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Watercolor painting can be the perfect artistic hobby if you’re short on time and don’t want to own a mountain of supplies. Of course you can buy boxes and boxes of paints, stacks of different papers, a gazillion brushes, and all sorts of specialty items, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you want to keep it simple, there are only a few things you need to buy to create beautiful paintings.
A small pallet of water colors
The Tropicals pallet by Watercolor Confections is my favorite set. It only measures about 4×3 inches and holds twelve colors. These are beautiful, artist grade paints that are wonderful to work with.
You might wonder if twelve colors are enough, but don’t let the simple crayon-box appearance of this pallet fool you. With just a little practice you can mix about any color imaginable using these basic colors. All you need to learn how are a couple tutorials on YouTube. Just search for videos on mixing watercolors and pick one to get started. Watch it, then watch it again, following along.
Here’s a sampling of colors from a mixing exercise I did with the Tropicals. All of these colors are made by mixing only two colors together.
So many colors! I hope this convinces someone wanting to play with watercolors that they don’t have to buy a huge pallet of expensive paints!
Tip – don’t try to use a super-cheap set of paints, even if you’re starting out. I don’t know how to put it other than they suck and will make you think you can’t paint. You don’t have to spend a fortune on top-of-the-line paints, but the super cheap water colors simply don’t have the quality pigments to produce vibrant beautiful colors.
All of those brushes that line an entire aisle in the art store… they’re cool, but you still only need two for now – a round #2 and a round #6. These will not only get you started, but take you a long way. Once you get going you might want to experiment with other brushes, but with these two you can create hundreds of beautiful paintings.
This is actually a recent discovery for me. From my days in dabbling with oil paints I always thought you needed a half dozen or more brushes to get all the cool effects you see in watercolor painting. But then last summer I subscribed to the Lets Make Art watercolor box and they said get two brushes. I didn’t believe it – I figured surely they’d be pulling out other brushes to do the “cool stuff” but decided to play along. It was for real! In all the projects they sent and all the video tutorials, only the two brushes were used. Who knew?
The brushes I use are Princeton’s synthetic sable #2 round and #6 round watercolor. If you get these two brushes and do a search on YouTube for Let’s Make Art, you will have dozens of video tutorials using just these two brushes to keep you painting indefinitely. Once you learn how to use these brushes and how mix your paints, you’ll be unstoppable.
Fair warning – as with paint, quality does matter. You don’t have to spend $20/brush, but please, for your art and sanity’s sake, don’t buy a set of cheap set of “all-purpose” paint brushes. Use your money to get two good brushes, made specifically for watercolors. Trust me – you will not enjoy learning to paint with cheap-o brushes. It’s frustrating and makes you think you can’t paint. Ask me how I know…
Start with a simple 9″ x 12″ pad of Canson XL Watercolor paper. Canson XL Watercolor is inexpensive and quite adequate. Some people keep painting on it and some decide they like other papers better. Once you use up your first pad, do some experimenting and be your own judge.
I’m more of a paint and brush snob than a paper snob and stick with this paper. 9″ x 12″ is the perfect size to me, but as with the brand, once you start gaining some confidence and want to branch out, there are many other sizes. I do like the postcard sized papers for quick, portable projects. If you want to try it, you can always cut up a piece of your 9” x 12” to see if you like it before investing in a whole pack.
Paint, brushes, and paper can be the only things you actually buy. The other few things you need, you probably either have around your house or can improvise .
Pallet – You can buy a pallet. A simple butcher tray pallet has the advantage of being able to mix colors super easily. One with little wells has the advantage of being more tip-proof if you’re not at a table. If you tip it a little you don’t risk all of your colors running together. I still prefer the butcher tray. If you get a pallet with wells, try one with the flat wells instead of the dome shaped ones.
If you get the paint set mentioned above, you have a mini pallet built into the box. I have mixed feelings about this pallet. On one hand, it’s there, it’s free, and it works. On the other, it’s pretty small and not terribly stable. I prefer a separate pallet unless I’m on the go.
Although there are hundreds of different pallets out there, you don’t have to buy one. You can use a salad or dessert plate. Use a white one so you can see your colors. Or you can re-purpose any flat plastic tray. Just remember that watercolor can and will stain so use something you don’t mind dedicating to your painting.
Water – The water itself is a no-brainer but as for a container, make sure it’s big enough to hold sufficient water to rinse your brush quite a few times before the water gets icky and starts effecting your paint. A spare coffee mug, drinking glass, or canning jar works fine. Just don’t mix it up with your beverage – paint water doesn’t taste that great. (Not that I know from experience or anything… ahem)
Paper towels or rags – Paper towels are easy, cheap, and disposable. If you don’t like to create waste, claim a few small kitchen towels, remembering whatever you use will be permanently stained, so use ones you don’t mind becoming colorful.
“Something to store your stuff in” – If you get a butcher tray pallet you can simply keep your paints and brushes in the tray. A small folded towel in the bottom can prevent your brushes from rolling around. If you want to take your watercolors out somewhere like the park, you can wrap a couple rubber bands around it all to keep it together. Simple.
That’s it. For less than $50 you have a watercolor set that will last a good long time.
One optional item I’ll mention is bleedproof white paint. If you want pops of bright-white for highlights and details, a small jar will last a long time and give you the crisp white you can’t get from white watercolor paint. Not necessary, but fun.
My future plans include tutorials, examples, and maybe even some videos of what you can actually do with this minimal watercolor setup. Please subscribe to my list to find out when these are posted.