Cassie Talks Watercolor Paint

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Maybe you're brand spanking new to watercolor, maybe you've dabbled with it before, or maybe you paint all the time! If you're interested in learning more about quality watercolor paints, this post is for you, friend.

Painting with watercolors can be downright therapeutic. Blending colors, experimenting with different techniques, unleashing your inner artist (he or she's in there, I promise!)...these are great ways to relax at the end of a long day. The biggest key to making painting fun and not frustrating is using the right materials. Let me say it again for the kids in the back, the right materials make all the difference.

I remember my first art class where I was handed a little set of Crayola paints, a sheet of plain paper, and a plastic brush and I went to town. I am all for painting like a kid - no inhibitions, not feeling like it needs to look "pretty" - but just like you grew up, it's time for your materials to grow up too.

Alright, I'll be honest, I'm a HUGE paint nerd. I get overly exciting about buying it and testing it out. I basically stare out the window with my doggo waiting for the mailman to bring me these magical tubes of paint. NOTE: I prefer tubes over pans, and this varies between artists. I feel like tubes are more vibrant, and I usually squeeze them into a palette and let them dry for 24 hours (here's a tutorial on that!).

Today we're only going to learn about choosing artist grade watercolor paints, but don't fret! I'll be doing an entire series on materials, so there's plenty more to come.

Let's be frank, professional paint ain't cheap. Quality materials come at a cost, but the difference it makes in your painting is worth it. There are a few key things you need to pay attention to when evaluating watercolor paints.

Watercolor Paint Qualities

  • Pigment: Pigment gives your paint it's color and determines the cost of artist grade. Artist grade watercolors are typically made up of a single pigment, making them more vivid. Pigments vary in cost, creating the range in prices for different colors of paint. More expensive pigments, like Cadmium Red, are typically not available in student grade. To compensate, companies will mix several cheaper pigments together (these colors will have "Hue" in their title). Student grade paints usually contain less pigment and some contain fillers. Paints with several pigments or fillers look duller and less transparent. On that note...
  • Transparency: Paint with high transparency allows light to pass through it. This makes the white of your paper to reflect back at you, and your painting sort of, "glow." Artist grade watercolor paints typically have high transparency.
  • Staining: Watercolors that stain immediately soak into the fibers of the paper, and they are hard to, "lift." Non-staining paints allow you to rewet and pull some of the pigment off your paper, which is great for fixing mistakes!
  • Granulation: Paints that have a granular quality have larger particles that make the paint separate and look grainy on the paper. This texture is desired by some artists and not others, so this is a matter of personal preference.
  • Archival/Lightfastness: Watercolors that are archival or lightfast will not fade over time, which is VERY important if you plan to sell your paintings. NOTE: Be sure you are also using archival paper!

So, let's talk brands.

When I was first getting into watercolors, I bought the Sakura Koi set that was recommended by a surprising amount of people on the internet. It was kinda like painting with liquid chalk. I ended up selling it, and that's when I purchased my first couple tubes of Winsor & Newton (Professional Series). I fell in love. Hard.

I haven't tried every brand on the market, because, whoa, there's a lot. I will tell you which brands I've used quite a bit, which ones I've fallen in love with (swoon), and which one's I think you should spend your hard-earned money on. I am also including a bonus color list at the end to get you started with the basics on building your palette!

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Winsor and Newton

PROS: These are my go-to. The paints are the perfect consistency, they're highly pigmented, they lift well, they rewet well, the transparency is excellent, and they're lightfast (a few pigments aren't - be sure to double-check!). Price-wise, W&N is a great bargain if you get them on sale on Amazon or an art supply store (like Jerry's Artarama).

CONS: The only con I've come across with W&N is I've occasionally purchased a tube or two in Michael's that was dried out. I don't really recommend buying paint from Michael's (most artists don't, that's why they sit on the shelves forever), because they're far more expensive.

Daniel Smith

PROS: I love these paints. I think the consistency is superb. They rewet like they're fresh out of the tube and they have excellent transparency. Daniel Smiths are also archival, and the variety of colors is completely bonkers. You can buy a dot card to test them out - which I've done, and it's super fun! The price of these is very comparable with W&N, and you can get a great deal on Amazon or Jerry's (where I buy most of my paint).

CONS: I have noticed a few colors do not blend well with others, and separate when dry. However, I have a lot of DS paint, and I've only noticed it with one or two colors.

Mission Gold

PROS: I have a few of these, and I really like how they're very pigmented while remaining transparent. The binder they use makes them rewet very well and not dry out, so they're an excellent choice if you are filling a plastic palette that isn't airtight. MMGs are also ranked highly for being archival/lightfast.

CONS: Their range of colors isn't as big as Daniel Smith. They are also hard to find in 5mL tubes, since most art supply stores only carry sets or 15mL. This means you'll have to spend a little more to try them out, and you will have big unused tubes if you don't like them.

Holbein

PROS: I like these, but I don't LOVE them. They have an excellent range of colors (I use Brilliant Pink a LOT), and the paints are very pigmented. Their 15mL tubes are priced a few dollars below the brands mentioned above, so you can get a lot of paint for a good price.

CONS: I've heard their archival/lightfast ratings aren't great, so definitely be careful with these if you plan to sell your paintings. I also feel these aren't as transparent and a little chalkier than some of the brands listed above.


A Note on Student Grade Paint

If you aren't quite ready to invest in professional quality paint, the ONLY student grade brand I would recommend is Winsor & Newton's Cotman line. The set from *Amazon below covers the basics, and is priced under $21. These have less pigment and aren't as vibrant or saturated as the professional line, but they still have good transparency and are very blendable.


Bonus: Fill Up Your Palette

If you're looking to spend the least amount of money possible on the highest quality of paint possible, I encourage you to pick up some tubes of Winsor and Newton and/or Daniel Smith. These will run you around $6 each for 5mL tubes from Jerry's. NOTE: If you're buying individual tubes, art supply stores are usually your best bet. If you want to buy a set, Amazon usually has the best deals!

I would start a palette with the following colors:

  • French Ultramarine (W&N + DS)
  • Winsor Blue GS (W&N) or Pthalo Blue GS (DS)
  • Winsor Yellow Deep (W&N) or New Gamboge (DS)
  • Winsor Yellow (W&N) or Hansa Yellow Light (DS)
  • Opera Rose (W&N) or Quinacridone Rose (DS)
  • Scarlet Lake (W&N) or Pyrrol Scarlet (DS)

*Amazon has the best bargain (only $31.15 today!) on the DS set featuring all of these basic colors here:

*This post contains affiliate links, meaning I get paid a teeny tiny portion of your sale to help fund my paint obsession, should you choose to purchase. Thanks a bunch!

Cassie Carpenito

Gold Copy Co., Raleigh, NC 27615

Cassie is a watercolor artist and illustrator based in Raleigh, NC. She is currently available for projects and commissions.