The beginner’s guide for getting started with watercolor painting – part 1

Exploring watercolor as a beginner can be a bit tricky, but it is a great medium to explore in your sketchbook. There are many stumbling blocks around this beautiful technique, and a lot of helpful tips for beginners who want to learn watercolor.
When I started with painting in watercolor, I had no idea what I was doing. It took me a while to figure out the technique on my own, and what exactly I wanted from it. It would have been helpful to have an article like this to guide me. This blog post should cover the basics you need to know to get started with watercolor.

What is watercolor – getting started with the basics

Let’s take a look at what watercolor is made of and what you can do with it.

Binder + pigment

All paints are made of pigments and some kind of binder to keep the pigments in one place and on the paper. For watercolor, this binder is gum arabic, a natural substance from acacia trees, some companies also use honey or glycerin to add viscosity to the paint. But essentially, the recipe for paint made with gum arabic is the same one like 1000 years ago – you take the yellow pieces of the dried gum arabic, mill them, add water, and stir in your (also finely-milled) pigments.
Until ca. two hundred years ago, all of the pigments that people used in paints or for dying fabric, came from minerals, plants, or metals, from organic and anorganic sources. You could measure how rare or difficult to obtain a pigment was by its price and its use in paintings – some pigments came form so far away or were so laborious to extract that they were only used for royalty or saints in paintings (think of the blue robes of the Virgin Mary, or the purple coats of kings – these were expensive pigments that were lightfast and hard to get).
Only when modern synthetic pigments were invented (starting in 1704 with Prussian Blue), the palette of painters changed and expanded. Today, we have hundreds of inexpensive pigments available, and all of them come from the labs of the chemical industry. That means that the nice names on your paint tubes are essentially marketing tricks by the paint companies, and as a rule it’s best to look for the pigment number instead of the name when choosing paints, because then you know exactly what you get. To add to the confusion, the same pigment can look different depending on how it’s treated, or even how it’s mixed into paint with binders and additives, so even paints using the same pigments can differ across manufacturers. But the pigment number is still the best chance to get what you want from your paint.

The small letter-number codes on the paint tubes tell you the pigment name: PR101 (=Pigment Red no. 101) is Iron Oxide, PW6:1 is a form of Titanium White. All paint manufacturers have to declare which pigment their paint is made of, this helps artists to choose their paints.

Between drawing and painting

Watercolor is a technique that seems quick and effortless, but can take a while to master. It offers wonderful versatility and you can achieve very different effects with it. You will also see many different approaches to it, particularly as it’s a trendy medium these days.
I love that watercolor can be used to elevate a drawing from a mere sketch to something far more tangible and emotional, and also as a painting medium where the color aspect stands on its own. Watercolor can either be a quick color reference for sketching, or a medium for more detailed paintings or illustrations.

Watercolor supplies for beginners – my tips for choosing supplies

Generally, you should buy the best supplies you can afford, even if that means a few less paint tubes or brushes. You will notice the difference, and even though it might seem counterintuitive for a beginner, it’s easier to learn with the best tools available. Choose quality over quantity when it comes to paint, paper and brushes. You don’t need to spend a lot of money, if you get the right basics. Of course everyone has a different focus, I’m mainly talking about getting a basic kit together for using watercolor in your sketchbook practice.

What I would recommend is to avoid student quality paints wherever you can (you will get far better quality and the paints will last longer if you get professional paints) and get at least decent paper and brushes. For sketching work, it’s not necessary to follow the rule of getting 100% cotton paper (I’ve written more about choosing paper here), but if you later discover you want to do more serious watercolor work, then I suggest investing in the best paper you can get. Paper has the biggest effect on how your watercolors will look.

Here is a good basic selection that will help you to get started:

Brushes

There are a lot of different brushes available in all price ranges. For watercolor, you will find that a good all-purpose round brush with soft bristles will work nicely. A size 4 or 6, and maybe a smaller one like a size 2 if you like to work on details. Another big round brush (size 8 or 10) is useful for big areas and washes. Synthetic brushes are fine, in fact they can be a bit easier to handle for beginners, because the slightly firmer bristles allow for more control. Real sable brushes are softer and can serve you well for years if taken care of properly, but they’re also more expensive. A good and inexpensive alternative for sketching outside is a waterbrush, which comes with a watertank in the handle. It’s not suited for applying drier paint layers because the water will always flow through the tip, and the tip itself isn’t really pointy, but it’s a nice tool to have in the field. There are also travel brushes which come with caps. Most art supply stores offer a good selection of brushes, although unfortunately most don’t let you test their brushes.

A few of the brushes I use – a big Chinese calligraphy brush, a dagger brush, a large synthetic brush for big areas, two small round sable brushes for details, and another synthetic round brush.

Paint

Watercolor sets are great for beginners because you can immediately start painting. However, they do have downsides, like including certain colors you will not need (black) or that are not so great for mixing (cadmium pigments). That said, if you’re starting out I recommend getting a small pan set, even if you will replace some of the paints, you can still use the pan set and refill with your own choices.
Schmincke makes very nice metal pan sets with a decent choice of 12 colors in heir professional quality (called Horadam), Winsor & Newton also has a small box with Cotman (student grade) paints that will work well enough for the first few steps. You will notice the difference from student to artist grade paints if you upgrade to better paints later, but I know of some sketchers who never did that and are happily painting every day. Other manufacturers offer similar sets that will work well for beginners.
Another general tip: get a small pan set. You don’t need that many colors, and if you want to take your painting set with you (one of watercolors biggest advantages is after all its portability), you will want to have something light and small. A pan set with 12-16 colors is more than enough. If you want to know what I put into my small field palette above, read on here.

I would advise getting watercolor paint in tubes once you know your paints a bit better and know exactly what you want. Tube paints can be used to refill pan sets or used fresh from the tube at home, and you will get more paint for your money in comparison to pans. It’s a good step to invest in tubes when you’re a bit further along the journey: when you have familiarized yourself with your paints, your painting habits and the characteristics of different pigments and know what you want.

A small field kit like this is enough for 90% of the work I do. You can mix all kinds of combinations from a basic palette like this.

Paper

Watercolor paper comes in different varieties, the most obvious being the surface: there is cold-pressed paper that comes with texture (slight to heavy). This can be easier for beginners because it’s easier to control, but I’d suggest avoiding very textured (rough or torchon) papers.
Hot-pressed paper has a smooth surface and works great for very fine, detailed work, but it can be a challenge for beginners because the paint isn’t as easy to control on the smooth paper.
Watercolor also comes in different weights, and the thicker a paper is the more water it can absorb. You will also find that there are slight nuances in the color of the paper (bright white, natural white).
What I recommend for beginners is 300 gsm (140 lb) cold-pressed watercolor paper with a slight texture.
Unfortunately, not a lot of sketchbooks are watercolor-friendly, so you will always have to make compromises (either on quality or on money) if you want to start your watercolor practice by sketching in a journal. Some companies like Hahnemühle, Stillman & Burn and Strathmore offer good sketchbooks that will work well with watercolor. I often like to make my own sketchbooks from paper I either like very much (so I can work on it all the time) or I don’t like at all (so I can use it up), so that’s another possibility if you’re very picky about your paper. I know there are also refillable sketchbooks out there that take perforated paper. Another alternative are spiral-bound blocks, they’re often far less expensive than nicely bound sketchbooks. Here are a few more thoughts about choosing the right sketchbook.

A self-made sketchbook with simple binding. I like being able to choose the format and paper of my sketchbooks.

This is the end of part one of this beginner’s guide to watercolor, in the second part we’ll take a look at different techniques like wet on wet and glazing, how to mix colors, and common mistakes that beginners run into (click here for part 2). Let me know if there’s anything specific you’d like to know, or anything I missed in this part. I’d also love to know how you found your way to watercolor. Let’s discuss!

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Taylor Donaldson

Hi Julia, I have been painting in watercolor for only 2+ years. I am at the stage of finding me…..my style. Still, I enjoyed your blog post very much! I learned a lot as well. Like *1704 Prussian Blue – did not know this. I would enjoy understanding more about how you bind your own sketchbooks if that works into one of your Blog Posts.

Thank you again,
Taylor

Millie

Nice intro Julia,
I have been painting awhile but often still feel like a beginner when I pick up a brush. This is mostly because I have not made frequent practice a part of my habits yet. The one thing I noticed in your list of beginners supplies is the absence of a flat brush. I know you are trying to keep supplies (and cost) to a minimum starting out, but I do feel that a flat brush, ½” for example would be very helpful for certain strokes. I look forward to your future posts. Thanks,
Millie

Nancy

Thanks Julia! Did I see somewhere that you have a video on how to make one of your home made sketchbooks? I’d love to see that. You’ve inspired me to get back into watercolors. Used them years ago, then have been using acrylics for a few years….but now I’ve returned and am loving it, thanks to you and your blog and lessons. Loving clouds ~ and painting them 🙂

Aneta

Yes, a much needed article! Thank you. I love that you make your own sketchbooks! Looking forward to finding out more about your process of bookmaking 🙂

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