The first rule: Don't try out anything new on a combination painting/traveling trip. Let me now tell you how I broke this most cardinal of principles. A day before our five day trip, I went to the art store and bought two very important items, a round brush and a block of watercolor paper. I figured I'd be safe with Arches, but with the brush I took a risk.
The salesperson at Flax had been at that department for what seemed like the last two decades, so when he said, "that's a good brush," I listened. I shouldn't have, but I bought the brush anyway based on a simple trial with a bit of water they keep for that purpose. This Princeton brush had a big belly, a short point, and an absurdly big ferrule for its size. I also didn't like the length of its handle. But I bought it anyway, because I was going on a trip and wanted the thrill of something new.
As it turns out, both the brush and the paper failed miserably. The heavy sizing in this smooth-surfaced paper caused washes to look uneven no matter what I did, and a second layer of color lifted whatever I had laid first. Dark colors did not look dark enough, and very quickly I saw the 140 lb. Arches block would not take much manipulation either: I refrained from erasing my very light pencil marks.
The brush was another story. It didn't keep a stiff point. Even after shaking excess water off, I had the distinct feeling I was working with squirrel hair (even though it was supposed to be Kolinsky). I ended up using a smaller Windsor and Newton brush for details and leaving the Princeton for washes and scumbling. Worst of all, have you ever painted while swearing?
The lesson: Keep the tried and true, specially if you anticipate exciting views or dramatic subjects on your trip. Beginners, there is nothing worse than working with watercolor paper that betrays you. In the end, you can overcome a bad brush but not bad paper. At an art store in Berkeley the other day, the manager asked me if I knew "what the best watercolor paint" was. "I just want to get whatever the best is." "You can start with a good paper," I said. She asked me why. After all, she explained, she was a beginner. Bad papers, I replied, "can sabotage your best efforts. You'll never know what you're capable of if you keep using bad paper. Buy the best you can afford, then forget it's so expensive." We both laughed at the absurdity of this advice.