Watercolour Basics – All You Need to Know

Our Blog, Watercolour

So you’ve seen all the inspirational photos of watercolour paintings on social media and decide you want to give it a try. All you need to do is buy some paint, paper and brushes. You go to your local art store (or online!) thinking it’ll be straightforward but then you get there and ton of other questions surfaces as you are welcomed by a wide variety of paints, papers and brushes.

When I first delved into the world of watercolour I had no idea other than the fact that you add water to watercolour paint (LOL)! But after a lot of research and experiments, I soon learned that there are a lot of options depending on your personal preference and style of painting. Truth be told, I’m still learning new things now, be it painting techniques or trying out different materials to suit my needs and preferences.

In this post, I thought I’d simplify some of these options for you. Especially if you are a beginner and struggling to find a starting point. I hope my insights can help you land your first set of watercolour materials with more ease :)!

WATERCOLOUR PAINT

Watercolour paints comes in two different grades, the student grade and the professional grade. Brands usually carry both grades. The main difference between the two grades lies in the amount of pigment it contains. Student grade paints have less pigment and more filler than professional grade paints. Within the different grades there are also different categories of paints that determine the price of the paint. This, again is determined by the pigment. Some pigments are hard to get and thus the price for paints containing these pigments are bound to be more expensive. Historically pigments were obtained in nature and therefore certain pigments, such as ultramarine which was taken from the rare mineral lapis lazuli, would cost a fortune. Today, pigments can be synthetically made. However, some pigments are still harder to achieve than others and so the prices of these pigments are more expensive.

Top: Professional grade watercolour (Ultramarine finest, Schmincke Horadam); Bottom: Student grade watercolour (Payne’s gray, Winsor & Newton Cotman)

When you are starting out, I recommend getting the student grade watercolour paint. Brands like Winsor & Newton Cotman, Koi Creative Art Colours Watercolours by Sakura, and Reeves Watercolour are of good quality and you can achieve wonderful paintings using these beginner grade paints. If you’d rather skip the student grade and you want to give the professional grade a try but are on a slightly tight budget, I would recommend Prima Marketing (I bought mine in Singapore), Holbien (especially if you happen to be in Japan), Van Gogh, White Nights (I bought mine in Malaysia). I understand that depending on where you are these paints can be more expensive or in contrary cheaper for you.

Watercolour paints also comes in different packagings, either in tubes or pans. Again, this is based on personal preference. I have read that watercolour paint in pans have more concentrated pigments and gives better colour overall. However, this seems to be brand dependent as well. I recommend watching this review video on the different brands of professional watercolour it’s a great video and really informative.

Different packaging of watercolours. Watercolours in tubes need to be applied on to a palette for use. Watercolours in pans can be used directly by adding water to it.
PAPER

Watercolour paper is thicker than normal sketchbook paper, as it is required to hold water that comes from the watercolour paints. The best watercolour paper is made of 100% cotton, this is what professional artists would opt for. It is not a lie that 100% cotton paper are significantly more costly than cellulose watercolour paper – considered student grade paper. 100% cotton paper holds more water and allows for better binding of the pigment when dry. However, if you are a beginner and on a tight budget I would recommend getting the cellulose paper. It will still produce good quality paintings and it’s a great way to start practicing different techniques. I started out using cellulose paper and only switched to 100% cotton watercolour paper when I got more serious and confident. I can’t lie though, once you have tasted painting on a 100% cotton paper, it’s quite difficult to go back haha!

The same paint applied on two different watercolour paper, top: hot pressed, 100% cotton – smooth surface; bottom: cold pressed, 100% cotton – more textured surface.

Not only are there different grades of watercolour paper, it also comes in three different types according to how it is prepared. If you’ve ever gone to an art store in search of watercolour papers you might see that brands would have at least 3 different kinds of watercolour paper. Commonly they are “rough”, “cold pressed”, and “hot pressed”. The main difference lies on the texture of the paper, rough is most textured, cold pressed is medium, and hot pressed has the smoothest surface. I typically only use cold pressed paper for my paintings, I like the texture that it creates. Hot pressed paper is smooth, so you don’t get much texture, but it is known to be better for paintings that requires finer details, such as portraits. Watercolour paper also comes in different paper weights, the most common are 190gsm (90 lb.), 300gsm (140lb), and 640gsm (300lb). I normally use 300gsm watercolour. I find 190gsm too light and buckles to easily when too much water is applied. I’ve never actually tried 640gsm paper, mainly because I have not seen it here in Singapore. Some of the brands I’ve tried and liked are Legion Stonehenge Aqua, Arches, Saunders and Clairefontaine.

BRUSHES

There are also different types of brushes. It can be categorised into shapes and material. The two main shapes of watercolour brush are round and flat. Round brushes are most commonly used due to its versatile nature. The tip can be used for fine lines and details, use is on its side and you can get a wide wash. Flat brushes are mainly used for painting shapes with straight edges. I’ve used a flat brush for painting bricks and it works really well!

Left: Synthetic brushes (Princeton, Escoda); Right: Natural fibre brushes made from squirrel hair (Silver black velvet).

Now, lets talk about materials. In a nutshell, there are two kinds of brushes – one that is made from natural fibres (Kolinsky, red sable squirrel, ox and goat) and one that is made from synthetic fibre. Brushes made from natural fibres have longed been thought to be superior with greater ability to hold water. However, I find that synthetic brushes can also hold a good amount of water. In addition, I find that synthetic brushes are easier to control because it’s slightly stiffer than natural fibre brushes. Having said that, deciding which to purchase will certainly depend on your preference. For this case, I suggest trying both types of brushes and decide which fits your style of painting. If cost is your main consideration, synthetic fibre is definitely cheaper than natural fibres.

BASIC TECHNIQUES

There are a few basic techniques that can help you loosen up and get familiar with watercolour:

Different techniques of adding watercolour to paper.

Wet on wet – This is when you start by applying water to your paper. While the paper is still wet, you add diluted watercolour paint. The paint should spread onto the wet paper. If you do this with different colours you can see the colours bleed into one another, creating a somewhat magical blend. I use this method a lot when I’m painting landscapes and for colouring large areas of flower petals and leaves.

Dry on wet — Again, you start by applying water to your paper. Instead of applying diluted watercolour paint, you apply a more concentrated amount of paint to the wet paper. This technique will still allow for the paint to bleed through the paper but it is more controlled that the wet on wet technique.

Wet on dry – For this technique you apply diluted paint to dry paper. I feel that this method allows for greater control. This technique creates a more pronounced wash with no bleed through effect.

Dry on dry – This method is great for adding texture. To do this, you need to apply concentrated watercolour paint (with very little to almost no amount of water) onto a dry paper. This is great for adding little details along branches or leaves for extra texture and depth.

Adding salt to watercolour creates a snowflake-like texture.

Now a little extra thing you can do just to elevate the texture of your painting is to add salt. I actually enjoy doing this. Add salt while your paint is still wet. The salt will absorb the paints surrounding it, creating a snowflake like texture. Have a go and play around with the amount of salt added!

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