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Watercolor Gear

Paraty_Sketching_Snaps (3)


I use 22×30″ sheets of artist grade 140lb cold press paper that I cut down into 1/2, 1/4 or 1/6 sheets for field work. I usually order in bulk (10 or 25 sheet packs). You can paint on both sides.

Arches 140lb cotton-rag paper is a high quality choice. Fabriano Artistico is a good balance between price and quality. Look for cold press (medium) texture. This is the ‘normal’ texture. Smooth enough to get a nice drawing, yet rough enough do some dry brushing.

Students might like to practice mid-grade machine made paper in pre-cut pads.  I like Canson Montval  pads. These are fine for beginners.

There’s also blocks. (Pads gummed on all four sides – no taping required), which I personally *do not* use anymore. They’re too heavy (you carry 20 sheets to use one) Plus they can pop off the backing board if you are harsh on them – and that’s a waste of an expensive block.

Gear_Easel (2)


I use pieces of Coroplast – a light weight corrugated plastic cut just a bit larger than my paper size. You can get 4×8′ Coroplast sheets from hardware stores and cut it down, or get ready cut sizes from art supply shops at a higher per inch price. One downside to note – Coroplast will flex if left out in the hot sun while painting – which can cause your tape to pop off, so I usually have at least three boards clamped in a sandwich with bulldog clips.  You could invest in a umbrella for your easel, but it’s one more thing to carry.


I like Windsor and Newton, but have been known to use Holbein, Daniel Smith and M. Graham depending on what is in stock at my local shop. The color you want is more important than the brand – as long as you buy artist quality paints. You will get to know over time which exactly you prefer (I like the shade of W&N Cerulean better than DS for instance). Avoid student grade brands which have less pigment strength and more fugitive colors. I use tube colors because I like to put down a lot of pigment and allow it to float on the page. If you don’t paint that often tube colorcan dry rock-hard in the pan and flake out of your palette. Thus, some people use semi-moist half pans – they are formulated to re-wet, However, painting with pans is a bit of ‘thinner’ washy experience.

I am working these days with a new color palette that has some odd colors, so I don’t recommend it for everyone. If you’re curious/advanced/willing to buy paint just to try it you can find it here.

When I was a student, I was taught to organize my pigments into a standard ‘split complementary’ setup. These are pairs of warm and cool shades of each primary color. (Red, Yellow, Blue). Like this:

  • Alizarin Crimson / Cadmium Red Light
  • Yellow Ocher (or Raw Sienna) / Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Ultramarine Blue / Cerulean Blue

Then I include a set of darks I use to make mixed blacks:

  • Burnt Sienna (my ‘dark red’)
  • Prussian Blue
  • Perylene Green

Add to this some secondaries. These are intermediate mixes that save time. You don’t really need them, they’re just for convenience.

  • Sap Green (used for grass and foliage)
  • Cadmium Yellow Orange
  • Cobalt Violet Light

It is useful to have White Gouache and perhaps an Ivory Black Gouache. You can mix gouache with watercolor to make ‘body color’ – opaque pigments that can bring back lights, or push darks on top of dried washes. Some people claim this is not ‘traditional’ watercolor technique, but John Singer Sargent did it, so that is good enough for me.

PALETTE:New Layout

Curent Pallette_Aug17_2015

You’ll need a folding palette with sloped wells. Plastic is fine, but they break annually. Some nicer brands have a rubber seal to keep the paint damp between sessions. These still break. So tin is better, but they’re expensive. Currently I’m using I have in the past used a 2.5×3″ bijou box from W&N. The small box is shy on mixing space, but it’s really nice for working standing, clipped onto the drawing board. Currently I’m using a slightly larger 5″x8″ (open) folding W&N box – shown here. My paint box came with assorted half pan colors – you can get the same box empty from Lukas.


SABLES: I’ve recently (mid 2014) switched from synthetic to sable. I use pointed rounds and have a few ‘large’ sizes that I use on smaller paintings (1/2 to 1/4 sheet sizes). Any of these are actually very similar in size: #14 Escoda, and #12 Winsor and Newton Artist Watercolor Sable or #3 DaVinci Artissimo. On a small work I’ll jump right down to a #1 and 2  W&N Series Seven Sable for the fine details. On a larger work, I’ll use a #4-6 for some smaller work. I like the Series Seven in the long hair (almost a rigger) version if you can find them. The superior sharp point and larger water-loading capacity of a sable lets you do a lot of work with one or two sizes. I do have a few sizes in between (#5,7,8,10). But I do most of the work with the big #12/14 brush – then step down to the #1/2 for details.  I have not invested in a sable larger than #14 – the price does jump considerably.

SYNTHETICS: If you want to stay with more affordable synthetics, I have tried Princton Neptune brushes, and like them quite a bit. UPDATE: I am just now using a new fiber by Raphael called Soft Aqua. They claim it is engineered to hold more water than a normal synthetic (the fiber is spiraled, rather than smooth like a nylon strand). They come in synthetic squirrel brushes that are working very well for me. Can’t say how long the points will last, as they are new to me – done about 8 paintings with them, and they perform very well for the price.

OTHER BRUSHES: I’m also enjoying a Princeton Neptune Series 4750 Dagger Brush. This kind of brush has long fibers in a curved shape, a bit like a steak knife. You can get some interesting thick-to-thin brush work. I like it for foliage and choppy water in particular. This kind of brush puts you a bit out of control, but can give you nice effects when you finally get used to it.

Recently I’m also trying out a Princeton Neptune Series 4750 Oval Wash which is good for larger areas – skies or large foregrounds of grass or water.

13Nov29_MHolmes_GearShots (3)



I don’t always use an easel. Much of the time I’m just carrying my Coroplast panels and working ‘hand held’. But an easel helps you have your work up at eye level – near your natural sight line, and lets you keep all your brushes and paints in easy reach.

I’m currently using a collapsible Sirui T-005X 54.5″ Aluminum Tripod (13″ when folded down), paired with a plastic tray called an: Eric Michaels En Plein Air Traveller.

You might also find accessory trays marketed to digital photographers – look for laptop supports or tablet holders. For smaller works I’m using an iPad holder, inserting a drawing board in the clamp meant for the device. If you’re handy with tools, you might make your own. The threaded female screw your need to connect to the camera mount is called a ‘tee-nut’.


Sometimes I just clip a travel palette right onto the Coroplast boards, so I can pick the whole thing up and walk around with it on location. You can use a single Coroplast panel, or two or three clipped together as shown above.  Or, clip an entire sketchbook onto the boards, as below:



  • Leak proof water containers from Nalgene. Found at camping supply stores. Water is heavy, so I just bring three or four 60 ml bottles. I use smaller bottles, so I can swap to a clean bottle when the water gets grey.
  • A mechanical pencil. Please not a wooden pencil, regardless of what you may have been told about the evils of mechanical pencils. You will dirty your painting with too much graphite.
  • A kneaded rubber eraser. Not a white art eraser – or god forbid a students pink eraser – these are too hard on the paper surface.
  • A zippered nylon bush case is a great optional idea.
  • A small misting spray bottle to dampen your pigments in the palette. Or the paper for wet-in-wet.
  • Masking tape, NOT low tack painters tape.
  • Paper towels for lifting mistakes, removing excess water from brushes.
16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2015 1:00 PM

    I am looking at the Sirui tripod, but was curious about the mobikity of its ball head. Do you get good 360 pan and tilt movement? From the pics it seems so. My current tripod has some limitations, and it can be complicated when I need to tilt the board in various directions while doing washes. The sirui seems to offer this. Also, does it have a quick release?

    Seems like a wonderful Plein air tripod. Thanks!

    • April 27, 2015 6:26 PM

      It has good movement in 360 – except that you have to twist a small knob to do so, so you have to reach under the drawing board where you can’t see. But it’s not a big deal. It does not have a quick release – but it has a ‘foot’ you screw to the drawing board, and then you slot the foot into the jaws and tighten. So, again, a little knob, not a instant click. But – there you go, it’s the trade off for price I expect.

  2. July 9, 2015 3:09 AM

    Marc, what bag do you carry your get in. I saw you in a photo with Liz Steel and you appeared to have some type of sling bag on. Could you tell me what brand it is?

    I took your craftsy class and love it. Wish you could do one of just sketching and painting too.

    • July 10, 2015 9:59 AM

      Hey Cynthia – glad you’re enjoying the class! Re bags: I have a set of small courier bags from a quebec company – here’s a post:

    • July 10, 2015 10:00 AM

      There is also my large painting bag:

  3. Barbara Chandler permalink
    August 21, 2015 8:53 PM

    Your art is wonderful. Please add me to your blog mailing list. Thanks.

  4. Barbara Chandler permalink
    August 21, 2015 9:25 PM

    Where can one find a Winsor&Newton TIN watercolor box like you use? I can only find plastic ones. Thanks.

    • August 21, 2015 9:48 PM

      Hye Barbara – Here’s a Windsor and Newton set on Amazon. Some retailers sell the sets empty like This One. I got mine in a local store (Avenue Des Arts on Victoria) – but Amazon is always the option if you can’t find in locally.

      • Barbara Chandler permalink
        August 21, 2015 9:53 PM

        Thanks so much for the info and you speedy reply!


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