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 Sheet (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.
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 don’t work that large personally (yet!).
I usually order in bulk (10 sheet packs) for a better price. You can paint on both sides. So a pack lasts a long while.
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, with a tendency towards harder edges. There’s also rough and extra rough texture paper, which I have not gotten around to trying. All brands will vary slightly in texture and degree of absorbency.
Students might like to practice on mid-grade cellulose paper paper (as opposed to more costly cotton fiber) available 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’re hauling them around, and that’s a waste of an expensive block.
- Fabriano Artistico 140lb, Cold Press Extra White, 22×30″, 10-Sheet Pack
- Fabriano Studio (Student Grade), 140lb, Cold Press, 22×30″, 10-Sheet Pack
- Arches 140 lb Cold Press, Bright White, 22×30″, 5-Sheet Pack
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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 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). I will carry about six sheets on a day trip. That’s normally enough for a day.
If I’m feeling like travelling lighter I use 11×14″ boards, which I like for 9×12″ or smaller. 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.
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 to six boards clamped in a sandwich with bulldog clips to offset this flexing. This also gives me enough pre-taped paper for a whole day of work.
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 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 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: Sept 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).
My Color Choices:
I’ve organized my 24 color paint box, into two sides. 12 warm in one side, 9 cool on the other. Note: DS (Daniel Smith), WN (Winsor Newton), MG (M.Graham), HW (Holbein Watercolor)
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 the same pigments. In case of pigments such as Bloodstone Genuine – no numbers required – ‘Genuine’ means these are simply ground rock with gum arabic binder and maybe something to make it disperse.
Some of my pigments are odd choices.
like to work quickly, use a lot of paint, and mix on the paper not on the palette (in general), thus my palette isn’t focused on the ‘pure’ single pigment colors that many transparent watercolorists prefer. I like the convenience of mixes such as Green Gold or Moon Glow. It’s true you can just bring clean clear colors and mix these same colors – but I don’t want to slow down to tinker. Plus I like a small palette for field work – which means not much mixing area.
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 for landscape. Yet, I prefer no sediment in the blue/greens – as they tend to be for water and skies where granulation is less desirable.
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. So tubes are, in general, more juicy.
If you don’t paint that often, tube color can dry rock-hard in the pan, causing them to release weak, stingy color. Thus, some people prefer ready made semi-moist half pans which are formulated to re-wet, no matter how old they are. (Within reason).
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’ll get to know over time which exactly you prefer.
Also, raw pigment sources change over time, so a well loved brand name can change their nature 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, Mop (Mops 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 on the brush, so you just have to compare. The long hair is almost a rigger in length. 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 1/4 sheet or smaller.
For special effects and larger skies/water/feilds I have:
- #5 DaVinci Series 803 Blue Squirrel Oval Wash/Filbert/Cat’s Tongue (whatever this is, it’s a spade-shaped flat).
- I bring some W&N Artist Watercolor Sable’s that have gotten old – which I bring for scrubbing and drybrushing.
- A have a brush I don’t really use, (but am carrying around in the hopes I will find a situation to experiment): #10 DaVinci Reservoir brush (Series 5519) which has as a sable point and a squirrel base. It’s like a rigger, with a fat base that holds water. Sort of a pen nib concept for drawing with the brush.
- I used to carry a #1 W&N Series7 (very tiny) pointed round on the mistaken theory I might need to make tiny nit-picky fixes to something. The reality is, a well cared for #7 Pointed Round can make as fine a line as you will ever need.
I don’t really use synthetics any more – but they were good enough for many years. They’re perfectly fine for training your brushwork, and are getting better every year.
If you go for synthetic, rather than sable, you’ll probably need some smaller brushes as they won’t anywhere near as fine a point as a sable. So they force you to go to small brushes for the little finishing details.
I am just now trying a new synthetic fiber by Raphael called Soft Aqua. They claim it is micro-engineered to hold more water. They come in wire bound mops 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.
Honestly, I don’t use these any more, but if you are trying to build a minimal kit for everyday carry, these are the ultimate answer. They’re 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.
I recommend the Da Vinci Maestro Series 1503 (sable) – or if you can’t justify the expense (no bargains here!), there is the Da Vinci Cosmotop Spin (synthetic fiber) – but honestly, they’re not a great synthetic as synthetic goes. They still use the old-style smooth nylon, not the new higher tech synthetic fibers.
Personally, these days, I carry brushes in a zippered brush case. But for years I had a travel brush in my shoulder bag everywhere I went.
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 on a serious painting day.
I don’t bother carrying it if I’m only dong 20 min sketches. In that case I’ll just use my Coroplast drawing boards and work standing up, or on whatever convenient temporary support I can find. (Trash bins work great!).
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 you need to connect to the camera mount is called a ‘tee-nut’. They’re only a few cents – allowing you to create a panel that attaches to any standard camera gear. (I have never done this – I am not handy with tools).
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 125ml 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.