Watercolor is a tempestuous, beautiful, frustrating, and amazingly unpredictable medium. I started painting to help me engage with, see, and connect to the beautiful places I visited on outdoor adventures. Whenever I can, I bring my watercolors outside on hikes and climbs to capture how a place feels while I am still there. The most common questions I get regard my minimal materials, and how to make watercolor cooperate (spoiler- they won't, but learning to work with that unpredictability is, in my experience, one of the most rewarding parts of the medium.
Below you will find a collection of resources that I use to create and learn about painting. I believe that art is a continual process of experimentation, and hope these ideas will help you get started or inspire you to try something new.
I dedicate a great deal of time to researching materials, gear, tools, and where to find the best prices on the materials I depend on. There are links throughout the page, and I want to share up front that I participate in two affiliate programs (Amazon Associations Program and Blick affiliates). While I do receive a very small monetary commission if you use the links, I chose my sources carefully, and recommend each of the products or books below solely on the merits of the materials and my experiences using them.
This book clearly and simply outlines the basics of watercolor and some really interesting techniques grounded in the works of the masters like JMW Turner. This book challenged me to see watercolor in a new and more abstract light, and I keep it close to my studio table for reference.
The best book investment I made in the last five years. Jeanne clearly and cleverly breaks down the complexity of color within the watercolor medium. After reading her book and working through the exercises, I not only felt more comfortable with my palette of colors, but also could see a noticeable difference in the paintings.
Recommended by one of my mentors, this book sits beside my studio table for regular reference in the middle of a painting. What I love most about this book is the quality of the instruction, the useful techniques, and the ways Hoffman describes his thought process behind a painting.
Another great resource, but not as focused on landscapes. If you are looking to learn more urban scenery this is a great place to start.
And for some non-technique inspiration:
- I love Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder (a short, beautiful, and poignant book about the importance of rediscovering our childlike sense of wonder at the world).
- Northwest Trees illustrated by Ramona Hammerly is the most gorgeous guidebook I have ever seen. Her drawings of trees are simply stunning, and studying her images is how I taught myself to draw trees.
- A Guide for the Perplexed by E.F. Schumacher. A treatise on environmental ethics, human potential, philosophy, and connection to ourselves, others, and nature. I read it six years ago, and it sits front and center on my shelf of favorite books.
- Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. My Dad gave me this book for Christmas, and it literally sits on top of my desk for inspiration. This book applies the same strategies designers use to solve problems in their work to the biggest problem; making a good life. Highly recommended, as it was a huge help to me in my discernment process.
I am a firm believer in the importance of investing in high quality materials. I built up my collection of paints and brushes slowly, waiting until the supplies I wanted went on sale (which is also a great tactic for buying paper too).
I love my Daniel Smith brand watercolors. They are incredibly highly pigmented and all have unique personalities. I started with four tubes of primary colors, and built up to my current 20 tubes. Paints are one area I will never go for a cheaper option; a little bit goes a long way, and I think it is important to practice with the materials I will use for finished pieces, even if it means I have to buy a little more paint. Used carefully, the 15 ml tubes have lasted me years.
Some of my perennial favorites include (all are Daniel Smith Brand):
- Neutral Tint. This is the grey color I use in all of my monochromatic grey paintings.
- Cobalt Blue. Non-granulating and the perfect shade for lovely blue skies. This color also blends nicely with warm and cool tones.
- Cerulean Blue Chromium. This color does granulate, and creates really cool patterns in the sky.
- Phthalo Blue (green shade). A cool blue and a little bit goes a very long way. I use this color a lot, but in very very small amounts.
- Quinacridone Gold. The base color for most of my yellow-tinted sunsets or skies, this warm yellow creates lovely glazes and also plays nice with other colors. I use it a lot to make my own green colors.
- Phthalo Green (blue shade). The only green in my palette. Used sparingly it saves me time (I don't have to mix as much green).
- Quinacridone Rose. Beautiful pink on it's own, but used most often with other colors. It makes amazing purples and is often an underlying color in southwest landscapes.
- Indian Red. A go-to for deserts, this opaque color is harder to control but can add a great depth and matte areas of shadow.
- Carbazole violet. I use this color most often in shadows, in be forewarned, it dries darker and duller than it looks wet. It is not a super vibrant purple, which I find useful in making more natural looking landscapes.
I admit, I am a bit of a paper snob. For finished pieces, I always use a 100% cotton rag paper (when creating concept sketches I will use cheap tree-based paper). The paper I use the most is Arches 300lb hot press. Explaining paper types would need a whole paper on its own, but long story short I use hot press paper because it scans really well, and I have come to enjoy the unpredictability of the smooth surface. Some say that hot press is harder to use, but I like the smooth surface and staining properties. I also use either side of the paper depending on what level of absorbency and patterning I want. While expensive, high quality paper makes a huge difference in the look of my finished paintings (and in their longevity).
Favorite papers right now:
- Canson Moulin Du Roy Cold Press 140 lb - my go-to paper for almost all paintings
- Canson Moulin Du Roy Cold Press 300lb - more expensive because it is double the thickness, but worth it for big paintings and paintings I use a lot of water on
- Arches Hot Press 300lb (Bright White) a second option for a thicker paper with a very very smooth surface
Unlike paper and paint, I have an odd assortment of brushes that I replace relatively often. I did not invest in expensive sable brushes because mine are put through the wringer in the field with me. They have to be able to survive my backpack, being dropped in the dirt, rolling down the occasional small cliff, and being stuffed in a plastic bag wet. For this reason, I use primarily synthetic brushes.
My go-to every day brushes are a Grumbacher Goldenedge round 10, a Princeton Elite Round 12, and a flat brush. I create 99% of a painting using the rounds, and very rarely use a smaller brush (to prevent getting lost in the details).
My favorite flat brushes are a Daniel Smith 3/4in flat that I have had for 10 years, and two Nara Hake Paragon Sumi ink brushes. These two are the best kept secret- they work amazingly well, hold paint beautifully, and cost much less than natural hair watercolor brushes. I had to buy these brushes from Daniel Smith.
Field Painting Supplies
When backpacking, every ounce counts. This has led me to create a very streamlined and portable watercolor kit.
The lightweight kit always includes:
- Two Art Toolkit Pocket Palettes (created by artist Maria Coryell-Martin) filled with Daniel Smith brand paints
- An old mint tin to hold water
- One blue shop towel (light, and they last forever)
- Watercolor paper (a mix of sizes precut in 300lb paper)
- Pencil and small eraser (usually a chunk cut out of a bigger one)
- An assortment of brushes (usually a round and a flat)
- Prismacolor pens (#3 and #8)
I hope this information is helpful! If you have any more questions, feel free to reach out.