Some notes on Watercolor Materials
I use 22×30″ sheets of artist grade 140lb cold press paper that I cut down into 1/2, 1/4 or 1/6 sheets for field work. I usually order in bulk (10 or 25 sheet packs). You can paint on both sides.
Arches 140lb cotton-rag paper is a high quality choice. Fabriano Artistico is a good balance between price and quality. Look for cold press (medium) texture. This is the ‘normal’ texture. Smooth enough to get a nice drawing, yet rough enough do some dry brushing.
You can try hot press (smooth, plate finish) for special effects later – that’s nice for sharp edges and lifting – but it’s hard to get the look you expect. There are also extra rough textures for people who love drybrush.
ALTERNATELY you can buy a some pads of 140lb cold press. 9×12″ and 12×16″ ” are useful sizes for sketching. I’ve used up to 16×20″.
I like Canson Montval or Strathmore series 300 pads. These are mid-grade papers that are fine for beginners, and/or when you want a smoother surface. They are less absorbent and give smoother washes than ‘hand made’ cotton rag paper. Some people like that, some find it ‘clinical’ feeling. You can get the top quality Strathmore Series 500 in pads as well.
There’s also blocks. (Pads gummed on all four sides – no taping required), which I personally don’t use any longer. They’re heavy (you carry 20 sheets to use one!) Plus they can pop off the backing board if you are harsh on them – and that’s a waste of an expensive block.
I use pieces of Coroplast (a light weight corrugated plastic), cut just a bit larger than my paper. You can get 4×8′ Coroplast sheets from hardware stores, or ready cut sizes from art supply shops (at a much higher unit price). If you are really into this, make 4 to 6 backing boards for each paper size you commonly use. You can work faster being able to switch back and forth between prepared sheets while waiting for paintings to dry. Plus you often want to leave your painting taped down overnight to flatten. Think of it like a sketchbook with very fat pages. And no binding.
One downside – Coroplast will flex if left out in the hot sun while painting – which can cause your tape to pop off. I may switch to Dibond soon (it’s fully rigid – but I can’t find a convenient supplier in my area).
Good brands are Windsor and Newton, Holbein, Daniel Smith. You can mix brands freely. Avoid student grade brands which have less pigment strength and sometimes fugitive colors. I use tube colors because I go through so much paint. Pan colors are fine as well – if you buy artist grade – W&N (not W&N Cotman!). Half Pans kits are very convenient for travel, but they are going to cost you though. Basically, don’t cheap out on pigment. Sorry!
I organize my pigments into a warm and cool set of primaries. Red, Yellow, Blue – doubled up in a warm and cold version. Like this:
- Alizarin Crimson / Cadmium Red Light
- Yellow Ocher (or Raw Sienna) / Cadmium Yellow Light
- Ultramarine Blue / Cerulean Blue
Then I include a set of darks I use to make mixed blacks:
- Burnt Sienna (my ‘dark red’)
- Prussian Blue
- Perylene Green
Add to this some ‘convenience colors’. These are intermediate mixes that save time. You don’t really need them, they’re just for fun.
- Sap Green (used for grass and foliage)
- Holbein Lilac for skies and floral stuff
- Daniel Smith Bloodstone Genuine (a purple/grey) for shadows – I’m not sure this is a ‘for real’ addition. Just playing with it for now.
- Lamp Black. Don’t use this very often. For black haired models or black cars.
It is useful to have White Gouache and perhaps an Ivory Black Gouache.You can mix gouache with watercolor to make ‘body color’ – opaque pigments that can bring back lights on top of dried washes. Some people claim this is not ‘traditional’ watercolor technique, but Sargent did it, so I wouldn’t argue with the big man.
You will need a folding palette with sloped wells for holding the pigments. Plastic is fine, but they break annually. Some nicer brands have a rubber seal to keep the paint damp between sessions. These still break. So tin is better, but they’re expensive and hard to find (in Canada anyway). Currently I’m using a 3.5×8″ tin model by Holbein and a 2.5×3.5″ travel box from W&N. The small box is shy on mixing space, but it’s really nice for working standing on the street.
NEW ADVICE ON SABLES: I’ve recently switched from synthetic to sable. I am mostly using a #14 Escoda, #10 DaVinci, and #7 Winsor and Newton Artist Watercolor Sable (in the long hair version – similar to a rigger). For sketchbook field-work, I have a #10 Da Vinci travel brush (threaded, hollow PVC self-enclosing handle). I do my smaller sketchbook work entirely with this one brush. Switching to sable lets you carry fewer brushes. The superior sharp point and larger water-loading capacity gives me a greater size range with many fewer brushes.
OLD ADVICE ON SYNTHETICS: You need a few sizes. Large enough brushes are vital – otherwise washes will end up overworked with many small strokes instead of one smooth passage. Small brushes are also vital. You can’t hope to put in tiny finishing details without them.
Sizes in rounds: #0,#2 #4, #10, #16 and #20 (if you’re working bigger than 1/4 sheet). Perhaps consider a 1″ or 1.5″ flat or mop for areas like skies.
It is important to inspect the tip of the brushes you buy. I don’t order brushes online if I can help it. You want a sharp point, not frayed, no cracks or dents in the ferrule, no bent back broken hairs. Most shops will let you test brushes with clear water. When a synthetic brush gets worn, toss it. You always want a sharp point to draw with.
Field Sketching Easel:
I don’t always use an easel. Most of the time I’m just carrying a sketchbook or my Coroplast panels and working ‘hand held’. But an easel helps you have your work up at eye level – near your natural sight line. It’s bad for your neck, and hard to get a good drawing head-bobbing back and forth from your lap. Especially when balancing all your gear on your knees. So I try to stand to draw, even when sketchbooking.
I’m currently using a collapsible aluminum photography tripod from Sirui. (13″ when folded down). I pair this with a plastic tray that attaches to the tripod’s camera connector (sometimes called a ‘quick release’ or a ‘shoe’). There’s a second tray for palette and water that hangs from the tripod legs. But I don’t always bother with that, it’s rickety and adds weight to the kit. Usually I just clip my travel palette to my Coroplast backing boards.
These accessory trays are sold as a kit: Eric Michaels En Plein Air Traveller. You might also find high-end aluminum trays marketed to digital photographers (look for laptop or tablet supports). If you’re handy with tools, you might make your own. The threaded female screw that receives the tripod mount is called a ‘tee-nut’.
I clip everything on with bulldog clips, so I can pick the whole thing up and walk around with it on location.
- Two 250 ml leak proof water containers. Nalgene brand is great, found at camping supply stores. A wide mouth style helps with swizzling your brushes.
- Water is heavy, so I carry two 60 ml bottles for sketchbooking. (Two bottles, because, dirty water makes grey paintings. Refill clean water whenever possible).
- Mechanical pencil. Please not a wooden pencil, regardless of what you may have been told about the evils of mechanical pencils. For watercolor, you will dirty your painting with too much graphite.
- Kneaded rubber eraser. Not a white art eraser – or god forbid a students pink eraser – these are too hard on the paper surface.
- A case to protect brushes is a great optional idea.
- In a dry climate, you might want a small misting spray bottle to dampen your pigments in the palette. Or the paper for wet-in-wet.
- 1” masking tape, NOT low tack painters tape.
- Paper towels for blotting.