How They Choose Their Watercolor Supplies: Paper, Pencil, Pigment and Brush
Keiko Tanabe and Thomas Schaller are two of the most sought after watercolorists working today. Their paintings are held in notable private and public collections. They exhibit their works globally and year-round. Both attended the Fabriano in Aquarello watercolor invitational event that took place in Fabriano, Italy in May 2018. As instructors, they have followers worldwide – students and fans eager to absorb their teachings wherever they go.
Here Schaller and Tanabe share their experiences and understandings of watercolor supplies – the essential quartet of paper, pencil, pigment and brush – and unpack a bit of the magic and mystery behind how they put the four together for their own perfect mix.
Keiko on Pigments
The perfect pigments? I expect pigments to be pure and vibrant on paper and contain no fillers. Permanence and lightfastness are equally important so they do not fade over time or when exposed to light.
What’s a brand new painter to look for in a set of paints? Professional grade. Reputable manufacturer. Excellent reviews.
Special advice? For plein-air painting especially, I need to make sure pigments will not dry up too quickly. Honey-based pigments may be the best choice for this purpose.
Thomas on Pigments
What do you use? Since I paint with a lot of water, I use only pigments from tubes because they deliver a lot of tone and color very quickly.
I prefer paints that are more sediment-based rather than dye-based. I love the way particles of the pigment – suspended within the water solution – sink into the valleys of textured paper and float over the peaks. This results in that shimmering, transparent, luminous effect so characteristic of classic watercolors.
What I like about the Sennelier Watercolors is their intensity, light-fastness, and ability to mix. The quality is also remarkable. Since I use a lot of water in my work, they blend extremely well on the surface of the paper, allowing for nuanced and unique transitions of tone and color.
What should a new painter look for? Transparency. Intensity. Color-fastness.
L’Aquarelle Sennelier watercolors have been created in the same way for more than a century using the best pigments and top quality bonding agents. The mix of the natural ingredients and a time-honored production process that stretches back to the time of the Impressionists produces colors with a smooth, bright texture in lively, colorful shades.
Explore L’Aquarelle Sennelier watercolor palette sets designed in the tradition of the famed French Impressionists and Sennelier watercolor tubes, which feature 98 colors (including more than 50 single pigment colors, many unique to Sennelier) that evoke the timeless beauty and vibrancy of Southern France, reformulated with increased honey content for enhanced brilliance and luminosity.
Watercolorists just starting out can look to the “La Petite Aquarelle” student collection: a practical, quality product available at an affordable price.
Keiko on Pencils and Drawing
Where does drawing fit in your process? Thank you for the opportunity to talk about a pencil, which is my favorite tool. I usually start with a drawing as the first step of my painting. I use my pencil marks as important guidelines so it’s essential to have them so I do not get totally lost in the subsequent painting process.
What do you like to feel in your hand when you put pencil to paper? Many say that staring at a blank sheet of paper frightens them. I just feel calm as soon as I hold a pencil and put it to paper. I feel myself being transported to a different state of mind and I start seeing things with an artist’s eye. I consider a pencil to be an extension of my arm and I move it across paper as if I’m drawing with my finger.
Thomas on Pencils and Drawing
Is the pencil the unsung hero in a painter’s toolbox? Because of my own history, my aesthetic, and my technique, yes — the pencil is critical. I even love seeing a bit of the loose pencil sketch through the transparent watercolor as the light underpinnings of a painting. For me, it is all connected.
Is there such a thing as a perfect pencil? I collect pencils and have many different types, from very precise mechanical pencils, chunky aluminum clutch pencils to more standard types. If I had to choose just one, it would probably be the traditional wooden, soft lead sketch pencil that’s been around for ages. It just feels right.
Cretacolor makes a great range of pencils for prep work, some of them being water soluble. These fine art pencils are exceptionally strong, made of high-quality graphite in the traditional hard cedar wood casing, which can be sharpened to a clean, fine point.
Their graphite pencils are formulated to be extra-smooth, easily blended and are available in 20 grades from 9H to 9B.
Cretacolor artists pencil sets reflect the Austrian company’s two centuries of standing as the primary manufacturer of the most comprehensive range of highest-quality drawing materials in the world. These exclusive sets offer a distinct range of artist quality pencils, drawing sticks, and drawing accessories.
Cretacolor’s Artist Studio line was designed with students and beginners in mind and offers graphite pencil collections, watercolor pencil sets and a Drawing 101 Foundation set, all of which include superior quality Austrian pencils perfect for sketching, drawing classes or the creation of formal drawings.
Thomas on Brushes
What’s the brush for you? It depends on the effect I am trying to achieve. For a large wash, the perfect brush will hold a lot of water and pigment as well as keep its shape. For more detailed work, the brush should retain its “spring” and responsiveness and maintain a defined point, regardless of how wet it is.
Ever try something new? I do. There is always much to learn from trying something else. For example, I never used to use flat brushes. I could honestly see no place for them in my work. But while in China last year, I decided to give them a try. My first efforts were atrocious, but now I can’t imagine not using one or two flats somewhere in my paintings. They’ve added another layer of expression to my work that I never realized was missing. And so who knows what I may try next?
Keiko on Brushes
What are you after? The ones that perform beautifully for any kind of technique I would like to use. To do a wash across paper successfully, I need a large-sized brush that is soft and absorbent so I can quickly lay down a clean wash with minimal strokes.
To paint small details, either positively or negatively, I like a stiffer brush that is resilient and comes to a point.
What to look for? Take into consideration type of hair, shape, size, how well a ferrule is made (and how all the hair is held tight inside) and how the brush feels when you hold it.
Favorites? The Raphael Kolinsky 8404 Round Brush is my favorite, with great spring, control and water holding. My favorites became my favorites after I spent considerable time to learn how they work, what they do best, whether they are suitable for my techniques and other materials, and if they help improve the quality of my work.
For more than 200 years, Raphaël has been committed to designing brushes that best meet the artist’s needs. For the watercolorist, the offerings are many.
Raphaël’s natural hair brushes are artist favorites. Its flagship handmade Kolinsky brush features a fine point for precision and a full belly for a high paint load. It is made of the finest Kolinsky sable that is hand washed, sorted and tested, giving it superior resiliency, spring and snap. It has multiple hair lengths to ensure the tightest possible point, and cementing and crimping for the highest quality construction.
The Kazan Squirrel Quill Mop 803 is also another watercolorist must-have. The brush is exquisitely soft yet durable, hand crafted as it has been since the 18th century.
The Softaqua synthetic fiber brush offers a retention capacity equal to no other. The wavy undulating shape of the fiber creates spaces that hold the water molecules and therefore contain twice as much color compared to conventional synthetic fibers, which are straight and slippery.
Precision is a full range of synthetic brushes that look and feel like natural hair sable brushes. Precision has been designed to create the most accurate brush strokes of any synthetic brush on the market. Kaerell brushes are ideal for watercolor, fluid acrylics and most other water-based colors.
Keiko on Surfaces and What Matters Most of All
The perfect paper? A perfect surface performs and delivers regardless of techniques or quantity of water used on it. It should support high-quality pigments in a way to maximize their beauty.
Personally I do not want paper to give me too many surprises so predictability is key. I’d happily try a sheet of paper that is 100% cotton, acid-free, archival, uniformly sized to allow a clean, even wash, and sturdy enough to withstand scratching and scrubbing.
Which of the three matters most? Paper. Poor quality in paper presents too many problems and it is difficult to make a good watercolor painting on such a surface. It doesn’t do your other watercolor supplies justice. It deters the artist’s progress and even discourages some beginners.
Lessons learned? When I was a beginner, I liked using a paper from maker A but without doing much research I bought 100 sheets from maker B when they had a huge sale. Both were professional-grade watercolor paper so I thought there couldn’t be much difference. My first few attempts on paper B failed miserably as it behaved so unpredictably. Disappointed, I switched back to paper A and gave away more than 90 sheets of paper B. Years later I was offered samples from maker B and this time the paper worked for me. I realized I reacted too quickly the last time.
The lesson learned: before buying, do research. Give yourself ample time to learn how to use new materials.
Thomas on Surfaces and Sources of Inspiration
What’s perfect for you? The “perfect surface” depends on the sort of painting I am doing and the effects I aim to express. If I wish to maintain more crisp edges and animated dry-brush work: very textured paper with a good amount of sizing is better.
If I’m going for a more atmospheric look – fog, rain, evening – I may prefer a softer, less textured paper where the pigments mix more within the actual fibers of the paper rather than just on the surface, resulting in gentler blends and an overall softer feel.
I prefer very bright, rough textured papers such as Fabriano Artistico, as it allows the water/pigment solution to float over the ‘peaks’ and the sediment to settle in the ‘valleys,’ allowing for an enhanced sense of depth and a more luminescent transparency. And the transmission of light through the washes is fantastic.
Paper essentials? 100% cotton fiber, with a beautiful texture, and as bright as possible to enhance the natural transparency and luminosity of the pigments. However, choose one hundred different painters and you may get one hundred different answers. The great thing about watercolor as a medium is that it allows for an astonishingly broad range of expressive possibilities.
Which of the three matters most? In watercolor, so few materials are actually needed – a few brushes, pigments, paper, and water – and so all need to be chosen wisely. But I do always tell my groups that if you have to spend money on only one thing, a good quality paper would be that one thing. Even the best brushes and pigments you can buy are no match for an inferior painting surface.
Where does inspiration come from? I am keenly aware of how fortunate I have been to be able to see so much of the world. One person may simply not have the means, or the ability to travel as much as another. And so I never want to leave the impression that I think it necessary to travel to the far corners of the earth to become a good painter.
I do not discount the value of it because I have always been a fairly restless person and love to go wherever I may be able. But there are other ways that we can travel. The expansive effects of travel after all occur primarily within – inside our own hearts and minds. And so it follows, that this can happen anywhere. We can challenge ourselves to look and to see differently wherever we may happen to be. Books, art, music, poetry, film, and our own curiosity and imaginations can carry us to places no airplane could ever hope to reach.
Lessons learned? For me, it’s absolutely necessary to mix things up now and then. In my paintings, the materials are not as important as are the ideas and the expression – the interpretation – of those ideas. So a new brush, paper, or pigment can act as a catalyst for me to stumble upon a new idea or a new way to express that idea. And new ideas – or new ways of looking at old ideas – are key – not only to my painting, but in how I try to live my life.
Fabriano Studio Watercolor paper is made with a blend of high quality lignin-free cotton and cellulose. It is acid-free for stability, and internally/externally sized for optimal absorbance, making it ideal for multimedia techniques such as watercolor, tempera, gouache, acrylic, ink, drawing and markers. It is the select choice for beginning artists and students, and is available in sheets and rolls as well as pads.
Artistico Extra-White is a professional quality paper that features the latest innovations in sizing, and a unique bright white color that is the purest natural white available without artificial optical brighteners. It is mould-made of 100% cotton, double-sized, acid-free/neutral pH, and chlorine-free.
Artistico Traditional is a paper in a traditional white shade with no use of optical brighteners. It is also mould-made of 100% cotton, sized both internally and externally (no animal component), acid-free/neutral pH and chlorine-free. The paper is available in the three classic watercolor surfaces: Hot Pressed, Cold Pressed and Rough.
For those artists who seek the best, there is the Esportazione. Handmade using the exact methods and materials of 13th century papermakers, this is the paper used by Michelangelo and Da Vinci. Four master papermakers are required to make each individual sheet.
Meet the Sponsors
For 30 years, Savoir-Faire has been working to bring the finest art supplies the world has to offer to American artists, including Fabriano paper, Sennelier watercolor paints, Cretacolor pencils, and Raphaël brushes.
Every product line represented has been chosen either for longstanding tradition as a premier manufacturer or as an interesting newcomer with innovative products and ideas.
Through long and committed involvement with the artistic community Savoir-Faire focuses on understanding and meeting the specific needs of American artists.
Savoir-Faire also produces the Pierre Artventure video series, in which Savoir-Faire founder Pierre documents his worldwide art adventures visiting artists and makers in their studios and creative environments.
Meet the Artists
Thomas Schaller is an award-winning artist and architect based in Los Angeles. As a renowned architectural artist, he received a Graham Foundation Grant and was a two-time recipient of the Hugh Ferris Memorial Prize. He has authored three books: Thomas W. Schaller, Architecture of Light : Watercolor Paintings from a Master – a retrospective of his recent artwork released by North Light Books / F+W Media in 2018; the best-selling, and AIA award winner, Architecture in Watercolor (VNR – McGraw Hill), and The Art of Architectural Drawing (J.Wiley and Sons). He also has an art resource collection — Expressive Approaches and Painting Essentials with Thomas Schaller — available now, and as a digital collection! For more information about Thomas, visit his website.
Keiko Tanabe is mostly self-taught and embarked on a professional art career in 2005 when she started exhibiting publicly. In the same year she took a workshop from Alvaro Castagnet and discovered the joy of plein-air painting. Since that year her paintings have been juried into exhibitions across the Americas and in Asia and Europe. Her work has been purchased by private and corporate collectors from all around the world. Her paintings have been published in leading art magazines in the U.S., Europe and Japan. Additionally, she self-publishes her art books and six books have been completed by 2014. For more information about Keiko, visit her website.