Someone once said that painting with watercolours is a lot like playing golf… every stroke counts. Unlike acrylics and oils, the artist who paints with watercolours has less margin for error and lacks the possibility to go back and correct mistakes. For this reason, it’s particularly important to choose the right brand of paint. In this article, we compare the brands most frequently used by the watercolour artists of the WonderStreet community, using their feedback and consumer reviews from a number of online retailers.
Watercolour painting may be one of the oldest forms of artistic expression, dating back to the images that have been found inside caves of the Paleolithic period. It was utilized by the ancient Egyptians and the monastic orders of the European Middle Ages for manuscript illustration, was popularized during the Northern Renaissance and reached its height during the 18th and 19th centuries. Notable artists who often painted with watercolours include: Albrecht Dürer, J.M.W. Turner, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Paul Klee and Georgia O’Keefe.
The paints themselves consist of four different ingredients: 1) pigment, 2) gum arabic, 3) additives and / or preservatives and 4) solvent. The gum arabic fixes the paint to the support (usually paper or parchment). The additives (usually glycerin or honey) change the consistency and durability of the paint. The solvent (usually water) evaporates as the paint dries or hardens. Modern watercolours are sold either in tubes or in pans with small dried cakes of paint.
We’ve broken this article down into three different categories – tubes, pans and gouache, which is a more opaque form of watermedia. Within the tubes category, we also made the distinction between professional and student grade products.
This article is the third installment in our series exploring the best brands for the three main types of paint media: acrylic paints, oil paints and now watercolour paints. The brands are presented in alphabetical order – not by any sort of ranking system. We remind our readers that a “pro” for one artist might be a “con” for another (or vice versa). A section titled “Final Thoughts” at the end of this article provides a summary of our findings and our recommendations.
PROS: affordable, good selection of colours, high pigment load
CONS: more binder than other professional brands, does not flow very well, some separation of pigment and binder in the tube
The general consensus on Dick Blick’s line of professional grade watercolours is that they are perfect for the beginner / intermediate-level painter who wants a product of significantly higher quality than most student grade paints for a reasonable price. The pigment load is considered to be quite high, adding to the value of this particular brand. Several artists noted that the larger-sized tubes offer an even more economical option. However, it’s clear that the consistency of Blick’s paint leaves much to be desired. There was more than one complaint about the amount of binder in each tube and how this affected the way the colour could be spread across the support.
PROS: affordable, available in large quantities, high pigment load
CONS: air bubbles in the tubes, some colours can be a bit muddy
Like Blick’s brand of professional grade watercolour paints, Da Vinci Artists’ Permanent Watercolours are also prized for their reasonable pricetag and pigment load. However, they have the added benefit of also having a smoother consistency. They flow and diffuse well, and they also mix well with other colours and brands. A few artists stated that they also never had to deal with the annoying problem of paint drying in the tube – even after several years of disuse. There were a few reports of defective tubes and displeasure with the vibrancy of the colours, but most seemed to be quite happy with the quality offered by Da Vinci. It is a favourite with many artists, some of whom have been using this brand for more than 10 years.
PROS: mixes well, high pigment load, re-wet easily
CONS: sticky, syrupy consistency
Though we didn’t receive an overwhelmingly negative response to Daler-Rowney Artists’ Watercolours, we also didn't receive a response that was overwhelmingly positive. It seems to be a solid brand with an adequate pigment load. The price is reasonable and it mixes well with other colours and brands. The range of colours is wide and appropriate for glazing. At least one reviewer was very disappointed with the texture of the paint and likened it to syrup.
PROS: great colour selection, high pigment quality and load, mixes well
CONS: expensive, some separation in the tube
Manufactured by hand in Seattle, Daniel Smith offers two different variations on the professional watercolour paint. His Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolours comes in a staggering range of 235 pigments, while the Extra Fine Luminescent Watercolours have an additional titanium-coated mica particle included to give them extra lustre and shine. Both products do have a sort of “graininess” to them, which can either be a pro or a con, depending on an artist’s personal technique and style. They mix well with other brands and though the price is quite high, several artists remarked that a “little bit goes a long way.”
PROS: good value, re-wet easily, vibrant colour
CONS: poor consistency, dries unevenly, separation in the tube
With Grumbacher Finest Artists’ Watercolours, it appears that they’re either loved or hated. Fans of the brand praise its selection of colours and its relatively good value within the professional grade category. However, it is not well rated for glazing and / or washes and has a much more “solid” appearance than many other brands. We also received more than one complaint about the “gummy” texture of the paints when initially squeezed from their tubes and the underwhelming way they spread across the support. Some artists noted that the Grumbacher Academy Artists’ Watercolours (see our student grade section below) offer a better price to quality ratio.
PROS: does not dry out in the tubes, mixes well, good selection of colours
CONS: recently changed the colour names, some pigments are not very lightfast
Holbein produces two different lines of watercolour paint from its factory in Japan. Holbein Artists’ Watercolour Tubes offers the standard range of European pigments, while the Holbein Irodori Antique Artists Watercolours are modeled after pigments used by traditional Chinese and Japanese artists for the last 15 centuries. The latter are produced with pure pigment in gum arabic and are highly saturated, opaque colours. Both are quite smooth and don’t have the same “granular” texture that artists observe in a brand like Daniel Smith. The only criticism was that some of the reds in the Irodori Antique line are not as lightfast as some other brands. Also, one reviewer noted that the company recently changed the names of some of its colours, which could potentially cause some confusion for long-time users of Holbein’s paint.
PROS: reasonably priced, high pigment load, do not dry out in the tubes
CONS: do not mix well, somewhat sticky texture
Because M. Graham uses pure honey as an additive, its Artists’ Watercolours line dry well on the support, but not in the tubes. This is great for artist who prefers a thicker, moister consistency. However, for the artist who likes to refill his or her pans with tube paints, beware. These particular paints do not mix well in pans because they will not adequately harden. It is recommended to mix them only with other M. Graham Artists’ Watercolours to avoid any unwanted effects on the consistency of this product. That being said, many artists were quite happy with M. Graham’s professional line, considered it to be a good value and a pleasure to use and are loyal to the brand.
PROS: reasonably priced, re-wet easily, vibrant colours
CONS: limited selection of colours, can only be purchased online in many areas, do not flow well on the palette
Maimeri is an Italian brand that can be somewhat difficult to source from brick and mortar shops. However, its Maimeri Blu Artist Watercolours can be ordered from a number of online retailers. Artists valued its moist consistency and the electric quality of the colours. The gum arabic used by Maimeri comes from the Kordofan region of Sudan and is prized for its solubility. However, some reviewers were unimpressed by this feature and critiqued the flow of the paint across the support. We also noted some disappointment about the limited range of colours available.
PROS: very reactive to water, mixes well, high pigment load
CONS: confusing colournames, expensive, limited selection of colours
There seems to be some controversy surrounding the naming system used by Mijello for its Mission Gold Watercolours line. According to several artists, the colour name used by the company is not necessarily reflective of the pigments inside. However, to the best of our knowledge, this is not unique to Mijello and can be avoided by carefully reading the contents label before making a purchase. We do not believe that the company meant to be intentionally misleading. The products are also quite well rated for their vibrancy and for the way that they handle on the support.
PROS: good transparency, high pigment load, blend well
CONS: not available in larger size tubes, expensive, sticky consistency
Old Holland is one of the oldest manufacturers in the business. The Dutch company has been producing artist-quality paints since 1664. They use more pigment than many other professional grade products and use a pure binder that creates a very thick and creamy consistency. Some artists like this aspect of Old Holland Classic Artist Watercolours,some don’t. The price is a bit higher than some of the other brands on this list, but many reviewers insisted that they “got what they paid for” in terms of value. The only major complaint was that the product is not sold in larger tubes, eliminating the possibility of purchasing a more economical size.
PROS: silky flow, vibrant and unique colours, re-wet easily
CONS: expensive, not available in larger size tubes
QoR (pronounced “core”) watercolours are produced in the USA by Golden Artist Colours. The name is derived from “Quality of Results,” a technical acronym. QoR paints are unique because they contain a revolutionary new polymer binder available exclusively in Golden products, which prevents cracking and creates a silky (or as some artists described it – greasy) flow across the support. The range of colours was characterized as “modern” and “funky” by several reviewers, who also said that QoR pigments cannot be compared to those of a more traditional brand, like Daniel Smith, for example. A recurring critique was the price, which some felt to be too high for the quality offered by Golden’s watercolour line.
PROS: intense colour, mixes well, nice translucency
CONS: can only be purchased online in some areas, some packaging defects, expensive
Schmincke’s range of Horadam Aquarell Artist Watercolours includes 110 colours, including 70 that are made with pure pigment. Though they are quite expensive and can usually only be purchased online or at brick and mortar stores in Germany, where they are produced, the quality of this particular paint is considered by many to be quite high. Unlike some other brands – M. Graham, for example – Schmincke Horadam Aquarell Artist Watercolours can be squeezed into the company’s line of pan colours and left to dry and harden. Just a little bit of water will re-wet the paints and they are easy to use again. This brand is well-suited to glazing and washes because many of the pigments have a very nice translucency that is great for creating delicate layers of paint.
PROS: vibrant colours, nice translucency,larger tube sizes
CONS: expensive, some colours crack, lower pigment load
Sennelier recently expanded the palette offered in its French Artists’ Watercolour Tubes line of product to include more rich dark pigments. The 98 colours available are ground using traditional methods on a granite surface, but the content of the pigments have been updated to reflect modern advancements. Like Schmincke’s watercolours, Sennelier French Artists’ Watercolour Tubes can be used to refill pans. However, one artist noted that some of the yellow pigments cracked when left out to dry. Sennelier is also like Schmincke in the translucency of the paints. This brand is also very well suited to glazing and layering techniques.
PROS: vibrant and unique colours, good value
CONS: offers fewer single pigment paints, not very lightfast
Though the lightfastness of a watercolour paint generally depends more on the specific pigment used than on the brand, we received several complaints about the lightfastness of many ShinHan Premium Artist Watercolours. According to one reviewer, the colours quickly faded to brown when the painting was exposed to sunlight. There were also some artists who recommended caution when purchasing products from this manufacturer because it could be difficult to determine which contain only pure pigments. However, most agreed that the price to quality ratio for this brand is acceptable and many were pleased by the wide range of exclusive colours offered by ShinHan.
PROS: high pigment load, larger size tubes available, mixes well
CONS: poor labeling, expensive
Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour Tubes might be the most popular brand among watercolour artists. This brand is valued for its high pigment load, smooth consistency and overall quality. However, because of the high demand for this “mainstream” product, many retailers offer special deals and promotions on a regular basis. Tubes come in two (and sometimes three) different sizes. Aside from the hefty pricetag, the biggest negative point for most reviewers was the somewhat difficult-to-read labeling.
PROS: affordable, vibrant colour
CONS: thick and difficult to mix
The manufacturer recommends this product for use in the classroom and, in fact, many users are elementary and middle school teachers. However, we also read that Blick Liquid Watercolours can be used by professional artists to achieve a variety of different effects. It can be used in its pure form or diluted with up to four parts water to create washes. Artists who use a pouring or spraying method will also find value in this product. However, some reported that the paint is quite sticky and difficult to evenly dilute.
PROS: affordable, can be mixed with professional grade products, wide range of colours
CONS: colours are not necessarily true to colour chart, chalky texture when dried
This particular student grade paint is used by student and professional artists alike. The price makes Grumbacher Academy Artists’ Watercolours an excellent choice for the painter on a budget, without having to sacrifice too much in regards to quality. The application of this paint is smooth and many artists were pleased by the selection of colours available. The Academy line also mixes well with Grumbacher’s professional line. One major issue is that the colours in the tubes are not reflective of the colours on the charts provided by the company. Therefore, it’s recommended to try each colour out before purchasing, if possible.
PROS: affordable, wide range of colours, mixes well
CONS: some colours are a bit grainy
Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolour Tubes are made with traditional pigments and with some synthetic ingredients to keep costs more reasonable for the student artist. This brand is quite popular among beginners, but opinions are divided among professional artists. Some say that Cotman Watercolour Tubes are of high enough quality to complement a collection of more expensive, professional grade paints. Others strongly disagree and recommend sticking to the artist quality products. At such an affordable price, we feel that it’s worth trying out a colour or two from this brand to see if it has a place on your palette.
PROS: subtle shimmer, look great layered over dark colours
CONS: slow to react to water, expensive, not very heavily pigmented
This product is made with mica, a mineral that adds sparkle and shine to watercolour paint. Finetec Artist Mica Watercolours can be used to add highlights and definition to a watercolour painting or for calligraphy projects. They are available in a set of 6 or a set of 12 colours and are noted for the subtlety of their shine. Several artists recommended spritzing the cakes with water and allowing them to sit for a few minutes before use, to really allow the mica to activate and the colour to become more opaque.
PROS: vibrant colours that do not muddy when mixed
CONS: no refill pans available, slow to react to water, expensive
Each Grumbacher Watercolour Pan Set comes with either 12 or 24 different colours, a brush and a small (5mL) tube of Chinese white. The manufacturer offers opaque and transparent colours in both sizes. The pans can be detached, but, unfortunately, refills cannot be ordered. Some artists noted that the paint handled better than Grumbacher’s paint in tubes and were pleased by how easily they mixed. One thing worth mentioning is the rather large size of this pan. This is great for artists who want more value for their money. However, the pan is quite heavy and must be placed on a table, rather than held in the hand. It’s not the ideal choice for painters who want to travel with their watercolours.
PROS: affordable, compact size, durable packaging
CONS: does not mix well, gouache pans can be somewhat chalky in consistency
This German brand of pan sets also comes with either 12 or 24 colours, with the option to choose a more opaque or transparent palette. Some reviewers reported that the opaque palettes had an undesirable grainy consistency, but this is often true of gouache paints. The quality and compact size of the packaging were mentioned several times and many artists said that Pelikan Watercolour and Gouache Pan Sets are perfect for traveling. The price to quality ratio appears to be quite reasonable. However, one artist pointed out that it’s much cheaper to buy an entirely new set than to buy a full set of re-fills.
PROS: vibrant colours, good flow, includes a colour chart
CONS: the included brush is quite small, not a lot of room for mixing colours
Shaped like a round make-up compact, this pan set includes 10 half pans of student grade watercolours and a small watercolour brush. It fits perfectly in a backpack and is great for doing watercolour sketches on the go. A very handy little colour reference guide is also included in the set, to demonstrate the actual colour of each paint once dried. The biggest downside to this product is the relatively small area provided for mixing colours. Therefore, the Raphaël Watercolour Travel Pan Set is best for an artist who mixes paints on a more limited basis.
PROS: smooth texture, includes high quality sable brush, good selection of colours
CONS: colours are weak
The Rembrandt Watercolour Pan Sets come with either 12, 24 or 48 pans of triple-ground pigmented colour, combined with a special gum arabic mixture as a binder. Several watercolourists noted that having a set with 48 pans of colour is a lot more convenient than having 48 tubes of colour. The texture of this product was routinely praised and many artists were delighted by the included brush, mixing trays and travel case. However, there were a number of complaints about the vibrancy of the colours. If you are an artist who prefers to paint in layers and washes, this is unlikely to be a problem for you. However, if you’re searching for a more opaque product, Rembrandt Watercolour Pan Sets are probably not for you.
PROS: affordable, convenient size, nicely opaque colour
CONS: colour pans are very close to each other and can dirty easily, sponges not very absorbent
Sakura Koi offers its Watercolour Sketch Box Travel Pan Sets in 12 and 24-pan sizes. Both are roughly the size of a postcard and include a sponge and a refillable water brush. Colours can be mixed in special compartments molded onto the inside of the set’s plastic lid. The quality of the paint has been compared to Winsor & Newton Cotman (student grade) Watercolour Tubes. They are quite a bit more opaque than other watercolour sets in this category. The extras included with the set, namely the sponges and brush, are a nice convenience, but not of particularly high quality. It’s a good product for beginner to intermediate-level watercolour painters.
PROS: multiple size options, high pigment load
CONS: expensive, flimsy packaging
You can purchase the following options from Schmincke’s line of Horadam Aquarell Watercolour Pan Sets: Full Pan 12, Full Pan 18, Full Pan 24, Half Pan 24, Half Pan 36, Half Pan 48 and Half Pan 8 in a metal travel box. The smallest size is very easy to hold in the hand because it features a finger ring at the bottom. However, it does not sit well on a table or flat surface because the lid of the set flips backwards. This is something to take into consideration if you plan to use these colours in your home or studio, rather than en plein air. The quality of the paint itself does appear to be a bit higher than most student grade watercolours.
PROS: mixes well, re-wet easily, intense colour
CONS: colours are sometimes sold out
Sennelier French Artists’ Watercolour Half Pans seems to be a favourite among the artists of the WonderStreet community. This brand is one of the few to offer watercolour pans that utilize honey as an additive, which gives these colours a remarkable lustre. It also ensures that they wet and re-wet quite easily. Reviewers were generally pleased with the pigment load and consistency of Sennelier’s paints. They also liked the portability of the set. Another positive aspect is that colours can be purchased individually to create a customized set. However, there were some complaints that certain colours could be difficult to source and were often sold out at major retailers.
PROS: affordable, wide range of colours, mixes well
CONS: complicated packaging
Winsor & Newton offers 14 different products split between its “Cotman” student grade and professional line of watercolour pans, including field box sets and lightweight sketcher’s box sets As with the Winsor & Newton Watercolour tubes, both its student and professional grade pans are immensely popular with artists of all skill levels. Some of the Cotman sets were negatively reviewed because each pan is wrapped very tightly in plastic wrap, making it a pain to open and begin using right away. Some also complained that the Cotman sets were even smaller than anticipated.
PROS: creamy consistency, vibrant colours, mixes well
CONS: pans do not fit well in the case, some colours do not hydrate well
This brand, which is manufactured in Russia, offers five different options for its watercolour pans: the original set with 24 traditional colours, the expanded set with 24 more exciting colours, the master set with 12 colours presented in a wood box, the sequel set with 24 additional colours and the ultimate set with 36 colours. The quality of Yarka St. Petersburg Professional Watercolours is often compared to that of Daniel Smith, so these are considered to be a top-of-the-line product. Our artists were delighted by the high pigment load and brightness of the colours and while most of them wet quite easily, there were one or two colours that proved to be more disappointing because they did not react well to water.
PROS: available in larger size tubes, high pigment load, does not dry out in the tube
CONS: sticky texture, does not dry evenly on the support
Most of the artists who reviewed Da Vinci Professional Gouache said that it probably belongs in the student grade of gouache paint, but that the size of the tubes and affordability made it a good option for a professional artist on a budget. Da Vinci offers twice the amount of paint for the same price as many other brands in this category. However, a common complaint was that the colours had a very gummy or tacky texture when they were squeezed out of the tube, that they needed to be diluted and that, even after dilution, they did not dry very evenly on the support.
PROS: vibrant colours, smooth texture, mixes well
CONS: expensive, lower pigment load, not available in larger sizes
Holbein Artists’ Gouache seems to be a solid choice for gouache colours. It has many loyal fans, who appreciate the overall quality of the brand. Many are devoted users of Holbein’s other watercolour products. However, some artists feel that the colours are too thin and do not spread well across the support. There is also some dissatisfaction about the price and the smaller 15mL quantities available. Though its considered by many to be superior to Da Vinci Professional Gouache, the latter might be a better choice in terms of value.
PROS: creamy consistency, re-wet easily, no chalkiness
CONS: some separation in the tube, some colours do not mix well
In general, M. Graham Artists’ Gouache was very well reviewed by our artists. They found to the overall quality to be a step above other brands in this category, particularly because the M. Graham paints do not leave behind the “chalky” residue that is so typical of gouache colours. Instead, the finish is matte and smooth. Aside from a handful issues that were very specific to certain pigments and some separation of the pigment and medium in the tube, which can be remedied by kneading the tube to mix it before use, our artists were quite happy with M. Graham. The creamy consistency and vibrancy of the colours was frequently noted.
PROS: high pigment load, unique colours, re-wet easily
CONS: uneven flow, expensive
Schmincke Horadam Artist Gouache is one of the most expensive gouache brands available on the market and while the artists of the WonderStreet community generally agreed that they are high quality, they were not entirely convinced that the quality justified the price. Some artists who had previously mixed their own gouache to achieve a higher pigment load were very pleased with the pigment load of Schmincke. Many said that the colours did not leave behind a chalky residue when they dried on the support, but at least one reviewer noticed that the finish was a bit “streaky” and uneven.
PROS: mixes well, vibrant colour, creamy consistency
CONS: small tubes, labels are difficult to read
As with Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour Tubes and Winsor & Newton Watercolour Pans, Winsor & Newton Designers Gouache is quite easy to find in stores, reasonably priced and of sufficiently high quality to make it a favourite among our artists. Several referred to it as the “workhorse” of gouache paints. The only major complaints were about the packaging. Winsor & Newton only offers a few of its gouache colours in larger sized tubes. Also, the small print on the labels is very difficult to read.
With such a wide selection of products and brands reviewed, it’s a difficult task to narrow it down to a handful of favourites, especially because painting materials and supplies are often a matter of personal preference. However, we’ve done our best to consider the pros and cons for each brand before giving our general recommendations.
For the professional artist who enjoys painting with watercolours from tubes, there seems to be no product more highly rated than Daniel Smith Watercolours. Other favourites for the watercolourists in our community include: Holbein Watercolours, Schmincke Horadam Aquarell Artist Watercolours and Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour Tubes.
For the watercolour student, we recommend Blick Artists' Watercolours. This particular product falls under the “professional grade” category, which means that the quality is much higher than student grade paints, while the price remains accessibly low. The Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolour Tubes are also an acceptable option because of their affordability and ease of use.
If pans are more your preference, Sennelier French Artists' Watercolour Half Pans may be the ideal product for you. They are customizable and our artists were pleased with the lustrous texture provided by the brand’s honey additive. We also think that the Raphaël Watercolour Travel Pan Set is the best option for the watercolourist on the go, because it offers a compact size without making sacrifices with regards to quality.
Finally, in the gouache category, our artists found M. Graham Artists' Gouache to be the superior product because of its smooth, matte finish.