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Watercolor Gear

Paraty_Sketching_Snaps (3)


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 – nice for sharp edges and lifting. There are also extra rough textures for people who love drybrush.

Students might like to practice mid-grade machine made paper in pre-cut pads.  I like Canson Montval or Strathmore series 300 pads in sizes between 12×16″ to 16×20”. These are fine for beginners.

There’s also blocks. (Pads gummed on all four sides – no taping required), which I personally don’t use. They’re too 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.

Gear_Easel (2)


I use pieces of Coroplast – a light weight corrugated plastic cut just a bit larger than my paper size. You can get 4×8′ Coroplast sheets from hardware stores and cut it down, or get ready cut sizes from art supply shops at a higher unit price. One downside to note – Coroplast will flex if left out in the hot sun while painting – which can cause your tape to pop off.  You could invest in a clamp-on umbrella for your easel, but it’s one more thing to carry.

Watercolor Supplies (2)


Artist quality brands are Windsor and Newton, Holbein, Schminke. You can mix brands freely. Avoid student grade brands which have less pigment strength and fugitive colors. I use tube colors because I go through so much paint. Half pans are just as good, and very convenient for travel, but they are going to cost you more. Sorry!

I organize my pigments into a standard ‘split complementary’ setup. A warm and cool set of primaries. (Red, Yellow, Blue). 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
  • Lamp Black.

Add to this some secondaries. These are intermediate mixes that save time. You don’t really need them, they’re just for convenience.

  • Sap Green (used for grass and foliage)
  • Cadmium Yellow Orange
  • Cobalt Violet Light

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, or push darks on top of dried washes. Some people claim this is not ‘traditional’ watercolor technique, but John Singer Sargent did it, so that is good enough for me.


You’ll need a folding palette with sloped wells. 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. Currently I’m using a 3.5×8″ tin box from Holbein and a 2.5×3.5″ bijou box from W&N. The small box is shy on mixing space, but it’s really nice for working standing, clipped onto the drawing board.


NEW ADVICE ON SABLES: I’ve recently switched from synthetic to sable. I am mostly using pointed rounds in #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 Mestro Travel Brush (threaded, hollow PVC self-enclosing handle). I often do my 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.

13Nov29_MHolmes_GearShots (3)



I don’t always use an easel. Much of the time I’m just carrying my Coroplast panels and working ‘hand held’. But an easel helps you have your work up at eye level – near your natural sight line.

I’m currently using a collapsible aluminum camera tripod from Sirui. (13″ when folded down), paired with a plastic tray called an: Eric Michaels En Plein Air Traveller.

You might also find accessory trays marketed to digital photographers – look for laptop supports or tablet holders. If you’re handy with tools, you might make your own. The threaded female screw your need to connect to the camera mount is called a ‘tee-nut’.


Sometimes I just clip a travel palette right onto the Coroplast boards, so I can pick the whole thing up and walk around with it on location. You can use a single Coroplast panel, or two or three clipped together as shown above.  Or, clip an entire sketchbook onto the boards, as below:



  • Leak proof water containers from Nalgene. Found at camping supply stores. Water is heavy, so I just bring three or four 60 ml bottles. I use smaller bottles, so I can swap to a clean bottle when the water gets grey.
  • A mechanical pencil. Please not a wooden pencil, regardless of what you may have been told about the evils of mechanical pencils. You will dirty your painting with too much graphite.
  • A kneaded rubber eraser. Not a white art eraser – or god forbid a students pink eraser – these are too hard on the paper surface.
  • A zippered nylon bush case is a great optional idea.
  • A small misting spray bottle to dampen your pigments in the palette. Or the paper for wet-in-wet.
  • Masking tape, NOT low tack painters tape.
  • Paper towels for lifting mistakes, removing excess water from brushes.

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