Malcolm's Painting Matters

Providing encouragement, stimulation and development, while having a good time, for the beginner as well as the developing artist.

Starting to Paint: Watercolour


This is an introduction to the watercolour painting materials I use in my painting classes. This also provides a good starting point for anyone wishing to take up watercolour painting as a pastime.


Paper, I believe, is the most important thing in watercolour painting – even more important than paint. When starting out it is best to keep paper choice simple by using a good middle of the road paper and branch out a bit when you have a bit more experience at handling the paint otherwise it’s a bit like jumping from car to car when learning to drive. A Ferrari does not drive the same as a Ford and it is the same with paper.

A good all round paper is Bockingford 140lb (weight refers to a ream of imperial sheets). Full sheets cut up at home are cheaper than pads but you need to source them locally. Not (meaning not hot pressed or smooth) or Rough texture paper is good the smooth hot pressed can be a bit fiddly to start with  but we do sometimes use it in class. The size you paint on is up to you – from 2.5”-3.5” ACEO’s to 30×22” full imperial sheets but to start I would recommend between 1/8 imp (7.5”x11”) to ¼ imp (15”x11”). Decent paper will help you rather than fight you which can often be the case with cheap paper.

In my classes we paint on 140lb Bockingford (rough & not), 90lb Saunders Waterford (occasionally), Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolour paper (slightly harder surface than Bockingford and less texture) also various papers from the Hahnemuhle range of papers (these are quite soft papers with some interesting surfaces) in sizes ranging from 1/8 to ¼ imp but often 9×13 (a good size as this can often be found in pads).



From L to R –  Cotman Ultramarine, Cotman Burnt Sienna, Cotman Cadmium Yellow Hue, Sennelier Cobalt Blue, W&N Winsor Yellow and SAA Cadmium Yellow.

Paint comes next to paper in importance.  If you don’t want boring to death with the wonders of student quality paint versus artist quality skip the next paragraph and read it later.

There is nothing wrong with good quality students paints from Winsor and Newton or Daler Rowney if you select them carefully. I recommend Winsor and Newton Cotman paints to start out with as you don’t want to be squeezing out minute bits of paint (often the result of buying horrendously expensive artist quality paints) as this results in anaemic paintings. In my classes we often use a mixture of Cotman and artist quality paints depending on the colour and/or what is in my bag. Earth colours such as the Ochers, Siennas and Umbers are often as good ass or close to artist quality. Ultramarine Blue is good as are most of the yellow hues. For other colours such as Cobalt Blue and the Cadmiums there is no alternative to the real thing and you must buy the artist colour.  The student yellows are different from the cadmiums as they are transparent (Cadmiums are opaque) but I often prefer them because I love the transparency.

The above sounds very complex but the short of it is keep your Palette of paints simple and mix your colours also buy what I recommend.

I always use tubes these days unless out sketching where I have a small box of artist quality pans  (student pans are often like trying to get colour out of a brick and result in anaemic paintings) A good pallet of colours to start with is:-

Ultramarine Blue (Fine as W&N Cotman)

Burnt Sienna (Fine as W&N Cotman)

A slightly Orange biased yellow such as Cadmium Yellow (Either Artists or Cotman Cad Yellow Hue is fine). An alternative is New Gamboge (Cotman is fine)

To this you might add Light Red (Cotman OK and an earth colour – its rust really), Raw Sienna or Yellow Ochre and possibly Burnt Umber.

All the above are fine as W&N Cotman paints but I do have a liking for Cobalt Blue as it makes lovely skies and subtle greys BUT you must buy Artist quality with this one and it is not cheap – if it is cheep leave it alone because it is probably poor.

Colour mixing is:-

Blue and yellow get you green

Blue and Burnt Sienna gets you a variety of colours from Red Brown to Dark Brown to Dark Grey to Dark Blue (Blue Black) to Blue

Beware cheap imported colours from suspect places – they are usually very poor. Stick to Winsor & Newton or Daler for the student colours and for the artists I tend to go for Rembrandt, Sennelier, SAA and of course Winsor & Newton and Daler. The SAA do some very reasonably priced large tubes. In class we use a mix of Cotman and SAA paints and occasionally W&N.



From left to right – 12 Round Synthetic, 7 Round Sable, 3 Rigger, 1 Round Synthetic, Chinese style Mop, Squirrel Mop, 1″ Hake, 1″ Flat

Brushes are still important but you could paint with a piece of tissue, sponge or finger and still get results!

Again my advice is keep it simple and stick to just a few decent brushes until you get to grips with handling the paint and paper. If you are painting on large sheets of paper then you need a correspondingly large brush to apply a good wash.  A size 12 or 14 round synthetic is a good compromise – be careful of brush sizes as manufacturers are not consistent especially the cheaper brushes. When I talk about brush sizes I am referring to ProArte sizing which is often about the standard size of the better manufacturers.

Alternatives to the 12 round (and I do not mean additions to) would be a mop brush either squirrel or the Chinese bamboo handled sort with a point.  A 1” hake brush is quite good for washes and can be used for varying techniques as well (see some of the work of Ron Ranson). A 1” synthetic flat can also be used with slightly more rigid results (personally I do not like Flats as wash brushes)

My classes use:

Size 12 synthetic round (washes and general detail)

Size 6/7 synthetic round (detail where a bit more control is needed)

Size 2 synthetic rigger (for painting fine branches on trees and rigging on boats or even wire fences)

Size 1 round (Signing ones name or putting in people or birds – it is not used for anything else as it encourages fiddling with the painting which is always bad)

The above are suitable for paintings up to 11” x 15” with larger paintings I might use a large hake brush or a larger round or mop.  For smaller paintings like A5 cards or even ACEO’S you don’t need bigger than your size 6/7.

 Other Essentials


Bits & Bobs – Large Plate used as a Palette (ready for a wash!) and a Daisy Palette

Palette  – A white saucer or plate with paint squeezed onto the edge and the centre used for mixing washes are fine (I use a large white square plate). Even a disposable plastic or paper plate can be used (some paper plates are to absorbent so try first). In my classes we use either a Daisy Palette or disposable plates depending on what we are doing.

Drawing Board – A3 or 16” x 12” MDF is a good size for home but depending on your space available it can be as small as A4.  We use 14” x 11” MDF in class but recently I got some 16 x 12 plastic laptop stands from IKEA (Brada) which hold the paper at a nice angle but books or even a roll of masking tape can be used to prop up your MDF board to the correct angle.

Pencils – 2B or 4B pencils are good (and you will need a pencil sharpener) Some HBs are OK if soft enough but 2B is a good halfway house. We use 2 – 4B when drawing but often use a good quality HB for detailed work.

Putty Rubber, A large Water Pot, (lg jam jar or pickle jar or even a plastic soup container – preferably clear so you can see when the water needs changing) Masking Tape (Sticky not low tack – for fixing your paper to your drawing board), Kitchen Towel (or anything absorbent for wiping up water, drying brush, dabbing out clouds etc).  There is other stuff but keep it simple to start.

One last bit of advice.  If you read about stretching paper don’t bother – life is too short! There are ways of flattening out a piece of cockled paper after you have painted it but I will discuss this at a later date. The most important thing is to get painting.

Also do buy an A5 sketch book and carry it about with you and sketch (either with a pencil or even a Biro or felt tip – see work of Aubrey Philips on sketching in felt tip) at every opportunity – it will make you a better artist.

For dates & details of classes see

Author: Malcolm M. Bullock

Artist - mountains and water but sometimes flowers and abstract I enjoy painting but also hill-walking and climbing (when the legs work). I also enjoy fly fishing for anything that resembles a fish. a new (rediscovered) interest is cycling but the sort that involves pushing a heavy bike up a hill and riding it as fast as possible back down again. I also enjoy building all my bikes from the frame up so they are pretty unique things. I also enjoy wine - preferably red. My biggest interest though is my family :)

2 thoughts on “Starting to Paint: Watercolour

  1. Now Malcolm that must have taken a lot of time, but good to be able to refer to it. I always value your lessons as you know. So let’s get back to it. Now you realise the snow will start when we do.
    I have compared some of my first ones to what we did lately and did not realise how much I think they have improved. So it must be sticking in the brain somewhere.
    See you soon. Marion.

  2. Yes Malcolm, I like that one very much, then I do like pen and ink.
    Hope it is on the next lessons to come.

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