Watercolour Equipment

Equipment | Theory | Mixing | Shadows



This page provides information to assist the beginner in selecting basic equipment and materials for Watercolour painting, It has a glossary of common watercolour terms and a selection of Quick tips.


Select from the list below or click an item in the photo.



General Needs

To take up watercolour painting you will need Paints, Brushes, a water container, Mixing palette, a board, a pencil, watercolour paper and a putty eraser. The general rule is to buy the best you can afford as you will get better results with higher quality equipment and materials.

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Watercolour paints are manufactured in Student Quality and Artists Quality. They are available in either pans (cakes of colour) or in tubes, both in various sizes. They are manufactured specifically for 'watercolour' painting and are fundamentally transparent. There are other water based paints which are designed to be opaque i.e. Gouache (sometimes called Designers' colours) and Chinese watercolours which are generally unsuitable for traditional English watercolours.

Tubes and Pans

Tubes are more convenient when painting large areas, they cause less wear on brushes and save time. They allow fresh, uncontaminated colour to be used at the start of each painting and you always know the name of the colour as it's on the tube.

Pans are more compact and easily transportable.

My preference: TUBES

Although student quality paints are OK for beginners and improvers, pound for pound, there's not much difference in the actual cost to paint with them as the pigments are richer in the artists quality. However the start up cost is higher.

Student colours are relatively inexpensive and can produce good glowing watercolour paintings. The cost is usually standard throughout the range. Student quality paints usually use substitute pigments for the more expensive pigments used in Artist Quality paints (The description 'Hue' after the colour normally indicates this). Student quality paints may not be as transparent and/or light fast as artist quality. Winsor and Newton call their student quality ' Cotman ', and Daler Rowney's are called 'Georgian '

Artist quality paints are normally grouped into categories which designates a cost band as the pigments used to produce different colours vary considerably in price. e.g. Series 1 to series 5 for Winsor and Newton. There are many other brands available such as St. Petersburg, Michael Wilcox, Rembrandt, etc.

Paints are packaged in boxed sets of pans or tubes or sold as separate colours.

Start with Artist quality if you can afford them but in any event, use at least Student Quality - don't use lower quality than this i.e. watercolour boxes intended for children' as it will be difficult, if not impossible, to produce glowing pictures. If you start with student quality, as each tube of the student quality runs out, replace them with Artists' quality.

It's much better to start with a few colours and mix others rather than have a large number of ready made colours.

Buy separate colours, this way you will be able to select the colours that you want.

A good all round starting palette is:

Ultramarine, Cerulean Blue Hue, Cadmium Red Hue, Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Yellow Pale Hue, Lemon yellow.

These six colours, Warm Blue / Cold Blue, Warm Red / Cold Red &Warm Yellow / Cold Yellow, enable the mixing of a wide range of colours.

Deepest hue Deepest hue Deepest hue Deepest hue Deepest hue Deepest hue
Ultramarine Cerulean Cad Red Alizarin C Cad Yellow
Lemon Yellow


If you know that you just want to paint landscapes, a good Landscape starting palette is: Ultramarine, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Light Red, Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna and Permanent Alizarin Crimson.


Deepest hue Deepest hue Deepest hue Deepest hue Deepest hue Deepest hue
Ultramarine Cad Yellow
Light Red Raw Sienna Burnt Sienna Alizarin C


Useful additional colours are:

Payne's Gray or Neutral tint, Cobalt blue, Winsor blue (Thalo Blue) , Burnt Umber, New Gamboge.

Ready made greens are not essential for landscape or flower paintings as a wide range of greens can be mixed from the colours above.

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Brushes Brushes

There are a wide variety of brushes on the market. The best for watercolour are Kolinsky Sable, next best is Sable, then Sable synthetic mix the cheapest being all synthetic. The difference between the brushes is the cost, the amount of water they hold, the ability to maintain a sharp point and the effects that can be created with them.

There are round brushes, flat brushes, riggers (for producing long fine lines) fan brushes (for special effects) and wash brushes (for applying large amounts of colour). Be sure to get brushes made specifically for watercolour.

The size of the paintings you intend to do will have an influence on the sizes of brushes used.

Buy the best you can afford.

For a reasonable cost, Sable synthetic mix No. 3, 6 & 12 round brushes and a synthetic rigger will cover most situations for landscape, flower and portrait work. - Pro Arte, Rosemary & Co, Raphael and Winsor and Newton are good makes but there are many more. When buying, make sure that round brushes have a fine point. See test here

Useful additional brushes are a wash brush and a " or 1" synthetic Flat.

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Palette Palettes

There are many different types and shapes of palette available made from metal, plastic and porcelain. The only essentials are that it should be white, so that the colours can be seen clearly and it should have a number of mixing wells with sufficient depth to allow mixing of a number of separate washes. The palette should preferably have flat rather than slanted wells. Palettes with slanted wells make it difficult to gauge the intensity of colour in a wash and also prevent the formation of variegated mixes (mixtures which allow the constituent colours to form a marbled appearance by not completely mixing them together). Many people use ordinary white dinner plates.

I find a large a plastic palette with several mixing wells and small wells for paint best as I can prepare and keep separate several mixed washes.

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A 2B pencil is ideal for preliminary drawing on watercolour paper. Harder pencils can mark the paper, softer ones can cause smudges while working. It's generally better to perfect a drawing on Liner or Cartridge paper and then transfer it to watercolour paper by tracing. This avoids damaging the delicate surface of watercolour paper.

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The best eraser for use on watercolour paper is a putty eraser. These can be used gently on the paper without causing too much damage. Conventional erasers can damage the paper and make the further application of paint less predictable.

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Water container

Anything which will hold water will do - the bigger the better, however a clear container lets you see easily how dirty the water is getting. Many artists use two containers, one for brush washing and another for colour mixing.

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Paper Surface Textures
(Examples from Saunders Waterford Range of mould made papers. 100% Cotton)
HP Hot Pressed.
The smoothest surface used mainly for detailed work and illustration.
CP or NOT Not or Cold Pressed.
The most popular surface for watercolour.
Rough Rough.
Used for subjects which require broad treatment such as landscape.

Watercolour papers are made with three different surfaces. From smoothest to roughest these are 'Hot pressed', 'Not' and 'Rough'. The choice of surface depends on the subject and the effects you want to create. The surface textures and absorbency vary considerably between manufacturers. The most popular papers for artists are made from 100% cotton and are acid free to ensure that they do not effect the paint and do not rot. Popular Brands are Saunders Waterford (shown opposite), Arches, Fabriano Artistico & Winsor and Newton but there are many more.

Many of the effects unique to watercolour such as 'broken wash' and 'granulation' can only easily be achieved by using paper designed specifically for watercolour.

Papers are manufactured in various 'weights'. The heavier the weight the thicker the paper. Weights range from 90 lb. to 300 lb. (the weight in pounds of 480 sheets of Imperial size)

140 lb. paper is a reasonable weight paper which allows painting without too much cockling when wet. Lighter papers normally need 'stretching' to prevent excessive cockling and if heavy washes (lots of water) are to be applied this is also advisable with 140 lb. paper.

A Good paper for beginners is 140 lb. (300g/m2) Bockingford. The surface is 'Not' and because of this it is a good all round paper. It is also relatively inexpensive as it is a cellulose paper rather than cotton and is machine made and widely available in book or sheet form (it is also made in various tints). Daler Rowney 140 lb. 'Langton' Pads (a 'Not' surface) are also good for beginners.

Buying by the sheet is cheaper than pads or books. Most good art suppliers sell whole sheets (approx.' 30" x 22" - 76cm x 56cm) and some also sell ready cut packs of loose half and quarter sheet sizes.

Try papers from different manufacturers and with different surfaces to find out those you like to work on but it's essential to get to know how a paper reacts and this takes time so don't flit from one to another before you fully understand its characteristics.

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Other equipment

A drawing board on which paper can be taped or stretched. The board can be laid flat or tilted using a book etc. 8 mm or thicker Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) is OK.
Masking fluid, a liquid rubber solution, is also a useful substance in watercolour. It is applied to the paper (usually before applying paint) to the preserve an intricate or complex shape of white paper within the area to be painted. After the paint has dried the masking fluid is removed revealing the white paper and allowing the application of paint to the paper if required.

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Further Information

Most books on watercolour painting give advice on equipment and materials. Local Libraries usually have a good selection. Of course there's a much expanded section on materials on the Interactive Watercolour CD.
There are hundreds of books and videos on watercolour painting. My advice would be to visit your local library and look for books and videos by artists that you like. If you find you're going back again and again to get the same item - buy it.

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Glossary of terms

Cockling: the wrinkling and bending which occurs with watercolour paper when wet

Cold Colours: colours which are blue or tend towards blue

Cold pressed: a semi rough paper surface texture also called NOT (from NOT hot pressed) the most popular surface

Dropping in colour: the application of paint by letting it flow from the brush, usually on to wet paper, rather than painting it on

Earth colours: stable colours made from earth materials, siennas, umbers and ochres

Fugitive colours: colours which fade when exposed to light

Glaze: a transparent colour laid over another dry colour

Graduated Wash: a wash with changes in intensity of colour (also called gradated wash)

Granulation: the effect given by some pigments when granules of the pigment settle in indentations in the paper to produce a 'grainy' effect

Hot pressed: a paper surface which has a smooth texture - used mainly for detailed work

Hue 1: the name of a colour - blue, red, yellow etc.

Hue 2: a term used with paints to denote that a synthetic pigment has been used in place of a natural pigment in the production of a colour e.g. Lemon Yellow Hue

Imperial: The size of a normal full sheet of watercolour paper, approximately 30" X 22" (76cm x 56cm)

Opaque: a non transparent or partially transparent pigment

Putty Rubber: a kneadable eraser, the kindest type of eraser for watercolour paper

Rigger: a brush with long hairs and a fine point used for expressive detail work such tree branches, twigs, cracks in rocks etc.(originally used to paint the rigging on ships)

Rough: a paper with a rough texture, roughness and texture varies considerably between different makes.

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Stretching: the process of pre-stretching watercolour paper prior to painting on it to ensure that it does not cockle when water is applied. Usually done with papers of 140lb and less. The paper is stretched by soaking in water to allow it to expand and fastening its edges to a board so that it is stretched like a drum as it dries.

Variegated wash: a wash with changes in colour

Warm colours: colours which are red or tend towards red

Wash: a thin broadly applied layer of transparent paint

Weight: a measure of the thickness of watercolour paper, traditionally the weight of 500 sheets of imperial size paper - the heavier the paper the less prone it is to cockling when wet.

Wet in Wet: the application of paint usually of a different colour into wet paint

There's a comprehensive, illustrated glossary on the Interactive Watercolour CD.

Quick Watercolour Tips

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Make friends with your brushes, find out every mark they will make - tip, side, pulled, pushed, dragged, dry, damp, wet.

Get to know your colours: which stain, which are truly transparent and what characteristics they have, such as granulation or staining.

It is generally better to work with fewer colours and mix others rather than having a wide range of ready mixed colours. Most landscape paintings can be achieved using no more than 6 colours.

Use facial tissue or kitchen roll rather than toilet tissue for dabbing off colour and cleaning palettes. The latter is designed to be soluble in water and you end up with unwanted paper particles in your paint, palette and on your painting.

Have your paper fastened to a board while painting. It's usual to work with the board at an angle of about 15 degrees but you may need to alter this to make the paint run where you want it to go.

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Do lots of 'doodles' - simple watercolour sketches such as trees, skies and rocks. This will build up confidence and get you looking at subjects to study their form.

Copy parts of a painting which appeal to you until you can get the effect.

When practising a passage for a painting, use the same paper that the finished work will be painted on.

Enjoy your painting sessions. If you become frustrated because things aren't working out, have a rest and think about what you are trying to do and what could be changed to make things work.

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When Painting:

Always mix more paint than you need.

Normally, in watercolour painting, the lighter tones are painted first and the dark tones last.

When applying washes have all your colours ready mixed and keep the brush full and watery.

Work with the largest brush that is practical for each part of the painting.

When working wet in wet, don't have the brush wetter than the paper or ugly 'runbacks' will result.

When working wet in wet, prepare your main colours or mixes before you start painting the area.

All the time you are painting, have tissue handy to lift off wrongly placed colour.

Test for tone and colour on a scrap piece of paper before committing it to your painting.

If things go wrong and colour can't be mopped straight off with a tissue, it's usually better to let the work dry before attempting a rescue.

When lifting off colour, gently wet the area and immediately dab with a tissue. Do this four or five times then let the area dry again before lifting any more

When doing 'stage paintings' always fully read the stage before starting it.

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Learn from others:

Join an art cub or go to classes or do both

Go and watch as many demonstrations as you can and get on the front row. Watch how the brush is loaded, how it's held when it touches the paper and how much water is in it.

Go to as many exhibitions as you can, small art clubs as well as larger city & national exhibitions. Look at all the paintings and then go back to those you like most and study them - ask yourself, how were they painted?

Don't work at getting a style - it will come on its own!

If you are too busy to paint - you're too busy!

Your best painting is still in the paint box!

Happy painting and good luck with your watercolours!

ps sig

There's a much expanded section on materials on the Interactive Watercolour CD.

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Equipment | Theory | Mixing | Shadows