I began sketching and painting four years ago, but to most watercolorist and sketchers, I’m still a baby beginner. For the first couple of years, by far the biggest struggle I encountered was wading through the massive selection of art supplies to determine which ones worked best for me. Based on the number of emails, questions, and comments I receive on this topic, I suspect that many other budding watercolor artists and sketchers deal with the same struggle.
I’ve spent much of the last four years testing various sketching and watercolor supplies, and what a great learning experience it has been! These trials and tests have taught me much about why certain paints, papers, and brushes behave the way they do, how I can use and combine various supplies and techniques to greater advantage, and the reasons why I prefer certain brands and materials over others... and why you might also.
I shared more about this process at my 2018 list and my experiences may help. Though I’ll always be open to new tools, one of my goals from here on out is to continue to use my tried and true favorites to increase my sketching and watercolor skills. In other words, as we say in the South:
Because of this, I no longer plan to have a new “favorite tools” list every year but instead will update this list if my favorites ever change.
Since every artist is beautifully different, you may love some of the tools I use and hate others. That’s more than okay—it’s great! No matter what supplies you choose, I always recommend quality over quantity. (More on this below.) If you're just getting started with watercolor, you may also find this resource list helpful. It includes a beginner supply list along with more information on choosing and using watercolor supplies.
So without further ado, here’s my ongoing list of favorite watercolor and sketching supplies. I hope you find a few favorites, too!
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The K.I.S.S. Rule
Unlike many artists and crafters who have entire rooms full of wonderful supplies, my watercolor “studio” is a desk alongside my bedroom wall in our small, 1300-sf house. This is a huge step up from the small, portable folding table that I used for many years. Some days I’m a bit jealous of those artists who have rooms to spare, but I’m okay with my setup because I work best when my surroundings are kept clean and uncluttered and my supplies are at a minimum.
(I do wish I had more natural light, but that’s about it. Maybe one day…)
I own more supplies than are listed below, but not much more. If I didn’t host an art website and blog, I would own even less. As I mentioned above, I truly believe that quality is way more important than quantity and try to practice this philosophy in all areas of my life. My life is proof that you don’t need to spend or have a lot to live a fulfilling and creative life.
I share this so you won’t mistakenly believe that you can’t be an artist until you have a fancy setup, nor should you feel pressured to blow your budget on 500 colors of paint or stacks of specialty papers. (Unless you really love using 500 colors of paint, and if so, then by all means go forth with joy!) One of the first lessons I learned is that lots of supplies won’t make me a better artist because art is what I make of it, not what it’s made of, so cheers to cultivating a happy and creative life with what you’ve got!
My Scratchmade Watercolor Palette
Though I enjoy testing and trying a wide variety of colors, the 18-color setup above is my everyday foundational palette. These 18 colors are all I need, but color is fun and convenient so I may occasionally use more. However, any additional colors that I use must work with this palette.
When I first began learning, I started with a lot of colors. However, I had no idea how to use them and made a lot of messy paintings. I cut way back on the number of colors, upgraded to quality paints, and then slowly experimented and kept the colors that proved worthy of their palette real estate. Because of that experience, I now recommend that process.
I’m not a purist. I don’t try to match color exactly but instead focus on tone and mood, but I do like a wide variety of pigments. However, I don’t really care for convenience colors (except for greens) and I don’t care for most colors as standalone colors. I dirty up nearly every single pigment in my palette before painting with it.
While I easily get overwhelmed with too many colors and choices, I don’t like to be stifled during an inspirational moment because I’m spending all my time mixing. I’ve found that 12 colors is my convenient minimum, but 18 colors is my sweet spot and what I use 99-percent of the time. I’ll bump up to 20-30 colors in a travel or field palette* so I can paint more easily and quickly, but I quickly grow tired of that many colors and prefer to keep things simple.
If you compare the palette above to my past 18-color palettes (links below), you’ll see that my palette has shifted slightly as I’ve continued to refine it. Developing an artist’s palette is often a long process, but it’s a process well worth undertaking. Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun!
I’m delighted to have partnered with the exceptional Da Vinci Paints to make my Scratchmade palette available for purchase. To learn all about my palette and more about each specific color, see this post.
Additional Watercolor Palette Ideas
18-Color Palette (2017)
18-Color Palette (2018)
*I realize this is the opposite of what many artists do—most artists keep a lot of colors in their studio and cull when they travel or paint on location—but my system works for me!
Favorite Watercolor Brushes
Thankfully, I discovered my perfect brush rather quickly in my painting journey. Kolinsky sable brushes fit my painting style perfectly, more specifically Isabey Kolinsky Sables, so affording a collection of these brushes has taken a few years. I slowly purchased one brush at a time until I had exactly what I needed, nothing more and nothing less.
Rounds are the main brushes I use and my everyday favorites are a #10 round and a #3 rigger. I can paint pretty much anything in the world with one large round and a rigger. With the exception of my pocket travel brushes, the photo above showcases my entire watercolor brush collection. The list below begins with the brush on the top left, travels down the row, and then finishes things off with the lineup on the right.
The 1.5-inch flat is a Princeton Elite (see my review) which is an affordable synthetic sable. I’m not much for flats, but this brush has become indispensable to me as a carrier for dropping in large washes of initial color. This may win me over to flats, so we’ll see!
I longed for this gigantic Miller Kolinsky Sable Quill Brush from the moment Cheap Joe’s released it, but alas, I couldn’t afford it until I found it as a lightly-used-and-then-returned item on their clearance rack. I snapped it up and have never regretted my deeply discounted purchase. Joe says it's a size 12 but it’s more like a size 20, and it’s a stellar brush that’s worth every dollar if you have the dollars to spare.
The next 7 brushes are the workhorses of my studio, my Isabey sables. The top 5 are Isabey rounds that range from sizes 14 to 4, and the bottom two brushes are Isabey riggers/liners in a size 3 and 4. I would say that I’ve nearly worn out the Isabey rigger #3 which was my first ever Isabey brush from way back when, but it’s an Isabey so I don’t think “worn out” is possible.
Before we move on, let’s pay homage to the brush on the very bottom: that goofy Oral B toothbrush. It has been with me for many years, but I consider it a necessary tool for splattering or applying fine mists of color. I’m not sure I could paint without it.
First in the vertical lineup to the right is a tried and true size 10 Loew-Cornell Golden Taklon brush that I have used nonstop for the last 4 years. My expensive sables are reserved for solely for painting, so this is THE brush for mixing paints, swatching colors, etc. I’ve written a full review of the LC Taklon brushes.
Next in line is an antique Winsor & Newton fan brush that belonged to my grandmother who was a watercolor artist and must have somehow posthumously passed along her love of watercolor to me. I treasure this brush and use its stiff bristles (pretty sure it’s hog) to paint funky tree canopies, willowy branches, and spiky grasses.
Last but not least, these two Artcolor craft brushes are the perfect lifting and scrubber brushes. I think they may have hog bristles, but they’re leftovers from my children’s art bin from long ago so who knows where they came from, but I’ve never found their equals.
Additional Information on Brushes
Favorite Watercolor Papers
Every single paper brand, weight, and surface finish has unique characteristics, and there are a lot of great watercolor papers on the market. The important thing is to find a paper that works for the way you paint. I’m extremely partial to full-sized sheets of 100-percent cotton rag in bright white, but the paper I choose to work with often depends on what I’m painting or doing.
I’ve featured Saunder's Waterford many times before and this is still my #1 paper for painting. I’ll often use Kilimanjaro to swatch colors because it’s an absorbent paper with a low flow rate, so colors stay put. Plus, colors really pop on Kilimanjaro, though Kili doesn’t work for me with heavy watercolor.
I enjoy trying new papers, and I’ll often use more affordable papers for working out compositions, creating mixing charts, or for field notes and sketches. However, when it comes to pure watercolor painting, I want nothing less than the best. I’ve tried a lot of cellulose-based and student-grade papers, and I’ve yet to find one that’s equal to the flow and workability of artist-grade papers.
When I first started out, sketchbooks that worked well for heavy watercolor were difficult to find, and at one point, I nearly gave them up. Though they’re still not the norm, sketchbooks with artist-grade watercolor papers* are becoming more readily available. (I wonder if the advent and rapid rise of urban sketchers should be thanked for this positive shift?)
Though I still carry loose-leaf pieces and sheets of watercolor paper when I travel, Hahnemuhle’s Watercolour Book and Pentalic’s Aqua Journal are ready-made sketchbooks that I enjoy using. They’re ink and watercolor friendly and work well for many applications. (See the links for complete reviews.) For a splurge that’s worth every penny, I highly recommend Nature Sketches handcrafted books; these are the sketchbooks that ruined me for all others.
Besides Nature Sketches handmade beauties, there are a few sketchbooks that contain artist quality watercolor papers, but I haven’t used them or used them enough to form an opinion. Jackson’s Art offers an affordable spiral-bound Saunder’s Waterford pad; click on currency in upper left corner to view pricing in USD. If you like Kilimanjaro paper, Cheap Joe’s offers it in a sketchbook interlaced with sketching paper, and check out Two Rivers Pocket Books. If anything ever changes regarding my (limited) sketchbook favorites, I’ll be sure to share any new favs here.
*Yes, I know about pads, but I swear I can tell the difference once a sheet of watercolor paper has been hard pressed into a commercial pad or sketchbook format. It often alters the paper, and I don’t like it. Picky picky! :)
Additional Information on Papers
As I mentioned above, I don’t keep a lot of extras around, but there are a few more supplies that I just can’t do without.
I’m completely content with a simple No. 2 or HB lead pencil, but I insist on a good eraser like a Factis oval eraser along with a big soft brush to brush away eraser crumbs. The ultra affordable yet completely infallible Platinum Preppies and Platinum Carbon Desk Pen filled with Platinum Carbon waterproof ink are pretty much the only pens I use besides dip pens. For those, I use either a Zebra or Tachikawa G nib (reviewed here) in an oblique holder along with various inks. (If you have trouble with dip pens, you can always fake it.)
I constantly use boards of various sizes to hold my watercolor paper along with a good artist tape and binder clips. I occasionally use masking fluid and prefer the ease of a masking pen. For water containers, I use repurposed glass jars (like the ones that come with store-bought pickles or honey, but cleaned, of course) and I keep a small supply of cotton washcloths and paper towels nearby for blotting.
Besides a few other things like an Xacto knife, a ruler or two, and reading glasses (yep, I’m that old), that’s about it!
My On-the-Go Sketching Kit
I began my creative journey with art and nature journaling, much of which took place outdoors, but the past year or so I’ve slowly moved more and more toward studio work. Part of that reason is that we purchased acreage so now when I’m outdoors, I’m usually clearing creek beds, weeding or planting, stacking a wood pile, cutting new trails, etc. These activities allow me to deeply explore and examine nature but don’t leave a lot of time for sketching.
But there’s another reason for this shift away from field sketching and plein air painting, and I couldn’t put my finger on it until I ran across a great article at Artist Network by staff member Marion. What she wrote regarding en plein air painting seemed to sum up my thoughts exactly.
“It’s not really the blustery wind that stops me, nor the cold seeping into my fingers nor the insects that come out when it’s hot. It’s having to cart stuff with me, when all I want to do is walk unencumbered. Walking with an uncluttered body helps unclutter my mind, which means I take in more and that means I’ve more to use on a canvas back in my studio.”
Marion’s insight deeply resounded with me and abolished any lingering guilt regarding my shift towards studio work. Regardless, I still carry a portable sketching and watercolor kit because I never know when inspiration will strike, and good observation goes hand in hand with good field notes. Plus, a portable kit is great for travel.
My favorite on-the-go sketching kit is still housed inside my Tom Bihn backpack, but I keep a stocked Cotman Travel Bag tucked inside to safely house supplies. This lightweight pack is large enough to also carry a few extras like a small homemade sketching board, binoculars, a non-disposable water bottle, a wallet and phone, or anything else I may need.