... mainly with the help of this site and willing artists who kindly addressed my querries about supplies and technique, and offered tips about things on which I never even thought of asking in the first place. I don't know if this will prove useful to anyone who watches me, but it's somewhat like a starter guide for watercolor.
My interest in watercolor probably started with Naoko Takeuchi's Sailor Moon artbook illustrations. But my interest was mostly in its aesthetics. I never really thought of trying it until a few years ago, and even then I was just too intimidated by the idea of it as some kind of uncontrollable medium. Plus, I didn't know how to get started. I didn't know what I needed to know, what questions to ask in order to buy what I needed without wasting my money on something I wasn't sure I was going to be able to do. Because we all know how expensive art supplies are and how some hobbies don't even last a month. So it took me a while before deciding to overlook my fearful admiration of this fluid medium.
Eventually, what helped me a lot/got me started was this one watercolor artist (outside of dA) whose work I had been following for a while. She knew from her own experience the pitfalls of wanting to buy everything in the shop when you first start. So she kindly gave me a sweeping yet generously detailed overview offering me advice and tips on materials and her opinions on what was important. It was so detailed and helpful that most of those tips still apply for me. But I have since also learned and developed my own opinions, and although I'm not talented at watercolors or drawing, I will share some of my thoughts for any watcher who kind of has an interest in watercolor but doesn't know how to start and just needs that little push.
You'll hear this often: expensive paints = quality paints. Yes, it's true. Expensive paints have more pigment and less binder and fillers; they also generally have greater lightfastness (resistance to fading from light), etc. But I see nothing wrong with starting out with cheap/studio/student paints. 1) If you're testing it out, why would you want to splurge on a whim that might not last a month? 2) Budget! Not everyone has the cushion in their budget to allow indulging on expensive supplies. 3) You know the saying… a bad workman blames his tools.
To start yourself off, it's easiest to just get a basic kit/set. Saves you decision making on colors and such, and they come with their own mixing area.
Tubes vs. Pans - There is no difference. In fact, I only use my tube colors as dried cakes (the same form they are in half and full pans). I just squirt them out and let them dry on my palette. If you don't do a lot of large-sized painting, half pans will last you a long time (there is barely a dent on mine after 2 years).
Liquid watercolors- I've never used them, but it's the same thing. You just have to skip the rehydration part. I also imagine it's more expensive in terms of volume/cost. Since I've never used them, I have no real opinion on them. Though some liquids use dyes rather than pigments in their composition.
Natural vs. Synthetic- Natural brushes are normally more absorbent; they will mop up more water and make laying a wash easier. Synthetic brushes are usually stiffer and have better bounce (this I like for precision). I normally buy synthetic simply because they are cheaper. Inexpensive natural brushes do exist, but their hairs tend to come off easily, which gets annoying very quickly.
Waterbrush- Also referred to as a waterpen. The back serves as a reservoir and squeezing it will release water through the brush tip. They are very convenient and easy to use because you never really have to reload your brush with water. I haven't tried plein air painting yet, but these brushes are perfect for those types of outings since they don't take up the length of a normal brush because they twist apart.
Sizes- Because I mostly do small art cards, my brush arsenal consists of mini brushes (short, chubby handles). I also like quill and mop brushes to do a large area wash. In general, I think you want something you can lay big washes with (like skies or base washes) and a round brush (versatility of color filling to detail work).
I don't have much experience with paper. It is, however, the one thing I can justify paying more for when it comes to watercolors. Very cheap papers tend to pill and break. It doesn't take much to overwork these papers beforehand through erasing/sketching or afterwards when you lay water to paper and pill it with a lot of brush work. Good paper makes an infinite amount of difference.
Types- Cold press (NOT), hot press (HOT), and rough. Hot press paper is smooth and absorbs the quickest. So you don't have much time to push the colors around. Rough is the one with the most texture (tooth). Really tough to do preliminary sketching on this one because of all the tooth so it gets dirty from too much erasing and smudging. Cold press is in between these two, a happy medium. However, NOT and rough qualities really depends on the maker. For example, Arches' cold press is on the rough side compared to Canson's cold press. There are all types and brands, and their individual qualities will affect your painting. From the smoothness of the paper to the brightness (bright white, yellowish white, grayish white), these will all have an effect to the final look of your work. This is something I need to explore more of myself.
Weight- Some people point out how important this is as the heavier it is, the better it takes water, i.e. less buckling. I've never stretched my paper, but supposedly stretched paper will not buckle. I just paint as it warps because I'm too lazy (and stretching sounds like a hassle).
Palettes- The stuff you mix your colors on. I much prefer flat, sectioned palettes to well palettes. It gives you more room to mix paints rather than colors allocated to individual wells. Plastics will stain, but porcelains are more expensive. Even with a watercolor kit, I feel like I always need more mixing space. There are some plastic foldable ones that are only a few dollars, which even have individual wells in case you want to make yourself another kit with your own colors.
Masking fluid/frisket- Very useful for saving white areas, but can be temperamental. Always, always test it before using it on a new paper brand. You don't want to end up with a ripped painting you've been toiling over.
White gel pen- More handy than expected.
Old toothbrush- For splatters.
Paper towel- or tissue, or a sponge. I don't really find synthetic sponges helpful, but any kind of thirsty paper helps when you want to soak up a mistake or lighten a wash.
Paints are toxic. Don't eat a sandwich while painting, wash your brushes and paint containers along with your dishes, or leave it on your skin too long. This stuff is made of minerals, chemicals, plasticizers... you don't want to ingest these. Just think of the original actor that played the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, he had severe allergic reactions to the content of his make-up that landed him in the hospital with collapsed lungs! Not to say that it will happen to you, just to emphasize that paints are indeed made of toxic materials.
Things I've discovered for myself about watercolors:
+ In actuality, a very forgiving medium; I never would've thought this before trying it. "Erasing" recent mistakes can be done just by adding/scrubbing with water.
+ Attractive results for minimal effort. It's not hard to make it look good. It does that on its own, reflecting above point.