Watercolor Brushes and Paint for Beginners

Watercolor Brushes

Brushes used when painting with watercolor come in many forms and quality levels.

Some of the most common types are:

  • Round Brushes
  • Flat Brushes
  • Mop Brushes
  • Fan Brushes
  • Rigger Brushes

I use round brushes for 95% of my work, but also use all the others as I need them.

For beginners Round Brushes are the best way to go so will concentrate on these for this article.

When selecting a round brush the key thing to look for is a brush which comes to a good point when it is wet and you tap the ferule (the metal part that holds the brush hairs on the wood handle) on the side of something hard like your water container. The brush must also hold a lot of water. You can see an image of good round watercolor brushes below.

Round Watercolor Brushes hold lots of paint and bounce back to a point
Good quality round watercolor brushes have a good point and hold lots of water

In the past the standard recommendation was to buy the most expensive brush you could afford (usually this meant one made from sable – if you could afford it). These days there are brushes which are much less expensive and still do an excellent job.  The ones I use are a mixture of squirrel hair and manmade fibers.

Why do you want such a brush?  Well if it has a good point it means you can use it to paint both broad and fine areas without having to change brushes.  And why is this important you say? Well each time you have to change brushes you lose valuable time during which your painting will be drying (remember the water in watercolor) and if it dries too much you may not be able to produce the particular effect you are after.  Understanding what the water is doing on your paper, in your brushes, and in your palette is critical to painting good watercolor paintings.

Key points for watercolor round brush selection for beginners: Comes to a good point and holds lots of water.

Artist’s Quality Watercolor Paint

Artists quality paints often appear excessively expensive when you first start out however as in most things in life you get what you pay for.

Why Artist’s quality paint should be used instead of student grade watercolor paint?

Artist’s quality paints generally use purer pigments. Usually the student grade paints use pigments that are the “hue of” some color or pigment rather than the real thing. This means the colors are different. This is mainly a problem if you are taking a class and you have different paints than what your teacher is using and you ask him what paints he used to create a particular color.

Artists’ watercolors have much less filler (used to alter the way the paint behaves out of the tube) than student paints. This means you get more pigment per volume of paint tube. The colors will look cleaner and more transparent as often, in my experience, the fillers make the paint look more opaque.

Student watercolor paints also have more gum Arabic, the glue which allows the paint to stick to your paper, again reducing the amount of pigment which you are actually purchasing for your money.

So now that you have the correct materials and you have decided you want to paint a particular subject matter how you should tackle your painting.

For now we will assume that you have a good design, I will be talking about the importance of good design in another article.

After doing a light drawing on your paper, begin by mixing your starting colors in your pallet before you touch the paint. I often have three of more colors already mixed before I ever touch the paper with my brush. Test you colors on a scrap piece of watercolor paper to make sure each mix is correct color you are after and is of the right consistency.

Usually you will start with the large shapes in your painting e.g. the sky and the ground, so use your largest brushes for these. As these shapes are often the lightest tones, you will have more water in your mixes than later on.  Then as your painting progresses, you will work with smaller brushes and thicker paint (less water) as you work on smaller and smaller shapes. You can read more about this in my article on watercolor painting steps and my watercolor progression chart.

Remember, it is very important to observe what the water is doing. So keep an eye on it, on your paper, brush and palette.  The more in tune you are to it the better and more confident your work will become.

Watercolor Painting for Beginners

When discussing watercolor painting for beginners, you generally start with what materials you will need and why.

Painting with Watercolor can be a little daunting for beginners starting out with this wonderful medium but there are steps you can take to make learning it as easy as possible.  These steps will also ensure you develop good habits which will make your watercolor painting much more fruitful in the years to come.

Watercolor (watercolour) is a great medium as it is very portable, does not give off fumes (its relatively clean) and can be fast to paint with. Also your paint generally will not go off, even after it has been allowed to dry, you can rewet it and continue painting.  Once you have developed a level of proficiency it will help you paint your paintings in a way no other medium can.

Your first step is to start with the correct materials.  While a good tradesman can do a reasonable job with poor tools, it is also true that a beginner will have a very difficult time with those same tools. The same applies when you start out with watercolor.

Watercolor Materials

The correct watercolor materials in order of importance are: watercolor paper, brushes and artist’s quality paints. In addition to these you will need a white palette which has large mixing areas and big wells to hold lots of watercolor paint, a backing board (sealed light plywood would be fine for starters), a simple easel (or you just use a book or something to hold you board at an angle), old towel to adjust the moisture content of your brush, tissues, HB pencil (I use a .7 mm clutch pencil as its point is predicable and I can store a lot of leads within the body of the pencil) and a knead able eraser.

I will devote my time talking about the first three materials as they are the most important of the above list, though there is one material I have not listed which is actually the most important – water! But I will discuss that on its own in a later article.

Watercolor Paper

There are many good watercolor paper brands on the market, Arches and Saunders Waterford are the main ones I use but there are many others. They each have different textures and properties which you should try out to find which best suit your particular interest in painting.  You want paper with good sizing (this is like glue that is used to stop the paper from acting like blotting paper which would be very bad for most watercolor techniques).  The sizing also makes the paper tougher, so it minimizes the damage to the paper as you work and lift color from it.

Watercolor paper come is various weights (think thicknesses) and usually when you start out you want to use paper of around 300gsm (140lb) weight.  If you select paper that is too thin it will very easily cockle (buckle) as it absorbs moisture. This will happen anyway but the thinner the paper the more this will happen faster making it difficult for you to paint.

Textures on watercolor paper vary from supplier to supplier, however there are some terms you should know which can help you in your selection within a particular suppliers range.

The three surface textures used when talking about watercolor paper are: Hot Press or Smooth, Cold Press or Medium (also known as NOT – Not Hot Press, though is not so common) and Rough.

The smoother the paper the faster the paint will dry. The reason for this is that the texture of Rough Paper has lots of little troughs which hold water, hence keeping the paper wet longer. Cold Press has smaller troughs so dries faster and smooth dries the fastest.

As your skill level develops you will be able to use smoother paper but when just starting out the Rough Paper is your best choice, especially for doing landscapes. Obviously if you are doing very detailed work like botanical art then you will need to start with Smooth watercolor paper right from the start.

Key points for Watercolor Paper selection: 1. Not too absorbent (good sizing). 2. 3oo gsm weight. 3. Rough texture.

Continue to: Watercolor Materials for Beginners


Watercolor Plein Air Step 4

Everything in its Place

My plein air set up has a tray that holds my brushes, as well as my palette and water. I keep a towel in my hand to adjust moisture in my brush.  The better organised you are the less time you will waste looking for things, while your paper is drying fast.

Minimise distractions

This one is obvious, try to set yourself up somewhere where you will not be a bother for others. I have generally found people to be very considerate of me while I paint, and as I teach I generally don’t have a problem talking while continuing to work. But if you place yourself were you will be in someone’s way you will just create problems which will hinder your painting.

Venice Santa Maria Della Salute Plein Air watercolor painting
Venice Santa Maria Della Salute, plein air watercolor painting

Finishing in the studio

Sometimes you may run out of time (daylight) while painting plein air, or the weather could interrupt before you can finish, or maybe you are aware something isn’t quite done in your painting. In these cases and many others, remember that you can leave it until you are back in your studio where you have time and a more controlled environment to finish it off. The painting above, fig 4, was mostly finished on site but as I painted it in the last 30 minutes of sunlight I had to leave off placing the gondola until I was back at home.


When you paint plein air, you may not always produce great work. Though some of my best and certainly most enjoyable work has been done out doors, one should not feel every painting has to be a winner.  The important thing is to be out there observing and absorbing the real world while you paint.

I did a painting in Venice last year and while I was painting there was some beautiful music coming from one of the windows on the canal, a local art teacher came up to me and we talked about painting and paper quality.  He had very poor English and I had even worse Italian but we still enjoyed each others company. I also had a broken English chat with a lady from one of the Eastern European countries.  All the while I kept working on my painting. It also started to drizzle once or twice! I had a wonderful time and even though the painting was a bit overworked (the drizzle was a contributor here) it was still one of my most enjoyable moments in Venice which will remain with me forever.

Watercolor Plein Air Step 3

Spray Bottle

I keep a spray bottle handy.  It has a very fine mist (it was used to spray anti static spray on clothing before I appropriated it for my watercolour work) and I use it to keep my painting wet. If you spray while the paper still has a shine on it you will not disturb the paint and it will allow you to keep working longer.  It takes a little practice and observation to get this right, so I suggest you practice using the spray bottle in your home or studio before you use it outdoors.

Venice Near Rialto Bridge Plein Air watercolor painting May 2010-2
Venice Near Rialto Bridge Plein Air watercolor painting May 2010-2

Mix lots of paint in a decent sized Palette

I have a nice metal folding palette that has large mixing areas when it is open.  I make sure I mix more than enough paint to cover an area without me having to mix any more. This gives me a lot more time to work on my painting. I will write more on my watercolor painting kit in another article coming soon.

Watercolor Brush Size

I use the biggest brush size suitable for the area I am painting (see my article on the watercolour progression chart for more information about brush size).  This lets me paint very quickly which further reduces the chances of an area drying before I want it to.

I also use round brushes with a very good point. These let me continue to use larger brushes for longer i.e. because my brushes have a nice point on them I can use the same brush for large broad areas as well as smaller detailed ones.  This means I spend less time having to change brushes while painting a particular passage.

Paper Size

For you first attempts work on paper which is smaller than you normally use when painting the studio.  It will not take too long for you to be able to increase painting size, if you like, but at the start, smaller will be easier.

Continue to: Watercolor Plein Air Step 4

How to paint plein air with watercolors

Plan your watercolor painting

I start by developing a good design and an idea of how I am going to progress with my painting.  This is achieved during the drawing stage.

Time of Day

Now I try and get my paintings done in the early hours of the day and late in the afternoon.  If I have to paint in the middle of the day I make sure I have some shade to work under either natural or by using an umbrella.

Crookhaven Heads, early morning plein air painting
Crookhaven Heads, early morning plein air painting

Minimise Atmospheric Problems

I try to stay out of the wind. This is not always possible however, especially if you have limited time at a location that you really want to paint. The two Venice paintings here were done in quite a stiff breeze but as it was very late in the day and not too warm I got away with it.

I may also spray my paper lightly with water to give me a little more time before it dries. I have to allow for this in my paint mixes however as the extra water on my paper will further dilute my paint.

Continue to: Watercolor Plein Air Step 3