Interested in learning how to paint with watercolors?
The first thing you’ll want to do is gather all of the necessary supplies. From paints to brushes to canvas, there are a number of essential tools you’ll need to get started—plus some extras that you can use to add dimension, depth, and visual interest to your watercolor work.
Luckily, all of them can easily be found online or at your local art supply store, so put together your list of must-have watercolor tools for beginners, then stock up and get to work.
Ready to begin? Here are the supplies you’ll need to get started with watercolor for beginners.
Watercolor Paint for Beginners
You can’t create a watercolor painting without the right type of paint.
The thing that sets this variety of paint apart from other varieties, like acrylic or oils, is how it’s made and the results that you get on paper. Watercolors are produced by adding a water-soluble binder to colored pigments. When you add water to them, the binder breaks down and the pigment is transferred to your brush. From there, you can spread it onto canvas and layer it for deeper hues.
Some of the benefits of this type of paint include:
- Translucent application
- Ease of layering and blending
- Minimal paint waste
- Simple cleanup of brushes and workspace
As for the best watercolor paints for beginners, that really depends on your personal preferences, since all watercolors are pretty easy to learn and work with. You have three options to choose from, any of which are suitable watercolors for beginners: pan paints, tube paints, or liquid paints.
- Pan watercolors: These are the kind that you might be familiar with if you had a watercolor set as a kid. They include a palette sectioned off into little circles or squares, each with a dry and hardened cake of paint set inside of it. You use them by first wetting your brush and then dipping it onto the hardened pigment to pick up color. Pan watercolors are the most subtle and translucent of all watercolors, but they’re also the cheapest—you can usually get between 36 and 50 colors for under $20.
- Tube watercolors: Tube watercolors look like tiny tubes of toothpaste and contain a highly concentrated watercolor pigment that paints much more vibrantly on the canvas than pan paints. They don’t require water to activate, but you can use water to thin out the pigment for different variations in color saturation.
- Liquid watercolors: Liquid watercolors are dye-based instead of pigment-based, and like tube watercolors, the color is quite vibrant and concentrated but can be diluted with water. They’re easy to use, clean, and a popular choice for kid’s craft projects. And while they’re probably not the first choice for most pros (many of whom will opt for tubes if they want a thicker watercolor), they’re still sufficient for beginners who are just starting to explore the medium.
Pan, tub, or liquid, all watercolors are affordable and easy to use. You could always start with one variety to see how you like it and then mix it up if you’re not satisfied. You can also layer the different varieties to try out modern watercolor techniques in your paintings.
One last honorable mention would be gouache, a type of super-opaque watercolor that’s normally considered to be in its own class but could also be grouped in here. Gouache is more akin to oils and acrylics in appearance but can be thinned out to act more like a watercolor.
Acrylics vs. Watercolors
Acrylics are another type of water-soluble paint, but they function a lot differently than watercolors. Most notably, acrylics are quicker to dry and more opaque than watercolors. They also tend to last longer, particularly when exposed to sunlight or humidity. Both are inexpensive and a good choice for beginner painters, but acrylics are tougher to blend, so you may prefer watercolors as your first medium.
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Types of Watercolor Brushes
You’ve got your paint, so now it’s time to pick out your brushes.
There are plenty of good brushes for beginners at all price points. So much so, in fact, that you may have trouble deciding which ones to go with when you’re perusing your options at the store.
First thing’s first: the best brushes for watercolors are the ones that you—the artist—prefer to work with. Some brushes will just naturally feel better in your hand and easier to maneuver on your canvas. You could buy a set of brushes to figure out what you like, or you could do a bit of research and settle on just a few that align with your needs.
Some of the things that you will want to keep in mind when selecting a brush for watercolors:
- Brush shape: There are a dozen or so different brush shapes for use with watercolors, including specialty shapes like the wide Japanese hake brush and the extra-pointy cat’s tongue brush. However, when you’re just learning watercolor you can stick with the basics: a round brush, a flat brush, and possibly an angle brush. Then add to your brush collection as you experiment with new styles and techniques.
- Brush size: Most brushes used for watercolors are smaller than those used for acrylics or oils, but even then there are lots of size variations to choose between. You’ll see the size noted as a number on the brush itself, usually written in inches or millimeters unless the brand has its own size scale and numbers them that way. To keep it simple, buy one small, one medium, and one large brush and then go from there.
- Brush material: Synthetic brushes are the cheapest option, and they’re usually perfectly suitable to getting the job done. In fact, many artists actually prefer synthetic brushes, which hold their form well over time. If you think you’d prefer sable, go for cruelty-free synthetic sable instead of the real stuff.
Quality is important when selecting brushes for beginners, but don’t feel like you need to spend a ton to get a good brush. Go by what you like instead, and consider starting on the cheaper end and splurging on an upgrade if you feel it’s necessary, rather than getting pricey brushes at the outset and realizing they’re not your favorite.
Choosing Your Paper
Having the right paper is crucial for watercolors. Watercolor paper needs to be durable enough to hold up to moisture, and it also needs to have a forgiving texture that allows you to layer your paint without risking the integrity of your work.
In terms of watercolor for beginners, machine-made students’ quality paper should be sufficient in the beginning. It’s ideal for practicing since it’s inexpensive and can be purchased in bulk.
Once you get more advanced, you can transition to artists’ quality paper that’s machine-made, handmade, or mold-made. Artists’ quality is acid-free to reduce yellowing with age, and it’s also a lot less prone to distortion. It’s what you’ll want to use for watercolor paintings that you intend to hang and/or frame.
If watercolor isn’t the only type of medium that you’re interested in, consider mixed media paper, which can be used for both watercolors and other types of paints, as well as ink, charcoal, and other art tools. Again, though, for paintings that you want to keep and display, opt for artists’ grade paper that’s specifically designed for use with watercolors.
Watercolor Pens and Pencils
Paint isn’t your only option for creating watercolor art. Watercolor pens and pencils are another fantastic option for beginner watercolor artists, offering increased control for any sort of fine detailing that you might want to do.
Watercolor pens have a brush tip that you apply directly to your paper, and if you’d like, you can dip them in water first to dilute the color and get a more translucent finish. Meanwhile, watercolor pencils offer the convenience of being able to draw as well as paint with a single tool. And like watercolor brush pens, you can dip them in water to thin out the pigment for a lighter color.
Both of these tools come in a huge variety of colors and can be used in conjunction with pan, tube, or liquid paints. They can also be used with other mediums, such as oil paints and ink.
Other Watercolor Supplies for Beginners
We’ve gone over all of the fundamental watercolor tools for beginners, but there are still a variety of tools that you can add to your arsenal. Whether you’re interested in painting landscapes and florals or portraits and cityscapes, here are some additional supplies that are worth keeping on hand:
- Graphite pencils
- Kneaded eraser
- Masking fluid (or masking tape)
- Sponges, particularly sea sponges
None of these tools is a complete necessity, but they’re all helpful in their own ways. If you’re just gathering the essentials, you can wait on these items and only purchase them when you have a need.
Is Watercolor Paint Good for Beginners?
Absolutely! Watercolor is a fantastic medium for beginners since it’s easy to learn and inexpensive to get started with. It also doesn’t require a ton of precision, since you can always add more pigment to deepen a color or add more water to lighten it up.
Get the tools that sound the most appealing to you, then swap them out as needed if you find that you prefer something else. Every paint, brush, piece of paper, and additional watercolor implement that you try out is a good learning experience, and at the end of the day, it’s your technique—and not your tools—that will make the most difference in your work.
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