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Materials For Watercolor Painting.
What You Need, What You Don't.

"When artists get together they don't usually talk art. They talk art supplies." Charles Weiss

Watercolor Paint

The time is 20000 years ago. ?You have managed to kill something and have decided to bring it back to where the family keeps the fire and cook it. You live in a very advanced society. We have learned not to hold the meat over the fire but put it on a stick. We even discovered putting it on a forked stick helps keep the meat turning over the fire. Scientists have recently discovered that using green, freshly cut wood, is superior to using old dead wood. it does not catch fire and drop the meat.

So here you are, holding your stick of meat, turning it slowly over the fire,  happily smelling your dinner get better and better. The heat of the fire is steaming the water in the stick. The steam is pushing the sap out of the cut end of the stick onto your hands. Smoke from the fire sticks to the sap and darkens it.  By the time dinner is done your hands are a black sticky mess. Being fastidious, you clean your hands before dinner. Spit, spit, wring your hands. Wipe your hands dry against the cave wall, and look at the wall.

Hey honey. Get over here. You gotta see what I just invented, art.

You just invented watercolor painting. You used a medium (tree sap), water (spit) and pigment (soot).

Today, in the 21st century, we, of course, have truly modern technology. We make our watercolor with Gum Arabic (tree sap) water and  pigment (for black we use soot). We also add a preservative to prevent mold growth. We have come a very long way.

What is important to us watercolor artists is the nature of our pigments. Ultramarine blue was originally ground-up Lapis Lazuli.  Lapis is a gemstone and Ultramarine blue was very expensive. Today chemists have duplicated it exactly and it's quite cheap. Same for Cobalt blue, Manganese blue and Cerulean blue. Nevertheless, they all retain their mineral nature. This is important only because I am going to make a distinction between minerals, (naturally occurring pigments) and organic, or man-made pigments. These mineral colors are referred to as sedimentary. The reason is that minerals (rocks) are heavy, therefore when suspended in water they sediment out (sink like stones.)

Things to know when selecting your paints are:

Organic colors (carbon-based / man-made), are generally very light, tiny particles. When suspended in water they tend to stay suspended. They often only settle into the paper as the water dries. sedimentary colors settle out almost rapidly.

This is important because we paint on very irregularly surfaced paper. when we use sedimentary colors they settled into the valleys of the paper leaving us with a very mottled look. that's the watercolor look. That's what we're after. That's what people love.  Sometimes we want only smooth passages. Non-sedimentary colors will do that. They tend to even themselves off, even if we don't paint them very evenly. By balancing these properties we get to pull off some amazing tricks which are only available to watercolorists.

Our pigments can also be opaque or transparent. When we paint a room what we value most is how few coats it takes to cover. The paint that covers the old stuff best is what we want. That's an opaque pigment. If it takes many coats, that's transparent pigment. We watercolorists use transparent pigments.  transparent pigments let the white of the paper show through the layer of paint. That means that we need no white. If we paint a thin layer of red, the result is pink. The thicker the layer the redder it gets. Even though all of our colors are considered transparent, some are less so. for example, the cadmium reds, yellows and oranges can somewhat obscure a different layer painted below it. When watercolorists say opaque, they only mean a little opaque.

We do have fully opaque watercolors.  they are called Gouache. Gouache is often used by cartoonists and illustrators and it has its place. It is rarely used for fine arts.

White watercolor comes to ways,  Chinese white is zinc oxide, the stuff we put on our nose to keep it from burning. Chinese white is almost opaque. Titanium white is the whitest and the most opaque white you're going to find anywhere. There is a subtle difference between them. if you mix (for instance) yellow with one of these whites you will get an opaque light yellow. because Chinese white is slightly transparent it's yellow will be more vibrant than the titanium yellow. Sometimes, after I paint a field of grass, and everything is dry, I mix my white and yellow with little or no water and dot dandelions onto the field. Then I mix a pink and a purple and a light blue and cover the field with wildflowers.

Watercolor paints come in two forms,  tubes usually metal with a plastic cap, and pans, little cakes of solid color. Pan's come in two sizes full and half size. You can buy pallets specifically built to hold either size pan. Pan paints are made with a significant amount of glycerin added. The glycerin prevents the paints from drying really hard and therefore make it easier to dissolve it with a  wet brush. - I prefer tubes. If you need a lot of soft paint, right now, you can squeeze out as much as you want from a tube. Pans are great when you are traveling and painting small.

Most teachers will tell you to never use white.  that's almost good advice. White never lightens, it only obscures. it tends to make a mess of any wash it touches.  Except for wildflowers, I would recommend the beginners never mess with white.

Most teachers will tell you to never use black. Here's why. when you paint a grey wash made out of black, then a gray wash is what you get. When you paint a gray wash made out of mixed colors (for example Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue) you get a shimmering multi-hued gray wash. Especially if one of those colors is sedimentary. The former is gray the latter is magnificent.

There is nothing inherently evil about using black.

Watercolor Paper

There is this huge mistique surrounding watercolor paper, and it's probably well deserved. The very best papers are made by processes developed during the Renaissance . Modern paper mills don't make watercolor paper. The good stuff is made in very few factories mostly in Europe.

The most famous paper of all we call arches. It's really D’arches,  pronounced “Darch” in French. I never heard anyone call it anything other than Arches. if you look at the label it says the company was founded in 1492. Every time I start a piece of this stuff I always think of Columbus somewhere in the Atlantic while Mr. D'Arche is starting a paper company in his garage.

All the great papers are made from cotton or linen fiber and held together by animal glue. Do You know the expression "shipping off the horse to the glue factory"? They are all sized with one form of gelatin or another. Think fish jelly.  The sizing is very important. Unsized paper is toilet paper or blotter paper. Everything sinks right in. The sizing in the paper and on the surface is what makes watercolor paper all that it is. if you plop a puddle of watery paint onto a piece of good watercolor paper that puddle will not spread. the edges will remain sharp and clear until it dries and then for the next thousand years. Slightly moisten the paper surface, then drop on the puddle and the puddle will spread throughout the moist surface. Whatever the brand, even medium quality brands awe me with their ability to handle water in ways you would not believe until you see it.

Watercolor paper comes in three grades.

Watercolor paper comes in limited sizes .
The standard size sheet is 22 by 30 in. There are other size sheets but they are rarely in stock and often are special order. Rolls 44 in wide by 10 yards long are stocked by large dealers. Lately, I notice some “standard sizes” like 9x12 for sale in pads. Watch out for the value. Everything except sheets and rolls seems to carry a convenience price.

Watercolor paper is also sold in blocks. I find blocks the dumbest invention ever. Blocks are stacks of paper glued together on all four sides with a small little area without glue. Here you can slip a knife in and cut away the top sheet.  The Idea is the paper is nicely supported so you don't have to attach it to something, it's nice and flat, you paint it then you just cut away the finished work. The problem is that the moment you wet the paper it expands (as all papers do) and because it's glued down around the edges it has no place to go but to pucker up. Now you're washes run into the puckers and the painting is a mess. The watercolor also can run down the area where there's no glue and stain the next few sheets. I use a plastic sheet as a support and clip my paper to one side only, (whichever is the driest side at the moment). When the paper wants to expand or contract it is free to do so. it always lays flat.

As long as I am being critical of bad stuff: I once had 50 sheets of Waterford paper with defective sizing. They never even answered my email. I wound up using $200 worth of watercolor paper in place of $20 worth of drawing paper. I lost $180, but they gained a very unhappy ex-customer. The manufacturer is St Cuthberts Mill, which also makes Bockingford Paper.

Watercolor Brushes

Watercolor brushes may be the ultimate example of "You get what you pay for".  You can spend less than a dollar or hundreds on a single brush.

The prices don't surprise me.

Camel hair brushes are the industry term for the cheapest brush in the house.

There is a huge amount of information about brushes and it's mostly visual in nature. There is so much to say I made 3 video lessons. They are in the “ Materials For Watercolor Painting ” panel in the menu.

Watercolor Palettes

As you will see any of the painting videos, I use a white ice cube tray to hold the paints. It’s great because the wells are large and deep and easy to fill on the fly. Also because, when not in use, I seal it in a large Baggies along with a damp sponge, and the paints are always ready to go when I am.

I also use an airtight traveling palette while traveling. You must keep it level when the paints are wet. I usually get the paints fairly dry before driving, or dead dry before flying. Upon arrival, wet them well and seal the palette with a soaking wet sponge inside for a day.

Watercolor Easels

My plastic support is all the easel I need. If it needs to be tilted on the tabletop, just find something to put under one end.

In the field, I usually sit on a low camp chair. the pallet and water go on the ground to my right, my lap is the easel.  The Lap has a built-in tilting function.


Errata and Omissions.

If I have missed something, please contact me. T'would be a pleasure to done the undone, or redone the illdone.

Lessons On Materials

A setup demontrating watercolor paints in a color wheel.. Watercolor Paints – What they are and what you will need.
The word, “palette” means two different things. First it’s what you put your paint on. Second, it’s your available paints, in other words, not only the number of paints, but what their specific color and properties are.

There is no perfect palette, and what works for me may not work so well for someone else. Therefore what I am offering is a starting point. Hopefully you will also find it to be all you need.

We will cover the sedimentary properties of colors, which are what makes watercolors look so unique, and what makes them so beautiful. We will also cover a palette for mixing any color at all.

Watercolor paper showing a deckle edge. Watercolor Paper
The “look” of your painting, will be determined by the paper it’s painted on. Cheap paper can often be a very good choice, but good paper is a pleasure to use.
Also the ease and cost of framing will dramatically change by selecting the right size paper to use.
This lesson will cover what you need to know about watercolor paper.

Various tools used for watercolor painting. Watercolor Tools
Besides paint paper and brushes, there are a bunch of tools which make painting faster and easier.
Of course there is your palette. You will also need the right pencil and eraser, which is surprisingly simple. Other tools like scraping tools are easily made from credit cards and plastic spoons.

A lesson about watercolor brushes. All About Brushes.
This lesson covers the different brushes I use and how to use them. Also what these brushes are made of, and what what are the implications of the fibers regarding quality. durability and cost. implications of the fibers regarding quality.

Picture of a watercolor brush Watercolor Brushes – What to look for when buying them.
Buying watercolor brushes can be an overwhelming experience. There are way too many choices. 
Brushes come in many different sizes and different are made with many different fibers. They also come in different shapes, and it’s bewildering to confront a catalogue or store display. There are way too many choices.
Experienced painters don't use dozens of brushes. Often they use only a few. You too can have just a few brushes that can do everything you want to do.

Picture for a lesson about careing for watercolor brushes. Watercolor Brush Care
Without the proper care, brushes don’t last too long. It’s not hard to care for your brushes. Funny thing is, in my experience, not one single teacher has told me how.

We will also cover how to repair a brush that has gone bad.

Watercolor painting of a small barn.BEGINNER
Watercolor painting of birch trees in the winter snowADVANCED
A setup demontrating watercolor paints in a color wheel.Watercolor MATERIALS
How to draw round objects.BEGINNER
Illustration of Analagous and complementry colorsWATERCOLOR
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