For Whatever They’re Worth, My Watercolor Opinions

Talking to a fellow watercolorist today, the question was raised why I don’t share my opinions on this blog concerning my preferred brands of watercolor products. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, that is not the reason I started this blog; I merely wanted to share my work and my ideas with anyone out there interested in reading, and have been surprised and gratified at the number of readers who have paid attention.

A second reason is that I don’t engage in debate about the superiority of name brands; I listen to anything another has to share, frequently try out other products and occasionally change my position. But the bottom line is that I don’t try to win arguments over who is right. Every artist chooses what works best for his/her methods.

Having said this, I do have strong opinions about the materials I use, and never hold back information when asked by an individual or addressing a workshop. So, here goes:

PAPER. I have always used D’Arches. Usually it is cold-pressed, but I have switched to hot-pressed a number of times in the last six months, because I enjoy working with precision on a smooth surface. My only caution about hot-pressed paper is that I love to stack layers of transparent wash, and with the slick surface, I occasionally obliterate the underlying washes when applying new ones. I will frequently use 300-lb. paper for the convenience, but I really prefer to use 90 lb. or 140 lb. I soak it in water, then stretch it over canvas stretchers, using a staple gun. When it  dries, it is as tight as a drum skin, and dries quickly when painting en plein air, since both sides are open to the air for quicker drying. When the painting is finished, I pry out the staples and re-use the stretchers. I detest the price of watercolor blocks, and hold my nose every time I purchase one, but sometimes do because of how portable they are. But frequently, before I’ve used half the paper, the edges start pulling away from the board underneath, and I have to wrap duct tape around the edges to secure the paper, which I resent, seeing how much I already paid for the product.

I have been burned a couple of times in the paper category. I know that Blues musicians say Keb ‘Mo can pick up a cheap WalMart accoustic guitar and make it sound like a Gibson, because he is that skilled of a guitarist. But I am not the Keb ‘Mo of watercolorists. I have tried Canson paper and Utrecht paper, and both times turned out crappy watercolors–they just don’t respond to the water and pigments the same way that D’Arches does, so I no longer chafe over the extra dollars I have to spend for superior paper.

PIGMENTS. I have always used Winsor & Newton. I don’t buy the Cotman version, because that is a cheaper schoolboy version, and I compare that to musicians buying a cheap Martin accoustic guitar made of composite wood, thinking that because “Martin” is inscribed on the headstock that they have a quality guitar. They don’t. I had to pay four times the amount for my Martin D-35, but the money was well-invested in that rich tone and the ease of working the fretboard. Now, maybe if I was Keb ‘Mo I could make a composite-wood Martin sound like my D-35, but I am not. I use Winsor & Newton artist pigments, and have always been happy with their richness and permanence.

COLOR PALETTE. I depend on primary colors. My palette consists of Winsor Red, Winsor Blue (in both Red and Green Shades) and Transparent Yellow. I mix black by combining Alizarin Crimson and Winsor Green. I also have Winsor Violet and Cerulean Blue for certain needs. That is my complete palette. I have over a dozen tubes of other pigments which I almost never open.

I have fistfuls of colored pencils and watercolor pencils that I occasionally reach for in particular needs. My favorite watercolor pencil is Albrecht Durer by Faber-Castell. I lean on the Dark Sepia, as well as Cool Grey VI and Warm Grey VI. For drawing, I use the #2 pencil a great deal (Andrew Wyeth did) but also the HB pencil in whatever brand is close at hand.

BRUSHES. I don’t use very many, but one is very expensive–the Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Pointed Round, size 10. I call this my fountain pen, and it retails for about as much as a Montblanc fountain pen. It holds a great deal of water, and the tip is razor sharp. I can draw dozens and dozens of grass blades or weeds without having to refresh my brush, it holds that much water and pigment. For foliage, I use an “ugly brush”, taking a flat chisel watercolor brush of high quality, so it doesn’t disintegrate, and, using an Xacto knife, cut it diagonally, then tear out chunks of the brush hairs, leaving a ragged, jagged edge. This is perfect for tree foliage and tree bark, as it leaves a very irregular pattern on the paper.

O.K., so there is my set of essential prejudices regarding watercolor materials. I welcome any shared information, but will not argue with anyone about whose ideas are better.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

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10 Responses to “For Whatever They’re Worth, My Watercolor Opinions”

  1. Jodi Says:

    I appreciate this as a very newbie. I started trying this before I even knew what was “good” and what was not. I do like the Arches Paper, and I can’t wait to try some good pigments and get a couple quality brushes 🙂


    • davidtripp Says:

      You’re very welcome, Jodi. Thank you for reading. I love talking about this stuff, and do frequently in person. It just never dawned on me to address it on the blog.


  2. Heidi Russell Says:

    Thanks for all the good tips. I’m fairly new at watercolor painting and still feel my way around the various implements. There is so much “stuff” available – and most expensive doesn’t always seem to work the best. So I appreciate any help I can get.


    • davidtripp Says:

      You’re welcome, Heidi. I still fumble around, despite having some firm opinions about what to use now. I think I’ll always be an explorer when it comes to this amazing watercolor world.


  3. anna warren portfolio Says:

    I think a limited palette is such a good way to go – used intelligently you can create almost any colour you want from a few of your favourite staples. I do this for oil painting, and also it gives a cohesion between works, even if you are using very different combinations I find. To me, having a lot of paints or brushes is just confusing! A few of top quality will last for years.Oh, and using artist quality paints is a saving in the long run – the colours are better and they seem to last a lot longer. Thanks David!


  4. createarteveryday Says:

    Thanks for the tips! I’m impressed you work in such a limited palette. I prefer M Graham to WN in strength of color and juiciness. I’ve not been working in WC long enough to judge the permanence of any pigment, but I value your opinion on all! I agree that Arches paper is wonderful, and beats the heck outta anything by Strathmore, although I’d like to try Fabriano paper as well. Thanks for sharing, David!


  5. Skeeter Murley Says:

    David – This is the exact type of info I looked for when I first started out. Thanks for sharing.


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