Welcome back! If you’re new here, you can catch up on the Watercolor Glossary posts for beginners by reading all about watercolor paper here, and all about watercolor brushes here! Today, we’re going to have a little chat about paints. A quick note: there is enough material about paper, brushes, and paints to fill many, many books. The goal of these first three entries in the Glossary has been to create a non-intimidating reference for beginners. Make sure you let me know if you have anything specific you’d like me to cover! You can comment below or email me at hello (at) alexsgardenstudio (dot) com.
And now–on to the paints!
When I started painting, I used what was already around the house. It was a plastic palette with pans of Winsor & Newton Cotman paints and it served me very well indeed. After painting for a while, my dad (who shares my love of art supplies) offered to buy me some artist level paints. What a dad! I was TOTALLY overwhelmed by the options though, and relied on the Helpful Australian Lady who worked at the supply store to recommend something.
When she heard I had learned to paint with student-quality paints she said it was like I’d learned to climb Mount Everest with one arm, and I was about to be given another whole arm.
Which leads me to one of the biggest distinctions when you’re learning to paint: student-grade or artist-grade? Artist-grade paint is a lot more expensive, and I recommend starting with student quality until you master some of the basic techniques and essentials, but if you can afford the good stuff, go for it. Learn to climb Mount Everest with two arms from the get-go.
So, what’s the difference between student and artist paints?
At its most basic form, paint is primarily made out of pigment (which provides the color) and binder (which holds it all together). Oil paint is a mixture of pigment and oil; acrylic paint is a mixture of pigment and a plasticky binder, and watercolor paint is pigment and (usually) gum arabic. There can be a few other things lurking in your paint, too, especially as companies develop proprietary mixtures or binders to enhance the performance of their paints.
When you buy artist- or professional-grade paint, you are buying a lot more pigment. The colors are deeper, move better, and have a brighter and purer consistency because there is more pigment. Pigment is the thing that makes the price go up, though, and so student-grade paint has less pigment and more filler. Remember the cheap little Crayola palettes or art-class palettes way back in grade school? Those are almost all filler. Cheaper paints can leave a chalky residue. There are very poor student-quality paints and very high quality student paints.
Ready for some recommendations?
Here are some I’ve personally tried and can recommend. If you’ve enjoyed a different brand let us know in the comments!
These are Cotman colors and are also what I frequently use in the Essential Watercolor Kit that I create and sell. (Click here for more info!) I learned to paint with these, the quality is good and they are significantly less expensive than the professional paints. They can handle lots of essential techniques, don’t have too much filler, and have good wet-in-wet action.
If you click on “Watercolor Paints” on the Blick website, they have them all organized between tubes, pans, and if you scroll down you’ll see they have a whole section of paints labelled “Student” where you can check out all the different student-quality paints.
Tune in next week for more on watercolor paints! Tubes, pans, or liquids? What kind of palettes? Where do pigments come from?
Choosing the right paintbrush can be really overwhelming when you’re starting to paint. If you’ve wandered down the aisle of your local art store and seen the dazzling array of brushes, all made of different materials and some for students and some for artists and some for professionals and some for oils and some for watercolors and some for painting model airplanes (okay, okay, if you’re seeing that one you’re in the wrong aisle), you know there are a LOT. So let’s break it down to the basics in this edition of the Watercolor Glossary!
I was really fortunate when I started to paint because there was an amazing local art supply store staffed by an Australian woman who seemed to know everything about art supplies and wasn’t snobby about it at all! She helped me pick out my first supplies and made the subject approachable and beginner-friendly, and I’m aiming to do the same for any beginners who are reading this very post.
To start, there are paintbrushes for just about every kind of painting and medium. Brushes for oil painting, acrylic painting, watercolors, house painting, wall painting, and turkey basting.*
Really briefly though, oil and acrylic brushes usually have much longer handles (they’re easier to use when you’re painting something on an easel). Some oil and acrylic brushes are made of the same materials as watercolor brushes, but you’ll want a watercolor-specific brush for painting. Trust me, you’ll notice the difference.
*check out the Turkey Baster Glossary for more on that.
How many different brush shapes can you name? If you’re thinking, “Um, paintbrush-shaped?” Don’t worry! That’s what I’m here for.
Among the many, many types of brushes* we are going to focus on three: the round, the filbert, and the flat. As you continue to paint, you’ll undoubtedly want to add more brushes to your arsenal, but those three brushes are capable of a LOT and are all I personally use.
Here’s a little illustration I made to show you the general shapes:
A round brush: this is the most traditional size, and what you’d think of when you think, “paintbrush.” A round is very versatile and is by far the most-used paintbrush in my own arsenal. Rounds come in lots of sizes and are capable of doing very fine detail with the point of the brush, but also laying down a lot of paint when you use the belly of the brush.
A flat brush: the metal part that holds the bristles of the brush is called the ferrule. On a round brush, the ferrule is round. On a flat brush it is pressed flat, which makes the bristles form into a square/rectangle shape. These are best for doing broad strokes and washes, though you can get some detail and good lines with the side of the brush.
A filbert brush: a filbert looks a lot like a flat brush, but the sides are rounded. Filberts are the brush of choice for many artists as they can hold lots of paint, do big washes, and you can get some nice detail work by using the sides of the brush.
The takeaway from this section? If you’re just getting started, invest in a good-quality round brush. They can lay down a lot of paint but their fine point means you can also create beautiful details. A round brush is my go-to in my own paintings, but if you’d like to try a few different shapes, go for a round brush, a flat brush, and a filbert.
The size of the brush is typically printed on the handle. The size refers to the bristles/hairs and here’s something fun (and by “fun” I mean kind of annoying…)…there is no consistency between brands regarding sizes. A size 6 brush in one brand can be completely different from a size 6 brush in another brand! And so on and so forth for every number and brand. There just isn’t a standard size chart for brushes, so make sure you always look at the brush measurements provided if you’re buying online. Some brush manufacturers also have free catalogues with brush images printed so they are at their actual size.
The takeaway: to give yourself the most range when you’re starting, go for a small round brush (somewhere between size 0-2), a medium round brush (somewhere between size 4-6), and a larger round brush (somewhere between size 8-12).
Watercolor brushes can be made from natural animal hairs or synthetic bristles. It’s a veritable petting zoo of animals, too, and includes sable, ox, mongoose, hog, badger, squirrel, goat, and pony!!
The best watercolor brushes are made of Kolinsky Sable, which is a fur from the Siberian Weasel. Sable fur is held to be superior to all other materials for brushes–it is extremely soft, absorbs lots of paint and water, and holds a beautiful point for detail. It is also a lot more expensive, but you can really tell the difference when you paint with a Kolinsky Sable brush.
This video gives some behind-the-scenes info on some of the most expensive Kolinsky Sable brushes–it is REALLY interesting to see what goes into each brush. Did you know there are only a few brush-makers who can make the Winsor and Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable brush? And it takes three years of training before they’re ready! The nine (ONLY NINE) brush-makers who make these each have 27 years of experience on average. Okay, I’ll stop quoting the video to you and just encourage you to watch it when you have a minute 🙂
When a brush is labelled “camel hair” it is usually made of squirrel hair, or a mixture of goat, pony, squirrel etc. These are cheaper brushes and I don’t personally enjoy using them as I like a bit more spring in my brushes. Because they’re quite inexpensive, though, it’s easy to experiment and see if you like them.
Finally, if you don’t want to go with natural brush hairs, you can also purchase a brush made of synthetic fibers. They do perform a bit differently, but a lot of the synthetic brushes I’ve used are just as good as the natural ones. This is a set of mini synthetic brushes and I use them all the time. I do find that synthetic brushes don’t seem to hold up as well to my sable brushes, but they tend to be cheaper and easy to replace. Also, if you are opposed to buying products made with animal components, they are a great choice.
Anyone else love the show “How It’s Made”?? This video is amazing if you’re interested in learning more about paintbrushes, how they’re made, and the different components.
As with all art supplies, you will find your favorites by experimenting. That can be a little difficult at the beginning of your painting journey if you’re not sure what to experiment with or if you don’t have a lot of money to spend on a bunch of different art supplies. If that describes your situation, I’d recommend purchasing a couple good quality round brushes in at least three different sizes. Princeton makes some great affordable brushes. If you’ve been painting for a while, though, and you’re ready to upgrade, you can’t beat a Kolinsky sable brush. Check out Rosemary and Co. brushes and the Winsor and Newton Series 7 brushes for the very tippity-top of the line.
As always, let me know if you have any questions or feedback in the comments below! Happy painting!
Welcome to the first topic of the Watercolor Glossary! This week we’re talking about watercolor paper and all of its many varieties! Knowing what kind of paper to use can be a little overwhelming if you’re just getting started, especially because watercolor paper varies in texture, weight, dimension, manufacturing process, and presentation.
NOT TO WORRY. I’m here for you.
If you’re at the very beginning of your watercolor journey, you might not even know that there IS a specific paper for watercolor paper, or that there are many, many options. If you’ve been painting for a while, you probably already have a favorite type of paper that you gravitate towards. Either way, you can learn something from this post as I share a quick overview of the different varieties of watercolor paper available and talk about their different characteristics and how they can effect your painting.
Watercolor paper texture can be super smooth (hot pressed) or very bumpy and textural (rough) and everything in between. These textures react differently to brushstrokes and to your paint, so it’s important to know what you’re looking for. For example, if I was trying to paint an extremely detailed and realistic botanical piece on rough paper I’d quickly get frustrated as the bumpy paper texture would interfere with my tiny brushstrokes.
You’ll mostly come across hot-pressed or cold-pressed paper, especially if you’re just beginning. These words refer to the manufacturing techniques–hot-pressed paper is made by rolling the paper with heated cylinders, which results in a much smoother surface. Cold-pressed paper is pressed with un-heated rollers, which results in a much more textured and rough surface. Here’s a quick video by Italian paper manufacturers Fabriano that shows the paper manufacturing from cotton pulp all the way through to final product. It’s pretty neat!
These surfaces react differently to paint and water. Cold-pressed paper holds a lot of water and doesn’t dry as quickly. If you’d like even more texture, opt for Rough watercolor paper, which has a lot of texture. It’s hard to paint details on this type of paper, and many artists will paint landscapes or seascapes using rough textured watercolor paper. If you opt for one of these, you’ll find that the paper fibers are visible and the paper itself is very rough to the touch.
Hot-pressed paper, due to it’s smooth surface, is much easier to use if you’re interested in painting detailed or realistic paintings. The paper texture is so smooth that the fibers don’t interfere with your brush strokes and your brushstrokes will dry quickly. Typically, if you’re using a LOT of water in your washes and painting, I’d recommend using cold or rough paper.
Cold-pressed paper is textured, and that can provide some great effects in finished paintings. The brush can catch along the ridges and edges of the paper fibers and leave beautiful textured effects. As I mentioned above, cold-pressed can handle heavier applications of water than hot-pressed.
Try a bunch of different papers and see what you like! I personally gravitate toward hot-pressed paper because I paint highly-detailed paintings with lots of layers. Many artists prefer the toothy-ness of cold-pressed paper, though, and I recommend trying both. Most student papers are cold-pressed, so keep that in mind as you begin to paint.
Watercolor paper comes in a range of different weights, and you’ll see this number right on the front of a pad of watercolor paper. There are three common weights: 90lb, 140lb, and 300lb paper.
300lb paper is the gold standard of watercolor paper. It is expensive, thick, sturdy, rarely warps, and typically comes in huge sheets of paper. Don’t go for this until you’re ready for it, though, you won’t appreciate the specific qualities of 300lb paper until you have some experience painting, so it’s better to spend your art-supply budget on other things.
90lb paper warps very easily. Typically, this is a student-quality paper. It’s thin and best used for testing out colors or making practice sketches. As in all things, there are exceptions to the rule, and I know a few artists who paint on 90lb paper, BUT it’s always best to learn the “rules” and how they work before you break them 🙂
140lb paper is the most common. This could also need to be stretched (we’ll get to that later!), though I usually use it as-is because I my paintings tend to have many detailed layers of paint that dry quickly, so it doesn’t warp easily.
Each weight is available in hot-pressed, cold-pressed, and rough-textured paper. So, for example, I prefer 300lb hot-pressed paper, though I use 140lb hot-pressed paper for almost all of my paintings, and I rarely make use of 90lb paper.
In addition to seeing the pounds, you’ll probably also see the grams measurement. Here’s the conversion in case you need it: 190 gsm = 90lb, 300 gsm = 140 lb, and 638 gsm = 300 lb
Watercolor paper can be made out of cellulose, wood pulp, cotton fibers, or a mixture of them all.The very best watercolor paper is made of 100% cotton, but it’s totally fine to use something with a mixture of fibers when you’re practicing or creating studies/sketches. That way, you can save the good stuff (which is also the more expensive stuff) for your final paintings.
Student papers are usually about 25% cotton, and are often not archival or acid-free, which are properties you’ll want as you continue to paint and create final paintings, so it’s something to keep in mind as you buy paper.
Presentation and Form:
You can buy watercolor sheets in a simple pad of paper, but they are also available in blocks, journals, sketchpads, separate sheets, and myriad other forms!
A block of watercolor paper is glued with light adhesive on all sides with a small section left un-glued. You can insert a palette knife or other sharp edge into that small section to remove the top sheet. The adhesive keeps the paper from warping, which is a great feature. The only con is that you can only work on one painting in your block at a time.
Large sheets of paper can be more cost-effective, but typically students and beginners will use smaller sheets of paper, so I recommend starting with a pad.
Other things to consider:
Watercolor paper is also available in a range of whites from bright-white to natural-white. This isn’t very important when you’re starting out, but it’s something to be aware of.
If you’re painting motifs with the intent of scanning them and using them for surface pattern design or to create digital artwork, use bright-white, hot-pressed paper so that the scanner doesn’t pick up unwanted texture/shadows.
For final paintings, use acid-free, 100% cotton paper where possible. It’ll make a difference in the longevity of your piece.
The takeaway for beginners:
Opt for a mid-range pad of 140lb cold-pressed paper for your final paintings. Here is a good option! Don’t automatically go for the cheapest as it won’t perform properly and it’s easy to get discouraged when you don’t get good results, but you’re also not ready for the expensive types of paper yet. As you progress, try hot-pressed paper, if you have a problem with warping, try a block of paper. If you have a good paper cutter, buy larger sheets and cut them down to size. Remember, you have the rest of your life to learn all there is about watercolor, so just jump right in and go from there and don’t let yourself get overwhelmed.
If you enjoy reading about art supplies and are interested in a more in-depth look at how paper is created and the different properties of watercolor paper, Handprint is basically the most exhaustive, comprehensive blog about watercolors and art supplies out there. Here’s his extensive series on watercolor paper.
Here is a video from Arches that features some beautiful footage of the paper-making process. There are some unusual creative choices in this video, but the footage of the process makes it worth it to watch!
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments or if something was particularly helpful! And, if you have requests for further articles in the Watercolor Glossary, I’d love to hear about them.
Watercolor painting has a reputation for being difficult and, as with any craft or hobby, starting to learn to paint can be daunting. Maybe you don’t feel confident in your drawing, or you aren’t sure how to work up the courage to actually put paint to paper, or maybe you are overwhelmed by the amount of supplies and techniques you have to learn. Supplies with names like frisket, hot-pressed, Kolinsky sable, and half-pans.
It’s okay! I’ve got you!
This glossary will be an on-going series that explores the supplies and techniques specific to watercolor. My hope is that it will become a comprehensive resource for students of watercolor. Whether you’re just starting out and need someone to hold your hand for a little while or if you’ve been painting for a while and are looking to get some more detailed information.
As a self-taught artist and self-proclaimed Art Supply Nerd, I’ve learned and absorbed information for years and my students can tell you that sometimes I get a little carried away talking about art supplies and just where those paint pigments originated* but there is an endlessly fascinating world out there, and I believe that the more we learn, the better we will become at this craft.
I’ll be starting with simple supplies and techniques. Just what is the difference between hot- and cold-pressed paper? What kind of brushes do you need? Why are there so many kinds of paint out there!? And then I’ll move on to some questions that I would really like to know the answers to, like…how exactly do they get the hair for watercolor brushes? And where does the name liquid frisket come from??
Eventually, I hope to include interviews with specialists and artisans who continue to create beautiful supplies and use both traditional and contemporary techniques. I sure don’t know everything, but what I don’t know I’ll find out. Feel free to send me your questions for future editions by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. No question is too basic, I promise! A new post will go up each Wednesday and I’ll be answering questions here and on my Instagram page where you can find me @alexsgardenstudio.
There’s a lot to learn out there, so let’s get to it! Let me know in the comments, what are you hoping to learn about?