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Choosing the best watercolor paint can be tricky. There’s a huge variety of watercolor paint on the market and the choice can be overwhelming. Not only that but you also have to choose from the hundreds of different colors !

At the same time, it’s very difficult to get good results using poor quality paint. I’ve seen a lot of new artists become discouraged because they couldn’t achieve the results they expected, when in reality their disappointment was a result of poor quality paint.

For the best quality results, the majority of watercolor artists will recommend that you select paints which are single pigment, transparent, and lightfast.

The watercolor paints that I use and HIGHLY recommend are Daniel Smith artist quality watercolor.

daniel smith watercolors

These are easily the best watercolors I've ever used. They have a immense range of beautiful colors to choose from and the vast majority of their collection meet the quality criteria above. They mix very smoothly and lay down perfectly. They also have some spectacular granulating pigments.

When I first started watercolor painting I literally spent days choosing my watercolor paints. I looked at all the different brands, I checked and researched paint characteristics, and I compared them all to each other. I even read other artists recommendations and comments before coming up with my best watercolor paint list.

You don’t have to buy every single color available.

If you choose your paints carefully, you can mix countless beautiful colors with a small number of paints !

daniel smith watercolor pan set

For those of you looking for an easy way to get started with professional quality watercolor paints , for the first time, Daniel Smith have released a new set of hand poured watercolor pans with an ultimate mixing set of 15 colors. The colors included in this set match the colors that I recommend starting (see the list below) plus a few others for good measure ! If you don't want to make your own pans using tubes, then this is an excellent way for a beginner to try some professional paints.

My recommended watercolor palette:

It’s possible to buy watercolors that come already set up in a box. The problem is you’ll end up with colors that you don’t really need ! Painting with colors you haven’t selected will lead to bad habits, and I guarantee that if you need a particular pigment and you haven’t got it you will use whatever is available !

This is why ideally you should select your colors yourself. I always use an empty watercolor palette box then fill the pans using tubes of paint. And in the long run, filling your own pans from tubes is more affordable.

I recommend that you use tubes rather than buying ready made pans. This is because I think it is more economical to fill your own pans using watercolor tubes. It's really easy to do and you can personalize your color palette ! You just need to buy an empty watercolor palette like this one I use on Amazon.

The following colors provide an ideal limited palette and work perfectly for a wide range of subjects :

A good selection of warm and cool primary colors like the ones below are the backbone of your color palette. Primary colors are essential because you cannot mix these colors using other paints:

An excellent way to get to know these paints is the Daniel Smith Essentials Introductory set, including 6 warm and cool primary colors. It’s a great starter set for those who want to try  artist quality watercolors.

daniel smith essentials introductory set

Expand your mixing possibilities by adding greens and earth tones. The additional colors below will provide a palette designed for use on any subject and will save you time because you'll only need two paints to mix most other colors:

After you have chosen your colors you need a palette box to contain your watercolor paints. The best and most inexpensive method is to fill up some empty pans using tubes of paint. Personally I use whole pans (not the half pans which are smaller), because I find it easier for dipping my brush in the pan.

I have a palette for both indoor studio painting and outdoor 'plein air' painting sessions. My favorite palette box for the studio is this amazing little tin which has pans with magnetic strips attached. You can choose from a variety of fun designs.

empty watercolor palette for studio painting

If you want to work in the field and do outdoor painting then I recommend the whiskey painters palette box. (Whiskey paintings are miniature watercolors painted by artists who wanted to paint on the road, and sometimes while relaxing in a bar!)  Even though the box is for 8 pans, you can actually fit an extra 4 pans of color in the empty strip down the middle. Just buy some extra pans so you can add more colors.

empty watercolor palette for outdoor painting

Buying good quality watercolors is an investment but you’ll be surprised how a little goes a long way ! Whatever paint you decide to buy, there are a few things you should look out for when choosing new watercolor paint. The following tips should help:

So How do you know which watercolors to choose ?

In the end I think that choosing good watercolor paints comes down to the following three things:

  1. First you need to know a little about the properties of watercolor paints
  2. Then you have to choose the colors for your watercolor palette.
  3. Finally, decide which brand of paint you should buy.

Essential watercolor paint properties:

You don’t have to understand the intimate chemistry of watercolors, but having a good grasp of its most important properties will help you to choose the best paint.

The three most important properties of watercolor paint are transparency, lightfastness, and the number of pigments used in the paint recipe.

Single pigment paints are the best option. Why ?

Well, when you mix too many pigments together the resulting colors tend to be dull and less vivid. Try mixing multiple paints together and look at the result compared to a mixture of just two single pigment paints. Your multiple pigment mix will probably look pretty murky !

If you want bright and colorful paintings, choose single pigment paints.

Next, try to choose transparent paints.

Paint manufacturers class paints as transparent, semi-transparent or opaque.

Watercolor painting involves a lot of layering (a technique known as glazing). When painting you apply layers on top of each other and the different layers interact to produce beautiful color blending. If your watercolors are opaque, the paint will obscure the underlying paint, and glazing will be impossible.

Finally, try to pick paints with good lightfastness.

Lightfastness is a measure of a paint's resistantance to fading over time. Most artists want their creations to endure. If you want your masterpieces to last, check the manufacturers site or the paint labels to make sure they have a good lightfastness rating.

It's not always easy to find paint which match all of these quality properties at once. Just try to stick as closely as possible to these criteria when choosing your paint.

The list of recommended colors above have been specially selected to meet these criteria as closely as possible while providing the most versatile range of color mixing possibilities.