Be Arthouse Cool for Pennies – Learn to Paint Watercolor Anywhere

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Roitan box

One day I lamented that my life was lacking old-school artfulness, and I wanted to take up some art form that was compact, inexpensive, and that I could do anywhere. I thought I’d try watercolor. It proved to be less difficult than I’d thought, with the right instruction which I found for free. Here’s how I successfully got started:

Watercolor requires as a bare minimum, paint in three colors (red, yellow and blue) from which you mix all colors, a paintbrush, water, and paper. After some experimentation I came up with a nice inexpensive kit that resides in my small handbag ready to use whenever I sit down with coffee to kill an hour. Watercolor can be easy to learn with the right resources. We’ll get to learning how to paint in a minute. First, gear up for a life as a traveling artist. Get:

  1. a paintbox and a travel brush,
  2. two watercolor paper blocks,
  3. pencil with a vinyl eraser,
  4. a couple free paper cups,
  5. a couple free restaurant paper napkins,
  6. a rubber band.

Really. That’s all. Later add some more sawed-off brushes and a bottle of frisket.

Your Paintbox:

Van Gogh paintbox

Pocket paintboxes with half-pans of good cake watercolor run between $18 and $120. Yes, $120. The high-priced ones seem nuts until you fall for their Lilliputian cuteness, all “Andrew Wyeth Meets the Transformers.” Resist. The cheaper one will serve you for a long time, with a nice sable travel brush and good quality paint with a defining vibrance. I use the Van Gogh 15 pan set which I got on sale with a major coupon for $13 though you’ll probably be looking at more like $25. You can go cheaper yet with dollar store novelty sets, knowing that the paint has less pigment and more binder, and the brush will not perform well. It will work if you want it to. Look for sales and try to get a better one, though.

Pans and Colors:

Paint in pans is easier to use than tube paint then traveling, and you can refill half-pans with better-quality tube paints later when your growing skills demand it. (I also like “free sample day” when Daniel Smith in Seattle is introducing stupendous new paint colors, and hands out small dabs in jars, just big enough to put into an empty half-pan.) Though you really only need six paints to start (warm and cool red, yellow and blue), more colors means less mixing and faster painting. I carry about 15 colors. I tossed the black and white cakes that came with my kit, and added sap green and olive tube paints to the empty pans.


Travel Brush
Brushes can be expensive. You’ll want one good sable or sable/synthetic travel brush to start. My Van Gogh paint kit came with a #3 round travel brush that’s excellent to work with, springy and loads paint well. I found three flat “camel” brushes for $2, and though they tend to shed hair onto the paper, they’re fine for washes and wetting the paper. You can shorten a paintbrush for your travel kit by sawing off the handle, sanding it to a rounded shape, and dipping the end into a bottle of nail polish.Here’s all you need to know about choosing brushes, from Dick Blick.


Arches WC Postcard Pad

You may want to have two paintings in play, working on one while the other dries. I usually carry two sizes, 4″x6″ postcard and 6″x9″. Good watercolor paper can be expensive. You can choose from pads and sketchbooks but a better option is to get (or make) blocks. Blocks of paper have the edges glued into a stack, so the paper doesn’t buckle and it works as an easel. You can buy blocks or make your own from bargain pads and Gum Arabic.


Gum Arabic

Apply Gum Arabic to the edges of a watercolor pad, leaving a gap of about an inch in a corner to free up the sheet with a knife when you’re done with it. I found a great deal on pads of paper at Daniel Smith and they loaned me a bottle of gum arabic to glue up the edges. I love that place. Rubber cement might also work if you can’t find (or don’t want to pay the high price for) gum arabic.



You’ll need two cups of water. One is for cleaning the brush, the other for adding water to the paint. At the coffee house ask for some cups of water and get a handful of paper napkins while you’re at it.

Learn technique – copy things you like:

Finished Watercolor

Gearing up is done, and now to the happy task of learning to paint. The Van Gogh and Cotman paint boxes come with a with a leaflet on how to paint a little landscape, which renders a pretty nice first painting. My friend Marcia and I tried one and were happy with the results, although I kept thinking of the Magritte painting called “This is not a pipe” (Ceci n’est pas une pipe), so it was with our landscapes which were really paintings of a photo of a painting of a landscape. Nonetheless, getting the hang of applying paint is more gratifying when the end result doesn’t look like the dog’s breakfast. My best hints to the complete novice:

  1. Choose a workable subject you can complete in one sitting.
  2. Use fairly dilute colors, let them dry and layer on more.
  3. Learn color mixing; make a chart.
  4. Check out instructional books at the library.
  5. Your painting is done after four paint/dry cycles. Don’t flog it. (This guideline is aimed at the obsessive. Flog it as much as you want. It’s your painting.)

Pithy Paintbox Conclusion:

At the end of the landscape painting tutorial on the leaflet inside the Van Gogh pocket paintbox, it advises, “Should you still not succeed despite these tips, have a look at a book on watercolours, or perhaps join a watercolouring course.”

There’s this English guy at who has Watercolour Secrets – The Complete Watercolour Instruction Course on line which I really like. I tried the free eBook and watched the useful lesson videos on the blog.

About Leslie Strom

Stand out. Be bold. Prove you exist. I try to do this in web design, writing, publishing, and with my frequently bad ideas. Since I spend about 85% of my time collecting information and am willing to set myself out as a human cautionary tale, I think you might enjoy the enlightening (or not) tinkertoy workings of my mind. Welcome!
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One Response to Be Arthouse Cool for Pennies – Learn to Paint Watercolor Anywhere

  1. Pingback: Working Small: Refining Your Perfect Pocket Watercolor Travel Kit | This Offbeat Life

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