An Overview of Watercolour Materials

As a beginner in the world of watercolours, the various different papers, paints and brushes can be a bit daunting. I get asked a lot about the materials I use and what watercolours are good for starting out, so this article is a semi in-depth overview of my recommendations. In writing this, I found I could babble on in much more detail than many people care to read. If this is you, feel free to skip to the sections that you are interested in.

This Blog post covers:

  • An overview of the Winsor and Newton Ranges
  • What colours to chose
  • Why you shouldn't buy cheap materials
  • Watercolour Paper
  • Watercolour Brushes
  • A Bit about Water-brushes
  • Preferences and Practices

For the purpose of this article I am using Winsor and Newton because I am familiar with and can vet the quality of their watercolour ranges. However, there are a variety of other brands out there and I would be interested to hear what people think of them; please do get in touch if you have a particular favourite! You can tag me on social media as @valerianstudio or use the contact page.

An overview of the Winsor and Newton ranges

Winsor and Newton sell two ranges of watercolours, separated into four products:

  • Student Grade (Cotman) - Half pans and Tubes
  • Professional Artists Grade - Half pans and Tubes

So what's the difference?

Student Grade:

The student grade watercolours are different to professional watercolours in a few ways, as well as different to each other. They aren't completely lightfast so can fade over time, especially in direct sunlight. However, they are decent quality and good value which is a definite pro when you're starting out and aren't ready to invest a lot of money into your new hobby.

The Cotman Half pans are the square blocks of watercolour that you see in most Winsor and Newton sets. They are great for travel and usually have a fairly good range of colours for a beginner. These might be the better option for you if you don't want to chose individual tubes. Their main downside is that they are nowhere near as pigmented as tube/liquid watercolours and they take a lot more activation (working water into them) to get similar vibrancy to the Cotman tubes.

The Cotman tubes are much better at this "activation". They can be put into a pallet or portable tin of your choosing and will continue to work after drying. You must be careful not to start using them like poster paint whilst they are still wet; they are not designed to be used in their concentrated form. These do differ from artists grade watercolours and will not last quite as long before the paint goes a bit crumbly or the tubes dry out. This is not too much of a problem as individual tubes are a matter of £2-3 to replace. These can be bought in sets but one look at the colours in them and my recommendation is not to buy these, instead, buy individual tubes. I'll explain and draw out a beginners list of colours below.

Artist Grade:

Professional grade watercolours are designed for artists who use them regularly and are prepared to invest in their quality. They are beautifully pigmented and less grainy than student grade. They'll last years and the colours won't fade over time, which is important when creating commissions. I use professional tube watercolours but Winsor and Newton also do a range of artists grade half pans. I have not tried these but would expect them to live up to the same professional standards, perhaps needing a bit more activation than the tube watercolours.

That was a lot of information in four paragraphs, so here is a chart to summarise. Watercolour sets are worth snapping up in sales as this can really save you a bit of cash or enable you to buy a more extensive range of colours.

Range Product Pros Cons Price Link
Student (Cotman) Half Pans Good value, you can get very good results with these paints. Portable and will last well. Not as easily activated as tube watercolours, thus less vibrant. Not 100% lightfast- colours may fade over time. From about £17.00, Look for sales across different sites. https://www.artsupplies.co.uk/item-cotman-pocket-plus.htm https://www.artsupplies.co.uk/item-cotman-24-half-pan-painting-plus-set.htm
Student (Cotman) Tubes Excellent value, you get a lot for your money when you buy individual tubes. Vibrant and mix well. Not 100% lightfast- colours may fade over time. Don't last as long as professional tubes but are cheap to replace. Sometimes have a slightly grainy finish when dry. Can often be found for £2-3 per tube. https://www.artsupplies.co.uk/colours-winsor-&-newton-cotman-watercolour-paint-8ml-tubes.htm
Professional Half Pans High professional standards of pigment. Finish is smooth and paint is lightfast. Often presented in good metal tins. Small sets can be deceptively more expensive at RP than tubes would be. A bit less vibrant then Tube Watercolours. From about £55, for travel set, larger sets can be found at a steal when on sale for half their value (see second link on current sale) https://www.artsupplies.co.uk/item-artists-field-box.htm https://www.artsupplies.co.uk/item-artists-field-box.htm
Professional Tubes Amazing vibrancy and highest professional standard. Finish is smooth and light fast. You get a lot for your money in these small tubes and they last for years. Many colours available. I have been using tube watercolours for several years now and am yet to have any issue with them. Prices vary depending on "Series" due to different costs of pigments. RP £7-11 but on sale £5-9 Often interchangeable with other professional brands. https://www.artsupplies.co.uk/colours-winsor-&-newton-professional-watercolours-5ml-tubes.htm https://www.artsupplies.co.uk/colours-schmincke-horadam-aquarell-artists-watercolour-5ml-tube.htm https://www.artsupplies.co.uk/colours-daniel-smith-extra-fine-watercolours-5ml-tubes.htm

What colours to chose?

I previously mentioned the poor selection of colours in the Cotman tube sets and will explain this sweeping statement as follows. Nine of the colours in this set are decent additions to your palette but it's the three that are not that can waste your money and, more than that, potentially inhibit your learning.

1- Viridian. This colour is a notorious shade of green. To the experienced painter it can mix beautifully with alizarin crimson and other complimentary pigments but a knowledge of colour theory and practice is generally needed to get good results and it shouldn't be used in it's pure form. To a beginner this shade risks an overly bright and unrealistic green tinge to your landscapes and botanicals. If you do have it in your palette, experiment by mixing it with complimentary colours to get realistic green shades.

2- Black. As a general rule of thumb, watercolourists don't use black, especially when they're learning. This is because it's important to learn how to darken your colours using colour theory and mix greys using complimentary colours, rather than processed black. With black in your palette, it's too tempting to use it for this purpose which results in less vibrant, dulled down colours.

3- White. There are many methods employed to make white space in watercolour paintings but using white watercolour is not usually one of them. I am at a loss as to why it's included in so many sets. If mixed with your colours to lighten them, it will only make them misty. If used to try and create highlights, it will be too transparent to be particularly effective. Instead, try buying some white Gouache which mixes well with watercolours. Alternatively you can use resist methods or try the traditional technique of using the white of your paper.

Recommended Colours:

Below are the essential pigments in my palette and their Cotman equivalents: The Cotman Tubes RP at £3.20 each but can often be found on sale. In the current sale at Ken Bromley's they're £2.40 so this set of 10 will cost you £24.

The professional pigments vary in price depending on the colour but are also currently on sale so investing in this set is of 10 is presently £58. There are a few professional pigments that I always buy from Winsor and Newton and have not found matched (marked with*) but most colours are fairly interchangeable across the professional brands with only minor variations in hue. For artist grade watercolours I am also fond of Horadam Aquarelle (slightly cheaper), and Daniel Smith (slightly more expensive).

Professional Cotman
Permanent Sap Green* Sap Green
Burnt Umber Burnt Umber
Burnt Sienna Burnt Sienna
Raw Sienna Raw Sienna
Winsor Yellow* Cadmium Yellow
Cadmium Red Cadmium Red
Permanent Rose* Permanent Rose
Winsor (Dioxazine) Violet Dioxazine Violet
Indigo Indigo
Cobalt Blue Cobalt Blue
Extras: Extras:
Green Gold N/A
Payne's Grey Payne's Grey
Alizarin Crimson Alizarin Crimson
French Ultramarine Ultramarine
Vandyke Brown Vandyke Brown

Why you shouldn't buy cheap materials

Learning a new skill is already a challenge but trying to learn watercolours using cheap materials is like climbing a mountain in shoes that give you blisters, with a completely incorrect map and a water bottle that leaks, in the rain. In short, it makes it harder than it needs to be and, as already covered, decent student watercolours are not that expensive. Steer clear of anything under £10 unless it's the result of a very good sale.

Watercolour Paper

Watercolour papers vary in texture, thickness, price and quality but the good stuff is also different in make up to regular paper. Whilst most papers are made of wood pulp, watercolour papers also use cotton to make them stronger and more absorbent so that they stand up to multiple washes. Poor quality paper often stumbles here, resulting in the surface going bobbly and fraying under your paint. As a general rule of thumb, your paper needs to stand up to 3-4 washes.

Quality and Price:

Decent paper is also fairly cheap as materials go. One of my top tips is to avoid anything akin to WHSmiths and buy yourself something nice to work with. If you have wobbly paintings or paper that frays after one or two washes of paint, your paper is probably holding you back. You might find that using good paper will instantly improve your work.

You can try pads of paper by brands like Daler Rowney or Derwent. Saunders Waterford and Bockingford are a couple of my favourite mid-range papers, Arches and Fabriano are a bit more expensive but lovely to work with. I read once that Quentin Blake uses Arches Hot Pressed Paper.

It should be noted that by far the cheapest way to buy paper is by the A1 sheet, which cuts down to make 8 A4 pages. For example, a pad of 12 A4 sheets of Bockingford Hot-Pressed paper is £10.30 at my local art shop, which equates to £0.86 per sheet. One A1 sheet of the same paper is £2.30, which is £0.29 per (A4) sheet, so really you're paying for the convenience and format of a pad.

Texture:

Rough, toothy paper is heavily textured and particularly good for landscapes. There is a scale of roughness from "Toothy" or "Rough" to "Not Pressed" and "Cold pressed", cold pressed being only slightly textured. I favour smooth watercolour papers as they are easier to draw on with pen or pencil and are also better for botanicals. These come as "Hot pressed" or sometimes "Ultra smooth Botanical".

Thickness:

The thickness or weight of paper is measured in GSM (grams per square metre) and affects the price and strength of the paper. The lowest I'd use for watercolour paper is about 180gsm, which is light enough to go distinctly wobbly when wetted but works well in a sketchbook. If I'm painting a stand alone page or commission, I use 300gsm which feels more like card and is very nice to work with.

Pictured above, my favourite travel brush and palomino pencil.

Watercolour Brushes

Watercolour brushes are very much up to the artist's preference. I have a wonderful 'Kolinskey Sable Travel brush' from Rosemary and Co which is quite good value at £25 and folds up for travel. However, I've also had fairly good results with cheap synthetic brushes and would think these perfectly fine to get started. There is a Cotman range of these or Art suppliers own brands that are likely very similar. I've seen some water-colourists use very tiny brushes but I would recommend going no smaller than 5mm in diameter to enable you to play around with your water to paint ratio and prevent you tightening up too much.

A word of warning about Water Brushes:

Water Brushes seem like an excellent solution to travelling with your paints, simply fill them up and enjoy an easy, on-the-go experience... It's a good idea, but unfortunately I've found them to be seriously sub-par. The main problem is the amount of water they produce VS how much water you actually need. A notorious conundrum to the beginner water-colourist, this can cause big problems if you're trying to learn watercolours using a water brush. I used one of these for several years and had no idea I was getting about 1/5 the water that I needed to make anything close to vibrant colours. The tip to ditch the water brush revolutionised my watercolours overnight and is one I recommend to all my students.

Below are two extracts from an old sketchbook, painted a month apart. During this time I did very little watercolour painting because I found it frustrating. The second image of the cake was painted on the day I ditched the water-brush and tried using more water.

Preferences and practices

Watercolours can be hard to grapple with, as with any other skill and it is true that there is no right or wrong way to use them. If you want to explore abstract colours and bright, graphic illustrations or single tone paintings, you're not using watercolours wrong and traditional watercolour practices are not the only right option either. However, there are right ways and wrong ways to approach achieving a specific goal. If you want to paint realistic landscapes, then using the alien-esque colour viridian in its pure form is not the right approach. And if your desire is to paint still life of a mug of tea on a summers day, painting the shadow using processed black will take away the warmth and vibrancy of that image, which is probably the wrong way to achieve the picture you have in your head. I would never wish to put someone off their watercolour journey by saying the colours in their pallet are wrong but instead I hope to give direction in choosing colours and materials to suit your purpose. For most people that attend my classes, their desire is to be able to mix the colours they have in mind, get to grips with how much water to use and paint a picture that comes out looking like they wanted it to. In this case, direction on the right way to go about this is a helpful spring board for their own explorations, which usually come when you start to get the hand of the basics and push past your self doubts.

There are many "official" rules applied when learning traditional watercolours but these are frequently broken, bent and explored to create wonderful and creative results. Illustrative watercolours are a nice middle ground of playing with watercolour and not feeling pressured to create perfect traditional paintings. However, it is my opinion that before you break the rules you should first learn them and why they're valid. When I use black in my pallet, and I do occasionally, I don't use it to make grey or in it's pure form. Instead I mix it with yellows and reds, indigos and vibrant greens to make colourful and intense darks, knowing that it's important to do so sparingly and to compliment the use of colour theory, rather than instead of it.

Image above, 'The boy and the Dandelion' - Watercolour on hot pressed, paper painted using a cheap synthetic brush. This is a good example of how effective blue shadows can be.

If you've made it to the end of this article I commend you. I hope you have found something to inspire you in this post and help you with your watercolour journey. Feel free to tag me in your posts with @valerianstudio, I would love to see the work you create.

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Ms Emma Leyfield currently trading as 'Valerian'. The copyright to all images and graphics used within this website are owned by Valerian, or Valerian has sought the appropriate permissions to use them.

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April Cottage, Kilcott Road, Hillesley, Wotton-Under-Edge, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, GL12 7RJ