Friday, 17 June 2011

Watercolour Painting on a Budget

Generally speaking  the advice given by nearly all professional artists is to use the best materials. By this they mean Artist Quality paints, 100% cotton papers and Sable or possibly Squirrel brushes. There are exceptions, Ron Ranson being someone who questioned the need to spend the large sums of money necessary to fulfill these recommendations. I suppose they are aiming their advice at either other professionals or serious amateurs but don't - largely - seem to recognize that there is a large - very large - number of hobby painters for whom such materials are either unaffordable or bluntly a waste of money.

As a start what did Ron Ranson paint with before he moved to the USA? With paints he used a limited palette of Winsor & Newton Cotman student quality, Paper was Bockingford, which is made from high quality wood pulp, and brushes comprised a hake and two or three synthetic rounds.

My reading of Ron's approach was to demystify some of the  things surrounding watercolour painting,  one being that you had to spend a fortune on materials. The very finest materials may be beneficial to the talented and experienced artist, who knows how to use them to the best advantage, but is this the case with many amateurs? It is also a fact that quite a few  professional artists paint with either Cotman or a mix of student and artists quality, Bockingford paper and synthetic brushes. The famous British landscape artist Edward Wesson used 140lb Bockingford paper exclusively, then switched to 200lb, which was initially produced specifically for him. He also used, and popularized, such was his influence, what were originally called `French polisher  mops', which I take to be the Isabey range widely used today. Isabey however are not cheap. Various  manufacturers have produced Isabey `equivalents' but in general the original is still thought the best.

Bockingford Tinted 11" x 15" sheet pack

There are some who will tell you not to use Bockingford because it isn't 100% cotton. I also notice on the Ken Bromley website that the artist Trevor Lingard is complaining about recent variable quality, but such complaints are made from time to time about other well-known makes, with claims that quality has deteriorated. Bockingford is available in a wide range of weights and also tinted sheets.

When I first started painting I mostly used the  16" x 12" Bockingford spiral pads. There are several other budget makes, one of the best being Brittania from Hahnemuhle, made from cellulose. I have tried it and thought it fine, especially the rough surface although I wasn't so impressed with the cold pressed. It is very hard sized and so the paint doesn't sink into the paper, remaining bright. I think a lot depends on how you paint. There are others so try them and see how you get on.

I have tried a wide range of papers and have reached a provisional consensus that Saunders Waterford and Fabriano Artistico are my favourites, taking into account cost and quality. I do like Fontenay but the price has suddenly rocketed well out of reach and the Great Art website now talks about it being `handmade'. In any event this is about budget materials so I'll leave it there. According to Ian Sidaway the Daler Rowney Langton is also Bockingford. For the best buy some of the mail order specialists, specifically Jacksons and Ken Bromley, sell special offer packs of Bockingford cut into either half or quarter sheets, 50 or 100, at very keen prices equating to around 30p per sheet for the 11" x 15". Any 100% cotton paper will be more than double that and if you buy blocks even more expensive. Try Bockingford and if you are happy with it why buy anything else? Many professional artists do. I have no knowledge of other budget papers available outside Europe either in Asia or the North American Continent but I'm sure they exist.

Comparison of Cotman Tubed paints (Top three rows) and W & N Artists quality pans (bottom three).

 Can anyone looking at the above say the Cotman results appear seriously inferior? I might add since I did this, several years ago, Cotman has been upgraded and are using better quality pigments, many being exactly the same as the artists range. Another thing we are often told is that it is a false economy to use student quality as the pigment concentration is so much higher in the artist paints. The pigment concentration may well be higher but  this statement is very debatable. A comparison of costs per ml ( Jacksons prices) taking the Series 1 Artists quality price 14ml tube and the 21 ml Cotman gives figures of 48p and 15p respectively. This means that Cotman is less than a third of the cost. Has the artists range three times as much pigment? I think not. Bruce McEvoy of Handprint says actual pigment content in paints varies between 20% to 50%. The differences are variable between different pigments and are not dictated purely by cost. The balance is made up with additives and fillers. A brilliant Chinese artist who uses Cotman paints is Guan Weixing  Have a look at his wonderful paintings. Michael Wilcox says, in one of his books on colours and pigments, if you wish to economize on paints start with the earth colours.

Where you do tend to lose out is in expensive pigments like the Cadmiums,  Cobalts, Cerulean and Viridian. They are replaced by `Hue' equivalents. In the Cadmiums many manufacturers offer additional  `hue' versions as the toxic and opaque qualities of the true Cadmiums are anaethema to many artists. With blue one of the Phalo Blues or Ultramarine is used with added white to make `hue' equivalents of Cobalt and Cerulean Blue.  Viridian is replaced by a  `hue' version based on Phalo Green. Nothing to stop you buying a few Artist Quality as several good professionals use a mixture of the two. See my post on Paul Weaver, a very fine up and coming Bristol artist

I also think two other student quality paints are worth consideration. Van Gogh from Talens (Rembrandt) and Venezia from Maimeri. Maimeri is not easy to get in the UK but Van Gogh can be found with a little searching. Both are available in the USA. In each case, as with Cotman, the range is 40 paints and the same remarks apply regarding the Cadmiums and expensive blues. There may be others but these are the only ones I have experience with. St Petersburg and Shin Han paints come (in my opinion) into a different category - perhaps a halfway house, although both lines have question marks against them, particularly in the use of fugitive pigments, especially St Petersburg, while Shin Han have many multiple pigment paints, with white in quite a number. 

Keynsham Park 16" x 12" Bockingford 140lb Not

This painting was done using Van Gogh paints several years ago. My style was different then or probably more correctly still in a state of flux. Still is to some extent. I think Van Gogh paints are excellent, highly pigmented and a very good budget alternative to the eye wateringly expensive top ranges. Bockingford paper also. I don't present it as a good painting but not a great deal wrong with it. The same comments apply to Van Gogh as Cotman in that you might want to supplement them with a few tubes (or pans) of the expensive blues and/or Cadmiums only sold  in Artists Quality, although in the USA and Canada they are available in Cotman - 10 additional colours in all, slightly more expensive than the normal 40 colours but still very well-priced. Memo to Winsor & Newton. Why not in the UK? No more spurious excuses please.

We now come to brushes and the choice is plain, either animal hair or synthetic. With sable there is a choice of either Kolinsky or Red Sable, the latter generally cheaper. This is simplified because there are several different grades of sable and they vary in quality, depending on gender of the animal, time of year when harvested and also what species the hair comes from. Buy from a well-known source and beware cheap offers of `Kolinsky Sable' brushes. See my post on Rosemary and explore her catalogue online. Red Sable is the budget sable choice and then we move to synthetic/sable mixes. All the leading brushmakers offer a range and they are only slightly more expensive than pure synthetic. Rosemary, Stratford and York and  Pro Arte all make them. The SAA (Society of All Artists) now have a full range of own label brushes and have recently introduced a sable/synthetic. You need to be a member or know someone who is to buy at members prices. Jacksons are gradually increasing their own label brushes and there are some good buys amongst them. I think the Da Vinci Cosmotop Mix B is well worth a look being a mixed hair brush. Rosemary says that both Mongoose and Shiraz are suitable for watercolour. I have a Mongoose fan and it works well for tree  foliage although I don't use it much - perhaps I should. New synthetic brushes are coming onto the market all the time and are getting closer, so we are told, to emulating sable. Certainly some artists prefer the firmer feel of synthetic compared to the softness of sable. Yvonne Harry is one. The Internationally acclaimed Australian artist Robert Wade uses synthetic brushes exclusively, although they are his own signature brand made by Neef.

Paints, paper and brushes are the most expensive materials in painting although you can spend considerable amounts on other items like easels but again the range is vast, both in choice and price. I have previously posted on plein air equipment and admit that I have wasted a lot of money overall  on stuff I use only sparingly, or not at all, so be warned! Unfortunately I'm something of an impulse buyer although I have bought a lot of good stuff  at bargain prices. Art shops and mail order catalogues are full of interesting items but buy only what you really need and don't be seduced by siren voices saying you need this or that, all of which will make you a wonderful painter in a week or two. One tip is to get on the e-mail list of the mail order suppliers who regularly have special offers. When items you use appear buy! If you belong, and it is a good idea, to a local art group buy together to avoid paying carriage charges. I buy for my AVA group and  monitor  special offers.

The same general comments apply to books and dvd's which appear in ever increasing numbers. You can spend a fortune on them if not careful. From the many to choose be selective and buy only those that will be of use, although this is easier said than done. You really have to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Having said all this I will now don sackcloth and ashes and admit I buy (mostly) Kolinsky sables, 100% cotton paper and artists quality paints. I do shop around and buy at the best prices, also special offers which are frequent. For example prior to the January price increase Great Art were offering Fabriano Artistico paper at half price. I bought a shipload. Amongst artists quality paints Daler Rowney are often the best priced. Lukas via Great Art are well priced and so is Maimeri from either Jacksons (only on the website) or Turnham who are cheaper. With Turnham you have a fixed carriage charge regardless which has to be added. In the UK Winsor & Newton are very well priced and cheaper than the American imports Graham, Daniel Smith and Da Vinci. These latter are all very good but expensive in the UK. Jacksons offer well-priced own brand paints, made I'm told by Sennelier. And so on. Watercolour painting is an expensive hobby but you can cut corners and work within a limited budget so don't despair. Unfortunately local art shops tend to sell at full price. Some will give a 10% discount to students and members of local art groups. It is a fact that you can save considerable sums of money, at least 20-30% and sometimes up to 50%, buying from the mail order specialists, of which there are an increasing number. Jacksons, Ken Bromley  and Great Art, all waive carriage charges over a certain amount. Some of the others now seem to be catching on to this. In the USA there are many excellent internet suppliers like Dick Blick, Cheap Joes, ASW, and Jerrys Artarama to name just four. On the continent you obviously have Great Art, who are German, but I don't as yet know of any others. The language barrier is a problem as are carriage charges. I also point out once more that countries outside the EU can order from UK suppliers and the 20% VAT is deductable. Carriage charges will be higher but they will give you a quote and you might be surprised how competitive some of the prices are.

The question of what to buy, especially that between  `best' materials and budget ones never stops. The consensus leans towards the best but as I've said this depends on circumstances. Brilliant paintings have been and are being produced by some very fine artists using cheaper materials.. I think the key thing here is the `very fine'. Their skill enables them to overcome any deficiencies which might be insurmountable to the lesser talented. 

I shall be taking a weeks holiday at Lake Garda in Italy starting tomorrow so no more posts for probably ten days. Comments (and corrections!) welcome. 


Mick Carney said...

Great post Peter. Lots to chew on. I agree about the use of Bockingford/ Langton, ideal papers that deliver a decent surface to paint on. Like yourself I've settled on a mixture of Waterford and Artistico, having had a brief flirtation with Arches and decided that it wasn't as good as the Waterford. In fact the Arches surface was so hard that it was taking a lot of effort to get it taking paint and also wearing out brushes.

As for paint, whilst not having your experience in experimenting with them, I would always advise buying artist quality if you can. Every time I've moved back to student quality I've found a distinct difference in feel and saturation. You don't mention Holbein paints, I've tried a few of these and like them.

With brushes I'm becoming reductionist and carrying only three round sables. I buy Da VInci, Raphael and Rosemary.

Great advice about sourcing materials. One warning for anyone wanting to buy stuff from the States, beware Import Duty.

Peter Ward said...

Thanks for commenting Mick. I agree about buying from the USA. Carriage charges and customs duties are a minefield. Opposite to that buyers from outside the EU get the VAT knocked off and as far as I can tell suppliers like Jacksons and Bromley charge only actual carriage costs not inflated ones.

The only way for us to buy from the USA is if on holiday over there. Then of course if customs inspected your luggage and they hadn't been declared...!!!

As for the paints when I started I used budget makes and then graduated onto artist quality. I don't think I'd go back unless forced to but I can't say I saw any immediate benefit. Still the sands of time dull the memory..... (I do wish we had emoticons on here!)

Peter Ward said...

I didn't comment on Holbein paints in answer to Mick's question. I have tried a few but the problem we have is the price which are generally on the high side. In my humble opinion the best buys in the UK are Winsor & Newton and Rowney, taking into account price and quality.

Ontheroad said...

A wonderful post that I hope many will be read and appreciated widely.

As a Statesider I often find I want watercolour and art materials from GB or the continent and learn all too quickly the price of import and export.

But having done so, and followed watercolourists from here and abroad, I also picked up the Bockingford habit.

My favourite papers match yours, and even with all the Daniel Smith and other watercolour paints I own, Winsor & Newton is still my go-to choice.

Thanks for the post and insights.

Peter Ward said...

Thanks for those comments and welcome to the blog. One of the things I try to do is offer a balanced view, within my own experience naturally, and also pose questions.

Tilly said...

Hi Peter,I must thank you for the informative post,I am a relative newcomer to the world of art materials , I came across your site whilst trawling the net looking for info on brushes.I had not heard of but found there prices more than reasonable and the service was impressive,36 hours from order to delivery beautifully packaged and a free gift,couldnt ask for more!
so I will be reading lots more of your posts for useful hints and tips thanks again.

Peter Ward said...

Welcome to the blog Tilly. I try to be helpful as well as showcase my own humble efforts.

kayness said...

Thank you so much for this very detailed, analytical and very useful information on artist vs. student watercolour materials. i use cotman paints myself (that's how I found your blog, through google search of this keyword) and I'm a recreational watercolour painter (I'm a digital artist by profession, getting back to traditional paints after years of not using it so my traditional paintings is for fun and practice for now) sometimes I wonder if I should get artists grade paints too...

Peter Ward said...

Welcome Kayness, Glad I could be of help.

Oscar Solis said...

Peter, even though it's nearing 2 years since you first posted this I went back and reread this. It is so very well reasoned. I wish more people could read this.

I have to admit that I'm no longer posting on Wetcanvas because of the somewhat dogmatic approach at Wetcanvas when it comes to the whole "artist" quality argument. I realized it was dampening my enjoyment of the place. I'm on the other side of the fence which is "use whatever makes it work for you". I've been using Chinese watercolors, bristol board as well "artist" quality paints and paper. I've never enjoyed painting more.

Peter Ward said...

Hi Oscar. Hope you pick this up. I tend to agree with you about WC. I got targetd by a nasty individual. I gave it a miss for quite a while. I do dip my toe in but feel it is rather like groudhog day - your always back where you started from. Enough of that. I am planning `Watercolour on a Budget Pt2'. The reason being prices have gone up so much since the original article.

Oscar Solis said...

Thanks for the reply Peter. I can't wait to read Part 2.

In regards to WC, what worries me is that new painters who come to it may get scared off from just enjoying painting for it's own sake. As someone who has done a lot of commercial art for twenty-five plus years (and was almost broken by it) I came to the realization that painting should be enjoyable.

Come to think about it I may write about it on my own blog.

Keep up the good works, both in words and pictures.


Anonymous said...

Hello Peter! I just ran across your blog and I'm enjoying it quite a bit. I think these discussions are very useful, especially to a beginner like myself. I've dabbled in drawing and watercolor for years, but I'm on a quest to start taking it more seriously.

As it is, I'm basically using whatever materials I can afford, which means Cotman's and which work fine for my limited skill level. Our household has a tight budget, so I'm not sure if/when I would be able to graduate to artist quality paints.

You know, the comments on this post are interesting and I'm having a slight bit of deja vu. I play guitar and years ago used to frequent various musician's sites but tired of the advice (too) often being given to beginning players on the message boards. Essentially many of the veteran players would convince inexperienced players that they needed thousands of dollars worth of equipment to start playing, which just isn't the case. To me "the best" isn't necessary when "good enough" is often what's practical.

The expensive equipment, whether painting or playing an instrument - and I'm sure this applies to countless other hobbies, as well - while nice, often represents a reality where shopping and buying "stuff", whether needed or not, has become an integral part of the hobby. And hanging around message boards and websites with other hobbyists will often help you to decide that you need more stuff.

Anyway, thanks for all the useful information!


Peter Ward said...

Hi Andy. Thanks for comments. I did a second piece Pt2 - I don't know if you've seen that. It attempted to bring things up to date.

Jayelle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Ward said...

Thanks for comments Jayelle. Keep painting!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Hello, this is one of the most thoughtful articles I've found on paints. I have read elsewhere some similar sentiments on Cotman from very experienced painters who should know, but then there is a lot of prejudice against them from "serious" artists. Now I'm minded to give them a run and appreciate your advice about supplementing in the case of more expensive paints.

I have another question that I haven't been able to solve. I live in the US and there are books (Arne Isaacson) and brush sets that I have not been able to find how to buy at any price. Nordic painters for example use a different set that seem to consist of a mop brush, a sword liner, some kind of angled brush and other things atypical to the US market. I cannot find how to buy any of the Royal Talens brushes (or ANY equivalent) or any nordic books from the states. Does anyone know, is there a way?

Peter Ward said...

Thanks for comments Blake. I' afraid I can't help on books but you can buy a huge selection of brushes from UK internet sellers like Rosemary & Co and/or Jacksons. As purchases outside Europe don't pay VAT (20%) I think you'd find the prices including carriage at cost very reasonable.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so, so very much. I wasn't aware I could order from those sites. I subscribed to your blog and look forward to reading more of your musings! It's so refreshing, so interesting to read discussions about this art that aren't really based on those unexamined prejudices we so quickly acquire, from hearsay or teachers, but really exploring things, trying things, thinking about them.

Peter Ward said...

Glad I could help.

tigre said...

Excellent post. Art is not something you buy. It comes from your own creative spirit, and your understanding and application of foundational principles. Form, composition, light, colour theory... Tools are a means to an end, not the end itself. Better quality may make the path easier but if you truly want to make art you will use whatever you have at hand. Most materials snob are relatively rich, retired middle class people who want to keep art the preserve of their own clique who use only the 'correct' tools.

Peter Ward said...

Sorry Tigre I've just picked this up. Thanks for your comments.

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Tash Jackson said...

I definitely agree about some of the people on wetcanvas! I think they care more about how much money people are spending than they care about art.

Pooper said...

Peter, I post you this question more as a last resort, though this thread seemed most appropriate given my desire for budget-conscious acquisition of my art supplies. Perhaps your experience can offer some insight.
I came across an offering on eBay for sets of 24 10ml tubes of "Windsor & Newton Professional Watercolor" for what frankly was a ridiculously low price. Englush type for logo and brief descriptive & ideogrammatic writing (appears to be Chinese) otherwise. The product photos show a barely readable paragraph indicating "By arrangement.."etc.
A brief inquiry to the seller brought the response that they were "OEM" w/ no further detail.
So: I know W&N does some manufacturing in Asia, as well I know that even cheap watercolors can produce satisfying results, what --if I may ask-- is your opinion of this, which MAY be simply W&N'S Asian manufacturer offering locally branded product on the Int'l market, OR a Chinese factory that makes said product selling essentially an unauthorized knock off? I cannot find any reference to W&N manufacturing minutiae so I thought I'd burden you with this...