Since gaining widespread popularity in the 18th century, watercolor painting has been a favorite of amateur and professional artists alike. Its portability makes it the perfect medium to take on the road, allowing artists to sketch en plein air or rapidly work out ideas. But with so many available brands, what are the best watercolor sets on the market? And what to look for when selecting watercolor paint?
Whether seeking out pans or tubes or professional or students quality, these are certain technical aspects you'll want to be aware of as you seek out watercolor paint. Of course, you can always buy individuals tubes or pans for any of the brands mentioned below, filling an empty watercolor well palette or empty watercolor pan tin to make your own travel set. But if you are looking for something ready to go or simply want to splurge on a professional watercolor set, here are some things to consider.
How to Pick the Best Watercolor Paint Set for Your Artistic Needs
Just like many other art supplies, such as acrylic paints, watercolors come in two grades: student and professional. Professional, or artist quality, watercolor paint is typically made with more pigment and comes in a wider range of colors. As student watercolors usually have more synthetic binders and fillers, which keeps the cost down, but they tend to have less permanence.
If you are a beginner, or just want to test your hand a watercolor painting, student quality should be just fine. You may not even notice much difference to begin with, and it will be lighter on your wallet.
The nice thing with watercolor paint is that mixing means you can extend your color palette greatly without investing in a wide range of colors. So, if you are thinking of upgrading to artist quality paint, you may want to start with just 5 to 10 colors to test before making a bigger investment.
Of course, single pigment colors will be more vibrant than mixed colors, but some artists swear by using a limited number of single pigments and building from there. This will really depend on your style and what you are attempting to achieve.
You may notice that pigments, especially with professional watercolor paints, have different pricing depending on the raw minerals used. This is because certain minerals are simply rarer, and thus more expensive. Student watercolors have standardized pricing because synthetic fillers substitute for these rare pigments, which is why you'll often see the word “hue” after the pigment name—it's a filler.
Permanence is the paint's durability given exposure to light and humidity. Much of this is dependent on the quality of the pigments and how much filler—if any—is in the paint to cut down on cost. Permanence is also called lightfastness and you'll want to check your label to see how each color rates on the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) rating scale. You are looking for an I (excellent) or II (good) here, and most brands like Winsor & Newton will also have this information online.
The beauty of watercolor paint is its ability to have light pass through it and create a washed out effect. Watercolor paint can come in opaque or transparent, with manufacturers typically writing on the tubes or pans if the paint is opaque. Though you can thin opaque watercolors out, it will be important to note the transparency in order to create the layered effect of most watercolor paintings.
Not familiar with watercolor transparency? Bluprint has a great introductory method for testing your paint.
Some watercolor paints penetrate the paper, creating a “stain,” while others lay on the surface of the paper, making it easier to erase unwanted lines with a sponge or by scraping the paper. This really comes down to the pigment, and if you are a beginner, with a little practice you'll begin to understand which pigments stain. Staining will also become a factor when layering colors, as non-staining watercolors can become muddy when mixed. Try testing out your colors on a white piece of paper to understanding which colors in your palette are non-staining, as it varies by brand.
Pans or Tubes
The most common way to buy watercolors is either in small tubes or in trays of solid paint called pans. Pans, which are only activated when touched with a wet brush, are great for their portability. As the amount of pigment you can take each time is limited, it's a bit more difficult to paint largescale projects, but each pan will go a long way.
Tubes, by contrast, are filled with liquid paint. This makes it a bit messier to bring on the road, but easier for mixing and painting on a larger scale. However, it's easier to use more paint quickly with tubes, so it can mean buying paint more often. Artists also need to be careful not to let the paint dry out, as many brands don't hold up well to constant rewetting.
Keep in mind that both tubes and pans are sold individually, so if you aren't sure what works best for you, you can mix and match until you find the perfect combination.
Best Watercolor Sets for Beginners
Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor Sketchers Pocket Box
Cotman is the student line of watercolors by popular brand Winsor & Newton. Cotman is a great entry into Winsor & Newton, as synthetic fillers help keep the prices down, yet the quality is still high. The Cotman line comes both in pans and tubes, but we love this sketchers pocket box for how portable it is. With 12 half pans and a brush, you have just enough to paint on the go, with the lid of the box doubling as a mixing palette.
Prima Marketing Watercolor Confections: The Classics
Prima Marketing makes a variety of watercolor sets for beginners in a variety of shades like Pastel Dreams or Decadent Pies. If you are looking for more basic colors, try The Classics, which are 12 watercolor pans in a small metal tin perfect for travel. Some reviewers noted that the paint isn't as transparent as other brands, but at such an affordable price, it's easy to mix and match sets, having fun with mixing colors and getting the hang of watercolor painting.
Reeves Watercolor Wheel Set Paint Kit
If you are just getting your start with watercolors and want to understand more about color theory and mixing, this beginner's set by Reeves is a good, affordable option. It comes with 14 tubes of watercolor paint, as well as a mixing palette, two brushes, and a color wheel to get your comfortable with mixing color.
Van Gogh Watercolor 12 Tube Pocket Box Set
Although advertised as student grade, reviewers rave about the quality of Van Gogh watercolor tubes. “They blend well and work with all of the watercolor techniques. They dry quickly and the colors remain vivid after they are dry.” These watercolors are also available as pans and come in a convenient wood or plastic carrying case so that they're easy to travel with.
Paul Rubens Artist Grade Watercolor Paint Solid Cakes, Set of 24
A fairly new entry on the scene, Paul Rubens is a watercolor paint brand based in Hong Kong. Their pans come in a beautiful pink tin that makes them easy to travel with, and people have been impressed with the quality. They've been likened to a more affordable version of Winsor & Newton or Van Gogh, some even saying that they can hold their own against professional grade paints. They're known for their high pigmentation and saturation, as well as how easily they blend. Interestingly, Paul Rubens also offers a set of metallic watercolor paint.
Daniel Smith Extra Fine Essentials Introductory Watercolor
Daniel Smith is an American watercolor paint brand known for this artist quality paints. Their 6-tube introductory watercolor set is a great first set if you are looking to transition into professional watercolor paints, as it allows you to mix a wide range of colors before investing in more tubes. The set contains three warm and three cool primary colors from Daniel Smith's 240+ color collection.
Sennelier La Petite Aquarelle 24 Half Pans
Known for their high-quality paints, Sennelier's student set makes the perfect travel companion. It comes with 24 half pans, a mixing tray, and an elastic strap for field painting. High transparency means that it's easy to create a glazing effect and colors are clear and bright.
Best Professional Watercolor Sets
Holbein Set Of 24 Artists' Watercolor Tubes
Made in Japan, Holbein watercolors claim to be “more finely ground than any other artist watercolor,” leaving a smooth, non-granular texture. They tend not to dry out in the tube and have a wide range of colors that are vibrant and intense according to reviewers.
M. Graham Intermediate 10-Color Watercolor Paint Set
M.Graham uses honey as an additive, making this a great option for artists who prefer a thicker consistency to their paint. With a high pigment load, this professional watercolor paint is known as a great value.
Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor Lightweight Sketchers' Box
If you prefer working with tubes and want something portable, Winsor & Newton's professional sketching case is a terrific option. It includes 12 tubes of Winsor & Newton professional watercolor paints, which are known for their high pigment load. More expensive than other brands, Winsor & Newton has remained popular for overall quality and smooth consistency.
Sennelier French Metal Set
A favorite brand among professionals, Sennelier uses honey as an additive, making rewetting easier. This portable set is easy to travel with and as Sennelier also sells pans individually, you can refill or add new colors as needed. One reviewer notes, “They respond very quickly to a wet brush, quicker than some other pan paints I have tried. The colors are rich, vibrant and heavily pigmented.”
Schmincke Horadam Aquarell Paint Tube Metal Set
Known for its superior quality, Schmincke has been using the same, traditional formula since 1881. The German brand has a huge selection of 139 colors, with 112 tones achieving the highest possible lightfastness. One reviewer calls them “Winsor & Newton on steroids!” and states that “the colors portray a delicate softness that I think is similar to WN watercolors, but Schmincke has a bit more boldness and flow, more variance in opaque and translucent colors, and much more granulation in certain colors.” If you prefer pans, they also have that option, as well as the student grade Akademie Aquarell line.
Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor Piccadilly Box
This beautiful kit is well worth the price for professional artists looking to treat themselves. It comes with 18 half pans of professional watercolors, 1 tube of Chinese white, 2 sable brushes, a porcelain palette, an artist sponge, and eraser. Housed in a chic wood case, it will make you want to go out and set up your easel immediately.
Rembrandt Watercolor Metal Deluxe Set
Made by the same manufacturer as Van Gogh, Rembrandt professional watercolors are known for their smooth texture and transparency. If you like working in layers, and want to splurge on a wide range of colors, their 48 pan set is the perfect watercolor set for the serious watercolorist.