The holiday season is gearing up. Every year, around this time, people start asking me what they should gift to the artists in their lives. in particular to loved ones interested in watercolour. I always find this such an awkward question, because art materials (and budgets!) are so individual!
I’m going to be blunt for a moment. If your artist is a professional watercolour artist who has been working in the medium for a while, I would stear clear of gifting paints/brushes/paper unless they have requested a specific item or you are VERY familiar with their practice and favourite/coveted materials. Artists can develop very specific preferences and each artist is unique
However, here are a few products that caught my eye as good quality giftables for artists of all levels:
This is set of 12 watercolour (whole pans !) in a plastic carrying case, made by St. Petersburg White Nights. White Nights is marketed as a professional grade paint, and have a bit of a cult following among students and other deal-seekers, who value their very low price point (below most student brands) and easy-to-rewet, saturated colour.
I would hesitate to classify White Nights alongside other artist grade paints, primarily because the brand (and this set) feature quite a large number of pigments that have been phased out by other watercolour brands for poor lightfastness.
However, the paints are a pleasure to use, very easy to rewet, and are bright, strong colours. For a university student who is using watercolour primarily for sketching and non-archival class work, White Nights definitely offers a great product at an amazing price.
This set of 12 whole pans packs a whole lot of paint (including some expensive cadmium pigments) into a portable, affordable package, perfect for the student on the go. It is a great first palette for a new artist, or a great stocking-stuffer upgrade for someone who has been painting with student-grade/craft paints.
My two favourite art instructional books, hands down, are both by James Gurney. Gurney is the illustrator behind the Dinotopia series, a well-respected urban sketcher/plein air painter, and has also done work as an illustrator for large publications such as National Geographic.
My most referenced art book of his, Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter is absolutely packed with information. It is an extremely useful reference book for even the most advanced, professional painters, but is also clear and understandable enough, with lots of illustrations, to be useful and inspirational for even complete beginners.
The first part of this book deals with different kinds of light sources and lighting conditions, from sunny days, to indoor candlelight, moonlight and luminescence. For each type of lighting, Gurney gives illustrated examples, and tips about how to visualize and represent this kind of light in a painting.
The second section of the book deals with colour choices in painting, from choosing pigments, to gamut mapping, effects of colour on the mood of a scene, contrasts, etc. The final section of this book deals with special lighting effects – dappled sunlight through leaves, reflections, shiny surfaces etc. Again, the whole thing is thoroughly illustrated with great examples.
The second book of Gurney’s, Imaginative Realism: How to draw what doesn’t exist is equally good, but less relevant to me personally because I mostly draw what is directly in front of me. It is a great reference for any fantasy artist or paleoartist looking to bring realism to their work with useful advice on finding and altering references, building models, lighting conditions, blending reality with inventions, etc. It is also useful for botanical and other realist artists as a reference for how to work with imperfect references (painting subjects out of season, building compositions, etc)
Watercolour is a great medium for sketching with, because it is so compact and portable. However, most sketchbooks contain lighter weigh paper which will warp and buckle when painted on.
If you know someone who sketches regularly and recently started watercolour, consider gifting them a sketchbook in their preferred size from Stillman and Birn
The Beta series has a lightly textured surface between a standard cold press and hot press watercolour paper. It is a beautiful, heavyweight paper which takes watercolour well but is smooth enough to draw pen/pencil details on and write on easily as well.
This 8-colour mini travel-palette can actually fit up to 12 regular half-pans, and it comes with a built in water flask and clip-on water cup, all in a quarter the volume of the two 12 pan sets above.
The Schmincke branded palette I linked is a good option for an artist who is just starting out with plein air/urban sketching in watercolour, and doesn’t yet have an artist quality travel set.
If your giftee is a serious hobbyist or artist who has been sketching outdoors for a while, they may already have paints they prefer to use. However, most urban sketchers would still appreciate the small form factor of this box.
In this case, it may make more sense to buy a cheaper empty version of this palette. The same palette is available as an empty tin with and without the built in water flask at Cornellisen’s
I own the version without the flask, and it is my everyday carry palette. I love how compact this palette is, and how all kinds of different brands of half-pans (which are all subtly different sizes) are held neatly and securely by the simple fastening system.
This may not be the cutest or most glamourous gift, but it can make the biggest difference in an artist’s life.
When I became a full-time illustrator, within a couple of months I was experiencing chronic tightness in my shoulders and shooting pains in my spine from hunching over large, detailed watercolour pieces for long hours at a time.
My tabletop easel/drawing surface was a belated birthday gift, and now I can’t imagine life without it. I am looking at buying 2 more – one for my secondary desk at the studio and one for home.
A large size and adjustable angle are key to a good desk easel but the brand is not important – due to the large size of these, you may find a cheaper alternative locally than Amazon shipping outside of the US and Canada.
Botanical artists tend to share slightly different paint preferences than other watercolour painters such as landscape or portrait painters.
Botanical painting tends to involve lot of bright, vibrant colours to render the full range of colours seen in flowers, leaves and fruit, as well as a high focus on transparent colours with excellent glazing properties.
This selection by Billy Showell contains a great range of vibrant and transparent colours selected for painting botanical subjects.
Although my own colour selection is quite different from this set, when I was just starting out in botanical art, these colours would have been much more satisfying and fun to work with than the generic starter set I had. The colours in this are mostly single pigment paints, mostly transparent with a good range of hues, and no white/black/blackened neutrals.
Sennelier is a good, artist quality brand – their honey-based paints are known for rewetting easily and glazing beautifully, perfect for many botanical art techniques.The paints in this set would all fit neatly in 12 half pans in the itty bitty Cornellison tin linked above, for a really indulgent gift for the ambitious beginner!
Remember when I said “you shouldn’t buy paints/paper/brushes for an artist, we mostly already have specific preferences”?
This is true, but the exception is over-the-top giant sets full of pretty artist-grade colours. Luxurious wood boxes with perfectly fitted ceramic palettes also help. I know very, very few artists who wouldn’t look at a set like this one and be delighted.
I already have all the colours any regular human needs. My studio palette is larger than this one and contains a personalized selection of colours from many different brands. This set contains lots of colours I have no intention of buying, or have tried and don’t use much. It is not remotely a sensible purchase, and yet it makes me drool.
In a similar (and slightly less indulgently priced) vein, Sennelier also makes a lovely set of 48 half pans. Theirs is presented in a tin palette.
One design element I really love about Sennelier sets is that they all come with a laminated colour chart showing all of the colours in the set. Given my preference for swapping out paints and mixing and matching, it isn’t a particularly useful feature. However, I really appreciate this attention to detail and it is a neat design element, particularly in a gift set