Erin Farnsworth Studio



Monthly Newsletter
January, 2020

Watercolor! Materials and Brands Guide
Got some holiday gift cards to spend?
This newsletter will help you make the most of your art supplies budget!
It's a New Year! I love the new year and the chance to renew my creative and productive drive. If upping your artistic game is on your 2020 list, this month's newsletter is made for you! I've put together info about the best makers of watercolor materials, and attached to this email is a downloadable PDF info sheet (with a super small file size!)--so you can save it to refer to when you're shopping! Yay! Who doesn't looove new art supplies?!
Unfortunately, I couldn't make this newsletter or the PDF contain information about other media materials (oil paint, drawing supplies, etc.). But I can do different versions in the future and talk about some other media.
Before I give you lists of good brands, let's talk about what makes a quality watercolor paint...
Watercolor: High vs. Low Quality
How do you rate quality in watercolor paints?
There are two big factors:

1. Pigment quality—Pigments in paint are the little particles that make the color itself. They are combined with fillers and binders (what makes those pigment particles stick together). In a nutshell: Watercolor paints use water-soluble binders that maintain (for the most part) transparency, and oil paints use oil-based binders to suspend the pigment particles.
So, both kinds of paint can use the same pigments, just different binders.
Pigments come from lots of different sources, but the most common are minerals. Some pigment sources are cheaper or more expensive to obtain than others, making differences in price between paint colors produced. To make a uniformly inexpensive paint, manufacturers will use sythetic pigments or fillers in their cheaper "student grade" paints--often you can tell which these are because the paint name contains the word "hue" in it.

2. Lighfastness (also called permanence). Colors with poor lightfastness are often referred to as “fugitive”. This is basically how well your paint will retain its color and value, and not fade over time. It is best to choose paints with ASTM I or II lightfastness rating. Some sythetic and some natural pigments are just more lightfast than others. You want your painting to last a long time, so it needs to have strong pigments that will stay true.
The Lightfastness Chart:
​ASTM I = Excellent Lightfastness
​ASTM II = Very Good Lightfastness
​ASTM III = Not Sufficiently Lightfast
​ASTM IV = Fugitive
Things to Avoid
Avoid very cheap, pan watercolor sets (those sold and marketed to children from companies like Prang or Crayola). Avoid sets of liquid watercolor that are $5 or less from the craft store. I would also avoid the sets sold on social media that look like paint chips with dozens of colors and a water pen with a brush tip. These cheap sets are cheap because they use inferior, inexpensive, weak pigments, and lots of binders and fillers. The end result is really watery, weak color.
Pans vs. Tubes?
This one is a little less cut-and-dried. For the most part, I would recommend good, tube watercolors. Good quality tube paints will last you a long, long time (I've had some of mine for 10 years). Pan watercolors, while the hallmark of the super-cheap and terrible watercolor, do also come from some very good quality companies (often sold as travel sets), and would be a good alternative to tubes. I don't buy them, because if I want to travel I can squeeze small amounts of the paint I own into a small palette case, let it dry for a few days, and take it with me. 
Can I mix and match paint brands?
Absolutely! I did this for years with my watercolor paints, and I still do it with my oils (though when I run out of enough colors I'm going to switch over to mostly one brand). You can do this on purpose to try out different brands, or just because you get a good deal on a particular tube of paint. I do think paints "play well" together when they are from the same line. But mixing and matching good quality brands of watercolor rarely causes significant problems.
How many colors of paint do you need?
When I teach watercolor to students I give them a very limited palette of paint colors to buy. Usually this list includes:
Payne's Gray (NOT black--you should always mix your shadows and darks, not use them straight out of the tube)

Burnt Umber
Burnt Sienna
Raw Sienna
Sap Green
Cadmium Yellow
Cadmium Yellow Light
Cadmium Orange
Cadmium Red
Alizarin Crimson
Dioxazine Purple
Ultramarine Blue

Cerulean Blue

Those are the basics. It may seem like a lot, but one quick trip to the craft/art store will show you the hundreds of other possibilities. To my own palette I usually also add some Chinese White (though not technically transparent) and Naples Yellow, a color that is really helpful in creating light skin tones.
It's well worth starting simple and learning to mix colors and values that match what you need using the "starter" paint colors you own. Beginning by feeling like every color you need must come straight from a tube would be limiting yourself as a painter!
Certainly there are a few (often very bright) colors that would be hard to replicate with these bases (one I came across recently was a hot pink). In those instances you may need to search out a new tube of paint. But these "starter" paints will get you the colors you need almost all of the time.
Professional Vs. Student Grade
In general, professional paints have a higher pigment to binder ratio, meaning that they are less ‘watered down.’ The color in the paint can go much further, meaning you need less paint. They also use higher quality pigments, leading to (sometimes big) differences in price between a tube of one color and a tube of another color in the same brand. Some pigments are just more expensive to use. Professional paints are more likely to have good lightfastness ratings, too. After mentioning all those things, student grade paints from good companies can give great results, especially if you're looking to learn and get into painting for less upfront cost. Below are some of the best brands of professional and student-grade watercolors easily available in North America.
*I should mention that all of the information I provide is based on my own experience/opinions, and that it is not meant to be an extensive list of all the good brands in the world.
*Also, I am not being compensated in any way for any of the advice/opinions I share.
Top Rated Professional Watercolor Paints
Holbein Watercolors. Made in Japan, they claim to be “more finely ground than any other artist watercolor,” producing a smooth, non-grainy texture. They come in a wide range of colors
M. Graham. A very small company making a truly handmade product. They use honey and pure gum Arabic as binders in their paints, which allows the paint to reconstitute (re-wet) easily and well. They don’t dry out on the palette or in the tubes quickly like some brands. High pigment load in the paints makes them a great value.
I use almost exclusively M. Graham watercolor paints.
Winsor & Newton Professional. Very transparent, high pigment load, smooth consistency. They tend to be more expensive than other professional paints.
Sennelier, Like M. Graham, uses honey as an additive, making even their pan watercolors easy to wet and use.
Schminke. German brand with a huge color selection and a formula that has been used since 1881.
Rembrandt. Made by the same manufacturer as Van Gogh watercolors. Rembrandt professional watercolors are known for their smooth consistency and transparency.
Daniel Smith. Makes tons of colors and color “dot” sample cards you can order to try colors out before ordering a whole tube. Very high quality used by a lot of professional artists.
Top Rated Student-Grade Watercolor Paints
Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolors. Cotman is the student line of Winsor & Newton paints. Synthetic fillers keep the price down, but the colors and consistency of the paints are good.
Van Gogh. Good all-around beginning watercolors for a fair price.
Reeves. A company that has been making paints since 1766, Reeves makes a good set for someone who has never used watercolor and who doesn’t want to spend much to get started.
Daniel Smith Introductory Watercolors. They make excellent watercolor affordable by selling them in very small sets (6 tubes). You are then meant to mix the paints to make whatever colors you need. Since this is how professionals work, it is good to jump right in and not expect every color you need to have its own tube. ;)
Grumbacher Academy. (Pictured above). Widely available in lots of colors and good quality
Watercolor Paper
Watercolor paper comes in weights (or thicknesses) as 90lb, 140lb and 300lb (sometimes other numbers, but these are the typical weights). They get thicker and heavier as the weight goes up, with 140lb watercolor paper being about equal to 300gsm printing paper.
90lb paper must be taped down when you use it (or used on a “block” of watercolor paper with sealed down edges), since it’s so thin it will still warp quite a bit.
140lb paper is what I use. Cold pressed 140lb is usually thick enough to not have to tape it down before using it and still get minimal warping.
300lb paper is awesome, super thick, and extremely expensive (at least in the top brands). I don’t use it, as I don’t feel the benefit of being very thick is worth the huge price jump from the 140lb, which works very well for me.
Surface Types
Watercolor paper comes in Cold Pressed (CP), Hot Pressed (HP) or Rough. Hot pressed is the smoothest surface, Rough has a very coarse texture for maximum graining of paint and lots of resulting texture, and Cold pressed is the happy medium (for me, anyway) of texture and smooth accepting of washes and details. Professional watercolor paper tends to be sold in sheets or in rolls, and sometimes in “blocks” (sheets of paper glued together along the edges, so you can paint on the top piece before peeling it off). Really good paper is less often sold in spiral-bound pads of paper. Cheaper watercolor paper is commonly sold in pads, spiral-bound or top/side glued.
I did a head-to-head comparison of Arches Cold and Hot pressed papers in my Instagram feed a few months back if you want more info about this--look for the picture of the little boy in a striped shirt. 
Profesional watercolor papers are made of 100% cotton and will be acid free, meaning it will not yellow or deteriorate over time, like wood-based papers will. All watercolor papers are made from absorbent material with sizing added, which is like a glue that keeps too much water from absorbing.
Professional Watercolor Paper
Arches. A company that is several hundred years old, still making 100% cotton rag watercolor paper that is mould-made and gelatin sized, making it very strong and durable. Most commonly found in the traditional 90, 140 and 300lb weights, but comes in a few other weights as well. 140lb is expensive but very, very good paper. 300lb is (in my humble opinion) too expensive to be commonly used.
I use 140lb Arches Cold Pressed for all of my watercolors. It's the very best, IMO. ;)
Fabriano Artistico. Another very, very old company that claims to have pioneered the modern art paper industry. 100% cotton, mould-made, and made without animal products (if that’s important to you, as many traditional professional papers use gelatin).
Winsor & Newton Professional. 100% cotton paper, mould-made, acid free. Comes in 140lb and 300lb weight. Fairly priced for good quality.
Strathmore 500 series Gemini. Comparable in specs to the other top “professional” papers, 100% cotton, mould-made. Other Strathmore 500 series papers (Ready-Cut and Imperial) are also 100% cotton and good quality.
Student-Grade Watercolor Paper
CansonXL paper. Easy to find, priced well, decent results.
Strathmore 300 series or 400 series watercolor pads. Both decent quality for good prices.
Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolor paper. A paper to match the popular Cotman student line of watercolor paints.
Don't make it too complicated!
I won’t say too much about brushes, except again, stay away from those plastic-handled brushes that come in cheap craft or kids’ paint sets. Crayola makes the best crayons (trust me, I have 5 kids!) but they make some of the absolute worst brushes (pictured at left--Why, Crayola, Why?!).
What I look for in watercolor brushes is pretty simple:
1) “Snap” or “spring” of the bristles (do the hairs hold their shape? Or are they floppy?) I know some watercolorists like “mop” style brushes and have success with them. The way I paint, I want total control—which means brushes that hold their shape and “snap” back into shape any time they aren’t being drawn across the paper. I like synthetics the most for this, and you can find brushes made of taklon and other similar materials that work well.
2) Durability—I want them to last a little while, and hold up to mixing paint with my brush (which you do in watercolor a lot!) and even some scrubbing of the paper surface. All brushes wear down after a while and have to be replaced, but a good brush should last for months of use.
3) Ability to hold an edge or a point. In watercolor I use mostly round brushes, those that hold enough water/paint to do what I need but still have a good fine point to the tip. I occasionally use brushes considered “flats, “shaders,” or “brights” in watercolor, and I expect them to keep a sharp top edge when wet.

Do watercolor brushes need to be expensive? No! Some years ago when I lived in Japan my watercolor brushes came from the Daiso 100Yen store. They had all my requirements and served me well. So it’s more that you know what you’re looking for than anything. More expensive brushes do tend to have a little longer life span, but they all wear out over time.
Other Favorites
White Enamel Butcher Tray
I use a really big white enameled butcher tray for mixing paint. I inherited it from my artist mother (otherwise known as I borrowed it when I was in college and never gave it back), and I would be lost without it. It is smoother and more durable than a plastic mixing palette. When I’m done with a painting, I just take it to the sink and use a large brush to wash the tray off and start again. A quick search on Amazon and I found enamel trays from ProArt and a few other companies that aren’t expensive and would be a great help! On Instagram (etc) you’ll see a lot of beautiful little tiny white dishes used for mixing paint. Pretty, yes. Useful? Not as much.
I like palettes that have a lot of partitions for paint—I think this one came from the aforementioned Daiso. So it wasn’t expensive, just useful. Find similar cheap ones at any craft store—just make sure they have enough sections to put out the rainbow of paint colors you expect to work with. One of the great things about watercolor is that you don't have to worry about wasting paint on your palette. It will stay there until you wet it in preparation for your next painting session!
Paper Towels
Bounty paper towels.
When I was in graduate school doing a lot of lithography, my litho professor insisted we bring in Bounty brand paper towels and nothing else. They were the best, he insisted, and nothing compared. I’m usually not a brand snob, but in this case he was 100% right. Bounty is all I’ll use for my watercolor. I fold one small sheet up and hold it in my left hand, and one gets folded and put under my water container. Both are used to blot my paint brush, and the one in my hand sometimes blots the painting itself.
From the Studio
Downloadable PDF Cheat Sheet!
I've got a number of projects in the works that I'll tell you about next month (or follow my social media for more updates). But in the meantime, I want to point you to the downloadable PDF that's attached to this email.
It sums up the information in this newsletter!
It's like your own watercolor supplies cheat sheet. It has a super-low file size so you can save it to your phone and take it shopping with you! 
Happy New Year!!!
*Know anyone who could use this information? Forward this email to them or send them the following link so they can sign up for my email newsletters too!  :)


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