March 21

8 comments

Good Watercolor Brands – Which is Best

By Anthony

March 21, 2018

watercolor supplies

Looking for good watercolor brands? 

I know what you’re thinking. 

There’s a huge choice of watercolors on the market and you haven’t got a clue which are good and which are a waste of time. 

I was in the same predicament when I started watercolor painting. Choosing the right ​supplies is a big deal - especially when you’re a beginner. So I did a lot of research! And below I’m sharing the results of what I found.

Just to be clear, I haven’t researched ALL the brands of watercolor paint available. So there are probably gaps in the following article. Also, choosing the best watercolor paint is ultimately a personal choice. I have some favorites, which I’ll explain below, and if you ask a handful of watercolor artists what’s their favorite brand, they will probably all give a different answer!

Finding the best brand of watercolor paint to suit your needs isn't easy. Last time I looked, I counted over 50 different manufacturers!

That’s a lot of paint!

But it’s worth taking a little time to consider the paint you’re going to use, because it has a big effect on your success as a watercolorist.

My choice of good watercolor brands

  • 1
    Daniel Smith
  • 2
    M. Graham
  • 3
    Winsor & Newton

This is my quick reply. If you were to ask me what brand of watercolor paint I recommend, and you just wanted some quick advice, these are the manufacturers I would tell you to look at. My first watercolor paints were Winsor & Newton, which I still enjoy - probably because I have an emotional attachment to my first paints! When I first saw Daniel Smith’s range of watercolors I thought “wow look at all those colors” - and then “oh no, now I have to make a choice” ! There’s a huge range of wonderful transparent colors which often have interesting granulated textures. Then I discovered the beautiful pigments and rich creamy texture of M Graham paints - these are made with honey!

I’m afraid my recommendation isn’t very original, since you’ll find a lot of other artists love these brands too!

If you want to know more about how to judge good watercolor paint by yourself, keep reading!

Why should you care which brand to buy?

It’s important to choose your paints carefully, and a little background information about the different brands available can be useful. Also, good quality watercolor paint is expensive! It’s no fun buying expensive stuff only to regret it later.

For the purposes of this comparison I’m only considering “artists’ quality” paint. A lot of brands of watercolors are available in “students” or “academic” grades as well as professional artists grade.

If you’re looking for good watercolors, then you too should only consider companies that offer artist grade paints.

Artist quality paints have a better concentration of pigments, they also have better handling characteristics and they will last longer. I’m also focusing on paints which are easily available and most appreciated by other artists.

How to choose watercolor paints?

There are a few different criteria that you can use to help you judge the quality of any range of watercolor paints. Most well-known brands provide this information, either on the product labeling, or directly on their website. Below I’ll provide some links to some of these references so you can check the characteristics of the colors you’re interested in.

The main characteristics you should look for when choosing a watercolor brand are as follows.

Pigments

​Look for brands that offer single pigment paints. These result in more vibrant colors.

Pigments are the raw materials of color. If you want intense colors and more vibrant results, as far as possible try to get single pigment paints. Most artists find that if you mix together too many pigments the resulting color becomes muddy and dull.

If you choose the right single pigment paints you can produce most colors you need from just two pigments (mixing two single pigment paints together). This is a more efficient way of mixing and produces better results.

To find single pigment paint you need to check the labels for the color index names included in the paint’s composition. For example, in the Daniel Smith range, the color Burnt Sienna contains a single pigment called “PBr7”. But the convenience mixture Sap Green contains three pigments, “PO48, PG7 and PY150”. You can just as easily produce a sap green color by mixing two single pigment paints together (Phthalo Green and Yellow Ochre).

You may not realize this, but there is an important difference between “color” and “pigments”. A lot of artists describe the color of their work using common color names. You’ll often see names like French Ultramarine, or Burnt Sienna on watercolor packaging.

Ignore the name of the color you see on the packaging!

The color name on a tube of watercolor doesn’t tell you what pigment was used to create that color. A brand’s color name is just the product name of the paint. For example, different brands may use different recipes of pigments to create a tube of Burnt Sienna:

Winsor & Newton Burnt Sienna contains the pigment PR101

M Graham Burnt Sienna contains the pigment PBr7

The final color appearance of each of these paints would be different. It’s good to get into the habit of checking the composition of your paint.

Transparency

Look for a brand that has a good range of transparent paints rather than opaque.

Transparency is an important characteristic of watercolor paint.

A fundamental technique in watercolor painting involves glazing. This is where multiple layers of transparent paint are applied on top of each other. Each layer of paint is left to dry before applying the next wash. Each successive wash alters the final color appearance.

If your paints are too opaque the result will look chalky or dull when used for glazing.

Transparent watercolors are the key to vivid, luminous colors. One of the most appealing qualities of watercolor paintings is their transparency. Using glazing, beautiful colors can be created from carefully layered successive washes of paint. This transparency allows the white surface of the paper to show through and reflect light, giving a more luminous result.

Check the brand’s documentation or labeling to verify the transparency of each paint. Most manufacturers indicate the transparent properties of their paint like this:

transparent / semi-transparent / semi-opaque / opaque

Ideally you want a large range of transparent and semi-transparent products.

​Lightfastness

Choose a brand of paint with lightfast colors if you don’t want your painting to fade over time!

Lightfastness is a measure of how well the pigments in the paint resist change over time when exposed to light, or other environmental conditions. You don’t want your masterpiece to look pale and tarnished after a few years!

Lightfastness is also referred to as permanence. You will also hear people talk about fugitive and non-fugitive colors.

There is an international standard for lightfastness. This is known as the ASTM rating and is normally indicated as follows:

  • ​ASTM I = Excellent Lightfastness
  • ASTM II = Very Good Lightfastness
  • ASTM III = Not Sufficiently Lightfast
  • ​ASTM IV = Fugitive

​It's a good idea to choose a brand of paint who offer mostly colors with ASTM I or ASTM II rating.

Watercolor Brands

​Following is a summary of my analysis of ​my choice ​of the top 3 brands of watercolors. ​I don't guarantee the accuracy of the figures below because paint collections evolve all the time, but it should give you a good ​overall idea.

Daniel Smith

The Daniel Smith collection of paints includes a whopping big 251 colors!

That’s more than any other brand that I know of.

Daniel Smith Lightfastness

All paints have a high degree of lightfastness. 89% are rated ASTM I and 10% are rated ASTM II (only 2 colors in the collection are fugitive).

Daniel Smith Transparency

96% of the colors are rated transparent or semi-transparent (only 10 semi-opaque and opaque paints)

Daniel Smith Pigments

Daniel Smith’s range of paints include 168 Extra Fine professional artists colors.

70% Of these Extra Fine artists colors are single pigment paints.

The full collection of 251 colors includes 35 Primatek colors, and there are also 48 luminescent paints. The Primatek range is unique to Daniel Smith and they use pigments unavailable in any other brand. The Luminescent colors have a metallic shiny finish.

For the pigment data above I’m only taking these artist grade paints into consideration, because the pigment composition of the Primtek colors is not available, and the Luminescent range is probably the kind of paint you would only use on a few occasions.

​Daniel Smith have some amazing colors you can’t find with other brands. The level of transparency of these paints is impressive. The handling quality of the paint is excellent and they have some gorgeous bright and unique pigments! These high quality watercolors are made in Washington and are appreciated by a large number of watercolorists. I use them myself all the time - check out my recommendations here...

You can download color charts of the watercolors on their website...

M. Graham

A good collection of artist grade paints with 70 colors in the collection.

M. Graham Lightfastness

The collection has very good lightfastness.

88% are rated ASTM I and 10% are rated ASTM II (only 1 color in the collection is fugitive).

M. Graham Transparency

74% of the colors are rated transparent or semi-transparent (18 semi-opaque and opaque paints)

M. Graham Pigments

80% of the paints are single pigment formulas. 15 of their colors have 2 or more pigments.

You may already know that one of the main features of M. Graham paints is that they use blackberry honey in their recipe. This is used as a humectant or moisturiser to help retain water and prevent the paint from drying out. Other brands tend to use sugar syrup.

This gives them a very enjoyable creamy consistency. Applying the paint is smooth and easy, and the honey also helps the paints stay relatively humid, and very easy to reconstitute when you add water.

Those who use M.Graham watercolours speak very highly of them so I’m not alone. However, because they don’t dry out this tends to make them less portable. You could always try using an airtight palette if you want to try plein air painting with them, but I tend to use them in studio situations.

You'll find color charts and more information on their site...

Winsor & Newton

The professional range of colors by Winsor and Newton includes 96 colors.

Winsor & Newton Lightfastness

The lightfastness of the collection is very good.

78% are rated ASTM I and 22% are rated ASTM II (none of the colors are fugitive).

Winsor & Newton Transparency

Only 58% of the colors are transparent or semi-transparent (41 semi-opaque and opaque paints).

Winsor & Newton Pigments

78% of the collection are single pigment colors. 21 paints contain 2 or more pigments

Winsor & Newton have a very long tradition of making artist materials, dating back to 1832. Overall the amount of transparent paints in the professional range is ​not as big compared to Daniel Smith or M. Graham. There are quite a few semi-opaque and opaque colors, particularly the yellows. Winsor and Newton are still very good quality paints with a highly saturating of pigments. And they are appreciated by a huge range of artists internationally. The pan paints for example rewet very well and are great for plein air painting conditions.

Details of their watercolor range is available on their website...

Other moderately priced brands

Holbein HWC

The brand is named after the artist Hans Holbein, and includes 108 watercolors at the time of writing. Although I haven't used these paints, they merit your attention for their low cost. Holbein is a Japanese brand of watercolors with some good quality and reasonably priced paints. 50% of the collection includes single pigment paints. And if you like granulating paints, I have heard that they include some interesting granulating pigments in their collection. Pigment composition was difficult to find, so choosing colors could be complicated.

St Petersburg Watercolours

This series of watercolors is also worth mentioning. They have a range of 69 colors and are very reasonably priced. This Russian manufacturer is also known by the brand name “White Nights” and previously sold under the brand name “Yarka”.

There’s a good range of single pigment colors but data about transparency is lacking on their website. I have heard that some of the colors are not very lightfast.

Nevertheless, they have some great low priced pan sets that I would not consider “professional” but would probably be good for watercolor sketches or for students.

Dr Ph. Martin

I was curious about this brand of watercolor paints because of their “liquid” format. They are labeled as “fine art watercolor” but I think you should consider them as a cheap but fun alternative to artist grade watercolors. The technical data about their pigment formulation, transparency and lightfastness is lacking. I contacted the company to try and find out more information but they were unable (or unwilling) to provide details.

Bottom line

I would encourage everyone to read other artists opinions and try out different brands to see what suits you best. Don’t worry about brand loyalty. There’s nothing to stop you trying a few primary colors from a selection of different brands.

These days my favorite brand is Daniel Smith. The colors are gorgeous even when dry and there’s a vast choice​!

If you have difficulty choosing colors, some brands offer spot sample charts so you can try them all!

Go splash some color!

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  • I wish you had mentioned DaVinci watercolors too (made in California, by 3 generations of family paint makers!). They have the finest grounded, and most pigment load paint than any other brand, including Daniel Smith. When compared to DS, on the same colors, DS is less vibrant and with thicker chunks. The only problem of DaVinci is their terrible marketing, so no one knows about them.

  • Hi Anthony, I have read several of your articles. You do a great job in presenting the information . It is clear, concise, and complete. I am a retired pigment chemist. and now an artist (well a painter). I agree with 99% of what you say(that makes it correct) HA HA.
    JTSnodgrass

  • Thank you for such a great article with so much valuable information! I recently spotted a great deal on a set of Holbein watercolors on Amazon. Keep in mind my go-to brands are Daniel Smith and Winsor/Newton, but sometimes it pays to experiment and think outside the box. I follow a watercolorist, Maria Raczynska, who paints some outstanding work using Holbein watercolors. One of her many technique is to layer, layer and layer again. She manages to achieve such beautiful depth and luminosity in her paintings, especially in her photorealism art pieces. It must be said a good painting begins with a professional grade watercolor paper such as Arches, which is 100% cotton. You may initially cringe at the price, but in the end you will see it’s a worthwhile investment.

    Getting back to the set of inexpensive Holbein watercolors I came across on Amazon; I always look at the pigments used in each tube of paint. I passed on that purchase when I unfortunately read there were only one or two tubes of paint that contained single pigments. I can only assume Holbein sells premium, expensive sets, most of which contain single pigments, as well as other inferior, cheaper sets like the one I came across. This is a buyer-be-ware cautionary tale when it comes down to buying watercolors. Forget the alluring, captivating color names and instead take the time to carefully read the labels. If the box or tube of paint doesn’t list the pigments or pigment numbers (French Ultra Marine PB29), it’s better to move along, imo. Watercolors are about the pigments, not the dazzling color names on the tube. Just my .02 cents.

    • Some good tips Mary – I agree, Holbein are great paints but it’s almost impossible to mix bright vivid colors if you don’t privilege single pigment watercolors.
      Have fun with your painting!

  • Wow! You have done a lot of research here! Thank you for that. I found this article fantastic! I am a new water colorist ( 6 months approx) and have yet to pick out a signature brand. Started out with the cheepies like Prang (which I loved by the way! Beautiful bright colors), Jane’s (also kinda attached to), Royal & Langnickel Essentials, and Daler Rowney Simply. Hey I could almost do an article on the budget brands. haha Anyhooooo, so I picked up an 18 tube set of Holbein when they had an amazing price on Amazon. As you say they are more reasonably priced and I had heard very good things about them. I like them quite well as they have nice colors and a nice creamy kind of consistency. But there is nothing that made me go “Oh my Gosh! This is it! These are truly Artist quality, grade paints. What a difference from my value brands.” I kinda expected to be wow`d a bit as everyone talks about seeing a huge difference when you finally upgrade. But honestly, I probably reach for my Jane’s watercolors more than my Holbein’s. I am one of those silly people who likes to be in the “other” crowd and sooooo many people seem to be on the Winsor and Newton bandwagon that it actually puts me off. Ridiculous I know. So I have been toying with taking the Daniel Smith plunge and your article pushed me over the edge. Santa better bring me those iridescent colors, at least one or two tubes along with an essentials set or he will be sleeping in the garage till spring! LOL Thanks again.

    • Glad you’re starting to experiment with different paints Terri. I haven’t used Holbein but I’ve had a difficult time finding what pigments are used in their formulas. I’ve heard that they use a lot of fillers in their paint. This is similar to student grade paints which use more fillers and less pigment, especially when the pigments are expensive. This doesn’t mean that all student grade paints are bad, but some colors will be more diluted in terms of pigment strength. Also, Holbein were originally developed for the Japanese market who tend to paint a lot on rice paper, which may have an effect on the handling properties of the paint vs western brands. But keep in mind that all watercolors are less bright when they dry on the paper and often you need to build up layers to produce more vivid colors…

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