Getting Started with Watercolor

In this post, I’ll discuss options for building a watercolor kit, and provide some introductory reading material.

My Background

I started working in watercolor in 2016. I heard the quote by Annie Dillard, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” and thought that I should make an effort to carve out more time for art, before I don’t have any time left to carve. I decided to work more in watercolor because, for me, it strikes a balance between range of expression, time, and space. Also, although I’ve done art my whole life, I’ve tended to shy away from color because of it’s difficulty. Focusing on watercolor has allowed/forced me to learn more about color.

A Minimal Palette

You should purchase professional quality paint. Watercolor paint is made of pigment and some binder, which is usually gum arabic. Cheap sets have less pigment than professional quality paint. Be prepared to pay about $10 for 5 mL, or $20 for 15 mL. The good news is that a little bit goes a very long way. I prefer Daniel Smith paint, but there are other very good brands, like M. Graham, Schmincke, Holbein, and Windsor and Newton.

Theoretically, you could start with the cool primary colors: Hansa Yellow Light, Quinacridone Rose, and Phthalo Blue (green shade/GS). This is different from the traditional primary colors you learned about in school, but it is very close to the Cyan, Magenta, Yellow triad used by printers, and limiting yourself to painting with these colors is a very good way to learn to mix color.

For nearly the same price point, you can start with the Daniel Smith’s Extra Fine Essentials Introductory Set. This set contains three cool primary colors: Hansa Yellow Light, Quinacridone Rose, and Phthalo Blue (GS), and three warm primary colors: New Gamboge, Pyrrol Scarlet, and French Ultramarine.

Diversion: Mixing Colors using the Split Primary Palette

The idea of a warm and cool version of red, yellow, and blue is known as the “split primary palette”. You can mix the warm and cool yellows to get the “middle yellow” that looks like the yellow you remember from the traditional color wheel, and is probably closer to what you think of as “yellow”. You can do the same with the reds and blues to get “middle red” and “middle blue” that are closer to what you probably think of as “red” and “blue”.

Why bother with a split primary palette? Well, the middle red, yellow and blue are lousy mixers. It’s a fact of chemistry, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The traditional color wheel you learned about in school is a great ideal that unfortunately isn’t supported by experience.

Instead, you can mix a vibrant purple with Quinacridone Rose and Ultramarine Blue, because Quinacridone Rose is a blueish red, and Ultramarine blue is a reddish blue, and they work together to make a bright purple. (Thinking of Ultramarine as “reddish” is kind of a stretch, but it might be easier to think of Phthalo Blue as a “greenish” blue, and Ultramarine as “decidedly not greenish”.) If you mix Quinacridone Rose with the more greenish Phthalo Blue, then you get a dull purple, and the same goes for mixing any blue with the orangey Pyrrol Scarlet.

You can mix a vibrant oranges with the orangey Pyrrol Scarlet, and the orangey New Gamboge. To make a vibrant green you would use the much less orange Hansa Yellow Light and the greenish Phthalo Blue (GS). Any other mixtures for the secondary colors, orange, green, and purple, will turn out muddy or dull using this split primary palette.

Deciding if a color is warm or cool is frustrating. Instead, maybe try to answer the question of which way that color leans. In the case of blues, the Phthalo Blue (GS) leans noticeably towards teal or green. New Gamboge appears to lean towards orange, and Quinacridone Rose leans toward purple. The other colors in the palette, then, lean the other way. Associating color you see to new names and characteristics is a bit of a learning curve, but it will change how you see everything in life.

Pro Tip: Add a Green

I highly recommend adding a green or two to the six pigment palette described above. If I added one green, it would be Phthalo Green (blue shade/BS). This green, like Phthalo Blue (GS), is highly staining, meaning only a little bit goes a long way, and it’s not easy to “lift” off the paper using a napkin or a dry brush. You can mix it with Quinacridone Rose to get moody purples, blues, and grays, or you can mix it with New Gamboge and a touch of red to get more realistic greens.

If I added another green, I’d add Sap Green or Hooker’s Green. These are called convenience greens because they’re mixed from (usually) a Phthalo Green and one or more other colors. Sap green is lighter, Hooker’s green is darker, and they are both more yellow than Phthalo Green (BS).

Mixing greens for foliage is notoriously difficult. The best way is to start with some green, literally any green, and push it closer to the color your trying to match using yellow or blue, and then dull it the right amount using a red. Eventually, you’ll get the hang of it.

Paint Tins

Now that you have paint, you need somewhere to mix colors. I started using an enamel butcher’s tray. This provided lots of space for mixing, but it wasn’t easy to travel with, so I went for a small pocket tin which I like much better. You can fill the tin with small plastic “half pans” and “full pans”. I use half pans so I can fit more colors into the tin. You can fill a half pan about three times from a 5 mL tube of paint, and this could last you up to a year if you painting about twice a week, although your mileage may vary.

Paper

Paper is pretty important. Watercolor paper comes in two varieties: cold press which is rough (my favorite), and hot press which is smooth. Paper also comes in different weights; I like 140 lb paper. I would recommend Canson 9×12 in 140 lb cold press paper. You can also save money by buying paper in bulk, rather than in pads.

Brushes

I’d start with Pentel water brushes. These brushes are made with nylon bristles and hold water in the handle like a fountain pen. You can unscrew the brush, fill the handle with tap water, put the cap on and then safely put it in your bag. I’ve flown with these brushes, and kept them in my bag for extended periods of time and they’ve never leaked. Yeah, they’re not fancy, but they’re super convenient. I have nice brushes, but I use Pentel water brushes 90% of the time.

Other Items

You’ll need rag for cleaning your water brush so that you don’t get your paint pans dirty with other colors while mixing. You might want to get some pencils to sketch things out before you paint, or if you want your sketch to really pop out, get some waterproof Sakura pens. I think the size 5 Sakura pen is a pretty good size if you want to start with one pen. You might also want to experiment with the Sakura brush pen.

Other than that, erasers are always good. A pencil sharpener. A large binder clip to keep your paper from blowing around in the wind. And a snack.

Additional Colors

I’ll list some other colors I like, in order of relative importance to me.

  • Burnt Sienna – Opaque, dull, reddish brown. Can be used to mix a wonderful range of colors with Ultramarine Blue, or Indigo.
  • Quinacridone Gold – Transparent deep golden yellow. Great for mixing greens.
  • Sap Green and/or Hooker’s Green – Greens are hard. Get some convenience greens.
  • Cobalt Teal Blue – Opaque bright teal blue. This is brighter than what you can mix with Phthalo Blue (GS) and Phthalo Green (BS).
  • Jane’s Gray – Equal part Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna, mixed up in it’s own pan. Wonderful gray tone.
  • Moonglow – Purplish grey that is a great mid-tone when painting with black ink.
  • Payne’s Grey or Indigo – Almost indistinguishable, dark dark bluish black.
  • Sepia – Brown mixed with black, can be used with Payne’s Grey for a classical two-color study.
  • Indanthrone Blue – Basically a deep navy blue.
  • Dioxazine Violet – This mixes interesting colors with Quinacridone Gold, or Phthalo Green (BS)
  • Lunar Black – Highly granulating black.
  • Cerulean Blue – Granulating, dusty pale blue. Also good or greens.
  • Manganese Blue – Painfully bright cyan blue. Good for skies sometimes.
  • Prussian Blue – Traditional color, a duller version of Phthalo Blue (GS).

Other Resources

Picking Colors for a Palette

Artists

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