How to Start with Watercolour — Part 1

Lotus watercolour painting

Figuring out how to use watercolour is often not the first challenge for beginners… It’s actually choosing what paint you need to start with.

Watercolour Tubes or Watercolour Pans?

You can’t make a wrong choice between the two because the watercolour paint that comes in tubes and pans is very similar. If you paint large and loose you might prefer tubes though. With pans there is more preparation of the paint and it’s more difficult to get large washes going quickly so tubes might work better for you.

Tube watercolour contains more glycerin to keep its creamy soft consistency, for as long as it is sealed in the airtight tube. You can buy tubes in sets or individually so you can personalize your very own palette of colours.

Pan watercolour is dry and hard and comes either in little individual white plastic containers (also called pans, or half-pans) or fixed into a palette box with a lid. If you buy a little set of pan watercolours in a palette box with a lid all you need is a brush, some water and you are good to go… anywhere. This form of watercolour is very easily stored and transported. Pans are exceptionally suited to plein-air painting and travelling. I have a small set of W&N Cotman pans that I use for watercolour sketching on the go. I also have a water brush ( a self-contained nylon brush with a water reservoir), but more on brushes in Part 2.

Set of W&N Cotman watercolours with a palette and brush.

With a set you get the colours included in the box. But! you can also buy individual pans of watercolour which are interchangeable in your palette box, so you can make your own travel set with your favourite colours or even several palettes for different subjects.

I use both pans and tubes and as long as the quality is good it really doesn’t make much of a difference for most of the painting I do.

What type of watercolour paint do I need?

So you choose between watercolour tubes and pans, but then you also have to decide on brands and quality. Quality has to do with the pigments and binders, as well as fillers (if any) that are in the paint.

Some brands offer both a student and an artist quality, the set mentioned above, Cotman, is the student version of Winsor & Newton. There are many other brands: Daniel Smith, Sennelier, Holbein, LUKAS, Grumbacher, Turner, Van Gogh, Old Holland, and Schminke are some of the better ones. I use mostly Winsor & Newton as I find their quality reliable and they mix well together. I’m always open to trying new stuff though. I have a tube of Daniel Smith Amethyst that is amazing, and their Moonglow is next.

Price isn’t always the best indicator of quality. It is possible to find some paints that are inexpensive but still delightful to use. I haven’t tried them yet some people really like the Koi sets of watercolours.

Some paints are very expensive and you really don’t need those when you are starting out. The new Daniel Smith colours are stunningly beautiful, but they are pricey. The best thing about watercolour is you really don’t use a lot of paint. The pigments in decent quality paint are dense and go a long, long way.

However, I tend to use those cheaper watercolour sets and other less expensive sets like them in my watercolour sketchbooks rather than for a serious painting I’m planning to sell or show, but they are a great way to start.

In the end the artist quality or professional paints are going to be reliable and easy to work with, and if you can afford them they are worth it. If it is out of your budget then the Schmincke Academie or the Cotman range from Winsor and Newton would be a great place to start.

I noticed that the colours in watercolour lines are different prices, what’s up with that?

You will notice that in watercolour (and oils, sometimes even in acrylic) that not all the colours are the same price. They are usually organized in series, depending on the price of the pigments that are needed for each colour, and their lightfastness. (How well they stand up to UV light)

Some pigments are made from precious or semiprecious minerals and are expensive to make. Often a manufacturer will make a similar colour from synthetic pigments or a combination of cheaper pigments. You may find then that a colour that looks about the same is in two series, eg: cadmium red and cadmium red hue hue. The one that is labelled ‘hue’ is likely cheaper as it contains less expensive synthetic pigments and more fillers. (cadmium is also a known carcinogenic, but more on paint safety in another post)

Technology has come a long way – don’t assume that the ‘hue’ is going to be awful, some are gorgeous, give it a go if you love the colour but not the price.

How many colours do I need to start watercolour painting?

Just one…

Monochromatic paintings are a thing – so really all you need is one colour. You could get started with just one tube of watercolour paint.

Watercolour isn’t a paint that you have to mix with others to go lighter or darker, it’s all about the water. More water, the lighter and more transparent your paint is. Less water, darker and richer, add more layers (glazing) and you can deepen areas too. The magic of watercolour is that the paper is your lightest tone so it is easy to paint with fewer colours than in other mediums.

But ‘need’ is a funny word. How many paints do you really need

I suggest, if you’re not going to buy a set that the three primary colours of red, yellow and blue will do just fine, plus Burnt Sienna (you’ll see why the Sienna in a minute). The kind of colours you choose is really dependent on your subject matter.

If you want to paint flowers I’d suggest starting with Permanent Rose, Ultramarine Blue (I use French Ultramarine) or Cobalt Blue, and a bright yellow like Aureolin or Cadmium Yellow Light.

For landscapes I’d suggest Ultramarine Blue, Cerulean Blue (you really need a warm blue and a cool blue for skies), Alizarin Crimson, Raw Sienna/Yellow Ochre (and again, Burnt Sienna). These, and mixes of these, will cover any colour you see in nature except really bright flowers.

For animals you might want to add some greys and browns, like Sepia and Payne’s Grey. However, I find greys and browns can be mixed beautifully from a few simple colours. Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna together are exceptional for mixing darks and greys… either warm or cool.

* A note on greens. Greens from the tube (or pan) are really harsh and unnatural looking. I have only two greens in my paint collection, Sap Green and Green Gold, and I rarely use them. I mix greens from my blues and yellows.. and tone them down with Burnt Sienna. Much more natural greens!

watercolor painting of a Grey Jay
There’s no tube green used in this.. really!

If you get a set they sometimes come themed with colours you might use together. I will cover colours and colour mixing more in a future post.

You only need one or maybe three or four at most, but you can bet on wanting a lot more…

Do I need black and white watercolour paint?

No. White watercolour paint, isn’t watercolour, really. It’s gouache. I have it, I use it… very rarely, in small amounts, for special effects. It’s not necessary for watercolour painting. Black is muddy, harsh and dulling. It is the antithesis of watercolour painting which is light and transparent. If I need a very dark colour.. again, ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. Personally, I would only use black for very non-traditional painting. That said, you might have a completely different approach to your art and black might work for you.

This concludes Part 1 of Starting with Watercolours. Stay tuned! In Part 2 we will discuss palettes, brushes, paper and how to begin painting with watercolour.

Part 2 is here.

If you enjoyed this intro to watercolour I’d appreciate if you could hit the like. Sharing is good too! 🙂

Leave a comment, or ask a question below. I’ll do my best to answer any watercolour or general art questions you might have.

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