A Delicate Language
Frank Rudolph Paul (1884 – 1963)
October Birthday News
Watercolor MaterialsBehind the Art
by Melissa Acker
Watercolor is a beautiful, flexible and rewarding medium to work with, but it can be very intimidating for beginners to get started in. So the best way to take care of that is to take it apart step-by-step, and the very first step is knowing what materials to use.
There are several different options you have as an artist when you decide to paint a watercolor, but by far the most common is paper, particularly watercolor paper. There are three common weights of paper: 90lb, 140lb, and 300lb. 90Lb is the lightest and thinnest, whereas 300lb is the heaviest and thickest. And of course 140lb is a nice intermediate, and the one I use most often. I find 90lb not absorbent enough for my work, although I have used it for colored pencil work. I love working with 300lb paper, since you pretty much don't need to stretch it, but it's quite expensive, about three times the price of the 140lb.
After you've chosen the weight of the paper, you need to select the finish: hot press, cold press or rough press. Hot press is very smooth, rough press is very rough, and cold-press is somewhere in-between. I sometimes work with hot press, but again it takes paint differently than the others and it isn't quite absorbent enough for me. And I work with way too much detail to really work with the rough press at all. So cold-press is almost always the paper I work with. So basically, when in doubt, paint on 140lb cold-press.
And if you don't want to paint on paper, you can also paint on illustration board (hot press or cold-press), artist panels (such as Ampersand's Aquaboard), or on watercolor canvas. When first starting out, though, it's best to stick with paper, as it will teach you the basics faster.
Ah, paint. This is where the fun comes again. Again, you have some choices to make when it comes time to pick out your paint.
First off, you need to decide on tubes or pans. Tubes are tubes full of liquid paint, and pans are little cakes of dried paint. Most artists use tubes, as the paint is easier to dissolve and generally the color is stronger. But pans have their place too, and are most commonly used as a portable medium for in the field.
If you decide to go with pans, all you need to do is select your colors and some kind of palette to hold them in and you're ready to go. You can often buy sets of them that come with all the basics you need. Tubes require a bit more preparation to use. You first need a palette to hold them all in; get the biggest one you think you can keep in your studio, at a bare minimum of 12 wells. Unlike with acrylics or oils, with watercolors you don't just squeeze out the paint and go at it; if you do you'll waste a lot of paint and a lot of money. What you do is to take your tube of paint, and squeeze the paint into one of the paint wells; you want a piece at least the size of a dime, and if you're confident it's a color you plan on keeping in your palette, then fill the well. Once you've done this with all your paints, set your palette aside and let it dry out for a couple of days. Then, whenever you want to paint, just give your paints a spray and you're ready to go!
There are also many different paint brands available. I use DaVinci, Daniel Smith and Winsor & Newton. You can use any you want, but there are a few things you need to look for on the tube. Make sure it is artist quality paint, and that it has a lightfast rating of I or II. A rating of III is not considered permanent. And different manufacturers have different colors available, so you may not be able to just stick with one brand.
And now you're ready to pick your colors! At a bare minimum, you need a warm and a cool of each of the primary colors. For instance, you could start with cadmium yellow (warm) and light hansa (cool), cadmium red (warm) and permanent rose (cool), ultramarine (warm) and phthalocyanine blue (cool). With just these basics, you can achieve quite a bit. In fact, when you're learning it's best to stick with a limited palette so you learn how to mix paint and aren't overwhelmed by color choices.
Once you're comfortable with your basics, you can start to add colors to your palette. What colors you need will depend on you're painting style and subject matter, but some good choices are cadmium orange, veridian green, and burnt sienna.
The final main ingredient for painting is your brushes. Like everything, there are many brands, shapes and sizes you can pick. When you're just starting out, don't get overwhelmed; all you need is a 1 or 2 inch flat, several sizes of rounds, and maybe a small detail brush or two. Once you learn what you like, start experimenting with different store brand brushes. If you like something, invest in a better version.
Brushes are made of several materials. White or gold synthetic sable is a good choice, as it is economic and hard working. White sable is cheaper but I also find it doesn't last as long. Red sable brushes are made from animal hairs, and pick up a lot of water; they are often used for rounds. For stretching paper I use a 2-inch brush I bought for three dollars at a hardware store. It is useless for paint but for just pushing water around it gets the job done.
And on top of all that, there are some extra materials that will make you life easier. I always keep a spray bottle on my table, for keeping my palette wet or for adding effects into wet paint. Paper towels are practically mandatory for picking up extra paint. Masking fluid can be used to keep small areas of your painting white; it's a pain to work with but sometimes you just need it. You need some kind of wide tape, both to stretch paper and for larger masks. And you also need some kind of drawing board. Plexiglas is your best choice, as it is cheap, can be cut to size, and will last forever. A wooden board can also be use, but make sure it's at least ¼ inch thick and ideally thicker to prevent warping.
So there you have it, a (hopefully) thorough guide on what you need to get started on your watercolor journey. Once you have these basics assembled, you can do anything the pros can do. All you need is a little practice.
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