Oh the assumptions people make about watercolor! Some of these misconceptions seem like common sense, others are myths that people like to throw around, but neither are based on experience. I want my students to experiment and make discoveries, but these false beliefs prevent them from experiencing their full potential. Here is a list of these misconceptions followed by the reality that I routinely witness in my classes and with my own painting process.
Beginning watercolor students should purchase cheap materials since they aren’t good enough for better quality products. Cheap quality watercolor materials are tempting, especially since the initial investment can be expensive. But really cheap materials are cheap for a reason. Nobody wants paintbrushes that shed hair and paint you can barely see on the paper. It breaks my heart when new students blame themselves when their pictures don’t turn out well, and it’s clearly due to bad paint or paper. Nobody should use the really cheap quality stuff, and the better stuff doesn’t have to cost much more, especially if you know what to look for and where to shop. I will give you tips on how to spend less and still get decent materials below.
Buy an inexpensive set of paint with big tubes and lots of colors, the more the better. It’s a better deal to buy a 24 color set for $10 than a set of 12 colors for a little more. Students who buy the big cheap sets soon discover that the paint doesn’t dissolve easily in water, looks streaky and pale when you paint with it and the colors become muddy when you mix them together. Better quality paint contains better quality pigment and is more concentrated with less fillers, so a smaller tube will mix better and may even last longer than the big cheap tubes. My students who buy cheaper paint often express regret when they see how much better the good quality sets behave. I resent those chalky, pastel looking kid sets, Reeves and Sakura Koi brands of paint for frustrating so many of my students. I recommend they buy a better quality student grade paint set by Cotman or Van Gogh. These aren’t as pricey as the professional brands, but they are produced by and behave similarly to professional companies like Winsor and Newton, Sennelier, Daniel Smith and M. Graham. It is also a good idea to search around for deals on www.cheapjoes.com or www.amazon.com. Only shop at Blick and Michael’s if there is a sale to avoid paying too much. Good sets can cost the same as the bad ones if you find a good deal. Don’t get stuck with paint you hate!
Strathmore watercolor paper must be good because they sell it everywhere. I’m convinced that paper quality matters even more than paint quality, and I’m not alone. As a student I used Strathmore almost exclusively until the day my watercolor teacher cornered me and told me that I should buck up and spend the extra money for Arches cold press 140 lb paper. Initially I resisted, but once I gave it a try I never looked back. Here are two painting samples that I show my students to demonstrate how different these two papers are.
Strathmore 400 cold press 140 lb. paper
Arches Cold Press 140 lb. paper
The paints used in both swatches are identical, and yet the paint on the Strathmore paper is pale and the layered colors resist each other. The colors are much more intense on the Arches paper, and they layer effortlessly. The only difference is the paper. Don’t mess with paper that that is thinner than 140 lb. It should be 100% cotton and acid-free. I occasionally try other papers in hopes of finding a cheaper option, which often results in cursing out loud as I paint. I’m not a fan of Canson XL although I’ve used it, some artists recommend Fabriano Artistico and Kilimanjaro by www.cheapjoes.com. The best cheap student grade paper I’ve tried is my Field Watercolor Journal with Fluid brand watercolor paper. I understand the need to go cheap it if money is tight or you are going through a lot of paper, but Arches is always my first choice, and the brand I recommend to my students. You can see a comparison of watercolor papers in the following videos, this one features color swatches and this one features wet into wet technique.
Left over or dried paint should be thrown away. So long as it isn’t moldy, old or dry paint can still be dissolved in water. I actually squeeze tube paint on my palette and let it dry on purpose. If a tube of paint dries out and becomes hard, cut it open lengthwise with a razor blade, peel back the metal tube, cut out a chunk of paint and place it on your palette. If you live in a humid climate, let your palette dry uncovered in a sunny or spot to prevent it from growing mold. Mold will not grow in bright or dry surfaces.
Acrylic paint can be used just like watercolor paint. This is true up to a point. Acrylic paint contains an acrylic binder to help it attach to a surface. Too much water may overdilute the binder and the pigment may not fully attach to the papers surface, causing it to flake off. Add a little liquid acrylic medium in addition water to maintain sufficient binder in the paint so it will attach properly. Also be very careful to wash your brush thoroughly since dried acrylic paint will permanently damage your brush.
Watercolor and acrylic brushes are the same. Soft round brushes designed for acrylic paint can be used with watercolor, however the handles are much longer since they are designed to be held at a distance from a canvas, not up close to paper. Stiff bristle brushes are typically used with oil and acrylic paint unless you want a special effect. If you find you frequently have to dip your brush in paint as you work, try a bigger brush that comes to a fine point, or choose a brush that either contains real or imitation hair. Brands I’m happy with include White Sable and Princeton, but my favorite is a #2 Raphael Softaqua quill imitation squirrel brush, which cost about $25. It holds a ton of paint and can paint both fine detail and thick washes with ease.
Watercolorists need white paint to make lighter colors/you should never use white paint. This is a tricky one. What makes watercolor different from other paint is its transparency, so you don’t need any white paint to execute a watercolor painting. However, adding little white paint to gray clouds gives needed opacity, and even John Singer Sargent added accents of white and pastel colors to sunlit pictures. Just don’t paint over a mistake with white paint and then try to paint over it again with another and expect it to look like the mistake never happened. If you really need to hide a mistake, either 1. apply water to the mistake and scrub it out (Some papers and colors do this better than others) 2. cut out a piece of watercolor paper and carefully glue it over the mistake, making sure the glue only touches the area where two sheets meet. Ultimately the decision whether or not to use white paint is up to the artist.
Granulation is a sign of cheap paint. Those little tiny dots you see in burnt sienna and ultramarine blue are the tiny bits of pigment that don’t dissolve in water. It doesn’t reflect the quality of paint. Ultramarine blue was originally made from the precious stone lapis lazuli, and burnt sienna was made from heated soil that contains iron oxide. Many watercolorists like the granulated effect so much that there are mediums that imitate the granulated effect. (I tried it once. I wasn’t impressed.)
Every color of paint should behave the same way. Each tube of paint contains one or more different pigments, each of which vary in density, transparency, lightfastness and toxicity due to their chemical composition. As a result, colors behave very differently from one another; granulating ultramarine blue will sink and dye-like phthalocyanine blue will overwhelm other colors and stain your brushes. Synthetic colors like opera rose are notorious for fading over time. The cadmium and cobalt colors are very toxic, so don’t drink that coffee after you accidentally rinsed your brush in it. Better quality brands of paint offer charts that give information about how different paints behave. I’ve picked up copies in art supply shops, or you can search online. Here’s a chart for Winsor and Newton’s Cotman brand paint. Use the plus size on the right to enlarge the image and the key at the bottom to decipher the symbols.
So go out there, take risks and experiment, but be careful about making assumptions, especially if you are new to watercolor. It’s important to use reliable materials so you can have a positive painting experience.