The Best Watercolour Tools for a Beginner


Want to learn how to paint watercolours, but don’t know where to start? This quick start guide is for you. I don’t actually divide tools up by ‘beginner’ and ‘advanced’ – I think you should start with the best tools you can comfortably afford.

What to Look For

The Brushes

Which watercolour brushes do you need? That’s probably a question you’ve asked yourself if you’ve walked into your local art shop, only to be overwhelmed by the array of brush shapes and materials. It’s a little like choosing a wand from Ollivanders – the brush needs to be comfortable in your hand, be able to make magic on the paper, and the materials its made from need to reflect your personal ethos.

I have three simple suggestions for beginners, to help them find the perfect paintbrush for them.

  • Start with a round brush. Round brushes are the most versatile brush shape, as they can make the widest range of brushstrokes on the page. You can use the fine tip to do detail work, or you could use the belly to create large, loose washes.
  • Start with three sizes: a size 3, a size 4-6 and a size 12. These mid-size brushes are great for beginners, as they will allow you to tackle some detail whilst also holding enough water to experiment with looser washes. If you want to learn more about brush sizes, I have an article here that might help you.
  • Synthetic v Natural Hair is a personal choice.
    Natural-haired brushes are more water-absorbent than synthetic brushes, which is appealing to many artists as it means you can spend more time on the paper and less time in the water pot. Natural hair brushes are more expensive than synthetic brushes, and Kolinsky Sable (a type of weasel) is considered the gold standard, as it comes to a sharp point and holds an impressive amount of water. If you’re looking for your first natural hair brush, choose squirrel or Kolinsky sable.

    However, in this day and age many artists are more environmentally conscious and prefer to use synthetic alternatives. If this sounds like you, you may want to avoid other common animal products found in watercolour. Older synthetic brushes got a bad reputation as plastic isn’t naturally very absorbent, and subsequently the brushes were subpar. However, there are now many excellent synthetic brushes on the market.

    I personally use both natural and synthetic brushes on a daily basis – however, I would recommend avoiding brushes that combine both, as their performance can be less reliable due to the different materials. Whichever, brush material you pick, you want a round brush that doesn’t shed, holds a lot of water, holds its shape and comes to a fine point.

The Paper

A good watercolour paper is the foundation of any good painting. High-quality watercolour paper is designed to absorb water and pigments evenly, allowing for smooth washes and vibrant colours. A good paper is durable, and can withstand techniques like lifting and scrubbing. Poor-quality papers will warp and buckle, which affects the way their paintings are presented.

The best way to make sure your paper can withhold your paint is to choose it based on paper weight and material. The gold standard is paper made from 100% pure cotton; cotton fibres are longer than wood pulp fibres, which makes it less likely to warp and deteriorate. I recommend looking for paper that is 300gsm, and for a paper that is on a glued pad, rather than spiral bound. Choosing a heavier paper again lowers the odds of your paper buckling, and glued pads don’t require the paper to be stretched (which is time consuming and not ideal for beginners).

The Paints

Paint is the must fun – and overwhelming – part of painting in watercolour. When artists choose their paints, they’re looking for a paint with a high pigment load. This means the paint can achieve intense and full value colours, and don’t appear watery or weak. Artists also look at something called lightfastness; this is essentially how resistant the paint is to fading over time. Lightfastness is measured in something called an ASTM or Blue Wool Scale rating, which can be found on the side of the pan or tube.

Watercolour paints are prized for their transparency. This means light can pass through the paint before bouncing back off the paper and lighting the colours from within. Transparent watercolours can create a painting that is full of subtle layers, and allow artists to use techniques such as glazing, where multiple layers of transparent color are applied to build up rich, translucent surfaces. Paints that aren’t transparent are called opaque. These paints are useful for building up last details, or blocking in larger areas.

Lastly, the behavior of the paint on the paper is a critical consideration. Watercolorists look for paints that have a good flow and dispersion, allowing for smooth and controlled application. Paints that re-wet easily on the palette and respond predictably to the artist’s brushwork contribute to a more enjoyable and efficient painting process. The ability of the paint to lift off the paper for corrections or special effects is also important.

Quick Kits

Want a quick recommendation for what to buy for a beginner? These are great combinations:

An Inexpensive Beginners Watercolour Kit:

PaperBockingford Cold Pressed Block, 100% Cotton Paper, 9×12 inches, 300gsm8Purchase here
BrushPrinceton Neptune, Round Brush, size 6
PaintDa Vinci Set10

An Excellent Beginners Watercolour Kit:

PaperKilimanjaro 300-pound cold press | Fabriano Artistico
BrushEscoda Versatil
PaintWinsor and Newton Cotman SetPurchase here

The Best Animal-Free Watercolour Kit:

PaperBockingford Cold Pressed Block, 100% Cotton Paper, 9×12 inches, 300gsm
BrushEscoda Versatil, Round brush. Recommended sizes: 3,6,10
PaintWinsor & Newton’s (all the range is vegan, except for Viridian Hue, Raw Umber & Ivory Black)

A Watercolour Kit that will carry you through to a Professional Level:

PaperArches, Cold Pressed, 300gsm, 100% Cotton PaperPurchase here
BrushWinsor and Newton Series 7 range
PaintDaniel Smith’s Essentials KitPurchase here

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