Arlene Sy
Art + Illustration


My journey as an artist chronicled in life events, thoughts, and musings.

My art materials (2016)

I thought it'd be great to finally write about the art materials I use! Having settled into a process for a few years now, I've become more aware of my own tools and can share seasoned thoughts on what I use on a regular basis.

Before going into it, a small disclaimer: while I highly recommend most of the things on this list, it's by no means exhaustive or comprehensive list for artists or watercolorists. What works for me at this point may not necessarily be the case for you. Many of the things here are items I've used out of comfort and habit; while some others were discovered through happy accidents, which I've decided to stick by for the long haul.


  • Canson 200 gsm (available in packs of 10): My go-to paper for casual watercolor sketches or spot illustrations. I've gotten very familiar and comfortable with the smooth side of this paper (which I'm still not sure is hot press?). This, for me, was a replacement for my Moleskine watercolor paper--which has a creamy, off-white color which registered yellowish when scanned. It was much easier to drop-out (take out) backgrounds using the pristine-white Canson sheets.

  • Canson Montval 300 gsm: I use this primarily for bigger, more complicated pieces such as scenes, as well as portrait work. I love how much water this paper can take, and given that I'm a fairly lighthanded painter, it takes a lot before it buckles under layers of wet washes.

  • Fabriano Artistico 300 gsm cold press (preferably in extra white): I rarely use this paper since it's quite expensive, but when I get the chance, I either use it for gallery work, or for personal (studio) work.


  • Prang 8-pan (or 16-pan) watercolor set: I use this very rarely now, usually only when I'm teaching or giving workshops. I highly recommend using this if you're a beginner, but don't be fooled by its simplicity. This set yields great transparency and ease in blending, thus ideal for layering washes, but also performs quite well for highly saturated color uses. (The only downside is the poorly made, low-quality brush that comes with it. Just replace with a better brush!)

  • Sakura Koi field sketch travel set: For a time, I always brought this along with me whenever I traveled or worked outside. I like how portable and compact it is for the number of colors, which yields great results whenever I do watercolor sketches. In terms of color vibrancy, I'd say it's slightly better than Prang. The water brush included is of good quality, but I find it difficult to paint finer details with it. (I never use the dabbing sponges; they're hardly absorbent.) Overall, I currently still use this set a lot, but mostly for quick illustrations on Canson 200gsm paper and using a different brush.

  • Holbein artist watercolors (5ml tubes): I've been using Holbein almost exclusively for a while now, beginning in mid-2014 when I finally decided to upgrade from student-grade to professional watercolors. I haven't tried a lot of artist-grade paints so my opinion may be limited, but I was wholeheartedly sold on Holbein's quality the moment I swatched my first few tubes (I bought a few at a time, instead of buying a set outright). I can't stress enough how creamy and highly pigmented the colors are, and the intensity is enough to bring even the lightest of washes to life! What got me hooked even more was knowing Holbein is made in Japan, which has a rich history in the use and production of watercolors.

  • Guitar watercolor tubes (decommissioned): From around 2010 to 2014, I relied solely on my Guitar paint tubes, which I probably bought when I was in late-grade school (late '90s). The box and tubes were quite worn by this time, and the tubes dried out, but I was still happy that they reactivated with water and retained much of their original qualities over time. (I did notice, however, that some of the colors were no longer bright or vibrant.) This was probably the first "serious" set of watercolors I ever acquired.


  • Best Buy (National Book Store house brand): Very affordable and reliable, enough said. I usually include these brushes in my workshop kits because they hold up very well even with regular use. I've personally used one for as long as three years before it gave up on me!

  • Art Vibe (or "Berkeley" brand): I've yet to give this particular brush the credit it's due, because of how reliable it's been! It might not be the best or the highest quality, but it's certainly one of the cheapest brushes I've bought which has surprised me.

  • Q-Wave Watermedia brushes: I bought these during a trip to Paris in 2012. I've yet to confirm if these are synthetic or natural haired (I lean more towards the latter). I use them most often for serious studio work and private commissions. I love feeling the bounce on these brushes, and their quality gets put to the test with the finer brush sizes. Occasionally though, I wish they could hold a lot more paint than usual.

  • Escoda Reserva watercolor brush: I have to be completely honest here--I bought this last year, but I've only really used it for the first time this year. (Oops.) I admit I have a habit of keeping more expensive things for a while before I actually use them, only because I feel I'm not worthy. Haha. (Insert review.)


  • Palettes: I alternate among several mixing palettes (photo above).

  • Half pans: Shortly after acquiring my first few Holbein tubes, I thought about purchasing an empty metal watercolor case with empty half pans, but decided to wait it out since I'd only started using the tubes, and held off any unnecessary tools for the meantime. I just recently bought these from Half Pan PH. I still don't have a decent box to hold these in, but for now, my goal is to be able to squeeze all (thirty-plus) of my existing Holbein paint into these pans so that I could readily use them, with or without a case.

So, this is pretty much it. I hope you enjoyed reading about my materials!

That said, I discourage hoarding and stocking up on expensive materials you may not necessarily use. A huge selection of art materials, tools, and brands are now so easy to acquire, but you really won't need everything! If you are serious about pursuing art, choose to hone your skills first using affordable, student-grade materials, then only start acquiring better materials gradually. If you are unsure which brands to purchase, do your research first--there are many resources on materials recommended for artists of various skill levels. Don't let the tools paint your picture; rather, paint the picture using tools that will best enhance your work.

Arlene SyComment