A Basic Primer on Watercolor Pigments, pt. 3- So What Should I Buy?


Artist and Student Grade Brands-

There are a variety of artist-grade brands, and the truth is that despite the fact that they’re not all the same (pigments often handle differently or have a gently different hue in one brand versus another) they’re all, generally speaking, excellent. Daniel Smith is great, and Winsor Newton too. DaVinci, M. Graham, Holbein, and Sennelier are excellent too. Don’t worry too much on that account.

Each has a reputation for certain handling characteristics or brand details, with some grain of truth to the generalizations. Winsor Newton is more expensive, but the quality is almost always good and it can be found almost anywhere globally. M. Graham and Sennelier both use honey, and are goopier and runnier than other brands- they work very well in a studio but can cause sometimes problems in the field because they’re so gooey and active in the palette. Holbein uses a different kind of dispersant and tends to be more inert wet-into-wet. On and on. Many experienced artists often mix and match pigments between brands, as they come to prefer the characteristics of this or that specific pigment by a specific brand. There are no issues with doing that.

So, what about student grade paints?


Historically, student-grade paints often featured both fugitive pigments and tubes that are less densely pigmented than their artist-grade counterparts. This is part of why they cost less. That is changing though. Two good quality student grade brands that I have experience with are Cotman’s (which is Winsor Newton’s student brand) and Van Gogh. Both currently feature generally lightfast pigments that are (yes) less densely pigmented than an artist-grade counterpart of the same pigment. However, it is worth saying that there are all kinds of student grade brands out there, and many of them are of highly varying quality. You’ve got to, oddly, know more about your paints to make sure you’re looking at an off-brand student grade paint, to make sure they’re lightfast, single pigment, etc. Many aren’t. But a big brand name, like Cotmans as an example, is generally very good these days (compared to the reputation they had, say, 20-30 years ago), and easier to buy without as much research or fretting.

Many beginners understandable purchase cheaper student-grade paints. However, general advice is often that students should learn with artist-grade paints as early as possible, as the more densely pigmented artist-grade tubes can handle differently. This is true, in my opinion. Artist-grade pigments also often provide a richness and vibrancy to color application that can be difficult at times to achieve with student paints. As such, there can be a frustrating re-learning phase when a student switches over. But is it essential to use Artist Grade paints? Absolutely not. Are there some professional artists that use lightfast student grade paints, and make great work? For sure. Nothing is really dogmatic on this.

Having said that, my advice is to buy the best quality paints that you can. It’s better to purchase a smaller range of artist-grade colors in the beginning (distributed judiciously around the color wheel), than to buy a whole bunch of student grade paints that you’ll eventually discard or move on from. Still, even then, if one is just beginning to dabble in watercolors and is feeling frugal, I would recommend Cotman’s and Van Gogh as the best quality low-cost student-grade paints I have personal experience with. It’s cheapest to buy from an art store (online or in person) like Dick Blick, Cheap Joe’s, or Jerry’s Artarama. Common “craft” stores charge a premium for pigments.

Tubes versus Pans-


Every once in a while, I get asked about this. What can I say? Every artist has a personality and approach, and, to me, it’s a clear recommendation for tubes.

The primary benefits of tubes are two-fold, as I see it. First, it’s far cheaper per ml of paint to buy things in tubes than it is in pans. Secondly, my experience is that its far easier to get rich juicy applications of color when you’re working from fresh blobs of paint from the tube. Some companies state that they put some sort of special humectant in their pans to make them rewet better than tube paints, but experientially, spritzing tube paints in a palette has been fine for me and many other far-more-well known painters out there.

The real benefit of pans, as I see it, is that they’re interchangeable and they’re hyper portable. When you squeeze out your paints into your palette from a tube, you’re sort of stuck with that paint in that well for a while. This is true. Tube paints can also get messy. Sometimes they move around in the palette a bit, particularly after painting when everything has gotten pretty moist. That’s a bummer, for sure. Pans are hard and compact and tend to stay put. So there are some logistical arguments to be made in favor of pans if you’re doing plein air work (although I still use tubes for plein air work, myself), but for studio painting… I can’t see why one wouldn’t just use tubes, all the time.

However, if you’re really interested in pans, I would suggest buying the little empty cubes and filling them up with tube paint and letting them dry, instead of buying the pre-filled ones. Like this-


Then, voila- you have hard, portable, interchangeable pan options made using the cheaper tube paint. You have to buy a palette that allows this can of “snapping in” ability, but they’re out there. Here’s a link.


This is a video on the subject-

I’ve read of artists who swear by this ability, so it’s a real thing. It seems awfully finicky to me!! LOL. But to each their own. :) However, it is worth saying that I understand that functionality and have an alternate means of switching up my palette for special subjects. I keep a little ziplock baggie in my backpack with alternate paints in it that I use only now and then. I squeeze out a little into the far side of my palette, in the big mixing area, and wipe them away later when I’m done with that subject. This approach is much like the benefit of having the “snap in” pans. So, it’s not like the issue isn’t real.

Even then, most pans, even the full-sized ones, are smaller than I want them to be. I like to use big brushes, and I don’t like to have to dig around in the well for paint. This is another minor but true selling point for using tube paints in palettes with bigger wells, versus using pans. But all in all, these are the personal elements of painting. Can interesting images be painted from a small palette with little ½ pans of paint? Of course! If you’re using good, lightfast pigments, the rest of these sorts of logistical details are often dictated by personal preference and style.

My Current Brand of Choice-


For what it’s worth, I currently use American Journey paints when possible. Research suggests they are a rebranded version of DaVinci paints, marketed under the Cheap Joe’s label. They are lightfast, well pigmented, handle nicely, and are significantly cheaper per ml and come in huge 35 ml tubes. This is great when you know what you want and you want a lot of it. It’s bad for testing small quantities. The other major issue is that you can only get them online through Cheap Joe’s. If you are traveling and run out while far from home, you’re out of luck. For those who need an alternate good brand to pick up, I suggest Daniel Smith, Winsor Newton, or DaVinci, as all three tend to be well made and widely available.