Giving a watercolor "set" (all the things!)
March 17, 2017 4:26 AM   Subscribe

I’d like to give a gift of everything one would need to rekindle a love of watercolor painting. Bonus points for recommendations that will allow the recipient to stop and start painting sessions easily with minimal fuss. Need not be an actual pre-bundled "set."

My wife used to paint and draw and do all sorts of artistic things (some professionally), but life has intervened. She’s feeling the urge again, and I’d like to give her everything she needs to get back painting watercolors (does NOT need to be one pre-made set, kit, box--I expect mix and match will get her better stuff). She doesn’t have anything—no brushes, paper, pigment, easels, etc.

We’re parents of a young child, and don’t get long uninterrupted blocks of time in which she would paint on location (so a real field set is not necessary), though I could see her painting in our back yard. And, since we don’t get long uninterrupted blocks of time, it would be ideal if the gift allowed for easy set up and breakdown—i.e., painting on an easel that would store the artwork (is that a thing?), such that you could just open up and get painting. For the same reason, I think a set of pan pigments would be easier for her than tubes. But I really am not familiar with watercolors, so I don’t know whether I’m off base here.

If watercolors are your thing, can you help me with a complete shopping list, with the foregoing in mind? DW has a degree in art, and has worked in museums, so I’m not looking to scrimp with anything overly basic or cheap. But at the same time, I don’t want her to feel guilty in the event that life continues to intervene and piles of expensive stuff is sitting unused.

Thanks for any guidance and/or links you can share!
posted by Admiral Haddock to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Do you know if she prefers the pans or liquids?

I LOVE this watercolor set. Good quality, pans come out of the case. Inexpensive enough to play with and not feel bad.

I also use Dr PH Martin's Liquids (Radiants are not color/lightfast and will fade in sunlight, Hydrus sets ARE lightfast.) But they're not easy to travel with.

Daniel Smith tubes are highly rated but I haven't used any.

Winsor and Newton (and others) make travel sets.

I'd also get her a couple blocks of 100% cotton rag paper and maybe a block of inexpensive watercolor paper. The rag paper is really best and I use both hot and cold press from Arches.

You probably also want some plastic paint pallets if you don't get a travel set. Most travel sets have little wells and mixing spots.

A water brush set is good for on-the-go. I just use cheap brushes and water brushes.

[Not a professional level watercolor artist and am pretty new to the medium though I do art as a business and primarily watercolor now.]
posted by Crystalinne at 5:04 AM on March 17 [2 favorites]

Seconding the Winsor & Newton travel sets and Arches paper. I'm not a professional, but I was an art major and got a lot of mileage out of my W&N set.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:13 AM on March 17

Thirding W&N Set, and also the water brush set!! GAME CHANGER!
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:45 AM on March 17 [1 favorite]

Please consider getting her a higher quality 'professional' Winsor & Newton travel set instead, not their cheap Cotman line. This or this. Quality tools make a huge difference.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 5:49 AM on March 17 [4 favorites]

I don't think I've ever used an easel for watercolor painting. I'm no professional but I've taken a lot of classes, and for the most part the instructors had us just working on tables. I wouldn't spring for an easel unless you know for sure she prefers to paint using one.

Are you trying to surprise her or do you feel comfortable asking her what her preferences are? Most experienced artists (and it sounds like she's pretty experienced) have tried a lot of different paper weights and textures, water-soluble pencils and pastels, paint brands and brushes - and know what they like. And then there's the question of whether they like to work big or small and whether they like to mix media - using pen and ink, goache, etc in their work.

If you do want to surprise her, the W&N travel set referenced above is nice - I received one as a gift and liked it. I'd get a couple of watercolor pads in different sizes, a couple of palettes, and (optional) a small set of watercolor pencils or pastels, and brushes ... I'd honestly look up a good watercolor artists website and see what they recommend in terms of brush sizes to beginners. I personally like the water brushes so I'd include one of those too. If you don't have lots of pencils around your house go ahead and add a couple of those to the pile.

This is a really sweet thing you are doing and I'm excited for your wife. Happy painting to her!

PS- if you can see some of her old work that might tell you if she prefers to work larger or smaller - and that affects the brush sizes and paper sizes. However, smaller works are easier to set up quickly and put away quickly.
posted by bunderful at 5:54 AM on March 17 [1 favorite]

The first W&N set thegreatfleecircus links is the exact one I had, with the slide-out palette with the thumbhole. It's really well-designed. I used a combination of their professional line and their Cotman line and liked them both, but when you're shopping for art supplies for someone with experience, always err on the side of high-end.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:09 AM on March 17

Thanks for the guidance so far! I had never even heard of water brushes, so this is already very helpful.

This pan set recommended by the greatfleecircus above was the one I had in mind without any particular context or knowledge (so glad for some confirmation). It's $100 or so, and if it gets the hivemind's thumbs up, would be a price/the quality level I'm looking for, in terms of scaling other recommendations.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:15 AM on March 17

One of the big hassles of watercolour work is stretching the paper so it doesn't go all wobbly when it dries. Fluid make fully taped blocks of pre-stretched watercolour paper that's ready to go. You do have to keep it in the block while painting, though.
posted by scruss at 7:24 AM on March 17 [1 favorite]

- nthing posters above who recommend buying professional-quality W&N instead of the Cotman line. The Cotman paint is alarmingly bad for how expensive it is.
- nthing the waterbrush recommendation.
- agreed that pre-stretched blocks are nice. However, sketchbooks with heavy paper (generally marketed as "mixed media") are also great for doing a lot of sketches and experiments. The paper shouldn't buckle too badly, and it's less of a pain to just flip to the next page. When starting out (or re-starting as the case may be), I think it's best to err on the side of whatever lets you crank out a lot of work without being too fussy.
- Get tube watercolors and a portable palette. Squeeze watercolor into the individual wells and allow to dry. Now you have high-quality pan watercolors.
- You don't need that many colors. A split-complementary palette of 6-8 tubes is sufficient for pretty much everything:
  • alizarin or rose (cool red)
  • cadmium red medium warm/orange red)
  • lemon yellow (cool yellow)
  • cadmium yellow light (warm yellow)
  • phthalo blue (cool cyan/blue)
  • ultramarine (warm blue/violet)
  • Optional:
  • viridian (cool green)
  • sap green (warm green)

Good tubes of watercolor should fill up your pans a couple times, and odds are that you won't go through every color at the same rate. So it's better to buy individual tubes than to get a set of pans.

I'd also suggest getting one of Stephen Quiller's books on watermedia painting. Ted Kautzky's watercolor book is also definitive.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:37 AM on March 17 [7 favorites]

Mrs. mmascolino is a watercolorist and she loves the aforementioned Arches blocks of watercolor paper. They are heavy duty, expensive and totally appropriate for the task at hand.
posted by mmascolino at 8:01 AM on March 17

Everyone has already made some great suggestions. However, I have an alternative idea: if you want to start off cheap and fun, so she can play around and get back into watercoloring, you could get a Prang watercolor set, and some cheap watercolor paper to practice with. Sometimes, the more expensive stuff can be a bit overwhelming--there are so many choices. I took private art classes for a couple of years, and my teacher just had me using Prang and some cheap paper for practice. I would not THINK of using ARCHES paper unless i wanted the piece to be archival and PERFECT. Also, a cheapie set of supplies could get your kid involved as well. Advantages to a pre-made palette would be easy cleanup and easy storage. I would probably spend more on the brushes, rather than the paint and paper at first. Good brushes are a must, imho.

Or, you could get her a gift certificate and she could pick out her own preferences. :)
posted by cass at 8:09 AM on March 17 [1 favorite]

I came to mention the detail about stretching paper that scruss mentioned. This is, without a doubt, the single biggest time consumer when watercolor painting, and the main thing that keeps me from painting when the mood strikes but I don't have the time to stretch. I've used these Arches cold press blocks for about twenty years. They're the best. Nothing sinks the experience of painting with watercolor like too-cheap or improperly sized paper (by sizing I mean the surface coating that keeps water from blotting into the paper, not the physical dimensions). So be wary of skimping on paper. I'd buy cheap pigments before cheap paper.

That said, if you'd like to go a little toward the high end for pigments in a useful travel-friendly set, I vote for anything from Schmincke (like this metal half pan set for $70). It'll last ages--I still haven't used up all the paint from my first Schmincke purchase in 2001, for instance, but it's easy to buy individual tubes of paint to refill pans when you've run out of a color. Schmincke pigments are a joy to work with--I use their oil paints, too--and if your wife is the type to gasp at the way a pigment lays beautifully on the surface of nice paper, like me, she would appreciate something like this.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:00 AM on March 17 [1 favorite]

I find that the right paper makes a huge difference. Watercolors just react differently to good paper, and part of learning watercolor is learning to interact with your paper. So don't go too cheap with your paper. You can also buy nice paper by the sheet and cut it down yourself. Far more cost-effective than the precut pads. (If I were going to spend on my supplies, personally I would prioritize in this order: paper, paint, brushes. But that's just me.) On preview: what late afternoon dreaming hotel said!

If you buy her a sketchbook, DO NOT get a Moleskine unless it's specifically made for watercolor. The standard Moleskine paper doesn't take watercolor very well—the surface is too slick. I like Handprint sketchbooks, but there are many options.

Get a few different sizes of round watercolor brushes. I also like a mop brush for big washes.

Some other tools that might be useful or fun:
-Artist tape
-Masonite board for stretching the paper onto
-Maybe a big flat plastic tub for soaking the paper (make sure to use distilled water)
-I vastly prefer porcelain palettes over plastic ones; I find that water beads up more on plastic
-Masking fluid—use a cheapo brush with it
posted by the_blizz at 10:58 AM on March 17

PS: For what it's worth, I use Hahnemuhle paper (but will use Arches as a fallback, or sometimes printmaking paper like Rives just for fun even though they don't have surface sizing), Schmincke paints (both pan and tube), and totally rando brushes. Oh, and paper towels or rags. Always rags.

Also be aware: papers come in different textures (which vary slightly by manufacturer). Rough is the roughest, cold press in the middle, hot press smoothest. Cold press is probably a good happy medium, but people have personal preferences on this one too.
posted by the_blizz at 11:04 AM on March 17

As overeducated_alligator suggested above, selecting a few tubes of specific colors is the way to go for someone familiar with watercolor. Experienced water colorists generally mix their own colors - all of them except white and occasionally black - from just such a limited selection. It is helpful to include the warm/cool variations of basic yellow, blue, red to make blending easier and arrive at the desired tone quicker. Additions can be useful shortcuts, but most often artists delve into the subtleties of tone and transparency using just a few basic workhorses. Very rarely is a color used out of the tube or pan as is, and pans come with a preselected assortment that never has enough of the basics, rarely the warm/cool range that is important, and has all the same size pans of color. That's why I recommend tubes. She might opt for larger tubes of the most frequently used colors, something I can't say about pans. Really the best argument for pans is they are easy for traveling.

White is most skillfully achieved by leaving paper free of paint, not by using white watercolor paint, though you can see examples where artists have sprayed white mists across their paintings, usually with a toothbrush lightly loaded with paint and sprayed across the surface. It's a kind of trick that easily adds atmosphere to snow scenes. There are also some gray toned papers where white can be useful.

In addition to the watercolor paper or blocks (glued on all sides so the sheet stays flat until dry) there are some nifty smaller spiral pads, postcard size. These can be handy for traveling or painting outdoors, and also for small sketches or color swatches, where you wouldn't want to use an entire expensive sheet. Don't forget mixing pans, which she will need to mix all the variations of color shades. These should have some flat areas and some dish areas, of a size to fit inside a zip lock bag if she wants to go back and use the same shades, which she will have custom mixed. Also good brushes. Please spend your money on brushes! They can be expensive, but she can probably get by with just a few to start. A fan brush, a small round pointed brush, an angled flat one, and a medium (like the size of a pencil) round pointed one. Natural bristles are best and if cared for they will last for decades.

Easels are really not used by water colorists, though if you think she'd work outdoors you could get or make her a lapdesk with clips to hold the paper flat. Water colorists often work "wet", and if the paper were on an angle it would drip. Part of the fun and skill of watercolor, which is much more difficult than most people think, is the layering of thin sheer strokes that dry quickly and can be painted over to intensify an area versus a saturating and runny technique where wet colors that meet bleed together at the edge. Watercolor paper is fibrous and porous; artists work with those qualities as well.

I don't know where you are, but the Philadelphia Museum of Art is showing "American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent" which is knock-your-socks-off spectacular and worth a trip from far and wide.
posted by citygirl at 11:17 AM on March 17

and if cass's budget suggestion resonates, I can recommend the Koh-i-noor round water colours. They're opaque gouache as opposed to transparent watercolour, but they're lovely and something like $8 for 24 pans.
posted by scruss at 5:11 PM on March 17

I recommend a great book called The Artist Manual by Angela Gair, $25, Chronicle Publisher, available online. This great book has lots of inspiring pictures of different technical applications of media with clear, easy to understand explanations. Buy that first and let your partner suggest the materials she would like to work with.

I worked as technical artist for a large art materials manufacturer, and you are correct that artist sets are inexpensive materials in box overpriced as a gift. Student ranges and artist ranges are made in large run batches, with very little difference in cheap pigments versus specific expensive pigments that are must haves for dedicated practicing artists. Lots of what you pay for is marketing hype.

I personally prefer Sennelier as a brand, or Holbein.

Pan sets are formulated for detail work, tubes are formulated for large washes. I prefer 300lb paper, so I don't have to stretch, and like single sheets versus blocks. Twinrocker seconds are a great buy for watercolor paper, square and round format, for example. They have a swatch set you can purchase which would make a great starter inspirational set. I would get some nice rounds for details and squirrel mops for broad washes.

But artists have such individual tastes I think the book and perhaps a gift certificate would be the best bang for your buck. I hope this is helpful.
posted by effluvia at 11:06 PM on March 17 [2 favorites]

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