Painting with watercolors is popular for one simple reason (well two, really): it’s incredibly satisfying and it’s relatively easy to learn.
The actual paints that are used are made from pigments that are suspended in water (giving them that translucent quality) and can be used for everything from simple paintings to elaborate works.
They’re capable of creating some of the most beautiful pieces of art ever made (just look at any work of Van Gogh for evidence of that).
In this article, we share with you the best watercolor paints available. There are a few types you need to be aware of depending on how serious a painter you are and what type of painting you’re planning.
At a Glance: Our Choice of the Best Watercolor Paint Sets Available on the Market
- Sakura Pocket Field Sketch Box (30 Assorted Colors) (Best Overall)
- Winsor and Newton Cotman (14 Color Pocket Box) (Best Budget Choice)
- Sennelier L’Aquarelle French (24 Half Pans) (Best Premium Choice)
- Crayola Washable Watercolors (Best for Kids)
- Reeves (24-Pack)
- M. Graham (5 x 1/2-Ounce Tubes)
- Daniel Smith Extra Fine Essentials
- Holbein Artist’s Watercolors (18 x 5ml Tubes)
- Shinhan Professional (30 x 7.5ml Tubes)
- Crafts 4 All – Watercolor Set
- Winsor & Newton Professional Compact (14 Half Pans)
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Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Buyer’s Guide – How to Choose the Right Watercolor Paints
- Product Round-up and Reviews – Best Watercolor Paints
- Winsor and Newton Cotman Pocket Box
- Reeves 24-Pack
- M. Graham 5 x 1/2-Ounce Tubes
- Sennelier L’Aquarelle French (24 Half Pans)
- Daniel Smith Extra Fine Essentials
- Holbein Artist’s Watercolors (18 x 5ml Tubes)
- Shinhan Professional (30 x 7.5ml Tubes)
- Crafts 4 All
- Crayola Washable
- Sakura XNCW-30N Koi Field (30 Colors)
- Winsor & Newton Professional (14 x Half Pans)
- So, Which Should I Buy?
Buyer’s Guide – How to Choose the Right Watercolor Paints
Like with everything, watercolors are available in varying levels of quality. Artist-grade professional watercolors contain high amounts of finely grounded pigment (which provides the color) and a substance known as ‘gum arabic’. Student level paints contain fillers and extenders, bringing the price down. The more finely ground the pigment, the better the paint generally speaking.
If you’re new to the craft, a beginner’s set will be more than sufficient as they work perfectly well and achieve creative results. Those who progress and want to take it to the next level may then decide to purchase more expensive products from a manufacturer such as Sennelier.
Something to look out for as a sign of quality is gum arabic, used as a binder. This gives the paint its longevity as well as a stunning vibrancy. Some professional-grade products also include honey, which draws moisture from the air, resulting in a smoothness as the paint is never allowed to become hard, even during periods of disuse.
When shopping, it might be tempting to save money and go for fewer colors, opting to mix your own, instead. While this can work, there are some drawbacks. Firstly, should you want to recreate a color you mixed, that can prove very tricky.
Secondly, finding colors this way can result in a loss of brightness. If you think you’re going to use a wide range of watercolors, it’s best to buy a pack that has more options from the get-go.
Staining vs. Non-Staining
You might have heard how some watercolors stain the paper, whilst others simply become dry. Watercolors that stain often include those with Phitalo pigments, such as Phitalo blue, green and turquoise. Those which don’t stain are generally earthy or Cadmium colors, like brown, dark greens and greys, or reds and oranges.
However, this isn’t always the case, as staining and non-staining colors can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. The best way to find out is to apply the paint in question to a piece of watercolor paper, allow it to dry overnight and then wet the paper in the morning. Don’t be shy with the water, brush the surface like you really want to get rid of the paint. If you’re successful, that paint is non-staining. If not, it stains.
Staining paints are great for layering, as one level needs to be dry before another can go on top. Non-staining paint can be great for effects like highlights, or soft edges, not to mention for children. However, used too much, these can create a muddy effect, so it’s best to use a combination of staining and non-staining ones.
Transparent vs. Opaque
Similarly, transparent and opaque paints have different qualities and uses. While transparent paints are perfect for creating thin layers or washes, opaque paints create solid layers of color.
To find out whether your paint is transparent or opaque, draw a thick, black, vertical line on your watercolor paper, using a Sharpie or similar. Next, paint a few lines going across the stripe and allow it to dry. You’ll soon know whether your paint is see-through or solid.
Sometimes, you’ll see a label on the packaging, stating whether they’re opaque, transparent, or semi-transparent.
Tubes or Pans
Typically, they’ll come in either pans or tubes.
- Pans come in small trays and contain solid colors that are brought to life with water. These are portable as well as economical: you will not use much paint at a time whilst taking from a pan. One drawback of pans, however, is their lack of suitability for mixing.
- Tubes contain a wet, paste-textured watercolor. They come in all different sizes and are available individually as well as in packs. They’re suitable for bigger paintings and those who stay in one place to paint. However, they can lead to wastage as not all the paint you squeeze from the tube is always used. They’re not suitable for re-wetting either, as they become dull and crumbly when re-used.
Product Round-up and Reviews – Best Watercolor Paints
Winsor and Newton Cotman Pocket Box
This budget-friendly set from Winsor Newton is great for beginners and more advanced artists alike. In its tiny travel case, it’s perfect for those who paint here, there and everywhere and although it’s small, you still get 14 watercolors.
On top of this, there are mixing palettes should you wish to discover additional shades and the standard ‘half pan’ sized containers are easy to swap or replace. These paints also do very well in terms of lightfastness rating and permanence and have superb tinting strength and excellent working properties too.
This student grade kit is easy on the wallet too, offering superb value for money.
In summary, this is a student’s quality set which includes a plastic box with 14 assorted colors of the Winsor Newton brand. The range of colors are perfect for anyone starting out and wishing to explore mixing. The box includes an integral mixing palette in the lid which is useful for anyone wanting to keep their accessories to the minimum
- Very small and budget-friendly
- Includes 3 mixing compartments so you can get creative with more colors (each mixing palette lets you experiment with color mixing)
- Standard ‘half pan’ sizes, so can be easily swapped or replaced
- Great price, affordable student quality
- Good range of colors for the beginner painter
- Pocket box is small and neat
- Only one brush is included
- Pigments have been replaced with cheaper alternatives (the reason for the good price)
- Only 14 colors. A lot of painters can require more
- Really is very small, which might not suit everybody
Let’s take a look at this product…
This Reeves’ set is more suited to those who will paint in a studio. There are 24 tubes, including multiple shades of popular colors, which are vibrant as well as non-staining. These paints are all easy to wash away, making them perfect for effects like layers and washes. It also makes them great to experiment with.
As they’re tubes, the paint can be prone to wastage as it’s not suited to re-wetting, but if you plan carefully, this shouldn’t be a problem. As there are no mixing tubs or brushes included, this product is best suited to the painter who already owns those essentials.
In summary, Reeves 24 pack is the student grade watercolor set perfect for any beginner wishing to experiment in their painting. Each tube is 10ml and the wide range of colors available here means any painter can easily find a color mix to suit their needs.
For anyone on a tight budget, this is the purchase for you as the price is extremely low for the amount of paint you actually get.
Suited to: Intermediate artists in the studio
- Multiple shades of primary colors, allowing for many artistic options
- Very easy to use and to clean
- Great assortment of colors
- Good amount of paint in each tube
- Not as good quality as others on the list
- No mixing palette
- No brushes included
- They’re tubes, so beginners, in particular, are likely to waste paint
M. Graham 5 x 1/2-Ounce Tubes
These have ‘quality’ written all over them. The high pigment concentrations give each color an exceptional brightness, and the natural blackberry honey works as a great binder. This honey binder allows for fluid applications, also ensuring the paint is easy to dilute, even after prolonged disuse.
There are just five pigment colors in this set of watercolor tubes, so it might not suit the excited beginner. However, they’re extremely high quality, so you know what you’re getting is a top product that should lead to great results. In addition, the colors have a single pigment so you won’t get any issues with muddying when layering (high pigmentation stops this happening, basically).
The five colors are: ultramarine blue, permanent alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, sap green and azo yellow.
Suited to: The advanced artist with an eye for quality
- Natural blackberry honey is a binder, which absorbs moisture from the air resulting in fluid applications
- Very easy to dilute, even after periods of disuse
- High pigment load gives the colors an exceptional brightness.
- You only get 5 paints which might be slightly limiting
- They’re very expensive, compared to some of the other products in this list
Sennelier L’Aquarelle French (24 Half Pans)
Sennelier’s set of 24 half pans gives you a lot of options. Although there are already a wide array of colors to choose from, 4 mixing palettes are still included. This really is conducive to artistic creativity. A paintbrush is also included.
Whilst the half pans are pretty small, their standard sizing means they are easy to replace. The set itself is in stylish, metal casing that you’ll probably want to keep using, long after the paints have been replaced.
Best of all, this set consists of honey-binded paints. This ensures that they flow with ease, last a long time and also have a rich color, making them easily one of the best available.
Suited to: Advanced Artists looking for Options.
- 24 paints give you a lot of options, without the need to mix
- 4 mixing palettes are included as well as a high-quality paintbrush
- Honey-based binding makes it flow with ease and enhances the rich color
- Pretty pricey which might put off the beginner
- The half pans are quite small so you may find yourself replacing paints pretty quickly
Daniel Smith Extra Fine Essentials
Daniel Smith’s introductory watercolor set is another product aimed at the student. While the quality isn’t as great as some of the honey-based sets, there are a lot of positives.
These come in a nice-looking carry-case, contains 24 paints (including three primary colors: Phthalo Blue, Quinacridone Rose and Hansa Yellow Light). While this already gives you a lot of options, there’s also a generously sized mixing palate inside, as well as a paintbrush.
The paints included are half pans, so they might not last too long, but the standard sizing means they’re easy to replace, while keeping your stylish carry-case.
Suited to: Student Artists looking for Options.
- 24 paints give you a lot of options, without the need to mix.
- A generous mixing palate inside with 4 large and 9 smaller sections.
- A paintbrush and carry-case are included.
- As a student set, the quality isn’t as great as honey-based paints
- The half pans are quite small, so you may find yourself replacing paints pretty quickly
Holbein Artist’s Watercolors (18 x 5ml Tubes)
Holbein’s Artist’s watercolors are high-quality, professional paints. They contain Gum Arabic as a binder, which gives them a superior vibrancy, whilst the generously filled tubes mean you won’t get short quickly. These paints are super finely ground, hence why the resulting painting experience produces pure and intense colors, as well as excellent handling qualities.
It’s pretty pricey, and there’s no carry-case, mixing palate or brush, but this set is aimed at those who have already been painting a while, and so don’t need any more essentials.
These paints are vibrant, intense and long-lasting. This is why the watercolor produces intense, luminous, pure, excellent colors in addition to improved handling qualities.
Suited to: Advanced Artists who Love Vibrancy.
- High-quality, Gum Arabic binder gives the paints a stunning vibrancy.
- 18 watercolors, including multiple shades of primary colors.
- Generously filled tubes means you won’t get short quickly.
- There’s not carry case, mixing palate or brush included.
- It’s about twice the price of the Reeves set.
- Tubes can lead to wasted paint.
Shinhan Professional (30 x 7.5ml Tubes)
This budget-friendly set combines variety with affordability. There are 30 watercolors to choose from here, but they keep the tubes small in order to keep the price down. Not only are there a wide range of colors to choose from, but they’re all made using high-grade Gum Arabic, ensuring the highest levels of quality and vibrancy.
Whilst there’s no brush or palate included here, it’s the perfect option for those wanting to explore what watercolor has to offer, and to find out which colors work for them.
Suited to: Beginners or Intermediates looking for a large palette.
- 30 paints give you lots of shades to choose from.
- It’s pretty budget-friendly.
- High-grade Gum Arabic used, giving the paints a lot of vibrancy.
- There’s no brush or palate included.
- Tubes can lead to paint wastage.
Crafts 4 All
These high-quality paints use no filler or binder, ensuring a pure, vibrant tone. There are 24 colors here, so you won’t be short of options and they all include an exclusive binder which gives them a thick vibrancy.
All of these paints are staining, making them great for layering as well as bold, bright paintings. There are 3, different-sized paint brushes included to further encourage your creativity and this set, despite its relatively low price tag, also comes with a lifetime guarantee.
Suited to: Creative artists who want to push themselves
- No filler or binder in these
- 3 brushes of different sizes are included, to enhance your creative options
- Despite its budget-friendly price tag, this set comes with a lifetime guarantee
- They come in tubes, which can lead to waste
- There’s no mixing palate included
Perfect for children who want to explore the world of watercolor, these are fun, bright, and washable to get your kids all fired up.
Every paint in this set is easy-wash, so you don’t have to worry about the kids getting messy while they get creative. There are 8 colors included, all of which are vivid and easy to paint with. There’s a paintbrush included, too, but unfortunately, this set has no mixing palate.
Suited to: Children, of course.
- Fun, bright and kid-friendly
- Easy-wash paint means children can enjoy getting creative without worrying about making a mess
- 8 colors and a paintbrush included
- There’s no mixing palate
- Having just 8 colors, your artistic options are limited. That said, it’s a limitation that works well for the beginning child
Sakura XNCW-30N Koi Field (30 Colors)
This extensive set has absolutely everything you need. As well as 30 different colors in a carry-case, there’s a 5-section mixing palate, a brush, and even a sponge to clean your brush with.
The paints are all in half size pots, making them efficient as well as easy to replace when they do run out. The case itself is easy to store, and whilst it’s a bit bulky, it’s perfect for packing away and getting out again on a rainy day.
Suited to: Artists of any level looking to kit up.
- 30 different colors to choose from, all in pots
- A 5-section mixing palate included, as well as a brush, sponge and case
- Comes in a carry-case, making it ideal for the travelling artist
- Although there’s a case, this set is a bit bulky
- Whilst the value is great for what you get, it might be a little pricey for a beginner
Winsor & Newton Professional (14 x Half Pans)
We reviewed Winsor & Newton’s beginner product above (the Winsor Newton Cotman Pocket Box), here is their premium offering and one of the best professional watercolor sets available today.
Winsor and Newton are well known in the industry for making top notch watercolors, and here they make a collection of watercolors that Van Gogh would have been proud of!
Each color has been manufactured to the best standards possible for professional artists. The colors include 14 vibrant hues, namely: Burnt Umber, Winsor Lemon Yellow, Cobalt Blue, Burnt Sienna, Viridian, Lamp Black, Winsor Yellow, Alizarine Cramoise Permanent, Winsor Blue, Scarlett Lake, Yellow Ochre and Raw Umber 8098.
So, Which Should I Buy?
When it comes to which is the best watercolor paint, there’s no ‘one size fits all’.
Beginners might prefer varied kits, which include brushes, cases and palates, whilst advanced artist who already own the basics might opt for small selections of high-quality paints with a limited color palette.
If you’re hell bent on finding the professional grade, quality watercolor paint, things to look out for are gum arabic binding which you find in all professional watercolors – including the Holbein Artist’s set and the Shinhan Professional Set – which gives paint those vibrant colors. The inclusion of honey is also a good sign, as is in the M. Graham and Sennelier L’Aquarelle French sets.
While some paints tell you on the label whether they’re transparent or opaque, for others you will need to do the ‘Sharpie test’, painting over a thick, black line to see if the paint covers it or if it shows through. Similarly, if you’re unsure whether a paint is staining or non-staining, leaving it to dry overnight and then washing it with water will find you the answer.
For portable painters, pans are often the preferred storage method for paints, while tubes are better suited to those based in a studio.
Whichever one you opt for, we hope it provides you with endless hours of creativity and pleasure.
Remember, you’ll need special paper to work with these paints that enables the pigment to bond with the surface of the paper as it dries (unlike working with oils or acrylics, where you can use a multitude of paper surfaces). You can pick some up at most art supplies shops.
Have fun and may the colors brighten up many a day!