After starting out learning to paint watercolors traditionally, with light pencil lines and paint, I have recently discovered I prefer the combination ink lines and watercolor. I like that the edges of objects are clearly defined with the ink lines, emphasizing the drawing as the "bones" of a sketch. Then the watercolor provides the "flesh"--the range of values and color. I find that after making as precise and careful drawing as I can, it frees me up to splash and play with the color, which I love.
In this post I will go through my thoughts and relate my experience with all the various materials used in ink and watercolor sketching, including: sketchbooks, waterproof ink pens, water-soluble ink pens, watercolor brushes, watercolor paints, and watercolor palettes.
When deciding on a sketchbook, there are three aspects to consider: paper, size, and binding. Watercolor, being a wet medium, puts special requirements on the paper so that it won't disintegrate, pucker, or buckle too badly when wet, leading to frustration. Many watercolorists say that the paper is THE most important decision to make, and the place where you shouldn't skimp on expense. Perhaps so. However, if you want to draw your subjects with an ink pen first, this puts additional requirements on the paper. The textured surface of some traditional watercolor papers can make it difficult to move the ink pen across it, which can also be frustrating. So for ink & watercolor sketching, we are looking for paper that is smooth enough for pen-work, but can handle watercolors well. Later I will suggest specific brands of paper and sketchbooks that I find meet these criteria well enough.
The size of your sketchbook is more of a personal preference (as is binding), but generally it should be large enough to comfortably work in, but not so large that you will hesitate to take it with you when you go out. The idea is to USE your sketchbook, and if it's too cumbersome for you to carry for on-location sketching, you probably won't use it as much! I have tried various sizes, from 3x5" to 9x12", and I find that I have settled on the 5.5x8.5" size range. This size fits easily in my purse, yet provides enough room for me to work. If in portrait format (the binding along the longer side), the book opens up to a nice 8.5x11" double-page spread.
There are two basic types of binding, hard-bound or spiral-bound, and deciding on which is also a matter of personal preference. I prefer hard-bound because when I want to work a double-page spread, I don't have a spiral binding dividing it up down the middle. Others prefer the ability to fold back a page in a spiral-bound book, and this is particularly nice if you decide on a larger-size sketchbook (9x12 or greater).
Sketchbooks I have enjoyed for ink & watercolor sketching:
1. Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media Hardbound. I am only three pages into my first one of these and I already love it. This is a relatively new release from Strathmore (mid-2012) and it is now showing up in all the art stores, including Michaels. I appreciate so many things about this book. The paper seems to fit just the right balance of smoothness for pen-work, but just enough texture and sizing and thickness to handle watercolors beautifully. The binding is sewn so it is durable and the pages lie flat and make painting across the gutter (the seam in the middle of a double-page spread) easy. The book itself is nice and compact and fits well into my purse. I choose the 5.5x8.5" size, but larger sizes (8.5x11" and 11x14") are also available.
2. Stillman & Birn sketchbooks (multiple paper options). Another top-quality line of sketchbooks I highly recommend, available at Sarnoff's, Posner's, and various online sources. A true watercolor connoisseur would opt for the thicker papers (Beta, Delta, or Zeta), but I find the thinner papers (Alpha and Gamma) to be just fine, and more cost-effective. This company offers sewn hardbound or spiral-bound books. They come in a variety of sizes.
3. Strathmore Visual Journal (140 lb watercolor or 90 lb mixed media). These books, available for sure at Arizona Art Supply, and probably Sarnoff's and Posner's (?) are spiral-bound and come in a variety of sizes. The 140 lb watercolor paper, because it's more like traditional cold press paper, makes pen-work a little challenge sometimes, but it's still good watercolor sketching paper. The 90 lb mixed media paper is the same 500 series paper in that hardbound book I recommend above.
4. Moleskine Watercolor Notebook. These books are hardbound with a sewn binding. The paper is thinner than traditional watercolor paper, but handles watercolors very well, and though somewhat textured, it's not so much that pen-work is a pain. They are quality-made books. The rub with these is that the binding is on the short side, so a 5x8.5" book folds open to an awkward 5x17" size. Nice for panorama sketches, though.
5. Home-made coptic-bound. You can make your own with whatever paper you desire! Coptic binding is a sewn binding technique that allows the book to lie flat when opened. It's actually easy to do yourself. I have made two books for myself this way, one with traditional watercolor paper (Strathmore 400 cold press) and one with Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper. The Aquarius II paper is great for this because it is thinner than regular watercolor paper (it is 80 lb paper) but is engineered to not buckle with wet media. There is a light amount of texture, but not so much that pen-work is a pain. I do not recommend Arches Cold Press watercolor paper (the most commonly recommended paper to watercolor students) for two reasons: the paper is too rough for pen-work, and when folded it tends to crack. Other people have had great luck binding their own books with other papers, including hot press, which is nice and smooth for pen-work (but a challenge to paint on!).
6. Home-made spiral-bound. Again, you can have your own books made with your favorite paper. Just cut or tear to your preferred size, and take it to an office supply store to have them bind them with a spiral binding. Brenda Swenson has used this method a lot.
7. Global Arts Hand*Book Travelogue [Added November 2015]. This is now my top choice sketchbook for keeping a travel journal. It is hardbound, durable, and relatively compact for easy stowage while traveling. The pages are thin and plentiful, yet can handle watercolor paints very well. In this book, because there are so many pages, I feel free to do a lot of writing in addition to quick sketches to journal my travel experiences.
Waterproof Ink Pens
Since I like to draw with ink pens first, then overlay watercolors on top of that, I need ink pens that contain ink that will not bleed when I touch watercolors to the lines. There are actually several options, including: technical pens, fountain pens, dip pens, and ballpoint pens.
1. Technical pens. I define technical pens as those ones with a tiny felt, nylon, or metal tip at the tip of a long tiny metal tube, and can be disposible or refillable. For your very first waterproof pen, I can recommend a few disposible technical pens, including: Sharpie Pen (not Marker, which bleeds to the other side of the paper), Sakura Pigma Micron, and Faber-Castell PITT Artist Pen. The Sharpie pen is the cheapest and is available at stores like Walmart and Office Max, but the black ink maybe isn't quite as dark as with the Micron and PITT pens, and it only comes in one tip size (Fine). The Micron and PITT pens are a bit more expensive, come in multiple tip sizes, and advertise "archival" ink. Between the two, I think I like the PITT better because I think the tips last longer and they don't dry out as quickly. And, it is possible to refill a PITT pen by removing the butt cap with pliers and adding drops of India ink to the internal foam core.
When you start looking at refillable technical pens, the expense gets higher, and I have read complaints about how easily the tips clog. I have no experience with refillable technical pens, but these include Copic Multiliner, Koh-i-noor Rapidograph, Koh-i-noor Rapidosketch, and Rotring Rapidograph.
While providing a precise and consistent line, one disadvantage to the technical pens in my experience is that the ink doesn't flow as well if you hold the pen at an angle to the paper (rather than straight up).
2. Fountain pens. After using disposable technical pens for awhile, I noticed several sketchers I admire used fountain pens for their ink lines, so I tried it and I am now quite attached to using fountain pens. One advantage is that there is very little to dispose of--you keep the pen and keep refilling it with ink, and the tip never wears out. Another advantage is that when you have the right combination of pen, ink, and paper, the flow of the pen on the paper is so smooth, and is quite a pleasure. Also, the pen can be held at a variety of angles and the pen works.
So when going the fountain pen route you have to select both the pen and the ink. One important note: never use India or acrylic ink in fountain pens. That ink will destroy them. Use fountain pen ink.
There are actually very few fountain pen inks that are waterproof, but there are two I use and can recommend: Platinum Carbon Black and Noodler's Lexington Gray. I know of another sketcher that uses Noodler's Polar Black with great success with watercolors. The Platinum Carbon Black, however, is a pigmented ink (which means there are tiny particles in the ink to create the color), and this can be a problem with some pens. I have a hypothesis that pens that are not sealed well (therefore the ink tends to evaporate in the pen) are not good matches for Platinum Carbon Black, as the ink tends to clog in the pen and make it difficult to clean. But there is one pen that is designed specifically for this ink, is relatively inexpensive, and I have enjoyed: the Platinum Carbon Desk Pen. It's a bit of an awkward shape for traveling with (but a saw will shorten it right up) and has a super-fine tip (and may be too fine for your tastes). Another pen that works well with Platinum Carbon Black in my experience, my current favorite pen, is the TWSBI mini. This pen uses o-ring seals so there is very little ink evaporation. I love many other things about this pen: it starts right up every time, it feels great in my hand and is high quality, easy to refill because it is a piston fill pen, and has a nice compact size. The TWSBI mini comes in a variety of tip sizes, I use the extra fine (EF).
If you use Noodler's Lexington Gray, a more "pen-friendly" ink, you have many more fountain pen choices. The cheapest pen you can get is the Platinum Preppy. It is a cartridge pen, but empty cartridges can be refilled with the ink of your choice using a blunt syringe. The disadvantage of the Preppy is that the plastic is brittle and the cap tends to crack. But they are very inexpensive pens and allow you a trial into the fountain pen world. Up a bit in price, I have a Nooder's pen (Konrad model) that I enjoy, and the nib is designed to flex, providing variable line width. I have Lexington Gray in my Noodler's Konrad, and I regard it as my second-favorite pen-ink combo.
3. Dip pens. This is the "old school" way of putting ink lines to paper. One advantage of the dip pen is that the selection of waterproof inks opens much wider (because you can completely clean the nib after each use, so there is no clogging). There are several india and acrylic inks available for dip pens, in all different colors. Another advantage to dip pens is that, depending on how flexible is the nib, you can get varying line widths, lending a more expressive quality to your drawing. Of course, dip pens have the overhead of daily cleanup, and are not very practical for on-location sketching.
4. Ballpoint pens. Surprisingly, many ballpoint pen inks do not bleed with water. Ballpoint pens are also cheap and readily available. However, the line tends to not be as bold as you might like, with one exception, the Uniball Vision. These create a bold black line (actually too bold for me), and some sketchers like this pen.
Water-soluble ink pens
Sometimes you might prefer to have a pen that does bleed when you touch it with watercolors. This can create a "loose" feel to your sketch. Brenda Swenson addresses this style in her DVD, and her favorite pen is a Tombow Dual Brush Pen in Burnt Sienna (#947). Another fan of this style is Tucson artist Kath Macaulay (www.pocketsketching.com), who uses a Pilot Razor Point felt pen. It seems many Pilot pens work for this technique, as the ink bleeds into lovely shades of gray. Another disposable pen that has water-soluble ink is the Papermate Flair pen.
If you go the fountain pen route, most fountain pen inks bleed when wettened. It's a matter of deciding what colors you like! Two fountain pen inks that I use are Private Reserve Velvet Black (which dissolves into lovely shades of red, purple, and green) and Noodler's Walnut (in which the black component is water-resistant but the golden brown component dissolves nicely).
Again there are a few decisions to make regarding watercolor brushes. The first one, which has significant financial impact, is whether to get synthetic or natural (sable) bristles. Of course, the sable brushes are far more expensive than the synthetics. Whether they are worth it is a matter of debate. Personally, I have one sable brush and I don't care for it that much. Sable tends to hold more water than synthetics, which some like, but I find it difficult to control my water-paint balance. I go for synthetics. Modern synthetics have been designed to rival sable in water- and pigment-holding capacity (particularly those designed with multiple filament sizes), and are far cheaper. Note that some brushes are a blend of sable and synthetic, which you may find you prefer.
The next decision is shape. The round brush is the classic, versatile, all-around shape. The next one typically used is the flat wash. Then after that, they get more specialty, such as the angular and filbert. Most art teachers recommend getting one round and one flat (3/4") to begin with. I personally don't use a flat brush that much.
Then size is the next decision. This is a mixture of personal preference, the size of the sketchbook you are working in, and how well the brush keeps a point. A brush that keeps a tiny tight point can be used for small areas, no matter how big the main body of the brush is. The most commonly recommended round brush size is 8 or 10, and I concur with that. I use a size 10 the most, but I also like to have a size 6 to get into the tighter spots or to drop in colors into my damp wash (without having to clean my #10 brush first). I also have tiny round brushes for the super fine details (like around the eyes of an animal).
Finally, consider portability. If you want to do a lot of sketching on location, you will need a good way to protect your bristles from possible damage in transport. There are two brush types that are designed for on-location painting: travel brushes and water brushes. The travel brush has a handle that screws or pulls off and can be used as a cap over your bristles. There are three brushes I am aware of that do this: da Vinci Travel brush (series 1573 is synthetic, series 1503 is sable), Escoda 1214 sable, and Dynasty Black Gold. I have the da Vinci 1573 in size 10 and I love it so much I ordered a size 5 just the other day. [Added November 2015:] Since writing this article I found my top choice travel brush and that is the Silver Black Velvet Voyage brush. The bristles contain a blend of synthetic and natural bristles to offer me a perfect balance of affordability and brush handling characteristics. I find a fully synthetic brush (like the daVinci 1573) will tend to "plop" paint onto my paper immediately on contact, whereas the Black Velvet brush has just enough paint retention in the brush to give me the control I need.
One portable brush that does not require a water container, but keeps the water in the handle of the brush, is the water brush. These are extremely convenient for on-location painting! The down side is that the largest available is still fairly small, and the bristles of the brush are not quite the caliber of regular traditional brushes. They take some getting used to, also. There are a few brands, Pentel Aquash and Niji Waterbrush being at the top of the quality spectrum. I have tried both and prefer the Pentel Aquash because they are easier to refill, and I've had clogging issues with my Niji. Note that you keep water in the handle, not paint. You use the brush as you would any paint brush, dipping it into your paint. When you need more water, for a more watery wash or to clean your waterbrush, you gently squeeze the handle to increase the flow of water through the bristles.
1. Traditional Round Brush. For synthetic brushes, but I am finding I like the Loew-Cornell 7020 series Ultra Round (black with a red stripe near the brushes ferrule) the best. This is the brand Brenda Swenson uses too. Based on my experience with the da Vinci 1573 travel brush I think the Cosmotop Spin (same bristles) would also be a good brush. For blended synthetic-sable brushes, the Winsor Newton Sceptre Gold II is nice (I have a size 8), but there is also the Robert Simmons Sapphire, too. I had a #10 of the Sapphire, but it's since lost its point.
2. Flat wash brush. As I've said, I don't use this type too much, but I do have a few. One that I recently got because Brenda Swenson recommends it is a da Vinci Cosmotop Spin Series 5080, size 20. It's about 3/4" wide, and holds a lot of water. It's so small and cute, too.
3. Portable brush. If you want convenience, try a Pentel Aquash waterbrush, probably a large. If you want to continue to work with traditional brushes, I really like my new da Vinci 1573 brush. For a portable water container, I recently got a Sea to Summit X-Cup, and I really like that.
Whoa, big subject! I will try to keep it simple, but a free super in-depth source of information about watercolor paints is at www.handprint.com. I used to study that site for hours!
Choosing paints is such a personal preference, gained only from experience, and it's so tempting to buy tubes and tubes of paints when you're a beginner. I think the reason why I ended up with so many tubes of paints was because I see an artist I admire and find out what they use on their palette, and I thought if I just had their paints I could paint like them! (Not true, btw!).
If I were a total beginner again, the first kit I would get for myself is the Winsor & Newton Cotman Pocket Sketcher's box. Even though the paints in them are student-grade (as opposed to artist-grade, which I recommend ending up with ASAP), the quality of the paints are pretty good, have a good range of colors (even though some bemoan the lack of black), and includes a cute little travel brush. And it's not expensive. Most of all, it can become a portable palette you can use for the rest of your painting life! It's made of plastic so it will never rust, the size is so compact you can take it anywhere, it has a good surface for mixing in the lid, and most of all, you can squeeze in your choice of artist-grade tube paints into the pans when you want or need. They will "set up" like pan paints.
If you want to go right away to artist-grade tube paints, the 3 brands I have experience in and recommend are Winsor & Newton, Daniel Smith, and Holbein. These happen to be generally in order of pricing, too (with W&N being the more expensive). The only caveat I have is that Holbein likes to put out multi-pigment paints. If you read through the Handprint site, you'll see that the author recommends getting single-pigment paints generally. I don't quite remember why, but it may have to do with avoiding "mud" when mixing. Even so, I find I might be returning to Holbein for certain paints because they are less expensive, and they seem to not dry out as badly, particularly in our hot, dry climate.
As far as what colors to get, I'd say the absolute bare minimum palette has four paints: yellow, rose (red), ultramarine (blue), and burnt sienna. With these four paints, and a working knowledge of color theory, you can mix up a lot of colors. In discussing which specific yellow, rose, blue, it is important to refer to them by their pigment name/numbers, since different brands call the same pigment by different names. One of my staple yellows is Daniel Smith Hansa Yellow which contains the pigment PY97. Another similar pigment is found in Winsor Yellow (PY154). Ultramarine, no matter the brand, is usually PB29. Burnt Sienna is usually from the pigment PBr7. Red pigments often suffer loss of color from UV damage, but one that does not is PV19, present in Daniel Smith Quinacridone Rose and Winsor & Newton Permanent Rose. There are a couple other red pigments that are also light-fast, but I do not have experience with them. So here I have listed what specific paints I recommend for the bare bones minimal palette, which allows you to mix many of the basic colors.
From there, many artists (including myself) follow the idea of having a "warm" and a "cool" version of each of the primary colors (yellow, red, blue), plus some "earth" and "convenience" colors. I tend towards choosing transparent paints over semi-transparent or opaque. Here are the paints I have chosen for my 18-well palette right now (in spectrum order):
1. Cool Yellow: Daniel Smith Hansa Yellow Medium (PY97).
2. Warm Yellow: Daniel Smith New Gamboge (PY153).
3. Warm Red: Daniel Smith Organic Vermillion (PR188)
4. Cool Red: Daniel Smith Quinacridone Rose (PV19).
5. Even Cooler Red: Daniel Smith Quinacridone Violet (PV19).
6. Violet: Winsor & Newton Winsor Violet (PV23).
7. Warm Blue: Holbein Ultramarine Deep (PB29).
8. Cool Blue: Winsor & Newton Winsor Blue Red Shade (PB15:1)
9. Cool Blue, not as intense: Holbein Manganese Blue Nova (PB15) or W&N Cerulean Blue (PB35)
10. Convenience Green, warm: Daniel Smith Sap Green (PO49, PG7).
11. Convenience Green, cool: Winsor & Newton Winsor Green (PG7).
12. Convenience Dark: Winsor & Newton Payne's Gray (PB15, PV19, PBk6)
13. Granulating black: Daniel Smith Lunar Black (PBk11).
14: Earth Yellow: Daniel Smith Yellow Ochre (PY43).
15: Earth Gold: Daniel Smith Quinacridone Gold (PO49).
16. Earth Orange: Daniel Smith Quinacridone Burnt Orange (PO48).
17. Earth Red-Orange: Winsor & Newton Burnt Sienna (PBr7).
18. Earth Red: Daniel Smith Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet (PR206).
These are just my choices, yours may be different! Each artist's is different.
If you go for tube paints, you will need a palette with separate paint wells to squeeze the paint into. There are many out there, in all varying sizes, and you can even make your own! I've tried many of them, including ones I've put together from Altoids and Altoids Smalls tins. Here is what I recommend in order of portability:
1. Tiny, extremely portable. Like I said, I have made my own palettes using Altoids and Altoids Smalls tins. My method is to buy empty full pans and half pans to squeeze my paints into, and use rubber cement to adhere the pans into the tin. An Altoids Smalls tin will fit 5 half pans, and a regular Altoids tin will fit 14 half pans.
2. Compact, very portable. Again, that Winsor & Newton Cotman Pocket Sketcher's Box is very small and cute. Another very compact set is the metal Whiskey Painter's Palette. A word of caution about metal, though, is that there is a risk of rust.
3. Portable. A inexpensive well-made plastic palette I use for my on-location sketching is the Masters 20-well folding palette. It fits 20 paints, has plenty of mixing area, and isn't any larger than my 5.5x8.5" sketchbook. Very convenient.
4. Portable (depending on the capacity of your sketch bag). A palette that Brenda Swenson uses, and I just recently acquired, is the Heritage Folding Palette (aka Mijello Air-tight Leak-Proof Palette). Being 10.5" long it kind of stretches the limit of portability, but if your sketch bag can accommodate it, this is the one to get. It is inexpensive, well-made, and seals around the edge to help keep the paints more moist. My sketch bag doesn't accommodate this palette, but it is the one I use at home.
I hope this rather long write-up has helped you in your consideration of what materials to get for ink and watercolor sketching!