Watercolor 101: Which Paints I Use and Why

Welcome to a new month and a new short blog post series I’ll be doing! I took the last few weeks off of blogging to focus on developing new content. Part of this new content will be my Watercolor 101 series where I’ll explain a little bit about what I personally use and why. This week we’ll dive right into talking about which watercolor paints I prefer.

When you first start painting with watercolors it can be overwhelming to walk in and see the different price ranges, brands, and types of watercolors available.

The first thing you should note are the two types available: tube paint and pan paint. Most people will be familiar with the pan version (think of the little circles you used as a kid) which is filled with dried paint that you scrub with water to get out. A good set of pan paint is great to have around for when you want to paint on the go. Winsor & Newton is my preferred pan set (I don’t recommend using the “water pen” that comes with it, stick to a normal paint brush) and is available in most arts and crafts stores. Pan paints are not however what I use most often and never for large projects. They’re great for doing quick paintings in the park or in the car, but for larger and more detailed projects I prefer to use tube paints which is what we’ll be discussing moving forward.

My Winsor & Newton pan paint set purchased at Michael’s.

When you start looking for paint tubes you’ll find a wide variety of brands and a huge price range. It’s important to remember that not all paints are created equal and price is an indicator of that. For me, my go to brands are Winsor & Netwon and Daniel Smith. There are many more out there, but these are the two I’ve had the most success and consistency with so I will be referencing these two brands and putting links throughout the post to where you can purchase them.

Tube paints come in two “grades”: student grade and artist grade.  I always tell people to use student grade, which is the cheaper of the two, when they first start using watercolors. This allows you to practice and get used to the medium before investing in the more expensive paints. Winsor & Newton carries a student grade brand called Cotman Watercolors which is available in most craft stores like Michael’s. When you feel ready to try artist grade tube paints I recommend Winsor & Netwon’s Professional or Daniel Smith’s Extra Fine Watercolors.

Winsor & Newton Professional

The difference between student grade and artist grade tube paints comes down to binder and pigment. Student grade watercolor paint has more binder and less pigment load (what gives the paint its color) or a lesser quality pigment. Less of a pigment load and  or low quality pigment can result in dull paintings and having to use more, which will cause you to go through it quicker. That being said, I’ve created some wonderful paintings with my Cotman pan set and tube paints which is why it is the brand I recommend starting with. When making the transition from student grade to artist grade, be prepared to change the way you work a little bit. I’ve found that with the artist grade paints the colors (particularly if you use Daniel Smith) are more intense and require different techniques.

So now the question you may be asking is, do I use Winsor & Newton Professionals or Daniel Smith Extra Fine? My answer is both. I’ve used each extensively and they are my favorite brands thus far, but there are a few differences to note. The first is price of course. Of the two, Winsor & Netwon is the least expensive and that is why I have loads more of these tube paints than Daniel Smiths. Like I mentioned earlier though, price is often an indicator of quality. Daniel Smith Extra Fine is, in my personal opinion, the better of the two in terms of pigment. These paints tend to be much more intense in color and require less to get that vibrant look. I don’t go through my Daniel Smith tubes as quickly as my Winsor & Netwon for this reason.

Daniel Smith Extra Fine

What they both have in common though, and one of my top reasons for loving them, is each is great for creating your own “pan set”. I know I mentioned earlier that tube paint is better than pan paints, but you can create a pan with tube paints without losing quality. This is because tube paints (at least with my two preferred brands), even when left to “dry” do not fully dry out and it is easy to reconstitute the paints. You’ll still get the same bright and beautiful colors as if you’re using it fresh out of the tube. I created my pan set by buying an empty palate that closes so I’m able to carry it more easily if I choose to.  In my experience, this is how many artists chose to use their watercolors although I’ve met some who only use tube paints right from the tube. This my preference because I like the portability of the pan while keeping the quality of my tube paints. I also enjoy being able to only select the colors I want instead of buying a pre-made pan set.

My pan set made from tube paints.

And so ends the first installment of Watercolors 101! If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section below or let me know of your preferred brands and why. Next week we’ll discuss my paper preferences and I’ll show you some of the latest watercolors I’ve been working on.

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