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My favorite tools to get you started painting

Are you interested in starting to paint with watercolors, but just aren't sure where to start? Feeling a little overwhelmed with the MILLIONS of choices at the art store? First I want to say . . . You can make art with anything; if you can’t afford high-quality materials, it’s okay! Getting your creative juices flowing, experimenting with color, learning how materials feel, these are all important first steps. However, I know that cheap or lower-grade materials can be frustrating to work with. So here are my favorite brands! Pencils

On the scale of hard to soft, B=softer, and H=harder, so if you want nice dark shading, 6B pencils are GREAT. However, if you just need a nice light sketch before you paint, any old pencil will do (I prefer mechanical pencils, since they never need sharpening!) The mechanical pencil leads tend to be around 2B, very close to the middle between hard and soft. Erasers

Just say NO to those pink school erasers! Nothing else will smudge and tear your paper like a pink eraser. White erasers are better, BUT the best for the best, least frustrating eraser of all; get a Kneadable Eraser! These are AMAZING. They come square, in a little plastic package, but you just warm them up with your hands and knead them into whatever shape you want. Need broad, flat strokes? Need a thin, small point? The kneadable eraser can do it all, and never leaves eraser bits on your paper, either. Paper

There's a few things to know when looking for watercolor paper! (And you really do want watercolor paper to paint on, regular printer or sketchbook paper can't hold up to the water and will get all wrinkly and weird.) Cold-press = smooth, Hot-press = rough; experiment and see which you like better! Weight: The higher the number, the heavier/thicker the paper (and the less likely to warp with the water). Both of these say 140 lb. Brand: Branding is actually important once you get into papers. Here are two kinds I have, one good (Canson), one BAD (Premiere) - let me show you why! They both have the same weight, the same thickness - supposedly. But I cut off some thin strips do to a test paint for you, and you can see the difference!

The Premiere brand instantly warped with the water, which shows it really can't hold wet-on-wet techniques.

Once dry, you can see this weird speckling on the Premiere brand, whereas the Canson brand shows those smooth, beautiful 'blooms' that are so lovely in watercolor.

The speckling on the Premiere paper comes from its cheap manufacturing; the 'sizing' (or glue) in the paper isn't right for watercolors.

Arches is another really great brand for watercolors! This is the kind a lot of professional artists use. If you're getting paper from an arts and crafts store, look for Canson or Arches. If you're in a fine art supply store (like Jerry's Artarama), they'll probably only have good brands in stock anyway. Tape

Unless you get really heavy-weight paper (like 300-600 lb paper), you'll need to tape down your edges and prep your paper in order for it to lie flat when you're done. I like regular ol' Scotch Masking Tape for this! That blue painters tape isn't sticky enough, and will come off your paper in the middle of your painting. Tape your paper to cardboard (like the backing on your sketchbook) if you need it moveable, or your desk top if there's no kids or cats to touch it when you aren't looking. Watercolor Paints

You can use almost any artist-grade brand of paint and get fabulous results! Even student grade will probably be fine. But if you're just starting out, please DON'T get kids watercolors. Kids' watercolors won't get wet properly, and won't have that rich, beautiful color you're looking for. Here are my current paints; mostly Windsor & Newtown, and M. Graham, with one Turner. Top row, from left to right: Cadmium Red, Phthalo Green, Cadmium Orange, Ultramarine Blue, Quinacradone Pink, Indigo Bottom Row: Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Yellow, Alizarin Crimson, Burnt Umber

Here are the paints you need to start off with; Cadmium Yellow, Alizarin Crimson, and Ultramarine Blue. You can mix any other color from these three! Additionally, I love Quinacradone Pink (makes a WAY better purple when mixed with ultramarine than Alizarin Crimson) and Indigo (great for mixing with browns to get a really deep black color). Paint Palettes

You'll need something to put your wet paints into, and something to mix your colors in. Thus, the palette! If you're just starting, getting a small one is fine. However, I don't recommend that tiny one there; there's only space to put your paint, and no space to mix puddles of color. I use that one exclusively for my inks, where I need small, deep wells to put drops of color into water. I used the middle-sized one in highschool; it fit my needs and the size of paintings I was doing at the time. Now, I only use the big one! I love the large, separated areas for mixing, and when you're all done with one painting, you can reuse the dried mixed paint (just get it wet again) and have pre-mixed colors waiting for you already.


I am not brand-loyal or even brand-conscious when it comes to brushes. Find soft, supple brushes with a nicely pointed tip. Stay away from anything stiff (these are oil brushes) or made from plastic (kids' brushes).

These are the main ones that I use; the top is probably the most expensive, and the fibers and very thick and soft. I use it to hold large amounts of water when I'm putting down water for wet-on-wet painting. The smallest here is my main brush for details. The square brushes are others that are good for washes. If sold individually, brushes should be separated by kinds on the store shelves; another way to tell them apart is that oil brushes are MUCH longer than watercolor brushes, and the tips are much stiffer.

If packaged as a set, look for a label that says 'for watercolor' or 'for wet media'; however, if you can't feel the bristles with your fingers, I'd be wary.

So those are my favorite tools for painting with watercolor! I hope it's helpful; let me know your personal favorites in the comments! Read the next posts in the Beginner Watercolor Series: Color Theory

Composition (coming soon)

Finding Your Style (coming soon) <3 Holly

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