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Beginner’s Guide to Watercolor – Part 4 Tools and Setup

You finally made it to the end of the supplies and setup! This is the final installment discussing all the tools you need to get started with watercolor. This segment will talk about the extra items you need and some you may want, but aren’t required.


You will need a receptacle to hold water to wet your brushes and your paint. I like to use one jar for clean water, and one jar for dirty water. There are many methods out there. None are wrong, so try things out and see what works for you.  Some use just one container. Some use two, but differentiate them as warm and cool colors.  I sometimes pull a third jar out when I’m working with ink and watercolor. Inky water can get very dirty and murky really fast.

I use these jars that seal for my clean and dirty water.

As far as what to use to hold the water, plastic cups, old jelly jars, tea cups, mason jars, plastic yogurt cups, etc. I like containers with sealing lids so I can keep, and extend my water, and not worrying about spillage. I also have a little eye dropper and small spray mister bottle to help apply clean water to my palette and mixing tray. These aren’t needed, but they come in handy.

Mixing Palette

You need a surface to mix your paint with water, and mix colors. Grab a plate, a bowl, a sauce dish, a plastic lid, whatever! Some surfaces genuinely work better, but any nonporous surface will allow you to mix paint. Your paint may have even come with a surface to mix in. If you buy a plastic or metal palette be sure you prep and clean the surface thoroughly with a scouring pad and dish soap before using.

I love little porcelain dishes for mixing paint.

I have white ceramic dishes I’ve picked up at thrift stores, and a restaurant supply store. They are little sauce bowls and work perfect. I know some people use white ceramic plates.  I picked up a few mixing palettes that are plastic at the art store. They come in handy with my liquid watercolor, but in general I use the paint palette my paint is in to mix on.

This plastic palette has areas perfect to mix paint built in.

Cleaning cloth

You will need something to sop up excess water, clean your brushes, and even lift up water or paint from your paper. Paper towels are easy, but can be quite wasteful. If you really prefer disposable cleaning cloths, try shop towels, or get really heavy duty paper towels so they last a bit. I have old wash clothes and rags from old sheets I’ve made as well. Anything absorbent that won’t fall apart easily when wetted will work.


If you are not working on a watercolor block, you may want to tape your paper down to alleviate issues with buckling while you paint. You can use masking tape, painter’s tape, or even washi tape. Be careful when you remove the tape that you do not tear your paper. Some people reduce the tackiness of the tape by applying it to their clothes, or skin, before applying it to the paper. I don’t find this to be necessary if I use my heat tool, or blow dryer, and as I peel the tape I heat it first so that the adhesive softens. I pull slowly and it works every time.

Masking tape and painter’s tape come in different widths and styles.

Taping your paper can also give you a lovely uniform border that makes your piece look more finished. You will want something to tape your paper to. Absolutely, it can be taped to your table. I prefer to use a clipboard or masonite board so I can lift or move my painting. Sometimes you will be working on multiple pieces while things dry so it’s nice to have a few surfaces. You can get inexpensive masonite clipboards and many stores. You can use several surfaces to tape to, but be aware the surface beneath your painting may affect how long it stays wet, if it holds moisture itself, and how sturdy it is.

These masonite clipboards are inexpensive and found at many office supply stores and art stores in different sizes.

An alternative to taping is to use several binder clips around the edge of your surface and paper.

Additional Supplies

Masking fluid can be helpful to block out and protect the white of the paper while you work. You will need an old brush or silicone tools to apply the masking fluid. We’ll talk more about that in a future lesson, but if you want to pick some up so you’re ready, go for it.  I have Daler-Rowney, Winsor & Newton, and Fineline. I found out that all of mine were some form of liquid latex, so on a whim I borrowed my daughter’s cosmetic liquid latex. It works great. It’s way less expensive too. Be sure to try any masking fluid on the edge of your paper for removal. I have some paper that tears no matter what brand you use.

Mixing in other media can be fun and helpful! Acrylic ink, India ink, sumi ink, walnut ink, gel pens, waterproof pens, acrylic paint, colored pencils, pastels, chalk, gouache, and more can all be combined to create interesting effects with your modern watercolor paintings. Look around at what you already have and gather it together. I make regular use of a white gel pen, and a black fine line style waterproof pen.


There are a lot of other gadgets and gizmos you may find handy, but you certainly don’t need them. I like to have a few brush rests on hand. I hate it when I need to set my wet brush down and I don’t want to get water or paint on anything. My daughter made me some polymer brush rests for this purpose. They will be in my Etsy shop soon!

A light box can be helpful.  Usually I put my sketches on cheap copy paper, pop it on the light pad, and then use a light touch with the pencil to gently trace my sketch lines. I use a Huion light pad I ordered on Amazon. It works great!

Watercolor pencils, graphite pencil, or a light colored erasable lead work great for sketches. I often use a light blue lead in my mechanical pencil to sketch as it doesn’t show up as well in photographs or scans, making it easier to eliminate it when digitizing. You can also use a coordinating color from a set of watercolor pencils and your lines will virtually disappear. It’s difficult, to impossible, to erase if you’ve painted over your lines.

Of course, you probably want an eraser or two if you are going to be doing any drawing with pencil.

A rule, straight-edge, t-square, or compass can come in handy for precise lines. Anything with an even straight edge will work for straight lines if you don’t have a ruler. I prefer a t-square over a ruler as it makes it easy to ensure my lines are straight across the page, but it can also double as a ruler or straight edge.

Set it all up

So now that you have all your supplies in front of you, let me run through basic setup.

First decide your size of your piece and cut, or tear, your paper down to size if you are not working in a sketchbook or on a block. Next, tape your paper down to your table, or board, about 1/4 inch, or 1/2 centimeter, in. You can stretch your paper at this point. This is done by wetting the paper with a large brush or mister bottle until damp, allowing the paper to fully dry. (There are a lot more facts about paper stretching we’ll discuss another day, but that’s the quick and dirty version. )

This paper is taped down to a masonite clipboard, ready to go.

Ensure you have fresh clean water in your jars, your towel, mixing palette, brushes, and paint all in a comfortable location within reach. Move your items around until it is comfortable for you.

Everything seems ready to go. Time to paint!

Next week we’ll be going over some easy techniques to make lovely backgrounds.