Selecting the best watercolour paints means perusing a lot of options. To make it easier, we've chosen watercolour paints that'll suit every type of artist, working across a range of approaches, from studio work to urban sketching.
Watercolour paints usually come in a liquid in a tube or as solid pans, which reactivate when wet. Both have advantages, with pans creating less mess (and are therefore more portable), while the tubes mix intense colour more easily and are ideal for studio work. Paint consists of pigment (to give the colour), a gum arabic binder, water and additives like honey, for stabilisation and consistency. If you're wanting to add fine details, watercolour paint combines well with other water-soluble media (like the best watercolour pencils).
You can buy watercolour paints in either artist or student quality. They are very different so it's worth getting the right type. Student watercolours contain less pigment and artist-quality paint has rich, vibrant colour (highly pigmented). Unsurprisingly, artist-quality paints are more expensive, but they are worth it as the tube lasts longer and the colours are brighter.
Within the artist-quality ranges there is not much difference in quality. However, each behaves uniquely and suits particular working approaches or offers a different range of colours. For instance, some paints granulate, meaning they leave a texture when dry – this depends on pigment and brand and is desired by some artists. Some tube paints dry and can be reactivated, whilst others stay wet and 'sticky' – again, this suits different approaches.
If you want some guidance on painting in watercolour, you can get started with our pick of the best watercolour tutorials or expand your repertoire with these watercolour techniques. Make sure you also make sure you've got the best watercolour paper. Meanwhile, read on to discover the best watercolour paints.
The best watercolour paints
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The M. Graham Artists' watercolour range uses blackberry honey as part of its binder, resulting in very smooth, viscous paint. Because of this, paint out of the tubes will not dry fully on the palette, but remain sticky. This keeps the paint optimally vivid, but less suitable for squirting out to use later, so this range is best for studio work.
The tubes won't dry out easily, which is handy as they only come in a 15ml size, though the cost per ml tends to the lower end of professional prices, making them good value. The paint has an intense colour and goes a long way in washes, so a tube will last well. It also lifts easily from the paper.
Sennelier's artists' watercolours are an excellent honey-based paint with rich colour and great consistency. The pans perform exceptionally well, reactivating with very little water and producing an intense colour. They take a bit longer to dry out than other brands, and may remain slightly tacky in very humid climates due to their honey content. They are also comparatively good value for professional quality paints.
This watercolour paint flows very smoothly onto the paper and mixes well. The pigmentation is also very high. Since the pans perform so well, this is an excellent choice for a more portable sketching set with artist quality colour.
Daniel Smith's extra fine watercolours are great artist-quality paints. An immense range of 261 colours includes their Primatek mineral colours and a number of luminescent colours. This huge range also includes a lot of colours unique to this brand, making them a good choice for anyone adventurous.
These paints tend to be more granulating than others, depending on the pigment. The colours are strong and vibrant, like any artist quality paint, but will still lift easily from paper. The luminescent colours also disperse well over the paper, creating an even sheen.
Winsor and Newton's Professional watercolours are reliable artist-quality paints. They behave consistently, with minimal variation between each colour, making them a good starting point for anyone looking to try their first artist-quality watercolours, or who wants something versatile.
The colours are intense and rich, and the quality of the pigments across the range is very good, with some excellent alternatives to toxic pigments available. The paint stays wet on the palette for a while, but can be left to dry – it readily reactivates when wet, making it a convenient option for those who like to squeeze their colours into pans or a palette.
Kuretake's Gansai paints include a good range of bright colours at an affordable price. They activate easily and have a smooth texture. These paints behave a little differently to Western-style watercolours, being a little more opaque, and developing a slight gloss when layered. However, they are still transparent like watercolours, rather than gouache. Once on the paper, they don't move much, but will lay colour evenly on dry paper, making them great for sketching and adding colour to illustrations.
These paints hit the high end of student quality. Most of the colours are light-fast and fairly rich in pigment, though not as intense as professional quality watercolours. The large pans are handy, as they can accommodate bigger brush sizes.
This pocket-sized Cotman watercolour set is a great for painting out and about as it's portable and even has a waterbrush, which makes it possible to paint without a jar of water on hand. It's well designed, with a mixing tray on the lid that is partitioned so it can hold washes.
As these are student quality, the colour is not very intense and can look a bit weak when going down on the paper. The range also only contains 'hue' imitations of some more expensive pigments. Despite this, the colours behave in a predictable manner and mix well. These paints are ideal for quick sketches or taking colour notes.
Aquafine is a good option for anyone wanting to try out watercolours for the first time and get a feel for using tube paints. It has a good range of colours, though it lacks some pigments, and uses 'hue' substitutes.
As student ranges go, the colour here is quite intense, though nothing close to any artist-quality paints. They have a tendency to dry out a bit quicker on the palette than other brands. On paper, the colours are quite strong, though they don't lift out very well, and for some colours, washes with more paint may have a 'flat' look once dry.