Current Update : April 12, 2016 | This page is about painting on location in watercolor. If you’re looking for a supplies list for sketchbook drawing check over here: Sketching Gear.
I mostly use “full sheets” (22×30″) artist grade 140lb cold press paper with cotton fiber content. I cut that down into 1/2, 1/4 or 1/6 sheets for field work.
I usually order in bulk (5 or 10 sheet packs) for a better price. You can paint on both sides. So a pack lasts a long while.
You can also get paper on long rolls, or in larger cut formats. Full Sheet is not the largest size oddly enough. Larger sizes have old fashioned names like ‘Double Elephant’ (30×40″) or ‘Emperor’ (40×60″). I have never tried these – that’s way to big to be storing on my studio shelves!
I use for cold press (medium) texture. This is the ‘normal’ texture. Smooth enough to get a nice drawing, yet rough enough do some dry brushing.
Hot press is the smooth finish, which is nice if you’re doing pen and ink with wash, but will give a more graphic look to the image, with a tendency towards harder edges.
There is also rough and extra rough texture paper, which I have not gotten around to trying personally. Plus! All brands will vary slightly in texture and even size.
Students might like to practice on mid-grade cellulose paper paper in pre-cut pads. These are fine for beginners or for rapid sketching. (Canson Montval is an excellent brand).
There’s also blocks. (Pads gummed on all four sides – no taping to a board required), which I personally *do not* use. 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.
- Arches 140 lb Cold Press, Bright White, 22×30″, 5-Sheet Pack
- Fabriano Artistico 140lb, Cold Press Extra White, 22×30″, 10-Sheet Pack
- Fabriano Studio (Student Grade), 140lb, Cold Press, 22×30″, 10-Sheet Pack
PLEASE NOTE: I don’t endorse any particular online vendor. These pages use Amazon Affiliate links for product descriptions. If you do order an item from these links, I get a small rebate from Amazon (starting at 4% of your order). So thanks for supporting my work on CitizenSketcher! But please feel free to support your local retailers too :)
I use pieces of Coroplast – a light weight corrugated plastic. You can get 4×8′ sheets from hardware stores and cut it down with a craft knife or razor blade. Or – get ready cut sizes from art supply shops at a higher square inch price.
I use a variety of sizes, most commonly used: 14×18″, to fit a 11×15″ quarter sheet (or a 12×16″ pad). Quarter sheet – as in 1/4 of a 22×30″ full sheet of watercolor paper – is a practical size for travel. Easy enough to carry – but not so small you feel cramped painting. I happen to have a perfect bag for this size (review of the Timbuk2 Especial).
But – If I’m feeling like travelling lighter I use 11×14″ boards, which I like for 9×12″ sheets. For which I also have a perfect sized bag.
I do have some 18×24″ boards for half sheets (or 16×20″ pads) – but I don’t take those into the field very often. That’s getting a bit big for carrying around – they tend to get used for life drawing, or the rare impulse to do a huge panoramic drawing.
A downside to note – Coroplast will flex if you’re standing in hot sunlight while painting, which can cause your tape to pop off. I usually have at three – six boards clamped in a sandwich with bulldog clips to offset this flexing.
This is also how I carry enough pre-taped paper for a whole day of work. A friend suggests cutting the grain of the board in opposing directions – one lengthwise, one height wise, and your stack will be even more resistant to flex.
Or – you could just stay in the shade :)
You’ll need a folding palette with individual wells for colors. Plastic is fine, but they break annually. Some nicer brands have a rubber seal to keep the paint damp between sessions. These still break. The plastic hinges just don’t last.
So tin boxes are better, but they’re expensive. I have in the past used a 2.5×3″ W&N Bijou Box – as it was once called – which I found by chance in a high end art shop here in Montreal.
The small box is shy on mixing space, but it’s so light it can be clipped right onto the drawing board or sketchbook. Currently I’m using a slightly larger 5″x8″ (open) folding W&N paint box, shown below.
My W&N set came with assorted half pan colors, which I have long since re-filled with tube pigments. You can buy empty half pans to expand and reorganize your color choices.
Here are some tin paintboxes on Amazon I found as of Sept 2015. Please note, I don’t know anything about these vendors and don’t own these kits (yet), these links are just to help you see the products.
- Small 2.5×3.5″ paintbox, 8 half pans, (12 if modified), 2 tiny mixing areas
- Medium 3×5″ paintbox, 12 half pans ( 24 if modified), 3 mixing areas
- Large 3×6″, holds 24 half pans properly, 4 mixing areas”
- Empty Half Pan Refills
- “Blue Tack” reusable adhesive I use to stick in extra pans
A small warning to people trying my palette! I change my color choices fairly often :)
Just to experiment, or to adapt to the location I’m headed to, or just for fun. Also, credit where credit is due, I get a lot of my advice from Jane Blundell and Bruce MacEvoy, as well as all the talk in Urban Sketchers circles online.
I’ll keep this area updated so you can see what I’m using at the moment. (Latest update: April 12, 2016).
(Please note: Raw beginners may wish to ignore the following, and try the basic Split Primary setup listed at the very bottom of this page).
Current Color Choices:
I’ve organized my 24 color paint box, into two sides. 12 warm in one side, 9 cool on the other + three greys. Note: DS (Daniel Smith), WN (Winsor Newton), MG (M.Graham), HW (Holbein Watercolor).
Here’s the pigments, listed by row.
- DS Indigo PB60/PBk6 | WN French Ultramarine PB29 | DS Manganese Blue Hue PB15
- MG Turqoise PB15:3/PG 7 | WN Viridian Green PG 18 | HW Grey of Grey PBk6/PW6
- DS Perylene Green PBk31 | WN Sap Green PG36/PY110 | DS Green Gold PY150/PY3/PG36
- DS Bloodstone Genuine | MG Neutral Tint PV19/PG7 | HW Davy’s Grey PBr7/PBk6/PW6
- DS Nickel Titanate Yellow PY53 | DS Buff Titanium PW 6:1 | DS Naples Yellow PW4/PY97/PP101 |
- DS Goethite (Brown Ocher) PY43 | DS Quinacridone Gold Deep PO48/PY150 | MG Transparent Red Iron Oxide PR101
- DS Pyrrol Orange PO70 | WN Cadmium Red PR108 | DS Perylene Maroon PR179
- DS Quinacridone Rose PV19 | DS Raw Umber Violet PBr7/PV19 | DS Moonglow PG18/PB29/PR177
I’ve listed the colors with pigment numbers – which should help you shop cross brands. Look for number codes, not names – names like Indian Red vs. Red Oxide are just brand marketing for the same pigments. In case of pure minerals such as Bloodsone Genuine – no numbers required, as these are simply ground rock with gum arabic binder.
Some of my pigments are odd choices. Purist watercolorists might disagree with my taste :) I like intense colors such as Pyrrol Orange or the Perlyne colors, which can be overly strong if you’re not cautious.
Also I find sedimentary, granulating earth colors like Goethite/Brown Ocher and Bloodstone Genuine handy. Yet, I prefer no sediment in the blue/greens – as they tend to be for water and skies where granulation is less desirable.
I also have some very opaque-ish colors (Buff Titanium, Davy’s Grey) – which I find suit my alla prima / field sketching approach. I like to use a lot of paint, and work quickly, and mix on the paper, not on the palette (in general).
Tube vs. Pan:
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 color can dry rock-hard in the pan making it hard to release color. Thus, some people use semi-moist half pans which are formulated to re-wet no matter how old they are.
However, painting with pans is a bit of thinner, washy-er experience. You can’t pick up a juicy gob of paint to make a big bloom on the page. In short – tubes vs. pans depends on your style and how often you paint with a particular kit. Just *never* student grade pans. They’re just frustrating.
I use a variety of brands. Winsor and Newton, Daniel Smith, Holbien and M. Graham are all commonly available in my area.
The color you like 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. Also, raw pigment sources change over time, so a well loved brand name can change overnight.
Avoid student grade brands such a Winsor and Newton Cotman paints which have less pigment strength and more fugitive colors than their artist’s watercolors.
Gouache / Body Color:
You might also consider carrying a Titanium White Gouache (opaque watercolor). Black is useful as well. You can mix either black or white (or a grey mix of) gouache with any watercolor pigment to make ‘body color’ – opaque paint that can bring back lights on top of dried washes. Some people claim this is not ‘acceptable’ in traditional watercolor technique, but John Singer Sargent did it, so that is good enough for me.
Note: I am starting to use Grey of Grey, and Buff Titanium more and more often. These are based on white pigment, and are opaque as far as watercolors go. These might end up taking over the role of white gouache as mixers for body color.
I’ve recently (mid 2014) switched from synthetic to sable. I use pointed rounds and quills and have a few ‘large’ sizes that I use on smaller paintings (1/2 to 1/4 sheet sizes). I have not invested in a sable larger than #14 – the price does jump considerably.
My workhorse brushes right now are the:
- #3/4 DaVinci Artissimo, Quill (Quills have strange numbering. This is really almost the same size as a #14 pointed round).
- #7/8 Winsor and Newton Artist’s Watercolor Sable Pointed Round. These seem to come in long hair (my choice) and shorter hair, with no visible difference in the labeling, so you just have to compare. The long hair is almost a rigger. It’s great for sharp details and linear work (tree branches, wires, etc).
- I think you can do an entire painting with either one of these – if it’s not too large.
For special effects and larger skies/water/feilds I have:
- #5 DaVinci Series 803 Blue Squirrel Filbert/Cat’s Tongue (whatever this is, it’s a spade-shaped flat).
- A Holbein Black Medium Dagger Brush. (Not sure on the hair? Looks like squirrel but not sure).
- I bring some W&N Artist Watercolor Sable’s that have gotten old – which I bring for scrubbing and drybrushing.
- #10 DaVinci Reservoir brush (Series 5519) that I just bought and am dying to try out. This is for linear type work – drawing with the brush. It’s like a rigger, with a fat base that holds water. Sort of a pen nib concept for brushes.
- #1 W&N Series7 pointed round that I will probably never use, but have in case I think I need tiny tiny details. It’s still in the little plastic point guard.
I don’t really use synthetics any more – but they were good enough for many years. They’re perfectly fine for learning on, and are getting better every year.
If you go for synthetic, rather than sable, you might want to go with one more smaller brush – as they won’t anywhere near as fine a point. I would bring a #1 or 2 for detail, and a go with a #4-6 for the alternative to my #7-8 W&N Artist’s Sable Pointed Round.
I am just now trying a new synthetic fiber by Raphael called Soft Aqua. They claim it is engineered to hold more water. The fiber is spiraled, rather than smooth like a nylon strand. They come in quill’s that are working very well for me as a cheap alternate to the DaVinci Artissimo.
Can’t say how long the points will last, as they are new to me in 2015. Update: The points lasted about a year of use. They’re pretty blunt now so I’ve downgraded my set to use with India Ink. (Which is harsh on nice brushes).
I’ve also used Princeton Neptune synthetics, and found them decent enough for the price.
A travel brush has a hollow handle that reverses to enclose the brush when it’s tossed into your bag.
These are the most reliable travel brushes I’ve found. Other brands have cheap enclosures that get crushed over time, slip off the brush, or bend back the brush hairs.
Honestly, I don’t use these any more, I carry brushes in a brush case – but for years I had a travel brush in my shoulder bag everywhere I went, and found it ideal for packing light.
I don’t always use an easel. This is the most optional part of the kit. It adds a lot of weight, so I’ll only bring it if I’m going to paint all day.
If I’m walking around and sketching, I’ll just use my Coroplast panels and work ‘hand held’. (Shown below). But if you’re doing a slower sketch, where you might be taking an hour or more, an easel helps you keep 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 (12″ when folded down), paired with a plastic tray called an: Eric Michaels En Plein Air Traveller, which is designed to attach to the threaded screw that holds the camera.
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 tray. 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:
GENERAL PURPOSE STUFF:
- Nalgene Bottles: I bring three or four 60 ml bottles. I don’t carry too much water (it’s heavy!) so I bring many smaller bottles instead of one large one. It’s lighter over all, and I only dirty one bottle at time.Refill water every chance you get. (e.g. lunch breaks).I get these at camping supply stores.
- Zippered Nylon Bush Case: The kind with little slots for each brush. Keep your sables point’s protected. Store it upright in your bag.
- A Misting Spray Bottle: To dampen your paints in the palette. It gets them ready to release color.I mist my paints frequently when working unless it’s 100% humidity wherever I am.
- Paper towels: For quickly blotting mistakes, removing excess water from brushes, handling spills.
THE SPLIT COMPLEMENTARY PALETTE:
I’m keeping this advice that follows below for reference – even though I do not use this color selection anymore.
I still recommend it for people who want to learn color mixing the proper way before branching out into more personal color choices.
When I was a student, I was taught to organize my pigments into a split complementary palette.
These are pairs of warm and cool shades of each primary color. (Red, Yellow, Blue).
By staring with these pairs you can easily bias a color towards warm or cool by juggling the proportion of each – and easily neutralize by cross mixing with the complementary color.
- Alizarin Crimson / Cadmium Red Light : (Warm/Cool Red)
- Yellow Ocher (or Raw Sienna) / Cadmium Yellow Light : (Warm/Cool Yellow)
- Ultramarine Blue / Cerulean Blue : (Warm/Cool Blue)
That (above) is all you really need. But you can add to this some secondaries that you can cross mix with the opposing pairs. These are for convenience only – you *can* mix any secondary from a primary pair.
- Sap Green
- Cadmium Orange
- Cobalt Violet