the fluid pigments

The cost of watercolor

I’ve seen some rather incorrect comments about watercolor as of late. Most notably about how “it’s fairly inexpensive” so supply cost really shouldn’t figure into cost of a piece too much.

Watercolor is only “fairly inexpensive” if you are using craft quality supplies. Craft quality watercolor pans are made with dyes- dyes that will fade quickly when exposed to UV light. Student grade watercolor paper is generally NOT archival. It uses a buffering solution to keep the acid content in the paper in check- but when that buffer is used up? The paper will yellow and start to deteriorate.

Student grade watercolor is better than craft grade and more expensive. They tend to be chalky, and use more binder or alternative cheaper pigments to make colors. Many of these pigments are not as lightfast or as permanent as their artist grade cousins of the same name. They also tend to be weaker in the wash department due to the lack of pigment in comparison to the binder.

Artist watercolor is EXPENSIVE per tube and not all artist brands are created equal. Tubes can range from $6 USD to $20 USD sometimes more depending on pigment used to make the color and amount of paint in the tube. You’ll find Cobalt, Cadmium, and Quinacridone colors to be more expensive than earth tones or colors labeled “hue.”

“But Ista! You’ll get more than one painting out of a tube!”

Yes, you will. You’ll also find you use some colors more than others and will find yourself buying colors for a singular project never to use them again. You still have to use PAINT and you are using multiple colors per piece. You also have lightfastness of each color to consider. There’s more than just PAINT in watercolor. Watercolor grounds, special mediums for gloss or granulation, masking fluid, special pigments that cost…

STORY TIME!! I remember first staring with watercolor- I had a limited list of colors from my teacher that I had to purchase. I cried. I got 10 colors of the small Windsor&Newton artists watercolor tubes on sale- and it ended being $88. No paper, no brushes. Just the 10 colors of paint.

And we haven’t even gotten to the paper!!

Ah paper- a watercolorists best friend or worst enemy…

The right paper for the job is essential- I already mentioned student grade papers up in my post. Another thing in which not all brands are created equal.

Sizing matters, weight matters, surface matters. Archival quality matters. You want that piece you sell to stand up for a long time right?

Sheets of watercolor paper usually come in 22x30. You have to cut them to size. They come in varying weights- 90lb, 140lb, 300lb, and I’ve even seen monster 400lb paper before. The more water and layers you plan to use- the heavier your paper should be. Most people do well with 140lb weight- I use 140 and 300. The heavier the weight? The more expensive usually. You can get blocks- I use those too.

On average a sheet of 300lb weight paper in the brand I like? $15 USD. 140lb weight? $9. The brands I like are the following because they hold up to layer building and my tendency to scrub from time to time- Arches, Lanaquerrel, Fabriano Artistico. If the paper is NOT sized correctly, the previous layers will become muddy and fuzzy and not retain their nice crisp look underneath your new wash. Yuck.

Then there is the brush factor. Cheap brushes suck. Don’t use them. You will find yourself more frustrated by brushes than probably anything else- particularly if you use cheap brushes. Invest in good to decent brushes- good starting brushes are Utrecht’s 228 sablette series. These are my go to for affordable brushes, or for projects that would otherwise annihilate my expensive brushes. 228 series run in various sizes from maybe 2-3 bucks for a smaller round brush up to 20 or so for the largest of the sizes.

If you really want to go head long into brushes? You want Sable Brushes for watercolor. They are made with the hair/fur of the Sable animal. Yep- sorry all you animal activist artists. I’ve used countless brushes over the years and sable is the way to go. They are also not cheap. I got lucky one year and got a nice set for $70 that had 5 brushes in an overstock sale. Normally the set is $129. I’ve seen singles run as high as $90 (bigger sizes) before.

So figure in supply cost/investment cost- then time. WATERCOLOR IS NOT A QUICK MEDIUM TO WORK IN. I don’t care if you think throwing transparent washes on something is quick. There are a whole lot of decisions to make and it’s not just as simple as “lay it down and done.” My paintings take hours. Watercolor also shifts in color as it dries- meaning that wash you thought was dark enough? It isn’t, it’s too light. That wash of ultramarine blue you just applied tinted your burnt sienna shadows a bit too blue- now you need another burnt sienna layer to fix it. It’s an evolving process watercolor painting.

So TL;DR watercolor is not inexpensive- it’s pretty darn expensive. If you want a piece that will last for a long time? It’s not inexpensive in the supply cabinet, or the time cabinet. The right paper, the right brushes, the right paints all factor into cost. Watercolor, done right, is expensive. Watercolor that will last for years of enjoyment? Is expensive. Do yourself a favor and BUY the correct supplies if you INTEND to sell your work. Buy the good stuff. Your patrons will thank you when the piece they paid for is still beautiful years later in that glass frame. Do not listen to these people who say “it’s cheap- look I can use x supplies that are sooo much cheaper and it still looks awesome.” You GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR IN THE ART SUPPLY DEPARTMENT.