You have, or have in your cart, the items from the TL;DR watercolor starter kit, and you have a little more money burning a hole in your pocket. Or maybe you’re gift shopping for a watercolor student or hobbyist who already has the basics. What other optional items might not be bare minimum necessary for starting with watercolor, but might make the hobby a little more fun, convenient, or luxurious? Here are my recommendations.
Adding these items will help you explore new methods and open up new options.
- Love it or hate it, masking fluid is the #1 most recommended way to preserve white shapes against a dark background. If, like me, you’re bothered by the smell, consider getting extra-wide masking tape to cut shapes out of.
- A water brush is a cool alternative to traditional brushes if you paint outside – you store the water in the brush, so you don’t need to bring unwieldy water cups into the field!
- Sea sponges can be a cool way to put down tree foliage and other random shapes quickly.
- Try wax resist with uncolored wax birthday candles.
- Salt makes cool effects in watercolor, and I have found the best effects from kosher/rock salt. Your results will vary, and different paints react differently.
These items will help you do common tasks faster or easier.
- Heat tool to help dry watercolor faster, if you’re too impatient to wait for layers to dry! Many people already have such a tool in their home: a hair dryer. You can also get an embossing heat gun from an art supply store, which is more compact and can be faster.
- Small spray bottle to mist your paints and activate them before use. This saves wear-on-tear to your brushes. (You could also try using it for fun effects by spraying your paintings!) Any small, empty spray bottle will do; they can be found at drugstores in the personal care section, or you can repurpose an old bottle from something like room spray. Of course, art supply stores have them too; you could get them from Derwent, Holbein, or this ultra-tiny Pocket Mister.
Upgrading Your Kit
These items are just nice upgrades if what you’re using now is sort of makeshift.
- A ceramic mixing well. Palette tins often have a mixing surface inside, and many people start with plastic mixing cups, but the best mixing surface is ceramic. I used an old plate for a while, then I moved onto a flower-shaped well, and finally, needing more space, an enamel-lined metal butcher tray. I found the lack of divisions in the butcher tray chaotic but many people prefer it. Personally, I’m now using beautiful and functional mixing trays from small ceramics companies like Sylvan Clayworks and Sugarhouse Ceramics.
- A brush rest for keeping the tip of your wet brush off your desk when you set it down. I got ceramic ones from Sesame Blue Studio on Etsy.
- You can also upgrade your water cup to one with a brush rest built into the top (although honestly I prefer to use mason jars because that way I can quickly see which is my clean and which is my dirty water.)
- A brush wiping cloth is a reusable, eco-friendly alternative to disposable paper towels. You could repurpose an old washcloth. Etsy makers like HerArtsAndCrafts and ArrayedInGrace make cute ones with terry on one side and a fun color on the other, and generally these are more compact than a fluffy washcloth (which can matter for travel or a plein air kit). Another option I recently learned about: Japanese gauze pile handkerchiefs, meant for wiping sweat off your brow, are made to be thin yet very absorbent.
- Brush soap isn’t necessary everyday, since rinsing is sufficient, but can be a nice occasional (monthly?) routine.
If you find you often sketch your image before you paint (or you want to), these supplies can help:
- I use a 2mm lead holder as a pencil (I find a larger, blunter pencil point is less prone to emboss the paper and I don’t need a ton of precision), but a regular ol’ #2 wooden pencil works fine. Ordinary HB lead really is ideal – not too hard and embossy, not too soft and smudgy.
- A kneadable eraser is gentler on the paper than most.
- A small ruler can help with horizon lines and perspective.
- If you want to add ink to your sketch, try waterproof felt-tip pens like Micron Pens, Copic Multiliners, or the Sharpie Art Pen.
- Or try waterproof brush pens, like the Zebra Disposable Brush Pen or Tombow Fudenosuke, for a more variable line size.
- Or go down the fountain pen rabbit hole!
The Fountain Pen Rabbit Hole
Fountain pen ink cartridges are usually not waterproof, but you can get an ink converter (some pens come with them) and fill it with waterproof ink. It sounds harder than it is (and if you know how to draw up a syringe, you’ll find it a snap). Once you’ve done that, you have a refillable pen that writes and draws like a dream with waterproof ink – you can make lovely lines and paint over them with watercolor!
- If you like bright colors, try the hard plastic Lamy Safari or the aluminum Lamy Al-Star. Get the ink converter separately for $5.
- The Pilot Metropolitan is another well-reviewed entry level pen. It comes with a basic converter, but consider upgrading the converter.
- Fill with waterproof fountain pen ink such as De Atrementis Document Ink.
Mixed Media with Colored Pencils
Other forms of media are always fun to try mixing with your watercolor. I like colored pencils because they’re great for detail and texture, and you don’t need to invest in a ton of equipment to get going.
Note that colored pencils may be wax-based (like Prismacolor) or oil-based (like Polychromos). While oil-based pencils are often praised as the best and most intensely-colored, wax-based colored pencils actually play nicer with watercolor; they act as a mild wax resist. The watercolor just glides over them. Oil-based media (including oil-based colored pencils and oil pastels) can smear and stick in your brushes.
If you get a set of colored pencils, don’t forget to get a pencil sharpener (if you don’t have one at home). A small handheld sharpener will do. The little metal ones that cost $1 near the register of the art store are usually pretty good, and you can just sharpen over the trash can if it doesn’t have a cover. If you’re using your colored pencils all the time or you get a huge set, it might be worth investing in an electric sharpener.
I love everything from Art Toolkit, most notably their compact palettes with fully configurable trays, but also the “Art Toolkit” they are named for. The kit comes with many of the items I’ve mentioned here, including a Pocket Palette, water brush, water brush refilling syringe, mini sketchbook (appropriately sized), mini spray bottle (in the larger one), waterproof felt-tip pen, and mini ruler, all in a compact zippable organizer. It’s a great “grab and go” for plein air painting, and everything is thoughtfully chosen. It’s clear it was all designed by an avid painter to be as useful as possible.
More of the Basics!
You (or your watercolor friend) can never have too much of the basics: watercolor paints, brushes, and good paper!