Budget-Friendly Watercolor Supplies

I’m a bit of a nut when it comes to watercolors so I tend not to count when it comes to paints,

paper, etc ! 

However, watercolor supplies can be expensive, which can lead to a fear of wasting materials, especially if you’re still building your confidence. 

But the cost of supplies shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying watercolors. 

So I put together this quick guide for those of you in this situation. This is my list of recommended

minimum requirements if you want to start painting in watercolors.

Best Supplies to Get Started

The minimum requirements for painting successfully are:

  • 2 or 3 brushes
  • A limited set of paint colors (6 colors can be enough)
  • A small selection of paper
  • A palette for storing paint

Let’s take a look at each in turn…

2 or 3 Brushes will Suffice

You don’t need to spend a huge amount on watercolor brushes. You can easily do any type of watercolor painting techniques with a minimum of three brushes. 

  • a large round brush, 
  • a wash brush, 
  • a small round brush.

A “round” brush is the absolute most versatile type of brush you can own. It allows for a multitude of techniques and can handle everything from broad strokes to fine details. If your choice is limited to just one brush, go for a medium-to-large round 🙂

  • A large round brush is your go-to tool for the majority of paint applications.
  • A small round brush with a pointed tip will allow you to paint fine details.
  • And a “wash” brush, such as a “mop brush” lets you cover large areas of the paper for painting big washes of color (for example backgrounds, skies, and any bigger shapes).

The “best” watercolor brushes are made from natural hair… They have a superior water-holding capacity making it easy to produce long flowing brush strokes of watercolor.

However, these are also the most expensive!

Today, manufacturers have developed synthetic brushes which mimic the handling properties and characteristics of natural hair brushes.

These brushes are great for beginners (and they are significantly less expensive!)

Large round brush options

One of the better synthetic watercolor brushes I have tested is the Rosemary & Co Red Dot range:

Unfortunately Rosemary & Co are difficult to find in the US. After chatting with Rosemary, she recommended a couple of USA Distributors for people buying from the US. The first is: windriverarts.com . Another great distributor is Studio Pintura – the folks who run it, Armando and Lois, are both experienced artists and really do go the extra mile to take care of their customers: studiopintura.com/rosemary-brushes .

Another good alternative is The Princeton Aqua Elite range:

This category of synthetics is quite springy, which helps with brush control when you’re a beginner.

Small round brush

The same recommendations apply as for the larger round brush. Here are the sizes I suggest:

Mop brush

Mops are designed for soaking up lots of water, and the same goes for mop brushes 🙂

These are the types of brush I like to use these days for painting big washes and spreading water around.

Raphael make a good synthetic mop:

A kit of 3 brushes like this should cost around $50 dollars. And if you take care of them well, they’ll last a long time 🙂

Paint Choices

In a previous lesson I talked about “How to Choose The Perfect Palette & Save On Supplies”.

If you remember I suggested choosing just six paints that include a warm and cool version of each primary color.

This type of color palette is known as the “split primary” palette. Later, in my lesson about the magic palette method I showed you how this limited range of paints could be used to mix a large range of hues. 

This is why I think something like the split primary system is a perfect starting point as the foundation for color mixing. 

  • You only need 6 paints
  • You can mix a large variety of colors

So it’s a win-win 🙂

If you want to limit your spending, you can try the Daniel Smith Essentials Set.

This collection of 6 colors represents a warm and cool red, yellow and blue. It’s very good value for money for a set of professional watercolor tubes.

However, I like to point out that these are the small tubes of paint. Don’t be surprised by the size if you order these !

This is my solution if you just want to start with the right colors for a minimal outlay. But if your budget can stretch a little further, here is the list of larger paint tubes I would recommend:

  1. Hansa Yellow Deep – Pigment number: PY65
  2. Lemon yellow – Pigment number: PY175
  3. Phthalo blue GS – Pigment number: PB15:3
  4. French ultramarine – Pigment number: PB29
  5. Quinacridone rose – Pigment number: PV19
  6. Pyrrol scarlet – Pigment number: PR255

Note, there are two grades of watercolor paint – student and professional. Professional paints produce higher chroma, brighter and more vivid colors. That’s why I advise going for pro paints, but limiting the quantity. You can always expand your range of colors later 🙂

What paper should you use?

Here’s where things get tricky!

The best handling properties are provided by 100% cotton papers. But of course these are also the most expensive options

If you’re interested, I discuss watercolor paper in much more depth in this article here…

“Artist grade” 100% cotton paper performs best because it handles wet-on-wet painting techniques so well. The ability to work wet-on-wet is enhanced when using artist grade paper – pigment dispersion and water control is a lot easier.

The more economic version of watercolor paper is referred to as “student grade”. You may not need perfect paper handling each time you paint. For example, wet-on-dry techniques such as glazing work perfectly well on student grade papers. 

So my advice is this – on a general basis don’t hesitate to use student grade paper for playing around or projects that use wet-on-dry techniques. And when you want the best wet-on-wet handling, opt for artist grade paper. But… You should experience BOTH types to realize for yourself the difference in handling.

The artist grade watercolor paper I use is Arches 100% cotton cold press 140lb / 300 gsm.
Canson XL 140lb / 300 gsm is a good student grade paper. I’ve had pretty good results painting on this paper in the past…

example painting on student grade paper

For wet-on-wet painting, one of the better student-grade papers I have tried is Ateza cold press 140lb/300 gsm paper. You can get a good deal on Amazon buying two pads in bulk. This paper has pretty good dispersion for wet-on-wet. However it also “lifts” very easily (lifting is the ability to remove pigments from the surface). This means when you layer paints on top of each other there’s a risk of disturbing the underlying colors (especially if you insist too much with your brush).

Tips for economic paper use:

  • Use smaller sheets: For example, cut you sheets in half and build your confidence by painting smaller projects. 
  • Paint on the back of your paper: You can use both sides of watercolor paper.
  • Use student grade paper first: experiment on a sheet of student grade paper first, then progress to artist grade.
  • Save artist grade paper for projects that require wet-on-wet: For when pigment diffusion and water control are most important.
  • Recycle paper as color testing strips: I always keep my used paper and make strips for testing mixtures during painting.
  • Buy bigger sheets and cut them down: (for example an imperial size full sheet of Arches cold press 140lb paper measures 22 x 30 inches. This can be cut down into 6 10 x 11 inch sheets – not far from the standard 12 x 9 inch paper pad size).
  • Buy in Bulk: Sometimes buying in bulk can save money. But make sure you like the paper first!
  • Shop around: try finding wholesale art suppliers to compare costs.

Watercolor palettes

A good palette provides a place to store paints and protect them from dust. It should also have a decent mixing area for making good-sized paint puddles 🙂

One of my favorites is the Holbein aluminum folding palette

I particularly like this palette for a few reasons:

  • It has a white enamel finish which is a great non staining surface for paint mixing.
  • You can squeeze tubes of color directly into the paint wells (no fiddly pans)
  • The mixing surface is generous compared to many other folding palettes
  • It’s portable! Take it anywhere…

More budget-friendly plastic options exist, like this airtight palette. I find cheaper plastics tend to stain more easily, but this is great value.

A final word

There is no such thing as wasted paper… every project you paint is a step towards progress and improving your skills in watercolor 🙂 (regardless of what you think of the results)

Happy painting!

Tell me about your watercolor struggles about watercolor supplies in the comments below and I’ll personally give you some guidance 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *