How to choose watercolor paint (Guide for beginners)

To get started with watercolors you need to buy the perfect supplies, right? However, when shopping for watercolor paint you may find it daunting and confusing because, there are so many options that you just don’t know where to start.

That is why in this post, you’ll learn all about watercolor paint, that way you’ll know what to look for when purchasing. The only way to find the perfect paint is by knowing the different uses there are and then determining from there, which brand is suitable for your painting needs!

Let’s get into it…

Introduction to watercolor paint


Watercolors come in two different levels of quality and they are student grade and artists/professional grade. Artist’s grade watercolor tends to be of higher quality than the student grade. This is because watercolor paint is made of ground-up pigments combined with binders. Watercolor companies manufacture professional-grade pigments with a higher percentage of pure pigments.

Meanwhile, student-grade paint is manufactured with a lower percentage of pigment to reduce production costs.

Artists GradeStudent Grade
Creamier texture, easier to reactivate once dried in a paletteSome brands may take longer to reactivate than others.
Lasts longer than student gradeDoes not last as long as artist’s grade
Higher amount of pigmentMore fillers- companies use more fillers to reduce production costs.
More expensiveCheaper because they use fewer pigments than compared to artist’s grade.
Takes less time to create a painting because pigments are richer and more saturated.Takes longer to create a painting because pigments are less

In conclusion: If you can afford them, I would recommend Artist Grade paints, because they will greatly improve your learning experience. However, student-grade paints are also a great option if you’re looking for something more affordable.

Student grade paints are also the way to go if you’re just starting out with watercolors and are not sure if you want to stick with it in the long run. You can always upgrade later on as you gain more experience.


Watercolor paint is made with a pigment as its base, these pigments are usually labeled with a letter followed by a number. For example, ultramarine pigment is labeled as PB29(pigment blue 29). Some colors use more than one pigment in them.

Paints with single pigments are usually preferred over multiple pigments. Single pigment colors allow you to have the freedom to mix a wider range of colors without risking muddying the mixture.

The pigment information is normally shown on the label in the form of a letter followed by a number; for example, the tube below is Alizarin crimson, and its pigment number is PR 83 (pigment red 83):


You can purchase watercolors in different forms including: Tubes (sets or single), pans (sets or single), sticks and pencils (I’ll be focusing on tubes and pans in this post).


  • You can purchase a set of tubes or single tubes.
    • Quantity: The amount of paint that comes in the tube highly depends on the brand. While some brands produce 5ml and 10ml tubes others may sell 8ml and 15ml tubes. It depends on the company.
    • Ideal usage: Buying singular tubes is ideal for those who wish to create a palette that includes colors of their choosing. Generally speaking, experienced watercolor artists prefer to use a small selection of primary colors and use those to mix secondary and tertiary colors. As you practice and become more experienced you are likely to develop preferences over which colors to use. From there, you’ll probably go with the option of buying single tubes from one or more brands to create a collection of your own.
    • How to use: Paint in tubes can be poured into a palette then dried and re-wet for usage. You can also use paint directly from the tube. You can also purchase a watercolor tin and pour the paint into tiny pans.


Most companies provide the customer with an option of buying a set of 12, 24 0r 45 solid watercolor pans. The paint is poured into small pans during production and then caked together and dried. These paints can then be activated with water. Pan sets are a huge plus considering their container can come with several mixing areas.

  • Quantity: There are two sizes when it comes to watercolor pans: Half pans and full pans. Full pans hold around 3ml while half pans hold around 1.5ml of paint.
  • Ideal usage: Great for people who travel with their paints and also a good option for beginners. Watercolor sets are ideal for beginners who are starting out and still learning how to mix colors correctly. Ready-made sets are great because they reduce the stress of not knowing which colors to pick. Generally, a good set should have options from each primary color (warm and cool), some earth tones(such as burnt sienna, umber, etc), and neutral tones.


Lightfastness/permanence refers to the level of durability that the pigment has due to exposure to light. Completed paintings have a time frame in which the paint begins to wear away and become dull. This is because the chemical bonds of the paint change and break down due to light exposure.

Companies run tests on their paints to determine the lightfastness of each color which they then put it on the label or online. The lightfastness of paint particularly matters for artists who wish to sell their art or hope their art can last for many years to come.

Watercolor transparency

Although all watercolors tend to be transparent, some are produced with different levels of transparency/opacity depending on the pigment (some are more transparent than others).

Transparent pigments are preferred over opaque, especially when it comes to layering. You can check the level of transparency for each color on the label or website information online.


Some pigments “stain” more easily than others. Staining pigments make it more difficult when using techniques such as lifting the pigment of the paper. Not to mention artists that layer a lot on their paintings may want to consider staining pigments.

Colors that don’t stain are easier to remove and shift and this can cause new layers of paint to mix on the paper and become muddy. However, with practice, you’ll learn to create your paintings and will easily be able to avoid muddy colors due to gained experience.


Watercolors are made by breaking down pigments into a fine smooth powder. The paint is then mixed with a binder (such as gum arabic) and other ingredients. When painting you may notice that some colors (such as ultramarine) form an uneven texture. You’ll normally see tiny irregular dots forming on the paper. This is known as granulation.

Different colors granulate on the paper at different rates. This is because while some pigments are easier to grind into a fine powder, others are harder and create slightly grainy results. The image below shows an example:

Most companies will include granulation information on the label. Some labels read G or S which means granulating or smooth while others read Y or N (yes or no). Professional-grade paint usually granulates more because there is a higher ratio of pigment in them.

However, some companies will only include the pigment number on the tube and include the rest of the information for each pigment on their website like so:

All in all, granulation is important to know about for painters who wish to add texture or prefer granulating over smooth. However, If you are a beginner I wouldn’t worry too much about granulation for now.

Watercolor paint recommendations:

Winsor and newton

About the company: The Winsor and newton headquarters is located in London, however, manufacturing takes place in France. The company was founded in 1832 By William Winsor (a chemist) and Henry newton (an artist). Since then it has grown and evolved to produce a variety of supplies including watercolors, gouache, acrylics, oil paints, paper, brushes, and more… You can read more about them here.

Winsor and Newton Cotman

Winsor and newton produce a student line (known as Cotman) as well as a professional line of watercolors. The Cotman watercolors are known to be of good quality for student paints and a great option for starter palettes.

Cotman watercolors are a more affordable option especially if you’re just starting out. Suited for beginners, you can easily learn how watercolors react on paper as well as basic painting techniques.

See the Cotman sets and pans

Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor Set of 12 Half Pans

Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor Set - Customizable Travel Tin, Set of 12, Assorted Colors, Half Pans

Purchase Here

Colors Included:
Lemon Yellow Hue, Cadmium Yellow Hue, Cadmium Red Hue, Alizarin Crimson Hue, Ultramarine, Prussian Blue, Viridian Hue, Sap Green, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Lamp Black, and Chinese White.

The tin box makes it customizable and there’s enough space to add more half pans if you should choose. This pan also comes with plenty of mixing areas and is more sturdy and long lasting so you don’t have to keep buying new palettes. This option is also easy to carry with you on the go!

The quality of the paint is lower and this could create more of a struggle to learn.

Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolors – Compact Set of 14 Half Pans

Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolors - Compact Set, Assorted Colors, Set of 14, Half Pans

Purchase Here

Colors Include:
Lemon Yellow Hue, Cadmium Yellow Hue, Cadmium Red Hue, Alizarin Crimson Hue, Permanent Rose, Ultramarine, Cerulean Blue Hue, Viridian Hue, Sap Green, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Payne’s Gray, Ivory Black, and Chinese White.

Pros: This set comes with a cotman watercolor size 5 brush and a sliding palette for extra mixing space. The box is compact and easy to take with on the go.

Cons: Some reviewers complained that they had trouble keeping the pans stable

Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor- Studio Set, Set of 24 Full Pans

Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor- Studio Set, Set of 24, Assorted Colors, Full Pans

Purchase Here

Colors Include Lemon Yellow Hue, Cadmium Yellow Hue, Cadmium Yellow Pale Hue, Cadmium Orange Hue, Cadmium Red Hue, Cadmium Red Deep Hue, Permanent Rose, Purple Lake, Dioxazine Purple, Ultramarine, Cerulean Blue Hue, Intense Blue, Prussian Blue, Emerald Green, Hooker’s Green Dark, Sap Green, Yellow Ochre, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Sepia, Payne’s Gray, Ivory Black, and Chinese White.

Pros– Some of the pros include lots of mixing space and the mixing palette is also detachable. With a set of 24 colors, you have many options to choose from and learn with.

Cons– It can be large to take with you on the go. It also requires more time to create a finished painting because the ratio of pure pigment is lower than professional lines and they don’t last as long as a professional set.

Professional watercolors

Winsor and newton professional colors:

Winsor and Newton professional paints are known for their high quality and performance in the watercolor world. Their colors are vibrant, rich and easy to rewet and work with, they are definetly worth the upgrade from their cotman line!

See the professional tubes and sets

Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor – Set of 12 Tubes

Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor - Travel Tin, Set of 12, Assorted Colors, Tubes

Purchase Here

Colors include: Winsor Lemon, Cadmium-Free Yellow, Cadmium-Free Red, Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Rose, French Ultramarine, Winsor Blue (Green Shade), Permanent Sap Green, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, and Payne’s Gray.

If you prefer to buy a set of tubes instead of creating your own palette then this option could be the one for you. This tube set comes with a lightweight travel tin that includes warm and cool versions of each primary color so you can mix a variety of colors.

Winsor & Newton Professional – Customizable Travel Set of 12 Half Pans

Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor � Exclusively Ours, Customizable Travel Tin, Set of 12

Purchase here

Colors Include: Winsor Lemon, Cadmium-Free Yellow, Cadmium-Free Red, Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine, Winsor Blue (Green Shade), Permanent Sap Green, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, Payne’s Gray, and Ivory Black.

If you’d prefer a set of pan-poured professional-grade paints then this set is the one to go with. It also comes with a customizable tin set with extra slots for additional colors of your choice.

See other Winsor & Newton Professional Sets and Half Pans.

Daniel Smith

Brief Introduction:
Daniel smith is an American company that was founded in 1976 by Dan Smith in Seattle, Washington. Today, the company produces high-quality professional watercolors and oils. You can learn more about the history of the company here. A few sets only recently started half pans()

If you’re looking to upgrade your palette from student grade to professional-grade then daniel smith may be a good option for you. Daniel Smith paints are known for their high-quality paint

Tube set- Daniel smith essentials set:

Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolor - Essentials Set, 5 ml Tube

Purchase here

This set consists of three warm primary colors and three cool primary colors: Hansa yellow light, New gamboge, Quinacridone Rose, Pyrrol Scarlet, Pthalo Blue, and French Ultramarine. Each tube comes with 5ml.

Pros: Great for those wanting to improve their color mixing skills. These pigments tend to be rich and saturated. They last long because using a small amount provides a lot of pigment. Very easy to rewet if poured into a palette.

Con’s: Small amount in one tube. May require some background knowledge in mixing and blending colors. This is because the paints are so saturated, that using a small amount when mixing can make a big difference in the mixture. This can however be overcome through experience.

Single tubes:

Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolor - Permanent Alizarin Crimson, 5 ml Tube

Daniel smith sets and Single Tubes

Dot card: Daniel smith also offers their buyers samples of their paints in the form of dot cards. You can purchase one and test out the different swatches then choose your colors from there.

The company also has a wide range of professional colors that includes 261 colors just in their extra-fine watercolors line. You can certainly select a few colors and create a custom palette.

M. Graham

M. Graham Artists' Watercolor Set - Quinacridone, Set of 5 colors, 15 ml tubes

See Paint tubes and Sets

The M graham watercolor paints are made with Northwest blackberry honey, this is said to produce stronger richer pigments. These watercolors are known for their high quality and excellent performance. The pigments are soft and creamy and can be reactivated instantly after adding water.

The only downside to these paints is that they may not be suitable for travelling as the wet consitency of the paint can cause them to over leak.

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