How to choose watercolor paints like a pro.

Like most things, watercolors are not created equal. The dollar store palette will not yield the same results as a professional brand. Why? The answer is a bit complicated but I will see if I can explain it to you in just a few paragraphs.

Like most things, watercolors are not created equal. The dollar store palette will not yield the same results as a professional brand. Why?


The answer is a bit complicated but I will see if I can explain it to you in just a few paragraphs. 


As usual, it is down to quality. 


Paint is basically a blend of two components: binder and pigment.


The binder is meant to assist your pigment in a smooth transition onto the paper (we have talked about the best watercolor paper in this article recently).


In watercolor paints, the binder is water soluble and allows for the pigment to have translucent qualities (layering of pigment is one of the key watercolor painting techniques). 


1: The hard disc palette

The hard disc palette is basically a set of watercolor paints formed into little discs. This is often considered to be a student-quality watercolor paint… However, that is not always the truth as many of the paint manufacturing giants have created portable hard disc palettes made with top ingredients. 


Many of us have memories from elementary school where we struggled to make the little paint discs perform under our fingers. Believe me, when I say - those are not the same.


Those little hard discs you likely used as a child were cheaply made with poor-quality binder and as little pigment as possible. 


This is not the case with artist-quality paints which have beautiful creamy textures and are pigment rich. 


2: A word about pigments

There are hundreds of pigments that can be used to make watercolors. Some of them are natural, some of them are man-made… Some of them are even crumbled-up rocks. 


The price of the paints (in general terms) talks to the quality of the binder and most importantly the pigments used to create them. 


Some pigments are rare… they are hard to find and therefore carry a higher price. Those are often the best quality colors you can buy but they carry a bigger price tag. 


Since watercolors are a transparent medium, the pigments in watercolor need to be somewhat transparent. The poorer the quality of the pigment (and paint) the more layers you will need for coverage. 


That can be problematic as every layer you add, adds more water to the painting. The higher quality paints will allow you to use minimum strokes for coverage while maintaining the translucent quality. 


Remember, if you have a pigment rich paint you can always dilute it with another color or with a paint medium… whereas not much can be done to add more pigment to the paint that was cheaply made… It’s more like the cheap manufacturers dilute the paint as much as they can with the binder or paint medium to keep the price down. 


The proportion of pigment to binder is usually somewhere around 10%-20%... maybe less if you are buying at a dollar store. 


It’s better to pay for quality and use less paint. After all, paints last for years if stored correctly. 


3: The tube paints


Most manufacturers offer two paint grades: student grade and professional grade. Essentially the biggest difference between the two is the pigment saturation. 


According to an artist Alyssa Bermudez, the student-quality paints are “not for use beyond there. They are mixed with fillers and extenders so you actually need to use more of them to get a decent result. And no classroom paint layers will ever add up to the vivid color you may need.”


The paint tubes tend to be the creamiest and have the best coverage without having to work the paint with water.  


No matter if you like paletes of dry watercolors or the tubes, you can find either in professional quality. I have already started writing about the best watercolor paint brands and which one will be the best for you.


If you live in a different country and these brands are not available to you, an easy rule of thumb is to check the pigment saturation as the better brands have a higher saturation. 


As artists we do a lot of research and try to find the best tools and techniques… but please remember that no one can replace YOU trying out these tools yourself. 


You might have different needs and form different opinions. You might have a personal preference for one type of paint over another… one might be too sticky, too transparent or not transparent enough. Your opinion can definitely be different from the opinions of experts, and that is totally fine! 


We are here to inspire you to do more experimentation in order to produce more beautiful art for the world.


Image from Alyssa Bermudez Art

by Mari (Agnieszka)

February 13th, 2023