The essential watercolor supply list

If you’re thinking about getting into watercoloring, I’ve got a list of supplies that will fuel your creative adventure - without breaking the bank!

I’m giving you all the details on what to look for while shopping so you don’t feel lost.

You can completely stock up with everything you need for under $40 - even less $ if you snag some supplies on sale. You can grab my downloadable shopping list here!

What watercolor supplies should I buy?

When I first started watercoloring, I had NO idea what supplies to buy.  

There are SO many options out there and you could easily find yourself with a $$$ bill at the checkout line.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time (and money) figuring out what works best...and what you don’t need at all!

The essential supplies to get started are:

  • watercolors

  • brush

  • paper

  • waterproof pen

  • pencil 

  • eraser  

If you want to travel around with your watercolors, you can add in a sketchbook!  You could also buy a “water” watercolor brush - which is basically a watercolor brush with water stored in the handle for easy transport - to round out your travel set.

Let’s dive into each of these supplies! 

The essential watercolor supplies


There are two types of watercolors: colors in a pan, and colors in a tube.

The pan watercolors are essentially dried versions of the colors in a tube.  You can actually buy tubes of watercolors, squeeze them into pans, let them dry, and you have the same thing!

As a beginner, I’d recommend watercolor pan sets because

  1. They’re affordable

  2. No mess or setup required

  3. They travel well

Now, which watercolor pan set to choose?!

There are 3 levels of watercolors - artist/professional grade (best), student grade (great), and the budget sets (not so great, typically sold in large sets of colors).

I always recommend student grade over budget set watercolors for beginners.  They are typically only a few dollars more than the budget sets but they will make your watercolors SO. MUCH. BETTER.  

How do I know the difference between a budget set and a student-grade set of watercolors?

Usually, the budget sets have a TON of colors in one set for $5-$10.  You’ve seen them before - circular pans of chalky colors in every shade of the rainbow.

These budget sets are totally fine to use if you already have one at home.  I’m all for using what you’ve got!  But if you’re just starting out or want to upgrade a bit, I highly recommend grabbing a student-grade watercolor paint set.

Student-grade sets typically have about 12 colors in a pack for around $10-$20.

It might be tempting to grab ALL THE COLORS over a 12-pack set but go with the smaller set when starting out. 

Having a 10-12 color set is like learning to drive on a golf cart vs learning to man a spaceship (a large color set).  Start off easy (around 12 colors) and experiment with those before diving into a big set of colors.

My favorite student-grade watercolor sets are the Winsor and Newton Cotman series.

You can find these watercolors in different sets of 12, 14, or 24 colors depending on your budget.

The Cotman line is Winsor and Newton’s student-grade watercolors.  Regular Winsor and Newton watercolors are “professional” which is also known as “artist grade”.  I love the Cotman line because it performs just as well as the artist-grade line - even trained artists have trouble spotting the difference!  Cotman is widely available and usually easy to find on sale.

Other great affordable brands: Koi and Lukas Aquarell.

What to look for in a watercolor set:

  • Student-grade quality

  • 10-14 colors

  • 1 of each primary color minimum (red, yellow, blue)

    • Ideally there are two of each primary color: a purply-red, an orangey-red, a sunny yellow, a lime-ish yellow, a purply-blue, and a typical blue.  This will give you the ultimate color mixing capabilities!

  • Avoid the word “opaque”.  

    • Some sets will mention they are “opaque” colors - meaning they perform more like regular paint and have less of the watercolor look that we ultimately want!

  • If you have the choice between a set with a traditional watercolor brush vs a “water” watercolor brush (water is stored in the handle) - go for the set with a “water” watercolor brush.  However, don’t worry so much about choosing a set that comes with a brush.


Contrary to what you might think - you only need one brush to get started.

Like the watercolor set, I’d recommend buying a one good brush over multiple cheaper brushes.

If you purchased a watercolor set that came with a brush, you can definitely use that brush to get started.  If you’re able, however, I’d recommend scooping up one higher quality brush to use with your colors.

A good watercolor brush can make your watercolors easier and more enjoyable to use!

What kind of brush should I get?

My #1 brush pick is a Da Vinci Nova series round #6 brush.  

Now, some stores might not carry that brush or there could be a good sale happening with another brand.  Here’s how to shop for a similar brush: 


Look for a “round” brush.  Brushes have different shapes - you’ll see brushes labeled as round, bright, filbert, rigger, etc.  

Go with the round brush and look for one with a good point on the end!  A good round brush will maintain that point while painting so you can use the brush for both large spots of color and finer details.


Brushes come in different sizes.  You’ll see a number on the brush handle indicating its size.  The smaller the number, the smaller the size of the brush.

I’d recommend a size #6 as your first brush.  Unfortunately, brush sizes are a little like women’s clothing sizes - frustrating and all over the map.  One brand’s #4 brush might be the same size as another brand’s #6 brush.  Find one in the #4-#8 range that feels good to you!

If you have a choice between a long handle or a short handle, I always go with the short handle.  

Synthetic vs natural hairs/bristles

Brushes can either be made out of natural hairs or synthetic hairs.  I’m team-synthetic hair brushes.  They are more affordable than natural-hair brushes and they perform about the same. 


You’ve spent a little more on watercolor paints and a here’s where you should SAVE!  Watercolor paper.

Watercolor needs a certain type of paper to work’ll be smearing water all over the page.

Think about spilling water on your notebook or a pile of printer paper - it’s ruined, right?  You’ll want to use paper that’s intended for watercoloring.

My favorite beginner watercolor paper for beginners is the Canson XL or Strathmore 300 Series pads of paper.

These brands aren’t expensive, especially the Canson one.  You can grab a big pad of 9x12 inch Canson paper for only a few dollars.  They are nice enough to withstand normal watercoloring but cheap enough where you can mess up and not feel bad about it!

When I first started watercoloring, I found that I always gravitated towards my cheaper paper over the nicer paper because I was okay messing the cheaper stuff up!


If you want to add lettering or outlines to your watercolors, you’ll need a waterproof ink pen!  My go-to pen is the Micron brand.  You can get a pack of 3-5 with different sizes in most stores.  If you can only get one pen size, grab the #03!

Make sure the pen is “waterproof” and not “water-resistant”.  Water-resistant pens might smear a bit when you’re adding watercolors over it.


If you want to sketch out a drawing before adding color, you can use any ol’ pencil.

I use a wood pencil (graphic H to be exact) because sometimes that sharp mechanical pencil lead can scratch my paper up.  A basic wood pencil works too!  If you use the mechanical pencil lightly it can work just fine as well.

However, erasers are NOT created equal.  Most generic mechanical or wood pencils have a basic eraser on top that never does the job very well.

Do yourself a favor and grab a high-polymer eraser!  These guys will cleanly erase any pencil marks without tearing up your paper!  

My favorite is the Staedtler brand and they are only $1-$2 and last FOREVER.

The fun-to-have extras

You can pick up all of the essentials for under $40!  If you manage to find some things on sale or have a few extra dollars to spend, you can snag these fun-to-have extras to round out your beginner watercolor supplies!


If you want to take your watercolors out on an adventure, you’ll likely want a sketchbook over toting a larger pad of paper around.

Look for a sketchbook with watercolor paper sheets!  I also like the kind that is hard-bound (I’m anti-spiral; spirals always get caught on stuff in my bag) and will lay flat when open.

My favorite brand currently is the Handbook Journal Co Travelogue series!


The Winsor and Newton set comes with this travel watercolor water brush.  A water brush stores your water in the handle of the brush.  Just give it a squeeze and it releases the water you need to paint - no need for a separate bowl/cup!

The water brush is great when you want to paint while on a bumpy train/plane/car ride and don’t want water sloshing all around.

I personally don’t use my water brush all that often and stick to a traditional brush with a water cup.  I have used the lid of my watercolor set as a cup if I’m painting out and about!

My pick: Sakura Koi Water Brush - Size 6

If you want all of this info in a shopping list format, complete with links on where to buy them - grab my free shopping list below!

As always, let me know if you have any questions!

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