Revised November 2013:
I've had a lot of email asking about what minimal basic supplies one needs to get started in watercolor, and telling me how confusing it can be for a beginner in an art supply store when confronted with the hundreds of choices of paints, brushes, paper and other tools.
First a general comment on materials. Buy the best materials you can afford. You may think you are saving money buying the cheapest paper, but low-quality papers cut costs by eliminating/reducing/altering sizing, weight or manufacturing processes. The result is that paint can soak in to the point where you can't get anything but pastel color, and you won't be happy. Or, when the paper rips or balls up at the least little scrubbing of your brush, your painting will be ruined. You may think you are saving money to buy the least expensive paints, but they generally have less or inferior quality pigment and more fillers (things other than paint) in them than the more expensive brands, so you end up using more of them to get a good, rich saturated color that behaves as it should on paper. You may think a camel's hair brush (the kind that comes in the childrens' paint box sets) is good enough, but it won't spring back into shape after a stroke, or hold a sharp point, or carry much color, and those are qualities you need to have in a watercolor brush. So, that having been said, here are my recommendations for the supplies you can get by with as a beginning painter.
You will also need a flat wash brush, 1/2" or larger. I have three different sizes from 1/2" to 1". They are a synthetic fiber brush, with a plastic handle that has an angled end for scraping, burnishing, scratching and other watercolor techniques. However, if you prefer, you can get an all-sable brush or a blended hair brush in this flat shape.
You will also need an "oval wash" or "mop" brush for getting large amounts of water and/or paint onto your paper surface quickly. An alternative to the oval wash or mop is the very large flat brush that looks like a house painter's brush. Don't expect to do detail work or paint around little shapes with this brush. It's a big "floppy" brush good for pre-wetting or washing in a large area. If you primarily paint small (less than half sheet), then you can probably skip this brush. Some people use an inexpensive "hake" brush for this, but I dislike them because they tend to shed hair.
and storing your brushes:
The rigger or liner brush is good for fine lines and small details.
This brush is about 3" wide...if you work large (full sheet or larger), this is a great brush to have for its ability to put large amounts of paint on the paper in a very short time. This is a good substitute brush for the oval wash or "mop" brush.
Basic Tube Colors
You need a warm and a cool version of each "primary" colorred, yellow and blueso that you can mix the other colors you need and get clean, clear mixtures. I use Daniel Smith and/or Winsor & Newton Artist colors - mostly Daniel Smith, but I am also including the student grade of paints from Grumbacher for those on a very tight budget.
I have revised this basic color list again, and included the Color Index Name, so that if you are substituting brands, you can be sure you are getting the same pigment. Color index names are more precise than common names. For example, the Color Index Name of French Ultramarine Blue is Pigment Blue 29, abbreviated to PB29. Color Index Name information should be on the label of any reputable paint, regardless of brand.
Blue: Look for PB29 on the label
Blue: Look for PB15 or PB15:3 on the
Yellow: Look for PY3 on the label
Yellow: Look for PY97, PY150 or PY154
on the label
Red: Look for PR206, PR 176 or PV19 on
Red: Look for PR188, PR253 or PR108 on
*Colors marked with an asterisk are not completely lightfast.
For the CLEANEST color mixtures, mix any two colors that have the same bias (like an orange-biased red and an orange-biased yellow, for example, for the CLEANEST orange mixture). If you want to make duller or less intense hues, mix colors with different biases (like a green-biased yellow and a purple-biased red, for example. The resulting orange mixture will be a duller orange). See my tip on color mixing.
Magenta 073, Winsor & Newton Artists', or
Daniel Smith's Quinacridone Violet. Look for PV19 on
the label. This color plus Winsor Green or Thalo Green will give you
very dark neutral mixtures...nearly black if saturated.
Raw Sienna, Winsor & Newton or Daniel Smith. Look for PBr7 on the label. Daniel Smith's Monte Amiata Natural Sienna is a little redder. I also like Daniel Smith's Transparent Yellow Oxide (PY 42) instead of Raw Sienna.
you must have black and white paints:
White 043, Grumbacher [both grades] (if you must have white -
this opaque white is the one to get. A watercolor "purist"
does not use white paint...they use the white of their paper for their
PAINTS & PALETTE:
There are many brands of watercolor available. Winsor Newton and Grumbacher are widely available, but if you want to research equivalent colors by other manufacturers, go online to handprint.com where you will find a wealth of information (and the best information that is not influenced by advertising) about the pigments used in many manufacturer's paints. There are also a couple of book in print that deal with this subjectMichael Wilcox's book, The Best Watercolor Paints (recently revised), or Hilary Page's Guide to Watercolor Paints, published by Watson-Guptill.
I primarily use watercolor paints from Daniel Smith, with some colors from Winsor & Newton. In the list at the left, the color in bold is my first choice; the other colors listed are alternate choices. You only need six colors to start with. Once you are comfortable with what those six will accomplish, you can add from the optional list, which includes some additional blues, some earth colors, and black and white if you feel you must have them.
You will need some kind of palette to keep your paint in and use for mixing colors. If you are an artist that likes to have only freshly squeezed paint, your palette could be as simple as a white china or plastic picnic plate. If you like putting the whole tube in a palette well, and covering it between painting sessions, I recommend the white plastic palettes with lids. I use a Robert E. Woods palette, but there are many different brands available. The lids keep the paint clean and also from drying out between painting sessions, especially if you put a wet piece of thin sponge in the mixing well before you put the lid on. I squeeze out enough paint to nearly fill each well I am using because I paint often. If you are not going to paint daily, you may only want to squeeze out a quarter of a tube. Don't be skimpy. Nothing is more frustrating than running out of paint half way through a wash!
The paper will have a specific surface, ranging from very slick and smooth (hot press), to very textured (rough). A surface in between, and one I recommend for beginners, is slightly textured (cold press).
Paper also comes in different weights, from 90 lb. to 300 lb. generally. A lot of the "student grade" paper is 90 lb. This paper is too lightweight to do any scrubbing or surface manipulation without risking damage to the paper surface. I recommend 140 lb. paper, either sheets or blocks. If you want your paper to stay flat even after applying a really wet wash, you will either need to stretch it, or use watercolor blocks (the sheets are glued at the edges which helps the paper return to a flat state as it dries). If you don't want to use blocks, and you don't want to stretch your paper, you paint very "wet" and you still want the painting to stay very flat as you work, then you probably need 300 lb. paper.
Update: Strathmore Paper recently began offering their Aquarius II paper again. It is part synthetic paper, and although only 80 lb, will stay flat without stretching and take a fair amount of scrubbing as well.
Sizing is gelatin, animal glue and/or starch-based products that are added to the paper at the pulp stage (internal sizing) and sometimes again after the sheet is formed (external sizing). The sizing controls how the paper accepts paint (how far into the surface the paint sinks), and how much you can "abuse" the paper (erase, scrub out paint, rewet and repaint, etc.) before it will no longer accept paint well. The best modern papers are both internally and externally sized.
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OTHER TOOLS AND MATERIALS:
You will also probably find a sponge and a roll of paper towels handy for removing excess paint and/or water from the edges of your paper or work surface. I also use a roll of toilet tissue turned on its side as a "blotter" for my paint brush...to remove excess water or paint, all I have to do is swipe the brush on the roll. As the tissue gets dirty, I unwind the roll to expose cleaner areas. You could use your sponge for this purpose, though, and just rinse it out periodically.
I also use a spray bottle filled with distilled water (for re-wetting and for forcing paint to spread in a "spatter" pattern), an old toothbrush for spattering paint, a flat staple remover, and of course, a sketchbook, drawing pencil, and a large soft eraser. The latter is also used to clean up stray pencil marks (if desired) after you finish your painting and it is completely dry.