Art Week: Some Q & A about Watercolors

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

I get a lot of questions about watercolor.

So in the interest of ultimate brevity, I thought I'd post a few of the most common questions and answers here.

That said, I have no illusions that this will be brief.  (Never been my strong suit.)  If it gets too long, I'll break it into parts so as not to overwhelm you. :)

Also, before I even start, I want to tell you one thing that is absolutely, unequivocally true:

No matter what I say here, your experience may be different.  That's because each of us works in our own way, and while I might love something to bits, you might hate it for one reason or another.  It's never more true than with watercolor, which is, IMHO, the most subjective of mediums.  It's unpredictable and has a bit of a chaos-theory all its own, which means that when you find a method or material that lets you, in particular, work with it with a degree of surety....ignore everything else.  Your alchemy may vary.

And with that said, let's get to the questions.

What watercolors should I buy? 

The most simple answer I can give is: the best you can afford.

Which really isn't all that simple, but it's true.  There really is a difference between the way cheap watercolors and expensive watercolors behave.  You get better rewetting of colors, better blending, and much deeper pigment in most professional or artist-grade paints.  That's just economics: the more pigment/better quality control a manufacturer puts into its colors, the more it costs to manufacture, which means a little higher sticker price at the store.

(And by "a little", I mean a huge difference sometimes.  Cheap sets of 12 or 18 pans in a plastic case will run you five bucks at a hobby store.  The lowest-end artist colors, pricewise, can run from fifty to literally hundreds of dollars for twelve to eighteen colors.  There's a very significant difference.)

Do I need to shell out megabucks for them, then, to be any good?

Again, short answer: nope.

I mean, yes, there's a quality difference.  And if you've tried to paint with one set and were frustrated or really didn't like the results, I'd suggest trying one or two tubes of really good watercolor (like Daniel Smith or M. Graham) before you give up entirely.  Sometimes bad supplies can really diminish your experience.

HOWEVER...and this is a big not think for one second that you can't buy any kind of paints and make pretty things in your sketchbooks.  For YEARS, all I had for watercolor was a set I bought at Artist & Craftsman's Supply in Seattle, WA that was made for kids and was on clearance for $3.99.  It had 28 colors in teeny tiny little pans and the world's crappiest brush.  (Which I threw out almost immediately, because some things really can't be saved.)

With that one set, I fell in love with watercolor sketching.  I filled books with little paintings made on location or from pictures I took.  I used many of the colors so much that the little pans were completely empty.  By the time I decided to upgrade, nearly five years later, I had literally no greens left.  Most of the blues were kind of droplets in the bottom of the pans.  Yellow ochre was a distant memory -- one I missed while painting out in the midwest, where things tend toward yellowish or ochreish at all times of the year.  (It's the wind and the corn pollen.  Seriously.)

I made the mistake of grabbing another small travel set.  (This Cotman set, for the interested.)  The pigment load was weirdly inconsistent between colors, and the binders were so drastically different than my cheapie set that I hated it.  Not just disliked it, but actively felt less creative when I looked at the box.  Nothing turned out right when I tried painting with that box.

I put away my Watercolory Box Of Dismay, and stopped using watercolor for a few years.  THAT's how much a bad material can affect your creativity, folks.  And it's why I'm such a proponent of starting with good materials to begin with -- in most cases, if a material is easier to work with, you'll have a better time at it.  And if you're not having fun, you're not going to want to use it at all.

As you can tell if you've seen my journals now, I did eventually get better watercolors, and the love came back.  I don't think this was necessarily a price issue, but a compatibility of working styles issue.  If I'd found another $4, 28-color kids' pan set like my first one, I would have snapped it up and started right back up again then, too.  

Instead, I found the angelic chorus-song of Yarka of St. Petersburg, which is a really affordable set, with a ton of pigmentation and color options galore.  I bought full pans so I could splash water all over creation and not use up all the color in a lifetime.  (Or, y'know, so I thought then.)

From there, it's been a downhill slope of WATERCOLOR ALL THE THINGS, ALL THE TIME.  I wish I was kidding.  (If there was a 12-step for paint addicts, I might have to join.)

So, what do you have now?

A few.

(hangs head in shame)

From the top:
  1. The 36 color Mijello Mission Gold set, which does brights like nobody else.
  2. Three tins full of Kuretake Gansai Tambi colors.  Japanese watercolors that behave a little differently with regards to flow.  Also fairly bright, but within the realm of nature, for the most part.
  3. A tin full of my absolute favorite Daniel Smith colors.  I carry this with me a lot.  I'm out of space in it now, so I'm going to need to rearrange my DS colors soon, to keep the most-used ones in this tin for portability.
  4. A set of iridescent paints that my friend Sue gave me.  I love them so hard.
  5. Three tins of Prima Marketing watercolor confections (decadent pies, tropical, and classic), which I bought for the tins (the whole shebang is less money than one tin purchased on its own with no color in it), but ended up liking the actual paint, too.  Both the metal holders in the tin AND the center (empty) section will fit half-pans, so for $20, you get a good selection of colors AND room for another seven or so half-pans of your own choosing.  It kind of rocks.
  6. The big'un there is almost all Daniel Smith.  I'm kind of a DS girl, when it comes down to it.  Many of these in this tin were trades with other art friends.  (We trade half pans like sporty kids traded baseball cards back in the day.  Any time one of us gets some colors the others don't have, we just whip out the empty half-pans and pass around the tubey goodness.)

This does not include sets I've set aside to get rid of or sets of watercolor-related stuff, like watercolor pencils or crayons, markers, or liquid watercolors.  Which I also have.  It's a sickness.

Tubes or pans?  What's the difference?

There isn't a difference, short answer.

Long answer is that tubes are a better value if you paint a lot.  Also, many of the higher-end companies don't even have pan colors, because for some reason, pan palettes are considered to be kind of hobbyist by the pros.  (I know.  Well, la-ti-dah with your snooty self.)

The paint that's in the pre-packaged half pans/full pans/sets, if it's the same manufacturer, is the exact same paint as is in the tubes.  You just get less of it for about the same price.

And since it's so easy to make your own custom palette with half-pans, I just don't see much of a reason to buy anything but tubes anymore for me.  

To get pans out of tubes:
Just squeeze out the color into the clean pan/half pan and let it sit for at least a few hours, preferably overnight.  The color will harden up, and if you're used to working with acrylics, this is where you'd start lamenting the loss of your supplies.

However, since watercolor is a rewettable medium, all you have to do is spritz your palette with water, and voila!  You have paint, just like new.  Some paints like to sit with some water on them for a minute or two; some you can just rub your damp brush over to get a good pigment load on your brush.  Play with it a little and you'll quickly figure out how much spritzing to do and how long to wait.

NOTE: DO NOT BUY HALF PANS AT AMAZON.  They're insanely expensive.  Something like $6 for ten of them, which is ridiculous.  Instead, buy them here, at Kremer Pigments, where you can get a bag of 100 for $14.  It's just a waste of money to buy them on Amazon at the moment.  Good heavens.

I don't have a fancy palette tin, though.
You don't need one.  I put magnets on the bottom of my pans and stuck them in any metal box I happened to have laying around.  I had a stack of tins from a watercolor-pencil-buying binge I went on once, for instance, and that's where I put my Gansai Tambi colors.  (The original box is beautiful, but HUGE and cardboard and had no closure.  Transporting them was nightmarish.  So....problem solved.)

You can even put half-pans into Altoids tins.  Kate Johnson, author of about a million books and classes and an amazing watercolor artist/friend of mine (name dropping!), has a youtube video on making your own tiny travel palettes.  It'll inspire you.  ALL of her videos are worth watching, too.

What about brushes?

I am a brush snob.  Let me just get that out of the way right now.  I used to use only Niji waterbrushes, because every other watercolor brush I tried either shed or frayed or didn't work well.  I've since found that:

1.  There are other kinds of waterbrushes that are just as good.  Yay, progress! and,
2.  A really good brush will force you into a second mortgage, but will both last forever without degrading much, if taken care of well, and will feel SO much better to work with than cheap crap.  (And if I add up all the money I spent on cheap brushes over the years, I could have bought the good ones and not ended up frustrated.)

I've tried these waterbrushes, which are awesome and juicy and wet (which you want for this medium), and these, which I fully expected to be crap, but weren't.  They're a little drier/require more squeezing, and you do have to be careful when squeezing so you don't get water splorts all over the place (lower price = a little less quality control, again), but they're perfectly serviceable.  I've picked up multiple sets for those times when I might be in a place where I might lose a brush.

(Which is everywhere.  I can lose things while still physically touching them sometimes.  It's a gift.)

If you want non-waterbrush brushes, pick the best one you can afford.  Get a few sizes of rounds, and at least one flat wash brush.  An angle is helpful but not necessary, as are chisels/daggers and big fat mop brushes for washes.  Kolinsky sable brushes are considered the best in the world (they hold a tremendous amount of water but still snap back into shape when they've been rinsed.  You can get points that give you line range widths from teeny-fine to wide and sweeping -- which you can get from most watercolor brushes, but not to this extent.  Trust me.  They're awesome.  They also cost more than a cheap used car.

Make sure it feels good in your hand, holds a lot of water, and works for what you're trying to do.  That's really all that's important anyway.

I tried using watercolors, but they didn't work right.  What am I doing wrong?

Dollars to donuts, I'd almost guarantee that the problem is the paper.

It always astounds me when someone pays a hundred + bucks for a paint set, has all the "right" brushes and accessories, and cheaps out on some kind of $2 notebook from a craft big box store to paint on.

Paper is not created equal.  You know this already if you've ever tried to write with a fountain pen or juicy felt tipped pen on a piece of cheap notebook paper vs. heavy cardstock that's sized well.  Whatever you've written on the notebook paper will bleed through, sometimes not only to the back of the paper, but sometimes through several layers of the paper.  The same pen, on a thicker, better made cardstock, however, will stay where your pen put it, and not feather out, keeping your words crisp on the page.

Same thing with watercolor papers.

If you use any ol' 24lb. paper, like printer paper or cheap sketchbook paper, you're going to likely get places where the color bleeds through, feathers, soaks in at some crazy rate of speed, can't be rewet or pulled up, and, like one set of "watercolor" postcards I bought, stain the paper so fast that there wasn't time to even put on the stroke next to the first, or layer over it without turning the paper back to a pulpy mush.  The paper itself can make you look like a five year old with some fingerpaints and bad kiddie markers.

Even if you buy cheaper paints and brushes (which, like I said, is PERFECTLY FINE for beginners!), do not cheap out on the paper.  Buy paper made for actual watercolor use, preferably 140# and above.  You will be so much happier with the results if you do.  

The finish might also be messing with you, too.  It's trial and error as to what you like best.  Cold press has some bumpiness to it, which holds the paint in puddles.  Rough is essentially sandpaper.  I don't use it so I'm not sure what it's actually for, but it is definitely textured.  Hot press is what I use most, only because I like moving my color around a lot, and the lack of bumpiness in hot press paper means the water and pigment is able to flow as it pleases.  I get a lot of neat blending effects with it that way.

I'm sure there are more I'm just not remembering right now.  

Plus, this is getting long and all this talk about painting is making me want to paint, go figure.

If you have specific questions I didn't answer here, feel free to leave 'em in the comments below.  I'll get to them in part II. :)


  1. After reading this I think I need to try hot press paper! I bought a few pads of canson 140 pound cold press thinking that was a great one to use, and I just haven't been thrilled with it. Oh and the make your own palette thing is awesome, I love little metal tins for storing anything in, and now I know what I'm going to be doing with this one little one I got from buying chapstick that I haven't had much else use for.

    1. I've totally had iffy luck with Canson, to be honest. Some of it I love, and some of it has been weirdly sized, I think. (The coating they put on watercolor paper so your color doesn't just soak right in.) I bought this giant roll of it because it was a steal with Amazon Prime (something like $20 for a fifteen YARD roll), so I'm using it, but.... I hear you. :D

      And yes! ALL THE TINS!


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