When I first became serious about sketching and painting, one of the greatest things I struggled with was not technique or developing skills but choosing supplies. Part of my struggle had to do with the fact that every artist is different and what works for one artist won't always work for another.
The other part of my struggle was that I received a lot of really bad advice.
Based on the number of emails I receive regarding this topic, I'm not the only one. Nearly all beginners struggle with choosing supplies and, unfortunately, many beginners also struggle with the supplies that they have chosen.
Good art supplies aren't cheap, but watercolor supplies can easily add up to hundreds of dollars so mistakes aren't only frustrating but also costly. I hope to save you a tiny bit of trouble AND money by sharing a list of my top recommended watercolor supplies for beginners. I'll also share links to more information here at my site so once you purchase your supplies, you'll know what to do with them.
Below is a list of all one really needs to get started with watercolor. May your first attempts at painting go much more smoothy (and cheaply) than mine!
#1 Tip for Choosing Supplies
My #1 tip when purchasing art supplies is actually comprised of two bits of advice, but both are inseparably related.
Buy the best you can afford & choose quality over quantity.
This doesn't mean that you need to spend a ton of money! You don't need 32 colors or 15 brushes. Spend the money you do have towards a few high quality, artist-grade materials instead of a lot of cheap tools that won't last, or worse, would have inadequate performance even in expert hands.
And poor tools will be horribly inadequate. Watercolor is a very finicky medium and doesn't react well with inferior products. You don't have to buy the absolute best, but cheap watercolor supplies usually guarantee failure.
When trying any new thing, there's always a learning curve, but your supplies shouldn't be fighting you all they way. You'll probably know pretty quickly if a brush, paper, or paint isn't working for you. Don't doubt yourself! Most people naturally have in innate sense that something just isn't clicking, but as beginners, we often tell ourselves that it's our own fault or we just need to push through it.
Possibly, but probably not. Sure, you may need to set the item or color aside until more skills are developed, or you may never warm to it. Ever.
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Watercolor Brushes for Beginners
Because of the sheer number of brushes on the market with seemingly infinite varieties of handles, bristles, and prices, brushes can be the most difficult choice for beginners. They are also the hardest watercolor supply to recommend because brushes are extremely personal; the shape and bristle texture that I prefer may not work for you.
To make things even more confusing, there are no industry standards when it comes to brush names, sizes, shapes, etc. All of these characteristics can vary between brands. (You can learn more about that here.)
Brushes will more than likely take a bit of experimentation to find what works, so check return policies carefully. Fine art stores will often allow returns even for used products. Some art stores will also allow you to test brushes before purchase.
Keeping these things in mind, there are a few common sizes and economical choices that I believe are a good place to begin.
Brush sizes for beginners:
One size 4 or 6 round
One size 10 or 12 round
A 1/2-inch or a 1-inch flat
Whether a brush is round or flat refers to the ferrule shape, or the metal part that holds the bristles. If three brushes are beyond your budget or you’re not sure what type of brush you prefer, begin with a size 8 or 10 round. This one brush should allow you to paint almost anything you desire.
A note on brush handles... Brushes come with varying lengths of handles but are typically grouped into either long or short handled versions. Long handled brushes are useful when working at an easel so the bristles are usually designed for acrylic or oils, but watercolorists typically work close to the paper so most brushes designed for watercolor will have shorter handles.
Brush types & brands for beginners:
Synthetic sables have moderately firm bristles with strong snap and allow the painter a lot of control, and they cost much less than natural sable brushes. They're good for pushing pigment around on page, but they sometimes act finicky (e.g. releasing too much water, not performing a uniform wash, etc) and may be too stiff for some painters.
If you would like to try synthetic sables, I highly recommend either Miller’s Pseudo Sable OR Loew-Cornell La Corneille brushes. The Pseudo Sable is a touch softer, but the Loew-Cornell usually costs a little less and is easier to find. I use both of these brands and think they're exceptionally well made brushes for the price. You can read my full review of the LC brushes here.
Synthetic or natural squirrel is a softer alternative than sable and has much more yield in the hand of a painter, and synthetic and natural squirrel are both fairly affordable. Squirrel has very little snap so it works best with artists who prefer to pull pigment on a page, and it's softness can frustrate those who prefer more control. However, many artists prefer squirrel's smooth, spontaneous performance.
If you're interested in trying squirrel, Silver Brush Black Velvet brushes are wonderfully soft with excellent spring and an even pigment release. I haven't tried Princeton Neptune brushes, but Jessica over at Doodlewash and Denise Soden both have good reviews, and my friend Bekki says that the Neptune is one of her favorites.
Brushes to Avoid:
Craft brushes: To be blunt, these brushes are usually the pits. They'll often work okay for tempura, acrylic, or even gouache or oils, but watercolor needs a soft, well-formed brush. Cheap brushes (or even worse, those cheap brush sets) in the craft section will ruin your love of watercolor. Again, buy the best you can afford and go for quality over quantity.
Cheap "sable": I've run across several $29.99 "kolinsky sable" brush sets around the web. Um, no. Paying a pittance for real sable will more than likely be a waste of money. Red or Kolinsky sable will always cost top dollar unless there’s some terrible reason behind why it does not. Remember, if it seems to good to be true...
Top-of-the-line splurges: Unless you have money to burn, you may want to avoid very expensive brushes until you know that you love watercolor AND you know that you love a specific brush shape and material. If you like synthetic squirrel or sable, you'll probably enjoy the real thing, but it's best to test the waters (literally) with less expensive options first.
Specialty brushes: Dragon’s Tongue, Cat’s Paw, rigger, angle, mops, daggers, etc are speciality brushes. I don’t recommend these for beginners, at least not for a first brush or two, because they’re not always as useful or easy to handle as a basic round or flat. Instead, save speciality brushes for when you’re ready to invest and/or experiment.
Additional info on choosing & using watercolor brushes:
Watercolor Paints for Beginners
A great place to begin with watercolors might be with sample sets. Sample sets will allow you to try several, high quality brands in a plethora of colors at very modest prices. This is a great way to test the waters, so to speak.
If you’re ready to dive into watercolors, there are several options that I recommend, so feel free to pick the best one for you.
Watercolor pan sets for beginners:
Pans are perfect for beginners because all one has to do is pop the top and paint. The best deal by far is Da Vinci’s Travel Palette ($56; free shipping) which is filled with 12 fantastic colors of artist-grade paint. The included colors are perfect for beginners or seasoned painters and should work for nearly any painting need. The pans are large and generous, which is good for brushes and your pocketbook.
If you prefer to spend less, I recommend Winsor & Newton’s Cotman Pocket set. These are student-grade watercolors so they won't perform as well as professional paints. Also, the pans are small and the color selection is more limited. However, this palette is very affordable, portable, and a fine place to begin. (Pro tip: Half pans are nearly impossible to use with large brushes, so you may want to hold off on that 1-inch flat.)
Watercolor tubes for beginners:
I recommend beginners save tube paints until they’re ready to build a palette. If you’re at this point, I highly recommend avoiding tube sets. You’ll inadvertently wind up with colors you won’t use which is a huge waste of money and paint.
Instead, build your watercolor collection slowly. Read reviews, search out color comparisons, and again, consider tester sets before purchasing full tubes. There are a lot of great brands and colors to choose from so feel free to stock your palette with a wide variety.
You can see the colors and brands I keep in my palette here. I've also linked to a 12-color palette option below, and these colors would create a fine foundational palette.
Additional info on choosing & using watercolor palettes:
Watercolor Paper for Beginners
Paper is one beginning watercolor supply where you absolutely must buy top quality because poor paper will constantly foil your best beginner efforts. Nearly all artist-grade watercolor papers are handmade or mold made from 100-percent cotton (aka rag). The paper is also internally and/or externally sized to allow watercolor to flow and lift easily.
The good news is that even artist-grade watercolor papers are fairly economical. Paper comes in full sheets, pads, or blocks, and pages can be cut or torn down to smaller sizes.
If you want to paint on the go, I recommend saving sketchbooks for a later date because the paper is rarely up to artist-grade standards. Pads, blocks, or cut pieces are easy to pack and transport, so I recommend beginners start with one of those.
Sorting through surfaces, weights & colors:
Hot-pressed paper has a smooth, velvety surface and is great for dry painting and detailed work, but paint is more difficult to control on its slick surface so hot-pressed can be a bit tricky for beginners.
Cold-pressed paper has a slight to heavy texture and allows more control than hot-pressed papers. However, the pattern in the paper can sometimes be a bit distracting to beginners. I recommend beginners avoid "rough" papers (which means what it says) and stick to standard cold-pressed which is often referred to as "not" or "matte" in some countries.
Watercolor paper also varies according to weight. Thicker paper isn't necessarily better quality; it's just thicker. Thicker papers will be more absorbent than thinner papers so paints won't lift as easily and will fade more when drying, but thicker papers also won't buckle as much under heavy water applications.
Watercolor papers can also be classified according to color, usually natural white or bright white. Some artists believe that the additional treatment that results in bright white paper causes performance loss, but in my humble opinion, both are fine and are simply a personal preference.
Watercolor paper for beginners:
I recommend beginning with 140# cold-pressed watercolor paper in either a natural or bright white. 140# paper is very common so it's easy to find and fairly affordable—much more so than heavy-weight paper—but will still hold up well under heavy washes. Also, I think the texture of cold-pressed is advantageous for beginners still learning to control paint.
You can see a list of my favorite watercolor papers here, but a fine paper that is fairly budget friendly is Stonehenge Aqua. It's not quite up to artist-grade standards, but I think it's an excellent "practice" paper. If you’re on a super-tight budget, Strathmore Windpower (make sure you get the watercolor pad) also performs well for its price.
Sample sets of papers are also available through some distributors and art stores. They usually contain a variety of papers and are moderately priced. I’ve also occasionally found them for free.