Watercolor brands: does it matter?

Updated: Feb 28

So many brands to choose from!


By now you’re probably familiar with the big watercolor brands like Daniel Smith and Winsor & Newton. Maybe you’re collecting Schmincke, or Sennelier. Your first tin of half pans might have been a set of Watercolor Confections from Art Philosophy, or even a pocket set from Van Gogh.


There are three main reasons for buying more paint:

  1. You’re upgrading from student grade to professional watercolors

  2. You’re expanding your collection of paints to include more colors and different brands

  3. You’re a nutty artist with a serious paint addiction and you just can’t help yourself

Most of us are either 1 or 2, but usually always in combination with 3.


In this article I want to address the difference in quality between what is often called student quality and professional or artist quality watercolors. This is, in my opinion, more important than which brand you end up buying. I also want to talk about handmade watercolors, and how they compare to bigger brands.


Student vs artist grade watercolors


I want to sum up this section very briefly by first saying: you get what you pay for.

Second: If your paints give you joy, then enjoy them, no matter what they cost or who made them.

This section is meant to break down some of the major differences between cheap and expensive paints. And some of you might realize that your painting experience is hindered by uncooperative, cheaply made paints.

A lot of brands have a cheaper student range of paints in addition to their professional line of paints. You should research the brand you’re considering, to be able to make informed purchases.


Precious Pigments


Some repetition:

  • Watercolors consist of pigments (colorants) mixed with Gum Arabic (binder) and maybe a few additives.

  • The different pigments are specific chemicals that are basically the same all over the world.

However, some pigments are more expensive, and some are cheaper to source or produce. This means that pigment PB29 (ultramarine) will be nearly the same in every paint. But a paint manufacturer could choose to make blue paint from a different pigment that is either cheaper or more expensive. And some manufacturers will use a mix of cheaper pigments to mimic a more expensive one. This might make the final paint less saturated, less vibrant, or even muddier than the color it is supposed to replace. The word “hue” on a paint label always indicates that the color is made to mimic a certain pigment, which might be more expensive, toxic, or no longer available.


Bulky fillers


Another way to make cheaper watercolors is to add transparent fillers. These will increase the volume of the batch of paint without changing the color, resulting in more paint from less pigment.


Artists might need more paint to get rich, saturated strokes of color. In other words: you’ll need more of a cheap paint to get the same result as with smaller amounts of professional paint. In the end, you’ll have to buy more of the cheap paint to make up for it. Meaning cheap paints might become very expensive in the end. Or they might make you frustrated with their limited potential and the whole painting project becomes a drab experience.


Repeat expense


When you decide to upgrade to professional paints, you’ll probably feel the need to replace all the colors you already have. You’ll buy all the colors twice – one cheap and one expensive version. My advice is to do the necessary research and buy artist/professional grade colors from the very beginning. Start with the essential colors, then build your collection by adding a few colors at a time.


Handmade watercolors


So, where do we place handmade watercolors in this scheme of all things artsy?


My experience is that a lot of serious artisanal watercolor makers have a deep love for watercolors and their customers, and they are working hard to make their paints better every batch. To make good watercolors you need to personally get to know each pigment in your inventory, because they have different requirements to produce good paint. Understanding the relationship between binder and colorant, and the entire process of paint-making, is very important for quality.


A good watercolor maker also listens to their audience of artists and understands their different needs. A hand lettering artist might look for completely different qualities in their paints than illustrators or animal portrait painters. Some prefer convenience mixes – paints that are premixed to a million different hues and ready to go, straight out of the pan. Others prefer sturdy single pigment paints that have endless mixing potential.


At this point I would like to mention shimmery watercolors! These are often made with mica, a ground up mineral that reflects light in a way that makes it look metallic or shimmery. Micas come in all the colors of the rainbow and can also be combined with pigments or dyes to make paint. You’ll find a much larger range of shimmery watercolors in the stores of artisanal paint makers, than on the shelves of bigger brands.


Freshly Poured Pans of Goodness!

Ingredients


Handmade watercolors should be made with the same simple ingredients as big brand paints: binder and colorant. The artisanal watercolor maker can also experiment with additives, and common ingredients are honey, glycerol and clove oil to enhance performance. Vegans should be aware of this and remember that it’s okay to ask if the products they’re buying contain animal products.


The great thing about handmade watercolors is that they rarely contain unnecessary fillers. They are absolutely packed with pigment, and as a result are rich and saturated and a joy to work with.


The main issue with handmade watercolors is that not everyone practices transparency when it comes to ingredients and how the colors are made. I’m not encouraging makers to share their recipes – those are secrets of the trade. But pigment information should be available to the customer. We’ve previously talked about pigment behavior and properties, and toxicity of certain pigments. Being able to make informed choices is the right of every customer and artist.

A mix of different pigments shared by the handmaker.

What to look for


Here are some tips on what to look for when browsing handmade paints:

  • Information! What has the maker explicitly written about their paints, their quality and behavior?

  • Pictures! How does the color look on paper? You could always ask for pictures of swatches if you are uncertain of what a paint looks like.

  • Keep in mind that even though a paint maker releases a color with the same name or shade of color as a different brand, the paints might not perform the same way.

  • Is the brand represented by any artists or do they have their own hashtag? Browse these to find pictures of the paints in action.

  • Be aware that most handmade watercolors come in limited amounts. Decide beforehand which colors you want to buy, set a reminder for the countdown timer, and don’t hesitate to go get the paints you want – they might be gone before you know it.

  • Dot cards! Buy available samples to test which paints meet your requirements and behave in a way that fits your style.

  • To find good watercolors really comes down to experience and preference. Don’t be afraid to try new brands. And if you’re in doubt, check to see what the community has to say about the paints you’re considering!


Written by Ilse @ilsea.art


Why you should consider buying handmade paints: words from the community


I think the thing I love most about handmade paints is being part of a wider circle of passion, inspiration and creativity. I love that handmade paints are unique, quirky and that paints from different makers usually have very different personalities, even when using the same pigments. I very definitely feel like this in turn influences the style, tone and mood of my work in new and exciting ways. It's a real feeling of being part of a community, rather than just another customer.

I also love the creativity that maker bring to coming up with new mixed pigment colours and also in assembling balanced palettes which in turn inspire beautiful artwork. Everything,basically. I love everything about handmade paints.

Louise (@bohemianraspberry76)


Like almost every beginner, my water colour journey began with student grade colours transitioned to industrial artist colours before I found out about hand mulled paints. There isn't much that needs to be said about how incredible the quality is of handmade paints in comparison to the others. The pigments are lush, there are no fillers, they rewet well and perform so beautifully. It's fun to just sit and play around with the colours and watch them interact with each other. More importantly, handmade paints come with the added bonus of a wonderful relationship with the maker. There is transparency of the work involved, you get to see how much love and effort they put into each pour in each pan, in every little dot card. There is generosity and love and the spirit of community over competition. This makes handmade paints the winner for me more than anything else!

Fathima (@artsy.m.e.s.s)


Handmade watercolors are the best! There is a certain quality to them that you will never find with store-bought watercolors. It’s that combination of beautiful, creamy, super pigmented paints paired with OODLES of hard work and love that makes them so much better. They come in colors that store-bought watercolors can only dream about, and unwrapping them like little candies is so insanely fun. I like knowing where they came from, watching how they started in cute little piles of colors, and the anticipation as they get ready to go to their forever homes. I think it’s fantastic that watercolor makers think of them going to their forever homes, too! Handmade watercolors bring our little community even closer.

Karen (@letteringbykaren)



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