What you’ll find here is based on my own experience and the art supplies available to me, please keep in mind there is no „right way“, and every artist finds his/her own way depending on their preferences and working method. You will notice that things „click“ when you find a material that’s suited to you or that you have mastered after enough practice.
The only thing I usually recommend universally is to get the best quality materials that you can afford, this is certainly true for paint and brushes and paper, but it applies to other tools too. Students quality materials are okay for beginners and for testing purposes, but in the case of paint they contain less pigments and more filler and additives, in the case of paper it buckles more easily, in the case of brushes they will lose hairs and not form a tip that easily – so actually inexpensive tools can be more difficult to work with. But you can still achieve good results with them and they are more affordable.
For beginners, it might be worth noting that you don’t need a lot of materials, basic supplies will be enough, you can always restock later in the process when you’ve learned a bit more about the materials and about yourself.
Watercolor & Gouache paints
I’ve been using many different materials over the years, and one thing I always come back to are gouache and watercolor paints. These two paints are similar, watercolor has a more transparent quality, whereas gouache uses the same pigments, but has also added chalk into it, which makes it more opaque. Both can be used with water, both can be layered, both can be used translucent.
The main difference is that you can work from dark to light with gouache, something that is impossible with watercolor. On the other hand, watercolors have the unique quality to flow into each other when you add water to the paint. So working with the two mediums can be quite similar or quite different. I enjoy using watercolor as an almost opaque, thick paint and frequently work in layers so that I can add details with gouache. So I don’t use my watercolor in the traditional way very often where you would use the flowing, unpredictable qualities of the paint. I prefer a more graphic approach to my work, so I want more control over the paint, which I do be adding less water or adding white to make it opaque.
There are pan set watercolors, tube watercolors and liquid watercolors, all of those behave a bit differently. Gouache usually comes in tubes.
Watercolor – pan sets or tubes?
Watercolors come in both pan sets and in tubes, gouache usually comes in tubes only. I like to have watercolor paints in pan sets because of the portability, but what’s great about tube paints is that you can refill your empty pans with them. Watercolor and gouache can be reactivated a lot of times, so you won’t waste anything. The question of pans or tubes comes down to personal taste, if you paint on a very large scale and need a lot of paint you might prefer tubes, if you’re frequently sketching outside you might prefer pans. I like to combine both types.
I frequently like to use watercolors by Schmincke Horadam and Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolors, two big manufacturers who make great quality paints (they also have student lines which contain less pigment), but my favorites remain Nevskaya Palitra St. Petersburg White Nights – these Russian Watercolors are actually honey-based (other paints use mainly gum arabic as a binder), and they’re rich and have vivid pigments. I love the consistency and quality of these paints, and I was excited to learn they’re also sold in tubes.
Tube gouache paints
Gouache paint comes usually in tubes (or sometimes in little containers) and it has to be diluted a bit to get it to the right consistency. If you add more water, you can almost use it like watercolor in thin layers, but remember that gouache will always reactivate the layer beneath if you add water to the dried paint.
I enjoy working with Schmincke Horadam Gouache, Schmincke Designer’s Gouache (which is organized in HKS colors), Winsor & Newton Designer’s Gouache, Royal Talens Gouache (a great inexpensive alternative) and recently I’ve tested Nevskaya Palitra Master Class gouache, which is a very inexpensive and surprisingly good gouache paint, it comes from the same company that makes the honey-based watercolor.
I mainly use gouache because I want a very graphic, opaque look and more texture than I can achieve with watercolors, and the pigment (or rather the added chalk) is strong enough to cover dark papers, too.
Liquid watercolors & acrylic inks
These days there are many cool inks and liquid paints on the market, but I have to confess I mainly use inks for drawing and calligraphic writing (both done with a dib nib). There’s a lot of room for experimentation, also because these liquid inks are very vibrant and strong and they can be mixed with other paints, too. I usually go for a more pastel, subdued look, so I would typically dilute the inks with water or mix them with white.
Acrylic inks behave a bit differently, they won’t reactivate once they’re dry, and they also come in gold or silver – great for adding sparkling effects. My favorite gold is Ph. Martin’s Copperplate gold, as for inks I’ve had nice results with Ph. Martins Bombay India ink – it’s also lightfast and comes in many different colors.
Gouache white tubes & bleedproof white
For smaller details and for mixing lighter tones you’ll need a strong, opaque white that gives a good coverage. For mixing with watercolor or gouache paints I usually use a tube white (remember that gouache dries a bit darker than what it looks in its wet state), and for adding details or decoration I really like Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bleedproof White. It has a great coverage and you will last quite long with one small container. It also works great for calligraphy purposes.
Pencils, pens, colored pencils, dip nibs
For sketching I like to use mechanical pencils or simple HB pencils, sometimes harder ones (H2, H3) for lighter lines. For line drawings I use pigmented pens like Uniball Eye pens or Staedtler pigment liners which are bleedproof and permanent.
I love using colored pencils (like Faber-Castell Polychromos or Albrecht Dürer) on top of my paintings to add more details and texture.
I also like drawing with dip nibs and ink, a combination which creates a very natural line quality. There are different drawing nibs available, I particularly like to use the Gillott 303 and the Japanese Zebra G.
All in all, you can see this is quite a long list, and I haven’t even talked about brushes or paper (this will follow in another post). You won’t need everything I listed in this post, and you might actually have different preferences. As always, you will discover which materials you like through experimentation and trying out different materials over time. Discovering new art supplies is half the fun!
I hope this post was helpful to you and has maybe kindled an interest in a new material or technique you haven’t tried before.