washes because the paint will settle into the little wells of the paper. Hot press paper has a slick surface and tends to make colors look brighter; the paint will also be easier to lift off. Cold press paper is somewhere in between rough and hot press.
Before you start painting, check both sides of your paper since you'll often notice a slight difference in grain. Use the side with the texture you like most.
With watercolor paint , you're choosing from two main forms: pan or tube. Pans are easier to tote along when you're traveling, but they make it harder to gather enough paint for a large or dark wash. When you're working with tubes, you can take as much or as little paint as you need on your palette.
The selection of watercolor brushes at your local art supply store might seem overwhelming at first. You'll see tons of different shapes and sizes to choose from, not to mention styles like natural or synthetic, and expensive options like sable brushes.
If you're just starting out, you really only need three brushes: a small round brush (#4,5 or 6), an angled flat and a big flat (2 inches or more) for washes. The angled flat brush is super-versatile, able to paint large areas or small details.
Don't toss all your old, stiff brushes when you're ready for new ones. Old brushes are useful for lifting off paint to correct a mistake or to lighten an area. You can even cut the hair closer to the ferrule (the metallic part that holds the head of the brush) to make it extra-stiff.
You'll need this for stretching any paper lighter than 300 pounds, to keep it from buckling with water. You can buy stretchers or staple your paper on foam board, wood, MDF or masonite panels. Make sure your stretching surface is acid-free, to preserve the archival qualities of your paper.
5. Masking fluid
This fluid is for reserving white areas that are too small or too complex to paint around. Your old brushes will come in handy here, since they're perfect tools for applying masking fluid. You can also use a latex brush.
If you're using an old brush, rub it on a bar of soap and wet it a little before dipping it into the masking fluid, to make the fluid easier to remove. A silicone brush is especially easy to clean, since you can just take off the masking fluid once it's dried.
The two things most palettes have in common are a well for the paint and a flat mixing area. Beyond that, the shapes and sizes are practically infinite. One cool, easy-to-use option is the traditional Chinese flower-shaped porcelain palette for holding the paint, and a butcher tray for mixing. By separating the paint and mixing areas, you can easily move the tray around without any risk of spilling.
7. Optional supplies
Once you've got the basics down, you can mix all kinds of media with watercolors: crayons for wax resist, dry pastels, acrylic, colored pencils, you name it. Let's not forget sponges, spray water, alcohol, plastic cards and painting knives for texture. Try one, try them all. There's no stopping you now!