Which Watercolors Should You Buy?
Which brand is the best? Which watercolors should you buy? Student or artist grade watercolors?
Now those are loaded questions!
I will answer these in this article, explaining my reasoning. After you read this, you will have the tools and information needed to decide which watercolors would work best for your needs and budget.
I will borrow a saying from another field, that says the best camera is the one you have on you. I'm going to say, the best watercolors are the ones you use and actually paint with.
Before we dive in, here are a couple of resources that can help you.
First, check out my shopping guide for beginners-
Next I highly recommend you join my mailing list and receive a free comprehensive guide that will help you make better choices when shopping for watercolors, no matter where you are in your watercolor journey, beginner or advanced.
Now let's get into today's topic.
Watercolors are made mostly of pigments, binders and fillers. Pigments are the most important and expensive ingredient, they give watercolors their color.
Less pigment- cheaper paint.
High pigment quantity- more expensive paint.
Binders are used to make sure the paint stays moist and usable and adhere to the paper. Other ingredients are added to act as fillers and/or preservatives.
I would divide the watercolor paint world into three levels of quality.
These are the lowest quality, usually for the lowest price. You can find them in your local Micheal's or on Amazon. They usually cost below 20$ for a set of tubes and below 10$ for a palette.
Craft paints vary greatly in quality.
The bad ones are filled with fillers to reduce the price. Those will usually look light or chalky. There are more intense and transparent craft paints, many times those are formulated with dyes (as opposed to pigments), which have a high color intensity, but are not lightfast and will fade in time.
Usually you will not find any information about the paints, such as pigment numbers or the paint's characteristics. The paints are usually not named, or named in random names that are not standard.
Craft paints are mostly sold in sets and not open stock, aimed at kids and crafters.
I want to clarify there are some great craft grade watercolor sets out there that are fantastic for painting with kids or playing around in your sketchbooks or your scrapbook pages, making cards and more. My favorite set that has intense bright colors is the Meiliang watercolors set. I've had my set for years and I use it regularly when painting with my kids, we all enjoy it.
If you are serious about painting with watercolors I do not recommend buying craft grade paints. Even if you are on a very tight budget, it's better to buy a small set of better quality paints than a large set of low quality ones.
I do want to take this opportunity and address a common misconception. Many people mistakenly think that highest qaulity paint means transparent watercolors. As I mentioned, craft paints are many times opaque because they contain cheap fillers, so yes, they are lower quality and not transparent. However you can formulate cheaper paint with dyes and not pigments, get a more intense and transparent paint that might be very bright and pretty but may fade in time.
Once you get into the major watercolor paint manufactureres, quality is usually consistently high. Whether the paint is then transparent or not, depends on the pigment it is made of. Some pigments are naturally more opaque and some more transparent.
Meaning you can have a great quality paint that is opaque. It is rich in pigment, but the pigment itself is opaque. For example, Indian Red or Venetian Red are lovely classical colors, offered by every major brand, and they are opaque.
My point is, opaque paint doesn't equal low quality, when the pigment itself is opaque.
Student Grade Watercolors
This category of watercolors is interesting. All in all, I think student grade paint is a good place to start, especially for very young artists or beginners.
The good news is that student grade paint, at least the ones I am talking about, is made by major watercolor paint manufacturers. That means you will have pigment information, mostly standard naming of the colors, and good starter sets. That makes life much easier when following tutorials (you will know to use Ultramarine blue and burnt sienna when your instructor uses them), or when choosing to upgrade to artist grade (if you run out of Lemon yellow, you can buy the artist grade version and know that the color will be similar in tone and characteristics).
If you decide to start with these, choose a well known company. For example, Schmincke Akademie (most expensive), Winsor & Newton Cotman (my least favorite), Van Gogh (my personal favorite) and Sennelier La Petite are good options.
What is the difference between these and their more expensive sisters, the artist grade paints?
Mostly 2 major factors- there is less pigment, and so the color is less intense than the artist grade paint. The second difference is that usually student range is smaller than the artist range because it does not contain the more expensive pigments used in artist grade paints (those are usually the higher series numbers).
I would recommend these sets for young artists.
For example, if you are a parent buying a set of watercolors for your artistic teenager, choosing say a Van Gogh set, will give them a great experience for a good price. I think younger artists are more likely to go through paint fast, especially when they are not paying the bill, I know my kids have no issues with using up lots of watercolors in their artwork. Choosing a budget friendly option means they can paint and paint! Cotman offers large tubes that will last a LONG time for an affordable price. Same goes with Van Gogh, my favorite.
If your budget is very tight, a Cotman set of 12 will cost you about 17$ on Amazon.
The Crème de la crème. Should you buy artist grade?
My short answer is yes. If you love watercolors, want to learn more, have the budget and want the best experience, go for artist grade.
There is such a huge range of paints available now, and some of them are so well priced they are almost as cheap as student grade. With just a slightly bigger investment you can have a beautiful set of artist grade watercolors that will last you a very long time.
Artist grade paints offer the highest quality of paint.
Highest pigment concentration, best pigments, a wide range of colors with different characteristics to fit your individual needs. All that information is available on their paint and/or website for your reference.
Most brands carry now ranges of 120-250 colors in their artist grade lines. Brands offer tubes of paint mostly, which are the most economical, but many will also offer half pans and full pans, to suit every requirement and preference, as well as smaller and larger tubes.
These paints are tested and rated so you know how lightfast they are and how they will stand the test of time.
As a professional artist that sells their original artwork (as opposed to an artist that uses her artwork in print or products where the lightfastness ratings of the original is irrelevant), I would say artist grade is the industry standard and what your customers expect.
The only disadvantage of buying artist grade paint is the price.
If you decided to go with artist grade, my personal recommendation is to choose a 24 half pans set in a metal tin. Most major brands offer that option, so search online to find the best offer in your part of the world.
For more information, check the video and resources mentioned at the beginning of the post. They will help you make better choices and expand your watercolor collection in a clever way. It is fun to explore new brands and colors, color is inspiring! Make sure you go about it in a way that will let your collection grow without having duplicates of the same paints or repeats of paints you have or don't use.
I hope you enjoyed this post and found it helpful.
Ready to start painting? Let's go! Join one of my online courses and let's paint something today!