Best Watercolor Paints

When you’re ready to tackle your next masterpiece, finding the best watercolor paints for your project can be a daunting task. With so many brands to choose from, you could spend hours wandering the paint aisle of your local craft store – and who has time for that? This helpful post will take the guesswork out of picking your next set of paints. You’ll spend less time shopping, and more time working on art you love.

Overall best: Winsor & Newton Cotman

Providing excellent bang for your buck, the Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolor paints are a great choice for an aspiring watercolor artist. They have good transparency and tinting strength (which is ideal for a good watercolor paint), and they are relatively easy to work with.

With a ton of different pan options in this line (ranging from a set of six 8ml tubes to a set with 45 half pans), you’ll be able to find the perfect range choice for your next project.

Because these are student-level paints, the pigments come from less expensive petroleum-based sources than professional grade paints (although many of them are organic). But, these paints are still an excellent choice – especially for the casual watercolor painter who doesn’t want to invest in a professional line just yet.

For beginners: Reeves Watercolor

Reeves Watercolor paints are a solid choice for a budding artist. These expressive paints come in sets of 10 ml or 22 ml tubes with either 10, 12, 18, 20, or 24 different paint colors per set. The basic 10-tube set includes a complete rainbow of colors, but you’ll get a better shade range (and spend less time mixing) with the full set of 24.

Regardless of which set you choose, these paints are designed for use on watercolor paper or canvas. They are easy to blend, great for washes, and aren’t chalky. Because they come in handy tubes, you can add them directly to the paper, or add them to a palette of your own – without wasting unnecessary product.

While these paints may not be as pigmented or intense as professional-grade watercolors, they provide the best overall painting experience for the beginner painter (and offer good value, too).

For beginners (runner-up): Van Gogh Watercolor

The Van Gogh Watercolors are an excellent choice for the practical painter. With these high-quality student-grade paints, even the novice painter will be able to create masterpieces with ease. These paints are easy to blend and layer, and the shade range is natural but vibrant.

There are a ton of different set options in this family to choose from. Get your feet wet with a standard set of ten 10ml paint tubes in a solid array of colors (although you’ll probably have to mix up some more shades yourself). Or, you can select a set with 48 different colors that come in a half pan with a fold-out mixing palette.

Manufactured directly in Van Gogh’s birthplace of Holland, these paints have a high degree of lightfastness and are made to last without fading. Easy to work with, these are a great economical choice for a beginner watercolorist.

For professionals: Schmincke Horadam Aquarell

If you’re looking to take your watercolor paintings to the professional level, you’ll definitely want to consider giving Shmincke Horadam Aquarell paints a try. Highly pigmented, fade-resistant, and long-lasting, these paints are an excellent choice for a particular painter that prefers quality over quantity.

Even the basic set of 12 paints includes a nice shade range from Lemon Yellow to Ivory Black (although there is no white). All of the pigments have a high degree of lightfastness, which means your precious commissions won’t fade away over time.

These paints are designed to stay put, and won’t run and bleed all over the place when you’re working with intricate designs. While many of the sets don’t come with large quantities of paint, you can purchase individual tubes if you’re looking to create large-scale designs. They’re a solid choice for the professional painter – or the novice who’s looking to level-up.

For experienced artists: DANIEL SMITH Alvaro Castagnet Master Artist Watercolor Set

For the experienced artist, the Daniel Smith Alvaro Castagnet Master Artist Watercolor Set is a unique palette choice that will add versatility to any paint collection. This set includes 10 5ml watercolor paint tubes with colors inspired by famous Uruguayan painter, Alvaro Castagnet.

This particular palette includes high-quality artist-grade paint that blends well, is easily layered, and is lightfast. This malleable paint performs well, and your paintings won’t fade over time.

The color selections are fairly unique, and landscape painters will likely find the shade range particularly useful. The palette includes Burnt Sienna – a nice earthy reddish-brown that you can only find in this specific set. For the artist who appreciates the work of Alvaro Castagnet and wants to try something new, this paint set is an excellent choice to add to your collection.

For kids: Faber-Castell Learn to Watercolor Set

When your miniature artists are looking to dip their brushes into the watercolor world, the Faber-Castell Learn to Watercolor Set is an excellent choice to get their imaginations flowing. This set has everything you need to get started – 12 washable watercolor paint cakes, 2 brushes, 12 watercolor paper sheets, a handy carrying case (and much more!).

Recommended for ages 5 and up, these non-toxic paints are easy to use (and easy to clean, too). The included water brush, resist crayon, and illustrated instructions open up a world of possibilities while introducing kids to basic watercolor techniques.

Kids can practice the art of blending, creating washes, and adding splatter designs to their masterpieces – all while on the go! Throw this handy watercolor set in your kid’s backpack, and they’ll be ready to create their next masterpiece anywhere, anytime.

Tube: Holbein Artist’s Watercolors

Holbein Artist’s Watercolors are buttery, smooth, and available in a variety of colors and tube sizes. Artists can select from 5ml, 15ml, or 60ml tubes of paint – the 5ml size is especially handy for sampling colors. The basic set of 12 5ml tubes is a perfect place to start, you can easily mix up nearly any shade your painting needs (although there are 108 total shades you can choose from).

With these watercolors, a little bit goes a long way. These artist-quality paints are exceptionally vibrant, and they dissolve like a dream. The pigments are finely-ground too – no chalkiness or grainy residue.

If you prefer to squeeze your paints into pans or a palette, these will re-activate quite nicely. These watercolors are a great choice for an artist looking for high-quality tube paints in a variety of shades.

Tube (runner-up): Grumbacher Academy

For a good selection of student-grade tube paints, Grumbacher Academy Watercolors are an excellent choice. These vibrant paints flow well, blend nicely, and are overall pretty easy to work with. They won’t turn your masterpieces to mud – which is key for those who are just starting out on their watercolor journey.

The paint has a great texture – even though they aren’t single-pigment, the colors mix nicely together and complement one another. Individual shades may perform a bit differently once you actually get them on the paper, but you can experiment and figure out which ones work best for you.

If you’re a novice artist who is looking for a paint that flows nicely over the paper and doesn’t turn into a muddy mess, these economical watercolors are a nice option.

Portable: Sennelier La Petite Aquarelle

If you imagine yourself sitting next to a bubbling brook with brush in hand, painting a beautiful landscape – the Sennelier La Petite Aquarelle set is a great choice. For the aspiring artist on the go, this portable palette includes 24 half pans nestled in a convenient plastic travel box. The textured travel box features a nice elastic band, so you can comfortably hold your paints with one hand (leaving you free to paint your next masterpiece with the other).

The shade range of this palette offers a nice variety of transparent and opaque colors, and they layer well on paper. These paints also blend and mix nicely, and aren’t chalky or grainy. For a nice student-grade set of watercolors that you can take with you anywhere, these paints will have you covered.

Buyer’s Guide

Whether you’ve just taken up watercolor painting or you’re an experienced artist already, perhaps it’s time for some new paint – but how do you choose the right paint or the best watercolor set that’ll work for you? With so many different factors to consider (overall quality, lightfastness rating, granulation, transparency, pans, tubes, oh my!), it’s easy to get bogged down in the details without really knowing what you’re buying. Here’s the nitty-gritty on how to narrow down your options and select the best watercolor paint for your artistic needs. 

Quality: Professional vs. Beginner

Both beginners and professional artists agree that watercolors can be a difficult medium to master – but choosing a high-quality paint will make the process a whole lot easier. Regardless of whether you’re a pro or you’re totally brand-new, you’ll want to choose a paint suited for your technique, your budget, and your desired results. Like most paint, watercolors come in two basic grades that indicate the quality of the pigment – student-grade or artist-grade (sometimes called professional-grade).

A good student-grade paint is great for beginners. It should consistently perform well – but also be budget-friendly. Van Gogh Watercolor paints are a great choice as they are economically priced, yet still produce smooth, beautiful results.

Professional-grade paint will give you the best, most consistent and vibrant results – but it’ll also be expensive. A professional paint usually has better lightfastness ratings, and it’s not usually bolstered by chemical fillers. Professionals should try Shmincke Horadam Aquarell paints because they are highly pigmented and fade-resistant.

For the most part, you should choose paint that will suit your specific style. If you like to wash large canvases, it may be better to pick up some cheaper student-grade paint and save the expensive artist-grade for the important details.  

Pans vs. Tubes

It doesn’t really matter if you prefer your watercolors in pans or tubes, but knowing the difference can save you time (and money). Most professional artists and experienced painters squeeze their paint from tubes, but a set of good cakes in a well-arranged pan is perfectly suitable for someone just starting out.

Many basic watercolor sets contain pans with dried cakes – simply add water to activate the paint. Dry pans offer convenience and portability, but can lack diversity and may require some finessing to achieve the right texture. They’re great for traveling and practice, especially once you find one with colors that work for your style.

Tubes of liquid paint can provide the nuance that pans and sets lack, but the wide range of choices can be overwhelming – and expensive. But, you can choose your own colors, acquire hard-to-find shades, and the paint itself will last longer (especially if you add it to a palette a little at a time).

Holbein Artists’ Watercolors have a huge range of color options in high-quality tube paint, and Grumbacher Academy is a great student-grade choice. For the most part, pans are aimed at beginners, and professionals tend to reach for tubes. 

Number of colors (pigments)

Watercolor paints get their vibrancy from various pigments, which are either found in nature or created in a lab. Manufacturers may combine one, two, or sometimes three (or more) different pigments and add a binder that makes it “stick” to the paper.

High-quality paint is usually found in single-pigment form – it’s the most “pure”, it mixes well with other colors, and it’s generally going to give you the biggest color payoff and remain vibrant when dry. Lower-quality paint will often contain several pre-mixed pigments to achieve a specific color.

Single-pigment products are not inherently better than those with multiple pigments, but they can provide more consistent results. If you’re looking for a large quantity of a favorite unique color that will be a pain to mix yourself, then there’s nothing wrong with reaching for a good version of multiple-pigment paint. All pigment information should be available either on the paint container itself, or from the manufacturer.

However, if you’re serious about watercoloring and you want to practice mixing color yourself, aim for single-pigment artist-grade choices. For instance, 95 of the 139 shades in the Schminke Horadam Aquarelle professional line are made with only one pigment, giving you vibrant, long-lasting results. 

Permanence

While the terms “permanence” and “lightfastness” are sometimes used interchangeably, they aren’t exactly the same thing. Both labels describe a specific paint’s resistance to change over time, which is important for art hung in a gallery or a client’s home – but less so for practice painting.

Unfortunately, there is no standardized way of measuring or labeling a paint’s permanence. Some brands will give their paint a permanence rating that ranges from “extremely permanent” to “fugitive”. This indicates how well the paint will remain stable without reacting to sunlight or other atmospheric conditions such as acidity, humidity, or temperature.

Generally speaking, paint with a high permanence rating is “extremely permanent”, and won’t fade quickly when treated chemicals are applied. “Fugitive” paint may fade immediately or even completely change color over time. Fugitive paint may also react with certain other paint brands, mediums, or fixatives – so tread lightly when using these substances.

Even though watercolors are generally less permanent than other non-water-based mediums, you can still find paint with a high permanence rating. Each brand has its own way of measuring this, so check with the manufacturer to figure out which paint will give you the most long-lasting and chemically stable results. 

Staining vs. Non-Staining

One of the benefits of using watercolors is that you can remove mistakes with a bit of tissue if you catch them quickly enough. However, you need to pay attention to whether or not your paint is described as “staining” or “non-staining”. This will tell you if the paint will be easy to remove – or if it’s there for good.

It all comes down to the size of the pigment particles. High-quality paint contains tiny, finely ground pigment. This leaves a very smooth application with no graininess or chalkiness, and it also stains your paper.

The pigment particles nestle themselves deeply into the paper’s grooves and fibers where they become difficult to remove. Staining colors produce vibrant results that are great for layering and adding depth, but require more care when applying.

Non-staining paint contains bigger pigment particles, so they are easier to lift. With a little practice, you can use this technique to your advantage – blot away mistakes, soften harsh edges, or completely remove certain areas of paint to add highlights.

If the paint itself isn’t labeled as staining or non-staining, consider the coarseness of the grind. An artist-grade paint advertising an extra-fine grind will probably stain. 

Lightfastness

Watercolor paint has garnered a reputation for being prone to fading, but many professional watercolorists argue that simply isn’t true. The lightfastness rating of a paint indicates approximately how many years it will resist fading when exposed to ultraviolet light.

Most artist-grade paint is touted as being very lightfast and claims to resist fading for more than a hundred years. Student-grade or poor-quality paint will probably fade more quickly, but this doesn’t matter much if you’re just using it to practice. And some beginner paint – like the student-grade Van Gogh Watercolors – are just as lightfast as some pricier professional brands.

All paint is made from various pigments, and certain pigments are just more prone to fading than others. Some hot pinks and reds like “Opera Rose” and “Alizarin Crimson” contain fugitive pigments that can fade fairly quickly if not protected from the sun.

Individual pigments are often tested in a lab and assigned a lightfastness rating by the American Society for Testing and Materials, but many are not. You’ll have to double-check with each manufacturer to determine which of their paints are suitable for hanging in a gallery, and which ones are better left in a closed sketchbook. 

Granularity

If you want to create interesting textured effects with your watercolors, consider choosing a highly granulated paint. If you prefer smooth, even applications with predictability, choose a paint without granulated pigment.   

Paint is made of tiny pigment granules that move around when water is applied. Some pigments are heavy and harder to grind, and may form clumps during the manufacturing process. These clumps translate into a mottling effect on your paper after the pigment settles in the grooves and fibers of the paper. You probably won’t find a granulating red or yellow, but there are plenty of granulating blues and purples to try (just check the color chart from the manufacturer to know for sure).

Granularity shouldn’t be confused with grittiness, although you can use grittiness to your advantage and experiment with different techniques. Granularity occurs more on a microscopic level, so you may not even notice it until your paint is completely dry.

If you want smooth, consistent color washes, choose artist-grade paints with finely-ground pigment particles. If you want interesting mottling effects, you can try some less expensive student-grade paints or try a granulation medium instead. 

Conclusion

Before you run out and buy the first set of watercolors that you see, take time to consider what type of paint will work best for you. If you’re excited to experiment and learn, pick up a good variety of either tubes or pans in a variety of transparent, opaque, granulating, and non-staining colors. Save the single-pigment artist-grade paint for essential colors you’ll use most often, and upgrade your collection as your skills improve.