Best Watercolor Paints – How to Choose the Right Watercolor Paint Set
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Whether you are a watercolor newbie or a seasoned artist, it can be tricky to know which watercolor paints are the best to use. There is a multitude of different watercolor brands, and this can make the decision even more confusing. There are also several important considerations for choosing the best watercolor paint for your needs, including pigmentation, binder, pans, or tubes. In this article, we will lead you through all of these considerations so that you can easily choose the best watercolor paints for your unique projects.
Table of Contents
- 1 Understanding Watercolor Paints
- 2 Considerations for Choosing Watercolor Paints
- 3 Our Top Three Recommended Watercolor Paints
- 4 Guide to Finding the Best Watercolor Brushes
- 5 Frequently Asked Questions
Understanding Watercolor Paints
If you are only just beginning to experiment with watercolor paints, you need to understand what they are and how they differ from other mediums. Watercolors can be fickle friends and are not the same as acrylic and oil paints in terms of mixing and application. Once you understand the watercolor medium, you can distinguish between top-quality and poor-quality paints. You will struggle to make high-quality paintings with low-grade watercolor paints. Watercolor paints have two fundamental ingredients: a water-soluble binder and a color pigment. When you add water to watercolor paint, the binder liquefies and releases the color pigment.
The binder is a critical part of any watercolor paint because it suspends the color pigmentation and helps the pigment adhere to your paper. Typically, there are two types of binders used in most brands of watercolor paint. The most common binder is a natural gum arabic. Sometimes the gum arabic can infuse the watercolor paint with a slight yellow hue, although this typically does not affect the color when the paint is diluted. Some artists prefer to opt for a synthetic binder like glycol. Some synthetic binders like Aquazol have superior strength and transparency in comparison to gum arabic.
All paint uses color pigments, and these too can be synthetic or natural. Some natural color pigments are relatively rare making the paints that use them a little more pricey. Natural color pigments come from the earth, while synthetic pigments are the result of a chemical process. With over 100 different color pigments used in watercolor paints, you have a wide range of color options to explore. In addition to these two fundamental ingredients, some watercolor paints include fillers, solvents, or additives. These extra ingredients can change the features of watercolor paints like brightness, durability, or viscosity.
Pros and Cons for Using Watercolor Paints
As with many other mediums, it is nearly impossible to get things perfectly right the first time. You will need time and practice with the more fluid nature of watercolor paints to master the different techniques. There are many different ways to use watercolor paints, and often mistakes can produce the most exciting results. If you are only beginning to explore watercolor paints, we have compiled a list of the pros and cons of using this medium.
- Simple and easy to use
- Easy clean-up thanks to water-solubility
- Come in a wide range of vibrant colors
- Often more affordable than other mediums
- Fast drying
- Light to travel with
- No unpleasant odor or harmful chemicals
- Readily available
- Can effectively salvage old paint by adding water
- Need to work quickly
- Difficult to make alterations
- Limited to certain surfaces as the surface needs to soak up the paint
- Can fade or crack in the sunlight
- Techniques can be tricky to grasp
Considerations for Choosing Watercolor Paints
Buying your first set of watercolor paints is an investment, so you must do some research to be confident in your purchase. We have compiled a list of several things you can consider when choosing the best watercolor paints.
Paint Tubes vs Pans
Watercolor paints typically come in two forms, tubes or pans. Each of these forms has its benefits and disadvantages.
Pans are containers that hold small squares of dry paint that you need to wet with your brush. You can buy pans that are half or full. Pans are sometimes best for beginners because they are easy to store and use. Watercolor pans tend to have a predetermined set of colors, however, which limits your choice. It can also be a little harder to mix watercolors in a pan. Another disadvantage is that some watercolor brands do not provide pans of their paints.
- The compact form makes them easy to store and transport
- Tend to last for a long time
- Good for beginners
- More convenient to store as a set
- Usually available in a travel-friendly case
- A predetermined set of colors
- Not all brands are available in pans
- Harder to mix colors
- It may be harder to get the right color intensity and consistency
Many artists prefer to use watercolor paints from the tube for several reasons. One major advantage is the ability to use a more broad range of colors. The color concentration of tube paints also tends to be better than pan paints.
- Better color intensity
- A more broad range of colors available
- Easier to use consistency
- You can buy separate colors easier and create your own customized set
- Good for mixing and blending
- Tubes can break or crack
- Difficult to store and transport
- Requires a palette
- Paint can dry inside the tube
The Grade of Paint
When purchasing the best watercolor paint, it is important to consider what grade of paint you want because the difference in paint grade translates into a difference in price. Professional watercolor paints are the more expensive grade because the color pigments are of a higher quality. Student grade paints tend to use either cheaper color pigments or less pigmentation. As a beginner, there is nothing wrong with using student grade paints. We do advise, however, that you stick to the better-known brands. When you feel confident with your skills with watercolor paints, you can begin to use the more expensive professional-grade options.
Watercolor Paint Features
There are several features that you should consider when purchasing watercolor paints. These include staining strength, pigmentation density, granularity, lightfastness, transparency, and cost.
Staining is the degree to which you can remove the color pigment after the paint has dried. Paints with heavy stains are permanent once painted, while you can almost completely remove paint without stains. The manufacturing process and the type of paper you paint on influence the degree to which your watercolor paint will stain.
Smaller pigments tend to stain more because they can penetrate the paper fibers more easily. Try to be more aware when using staining watercolor paints as it can be hard to make corrections. Staining paints do provide more vibrant colors that are useful for glazing or layering techniques.
Larger color pigments will not penetrate the fibers of your paper. As the larger color pigments remain on the paper surface, it is much easier to remove and make corrections. You can use non-staining paints to create nice highlight effects by removing some paint once it has dried. Another benefit to using non-staining watercolor paints is the ability to rework areas that have already dried by simply reactivating with a little water.
Pigment density refers to the relative size of the pigment particles. Pigment particles can range from 0.05 to 0.5 microns in diameter. The pigment density of watercolor paints affects the extent to which they seep into the paper fibers. Pigmentation density is not the same as pigmentation volume (this is the number of pigments within the paint). Different pigmentation densities in watercolor paints can result in granulation or flocculation.
Granulation and How it Affects Your Painting
As we mentioned above, different pigmentation densities can cause granulation. What this means in practice is that bigger pigments (or granular pigments) tend to spread out unevenly on the paper resulting in a grainy appearance. This grainy effect is not necessarily a bad thing, as granular paints can produce intriguing textures. Some artists do prefer to use smoother colors with smaller pigments, but it really boils down to personal preference.
Although this may sound like an intimidating term, lightfastness is simply how your paint reacts to light. Measured on the American Standard Test Measure, paint lightfastness can range from excellent to extremely poor. If you intend to display your artwork in direct sunlight, a watercolor paint with excellent lightfastness is your best option. There will always be some color fading with watercolor paints, but you can extend your painting’s life by framing it behind glass.
Watercolor paints are available in three categories of transparency. Transparent, semi-transparent, and opaque are the three categories of transparency found in watercolor paints. Different brands will have different transparency ratings. When you layer transparent watercolor paints, you will be able to see the lower layers. It is always best to check the transparency rating of your watercolor paints when you buy them.
The price tag is important to consider because with watercolors you really get your money’s worth. Professional grade watercolors will always outperform student grade paints because of their superior pigmentation. Student grade paints are still a good option for those who cannot afford or do not feel comfortable using expensive watercolors.
Colors Needed for Starting Out
Color is the most important part of a painting as it communicates the mood and attracts attention. Many beginner watercolor artists will rush out and buy all the colors imaginable. This is expensive and unnecessary. We suggest starting with a darker and lighter hue of the primary colors red, yellow, and blue. It is possible to mix almost any color with different combinations of these ones. We also suggest having black and white paints as essentials. As you gain experience with painting with watercolors you can expand your color collection.
Our Top Three Recommended Watercolor Paints
There are so many different brands of watercolor paint, it can be hard to know where to start. We have compiled a list of the top three watercolor paints out there to help you find the best watercolor paint for your particular needs.
Best Beginner Set: DALER ROWNEY Simply Watercolor Set
A student grade set of watercolor paints, this Daler Rowney set comes with 12 colors in tubes of 12 ml. A more affordable option, this is our recommendation for beginner artists who would like to practice their techniques. As the paints are in tubes, you can easily mix them to create an infinite number of color hues. These paints are ideal for use on any watercolor surface, and despite their lower price tag, you can achieve bright and vibrant transparent colors.
- A set of 12 watercolor paint tubes
- Assorted basic colors for a variety of artistic uses
- Bright transparent colors that mix easily
- Easy to mix and blend
- Works well on watercolor paper
- Bright and vibrant colors
- Can be revitalized easily
- A more affordable option
- Some colors may have a chalky appearance
- Sometimes clumps and produces streaks
Best Professional Set: SCHMINCKE HORADAM Watercolor Paints
These professional grade watercolor paints are arguably the best available quality. The German brand has been making watercolor paints since 1881 with its unique formulation. Although it is a little more pricey, this set of 24 half-pan watercolor paints have rich and intense pigmentation.
- Superior quality, natural pigments used
- A wide-ranging set of 24 half pan watercolor paints
- The set is packed in a neat metal box for convenience
- Sturdy and compact tin ideal for storage and transportation
- Rich pigmentation
- Small pigments with a smooth color application and minimal granulation
- It comes with a swatch card and color guide
- The set does not include a brush
Best Value for Money: WINSOR & NEWTON Cotman Watercolor Set
Combining top quality watercolor paints with an affordable price tag, this set of 12 half-pan watercolor paints is ideal for beginner or professional. Winsor and Newton Cotman are a well-established brand for watercolors, and they are famed for their vibrant and high-quality paints. The paints come in a small plastic box ideal for storage and easy transport, with a built-in palette in the lid. A complimentary brush also comes with this paint set.
- A small set of 12 half pan watercolor paints
- Comes in a compact and travel-friendly pocket case
- High quality pigmented paints
- It comes with a brush and built-in palette
- Easy to use
- Affordable but good quality
- Rich pigmentation
- Fantastic transparency
- Small and compact box
- The small size may not always be ideal
- It does not include black
Most Well-Known Watercolor Brands Available
We wanted to briefly provide you with a shortlist of some of the most famous watercolor brands available on the market today.
- The overall best watercolor set: M. Graham Watercolor Paints
- The best watercolor set for children: Prang Watercolor Paints
- The best watercolor set for beginners: Daler Rowney Watercolor Paints
- The watercolor set with the best color variety: Daniel Smith Watercolor Paints
- The best professional watercolor set: Schmincke Horadam
- The best watercolor set for blending: Sennelier Watercolor Paints
- The best value for money watercolor set: Winsor & Newton Watercolor Paints
Guide to Finding the Best Watercolor Brushes
It is all very well buying top quality watercolor paints, but if you do not have good quality brushes, you will struggle to produce the best painting possible. We need to consider whether the paintbrush is natural or synthetic, and its shape and size.
Natural vs Synthetic
A brush made with natural hair will always be superior to a synthetic paintbrush. Unfortunately, natural brushes do come with a higher price tag than synthetic options. Different hairs are best for different paintbrushes. Paintbrushes made with sable hair tend to last for a long time, whereas squirrel hair is best for a mop brush. Goat hair is ideal for paintbrushes used to cover broad areas, while ox hair is perfect for square paintbrushes. If you cannot afford to buy several natural brushes when you start your watercolor journey, we suggest choosing a round natural brush as this is the most versatile option.
Synthetic paintbrushes are definitely a more affordable option for beginner watercolor artists. You can get some high-quality synthetic brushes, but you will likely have to replace your synthetic paintbrushes after a few years. Synthetic paintbrushes also require a little more attention to maintain their condition.
Size and Shape
The size of the paintbrushes you need for watercolor painting depends on what you want to paint. You can buy a wide range of different sized brushes, and we suggest getting a few different sizes to start. Small delicate paint brushes are essential for painting intricate details but are not ideal for washes.
Paintbrushes come in a variety of shapes, each tailored to produce a specific effect. It may not be possible for you to buy one of each paintbrush shape when you begin, in which case we would recommend a round brush as it is the most versatile option.
- Round Brushes: As we have said, this is the most versatile brush option. With a round brush, you can just as easily paint intricate details and bigger washes. By changing the angle and applied pressure, you can achieve a wide range of effects with a single brush.
- Flat Brushes: Flat brushes are wonderful when you need to make sharp lines or place a few different colors on the paintbrush at once. You can also use a flat brush to cover large areas of your painting quickly.
- Angular Brushes: This type of paintbrush is a little more specialized for creating precise strokes. All the hairs of the brush are angled.
- Oval Wash Brushes: The shape of this paintbrush is similar to traditional make-up brushes. Oval wash brushes, as the name suggests, are ideal for making large washes and wetting the paper.
- Square Wash Brushes: This paintbrush is similar to the flat brush, but it is slightly shorter. Square wash brushes are perfect for wetting paper and washes.
- Script/Liner Brushes: These fine and narrow pointed brushes are perfect for crafting finer details in your paintings.
- Mop Brushes: Mop brushes are perfect for painting larger areas and wetting the paper.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Watercolor Paints are Best for Professionals?
Professional watercolor artists tend to use professional watercolor paints like Schmincke Horadam. Some also use high-quality student-grade watercolor paints like those made by Winsor and Newton.
Are Watercolor Pans or Tubes Better?
Both tubes and pans have their advantages and disadvantages. Pans are often best for traveling, but some brands do not produce pan versions of their paints. Many artists prefer tubes because they are more economical, and you have a greater choice of colors.
How Do You Choose Watercolor Paints?
There are a few things to consider when you buy watercolor paints, including pigmentation, transparency, staining, and, of course, cost.
Can You Replace Pan Watercolors with Tube Paints?
While it is best to use tube paints from the tube, it is possible to use them to refill pans.
How Long Do Tubes of Watercolor Paint Last?
Typically, tubes of watercolor paint have a lifespan of around five years. In contrast, the lifespan of pan watercolors can be up to ten years.
What Colors of Watercolor Paint Should You Buy?
We always suggest that you begin by buying primary colors like ultramarine blue, cadmium red, and lemon yellow. You can then use these paints to mix almost any other color you would need.
Watercolor paints are a fantastic medium for achieving unique, beautiful results. This guide should have prepared you for choosing the best watercolor paints for your specific needs. Happy painting!