Why You Should Choose Your Watercolour Materials Wisely

25 November, 2013 0 comments Leave a comment

Shopping at your local art supply outlet, or online art store, can be overwhelming.Here are the main items I use and recommend to my students, in order of importance.


I use acid free, artist quality, watercolour paper in the 300 lb. weight, bright white or natural in colour, with a cold pressed finish.

‘Cold pressed’ refers to how the paper is made. ‘Hot pressed’ paper is compressed with heat to make it very smooth. Cold pressed paper is compressed without heat, making it slightly more textured and absorbent, which means you have more time to move the paint around before the paper dries. Hot pressed paper, being less absorbent, dries faster so you have to work quickly, but the paper allows for easier lifting of dried paint from its surface.

I mostly use cold pressed Arches paper in 22 x 30” sheets, which I cut to size. The thick paper dries slowly, does not buckle when wet, and can be painted on both sides, so I prefer it to 140 lb. paper. I use the front and back sides of the paper interchangeably, as they both have good texture. If there is a manufacturer’s watermark, I use the side with the more subtle mark. Avoid student grade paper.

If you choose to use 140 lb. paper, it will buckle when wet, but can be pressed flat after you have finished your painting. When your painting has dried for several days, turn it over and spray the back lightly with clean water. On a flat table, sandwich the damp watercolour paper between two sheets of blotting paper. Next, lay a heavy board that is larger than your painting over top. (You can pile heavy books on top of the board if you need more weight to compress the sandwich.) Leave this ‘press’ alone for at least two days. When you remove your painting, it will be perfectly flat and immediately should be matted or framed to keep it flat.



Sable/synthetic blends work best for me; my favourite is Winsor & Newton Sceptre Gold II Sable/Synthetic series. I suggest you start with the following brushes:
One - half-inch flat, for mixing colours and for painting straight objects such as buildings;
One - one-inch to one-and-a-half inch flat, for applying washes to larger areas;
Two #12 rounds with sharp points, for general paint application and detail work;
One fine synthetic rigger brush and a calligraphy pen with a fine nib, for applying masking fluid or extremely fine lines of paint.


Choose artist quality watercolour paints in primary colours. My favourite paint brand is MaimeriBlu (M) but I have had good results with Winsor & Newton (WN) as well. I prefer transparent mixtures, so avoid opaque pigments such as those containing cadmium.

Choose any three primary pigments:
A strong, clear yellow, such as Permanent Yellow Lemon (M) or New Gamboge (WN).
A deep red, such as Primary Red Magenta (M) or Permanent Alizarin Crimson (WN).
A brilliant, deep blue such as Primary Blue Cyan (M) or Antwerp Blue (WN).

(Most starter kits use student grade paints and some colours you will seldom use, so I don’t consider them a wise choice.)

Watercolour Palette:

Use a paint palette with deep paint wells and large flat areas for colour mixing. My favourite is a Robert E. Wood palette, which comes with a lid.

Liquid Frisket:

This product is applied to watercolour paper, temporarily, as a waterproof coating, keeping water and paint away from the masked area. Frisket is applied in liquid form and dries to a rubber-like film that preserves the white paper while you paint the surrounding area.

I recommend Pebeo Drawing Gum, as the consistency works well with a calligraphy pen nib and the grey colour shows up clearly on white watercolour paper. Coloured frisket, or drawing gum, does stain the watercolour paper slightly, so I only use it to protect intricate details.

I try not to leave masking on the paper for more than a few weeks, and never expose masked paper to heat (such as from a hair dryer or the interior of a car on a warm day). Heat or the passage of time both cause the mask to adhere to the paper, making removal difficult—if not impossible. Frisket is removed with a frisket eraser.


Using masking tape, attach watercolour paper by all four edges to a board made from foam core, hardboard, corrugated plastic or heavy corrugated cardboard. If using a paper-coated support, protect one side of it with packing tape or adhesive plastic shelf liner, so the board will not be scarred when the masking tape is removed.

I do not soak my watercolour paper prior to taping it to the board, as soaking removes some of the sizing and causes paint to adhere to the paper more quickly. Since 300 lb. paper does not warp when wet, soaking and stretching is superfluous.

Other supplies:

Frisket eraser, small bar of hand soap in a container, large water bucket for rinsing brushes (minimum two quart size), masking tape one-inch wide, empty shoebox or large box of facial tissues (used to prop up your painting support at a comfortable angle), HB or 2B pencil, white eraser, small scraps of watercolour paper for colour testing, absorbent cotton rags (old T-shirt pieces work well), and a toothbrush with stiff bristles (for spattering paint or masking fluid, and cleaning the palette mixing area).

This painting was created on 300 lb Arches cold pressed paper,
using five pigments (3 blues, 1 red, 1 yellow).

This excerpt from Watercolour Toolbox: Essentials for Painting Success is reprinted with permission of the publisher. For more details visit www.watercolourtoolbox.com.
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