Which Brand of Watercolor Paint is Best?

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(Originally posted 7/22/15 and last edited 11/15/17)

I’ve been getting a lot of questions on how I rank watercolor brands and how they rate against each other. The following is a brief explanation on my personal choices for buying watercolors based on what I’ve used so far. But  please do take it with a grain of salt; the reasons that I might prefer them could very well be the same reasons that you might not.

Some of the paint brands were extremely difficult to rank. My general criteria was based on color richness, price, lightfastness, rewetting ability, user friendliness, availability of single pigment colors, and personal taste.

1. M. Graham
My first choice and perhaps my all time favorite, these classical American paints are my go to option. Since these are probably the most controllable paints I’ve worked with, this is what I generally use on commission work. The washes are so easy to manipulate that sometimes I think these paints taught me how to use watercolors. Don’t know if anyone else has that experience though.

The pigments are manufactured to showcase its personality, and it definitely shows in how some of them granulate beautifully. I used to think I wasn’t into granulation effects, but I sure changed my mind after using these. There is something absolutely poetic in a wash of their Ultramarine Blue, and their colors practically hum with intensity. I’m definitely able to get a full range of tones with these paints from deep luminous darks to pale glowing tints.

I’ve noticed that the pricing has gone up a bit, but I can’t see how that’s really going to stop me from using them. While I do very much enjoy other paint brands and might prefer other companies’ pigments for certain colors, this is the brand I would stick with if I was somehow forced to limit myself to one.

Read more in-depth review here.

2. Schmincke
Very forward, bright, and opinionated German paints. An absolute joy to use; I never regret getting these out. In an interesting move, these paints are formulated to have little difference among them for a consistent texture amongst all the colors. Some might like that when aiming for high realism.

What bumped this up to second for me was the all around quality of the paint and the most gorgeous full pans. I love full pans, and though they’re a bit tough to find the Schmincke ones are very well worth the search. Empty pans and metal palettes are also available.

Read more in-depth review here.

3. Winsor & Newton
The very available and well known English paints. While it may seem like the top choice because plenty of artists use it, I think it’s definitely more because Winsor & Newton has been around for so long and manages to be so ubiquitous in the market.

What makes these paints a good choice for me is that for the most part all the colors are very different and visually distinct. For example, the Pthalo Blue Green Shade looks a lot different from the Pthalo Blue Red Shade. Most brands have them very similar in appearance.

Though maybe not up to the hype it’s generally given, Winsor & Newton is a strong choice and one I will probably use extensively for a long time. I’ve come to adore so many of their colors, especially all the Pthalos, Winsor Violet, Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt, Cerulean, Green Gold, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Scarlet Lake, Permanent Rose, Quinacridone Magenta, Permanent Violet, Burnt Sienna, and Burnt Umber. I’m open to trying new colors from this brand as well.

I do still find those new metallic tubes horribly ugly. At the very least, the prices thankfully seem to have gone down a bit.

Read more in-depth review here and here.

4. Sennelier
Romantic, optimistic French paints. Perhaps the best bargain on the market right now. I would have ranked it third for the great price, but I bumped it down because I’m simply not as familiar with this paint. I’ve only experimented with the tiny set, and I wonder if I’d rank this higher if I tried their tubes and full pans.

Read more in-depth review here.

5. Holbein
Delicate, very finely milled, transparent Japanese paints. Great in that they are very saturated and easily liftable for errors and effects. What brought Holbein down on the list for me was the passel of fugitive colors and far too few single pigment paints. Worth a go if you’re willing to research what you’re buying, or you just don’t care as much about the technical details.

Read more in-depth review here.

6. Sakura Koi
If you’re not trying to be too serious about watercolor or you’re nervous about starting out with expensive paint, this is a good product to start out with. This is the first brand I used in my later years of high school, and it was good for me to be familiar with the feel of watercolor paint on my brush. Pretty vibrant for student colors.

In closing, it’s not necessarily the paint! I could be very happy with pretty much any of these brands and not feel limited in the least. We’re very fortunate to have so many high quality options these days. I hope to update this post in the future as I still experiment with new brands from time to time.

Review: Sennelier French Watercolors Aqua-Mini Set

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(Originally posted 4/7/15)

Little watercolor metal pan sets with good quality paint are one of my greatest weaknesses, and it seems as though manufacturers get more and more clever at popping them out.

Relatively recently, Sennelier came out with a new formulation for their watercolor paints to have a honey base, similar to the M. Graham paints I love so much. I’ve never used Sennelier’s previous formula, but hardly anyone seemed to rave about them so I didn’t pay them much mind. I bought this cute little tin for my birthday last year to see if it was anything worth fussing over.

And what nice paints! They’re very eager to please and reactivate. With even the slightest dab of my brush, the paint explodes into juicy, crystal clear washes. I feel silly saying this, but these paints weirdly seemed so French and romantic to me. Like I couldn’t get the image of 19th century France with someone along the Seine. Honey must do a big thing in watercolor formulas since the extra richness is definitely noticeable. Strangely, I’ve also noticed that they seem to have more of a tendency towards back runs and textures though M. Graham’s honey formulation smoothens out the washes to avoid this.

In a gesture I most appreciate, the paints included are listed in the back with the swatch, pigment information, opacity level, and the lightfastness. Very handy, saves me a spot time. The free brush is too small to really be of any use to me, so I’ve never used it. I’d rather use a waterbrush anyway when I’m on the go.

I surprisingly don’t mind the palette. I usually don’t care for having pigments selected for me, but I found the choices very sensibly made. For quick sketching you really don’t need very much to get your point across, and I haven’t yet found myself too limited by it.

I like nontoxic, lightfast, and transparent colors when I’m sketching, and for the most part I didn’t find any color particularly unnecessary. Except for the Pthalo Green Light. I don’t mind it too much, but perhaps a Yellow Ochre would’ve been a better option for landscapes. I also found myself longing for a rose paint with a cold bias. Maybe a nice Quinacridone.

The Payne’s Gray is especially beautiful. A great mixer, it makes wonderful deep silvery greens with the Sap Green provided. It was so lovely I felt drawn to make more monochromatic studies simply to watch the color spread over the paper.

I must say, from a design standpoint I’ve been very impressed with their marketing and packaging. Packaging for me is a pretty big deal, since I personally believe a lack of care in design is usually a good indicator of a potentially poor product. The set itself is very cute and small enough to fit in my pencil case for quick sketches or self induced art therapy.

Anyway, these are great paints and judging from my experiences with this tiny set I might even consider getting some of those excellently priced tubes in the future.

Review: Winsor & Newton Artist Watercolors

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(Originally posted 7/16/14)

Perhaps the most well known brand of watercolor available, Winsor & Newton was the very first professional grade of paint I used. I previously wrote on one of the Winsor pan sets, but I’ve decided to explore my feelings on their tubes. To some extent, the hype is justifiable. The paints have a bright, transparent color that’s wonderful and rich. The colors are meant to reflect the subdued hues of the English landscape.

What I appreciate most about these paints is definitely the fact that they have the biggest color variation I’ve ever seen. The Cobalt Blue is the only completely transparent version I’ve found, and the Cerulean Blue is the greenest one I’ve used. This makes for a nice contrast when I often find the two identical in other brands. New Gamboge was a fairly neutral yellow, and I’m sad that they’ve now discontinued the original and replaced it with a mix of other pigments. Winsor Violet is probably my favorite Dioxazine Violet even if I rarely use the color save for occasional shadows.

Scarlet Lake is one of my favorite reds for its transparency, and though I haven’t tried its equivalent in other brands, I wonder if I’d find a version that could top this one. Permanent Alizarin Crimson is also very nice, and makes good blacks with Winsor Green. Adding a bit of yellow can help neutralize the mix. Permanent Rose and Green Gold are also exceptionally saturated and transparent. I’m also slightly in love with their earth colors Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber. They both are so rich, glowing, and transparent, and they make excellent mixers. Mixing Burnt Sienna with French Ultramarine Blue will give you a nice dark. Sometimes the pigments will push away from each other due to their sedimentary qualities and give you an interesting wash with blue and orange-brown speckles.

The first con that comes to mind is that the tubes get stuck more problematically than any other brand I’ve tried. I don’t know how or why this is the case, but I’ve often had to wrap the cap around an old shirt to crunch the tube open. I also feel this a remarkably inconsequential gripe, but to me their new metallic tubes are really quite ugly. I wonder who came up with that in their marketing department.

Another thing I find a bit annoying is that they name a lot of their colors after the company which tells me nothing of the pigment content. For example, Winsor Green is Pthalo Green and Winsor Blue is Pthalo Blue. For those of us that do not live in the UK, a more serious thing to consider is the price. This is the most expensive brand I have, and I suspect prices will not drop so long as people are happy to pay for them. But if I can get a 15 mL tube of M. Graham for the same price and quality as a 5 mL tube, you can probably guess what I’d pick.

These paints also do not rewet very well. It’s doable if you spritz with water and leave it to soak a bit, but they crack and crumble on your palette. So I try to only squeeze a little at a time. There are a couple exceptions: Scarlet Lake and Payne’s Gray for example.

All in all, these are good paints, but once my tubes run out I’m not entirely sure I will replace them except for the colors I really admire. I feel as though most of the recognition comes from its wide availability, and sometimes I suspect those who declare it the best watercolor paint on the market have probably not experimented with the other brands I cherish. It will certainly give you decent results, but if you’re extra nutty about watercolors I’d try the other paints too.

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Review: Schmincke Horadam Watercolors

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(Originally posted 6/24/14)

If this blog continues long enough, you’ll probably hear me complain over and over again on how America has very few suppliers for pans. After reading Bruce McAvoy’s Schmincke review on Handprint.com, I was very skeptical on trying these watercolors. I had another (admittedly very petty) reason for avoiding them as well- Schmincke insists on stamping its logo on the inside of one of the palette wells, and I was mildly offended that they would take up such precious limited mixing space just so you could be reminded on what brand you were using.

But I couldn’t shake my curiosity on these pans since several artists I admire use Schmincke, and I read some of the most glowing reviews. While browsing in Korea, I finally found the set of 12 whole pans for relatively cheap, so I finally decided to give them a shot.

I’m very glad I did. They were very rich and quite controllable. The paints felt very creamy on my brush and slid onto the paper as easily as anything. The best way for me to describe them are like buttery little candies. I ended getting a 36 pan set later on and then switching the boxes so that the half pans went into the smaller palette while the whole pans went into the larger one. I also purchased colors I liked open stock online.

Paints aside, the metal folding palette it comes in is wonderfully made. It’s very sturdy, strong, and has a nice matte finish. There’s a ring for your finger underneath, and the tray holding the pans can also be removed for even more mixing areas. The tray is also snug enough inside the box that should your box flip over, the pans won’t come clattering out. Schmincke also provided you with a handy color testing chart that includes the pigments and the lightfastness.

Extra pans don’t fit down the middle, but I generally prefer to store a brush or a pencil in there anyway. The box does stain noticeably though I don’t mind too much. I was also curious to see if I could fit an extra full pan in the sliding metal space. It’s possible! I can fit 14 full pans overall in the 12 pan palette once I replace all the colors I dislike.

Which brings me to my con… I don’t like half the pigments included in the 12 pan set. Granted, this is likely to happen with any pre-packaged set you’ll buy, and I don’t blame Schmincke for picking out the colors that it did. The colors they selected are normally recommended for most starter palettes. I usually like only a few of the colors provided in paint sets, so if I could do everything over again, I would just buy all my paints open stock. I personally would rather pay more money for pigments I love rather than have a bunch of pigments I barely use. In this case I was just too anxious to try real pans and I did find them for pretty cheap.

To start with what I don’t like about the colors, I generally don’t like opaque or toxic pigments. Therefore the cadmium paints included in this set see very little use from me. I also don’t usually like a pre-mixed green paint since I like to mix my own for color harmony. If I’m using a green, it’s probably Phthalo green, and that’s rarely used outside of mixing blacks. Other greens might come in handy whenever I want to quickly mute a red.

Prussian Blue is okay…but I usually like Phthalo Blue when I want a green biased blue. Yellow Ochre doesn’t see much use from me either except when I want a quick skin tone while sketching on location. English red is too opaque and overpowering in my mixtures to be of any real use to me. Sepia is okay for darks, but I would normally choose a Burnt Sienna or a Burnt Umber.

I do prefer Sepia over Ivory Black for monochromatic studies though. It does have black in it, but it’s a bit more interesting for me to look at. That being said, Schmincke is an excellent watercolor paint, and it’s lovely to use. The box is handy enough that I can forgive Schmincke for stamping their logo inside. But I really do recommend trying to buy the pans open stock even if that option is more expensive.

Review: Niji Waterbrush

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(Originally posted 8/31/13)

Water brushes are one of the most wonderful inventions I have ever discovered. Upon hearing of them, I was thrilled at the idea of finally being able to sketch discreetly in cafes, and to brave the outdoors without sloshing around a big cup of water. Besides Niji, I know that the companies Holbein, Pentel, and Sakura also make water brushes, but I haven’t tried them since they’re a bit harder for me to get. I’m also so completely content with the Nijis that I doubt I’ll ever go out of my way to try the other brands (a rare move for me).

The brushes have now been a staple in my sketching kit. During my time in Korea, I could sit in cafes and refill the brush in the bathroom or through my tiny spray bottle. Cue hours of wholesome entertainment.

When I first bought one, it came with Japanese-only instructions, so I wasn’t entirely sure how to use the brush let alone fill it. Apparently if you unscrew the brush head, you should be able to take out the little black piece and then fill with water.

Clean up is laughably easy- all I need to do is wipe the brush on a napkin until the color comes out (sometimes I use fallen leaves if no tissues are around). When in use the water trickles down slowly and evenly, so that the brush tip is consistently moist. If it ever gets too dry, a gentle squeeze releases more water from the barrel. I thought I’d find myself consistently refilling the brushes, but they surprisingly lasted much longer than I initially imagined. Then again, I don’t work very large scale.

Besides sketching in watercolor and gouache, I can use these brushes to soften the edges of my watercolor paintings. Some people fill their brushes with ink or watercolor for interesting effects and textures. I’ve even heard of some artists who fill theirs with solvents to blend their colored pencil paintings.

In terms of sturdiness, I’ve had my large sized brush for about a year and a half and it’s held up very well. The square tipped one is even less worn since it doesn’t see too much use except for when I want big washes.

The only caveat I’d give is that the tips are fairly tiny…I wouldn’t go any tinier than large for most sketchbooks.

At the end of the day, will these ever replace my beloved sable brushes? No. I still much prefer the luxury of natural hair over the synthetic feel. But I think it’s a wonderful bit of technology, and everyone who plein-air sketches in watercolor ought to consider giving them a go. Maybe one day someone will create a water brush with kolinsky sable hair, but dare to dream…

Edit (11/15/17): They do indeed make Waterbrushes with sable hair. 

Review: Winsor & Newton Artists’ Watercolor Lightweight 12 Half Pan Set

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(Originally posted 6/6/13)

I haven’t been a gigantic fan of Winsor & Newton for much of my artistic journey, so I was surprised to actually enjoy using this. The main draw for me was the little tin that I could carry around more easily than the larger palettes. I’ve seen pictures of the heavyweight version of this set, and this tin’s design looks a fair bit handier. The tin does have a slightly flimsy feel, but I don’t mind so much. There’s a thumb ring in the back as well. I don’t know if anyone else does this, but I much prefer either keeping it on my lap or on a table. You can also fit other Winsor & Newton half pans down the middle, but the Schmincke pans are too large.

The colors are quite saturated, and they flow super well. From all the paint sets I’ve experienced, I’ve never been more pleased with the pigment selection. This is mostly because there are no Cadmium paints here. The colors included are:

-Winsor Lemon
-Winsor Yellow
-Winsor Red
-Permanent Alizarin Crimson
-Ultramarine Blue
-Cerulean Blue
-Winsor Green (Blue Shade)
-Yellow Ochre
-Burnt Sienna
-Raw Umber
-Burnt Umber
-Ivory Black

The colors are very transparent, and I think that they were sensibly selected. There’s a nice cold and warm version of all the primary colors for a more interesting time color mixing. I find Winsor Red a nice transparent replacement for Cadmium Red, and I’m very fond of Winsor & Newton’s Cerulean, Burnt Umber, and Burnt Sienna. Cerulean in this brand has a nice grayed down quality that I enjoy along with it’s texture in washes. The Burnt Umber along with the Burnt Sienna glow a lot, and it’s fun to see the patterns they make when mixed with the Ultramarine. I can also mix my favorite darks with Permanent Alizarin Crimson and Winsor Green, or Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue with a bit of the Crimson.

If I had to pick one, I think my biggest quip would be that the paints are not hand poured into the pans. I think they’re broken into little cubes that sort of fit inside the pan molds, so the paint falls out pretty easily. But you can just spray water in the pan, let it dry, and all shall be well until it falls out again.

Even though I prefer my Schmincke pans at the end of the day, I do keep coming back to this set simply for the color selection and the tinier palette. It’s been a joy to use with a water brush, and many of my current sketches have been done with this.

Review: M. Graham Watercolors

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(Originally published 5/9/13)

As of this writing, this is currently my favorite brand of watercolors. Come to think of it, M. Graham is probably my favorite brand of paint. I would say most of paintings at this point have been done using their color.

I first heard of the brand when I was looking for a slower drying acrylic, but I happened to stumble upon their watercolors and gouache in a community college bookstore for about half the suggested retail price. Though I normally buy online if I can help it, sometimes you can find the cheapest prices in stores. It was also surprisingly very cheap in comparison to the other higher name brands. For a 15 ml tube, it was about the same price as a 5 ml tube of Winsor & Newton, and around half the price of a Schmincke 15 ml tube.

My, did it deliver. The paint was the richest I’d ever seen. A little goes a very long way, and the tints out come out wonderfully luminous. I don’t know if it’s because of the honey humectant, but I do know that the honey is what causes it to re-activate very easily when dry.

Some brands will crack and crumble off your palette, so it was quite a relief to me that this wasn’t going to be the case. The paint doesn’t ever really dry out (except for maybe the earth colors) which makes it much easier on my precious sable brush tips. Most of the paints are single pigments, so your mixes will march out very cleanly.

Another wonderful thing  is that I can control it very easily. I previously had problems with my other watercolors since I could never blend or fade out the edges without watermarks. I feel as though using these really boosted my painting abilities since I now have an easier time using other brands.

In terms of packaging, I have never had a problem with stuck lids. And the tubes look very pretty to me.

I’m also a big fan of the company as well. It’s pretty rare to find a small, family-run company these days that makes a nice product at a nice price. In terms of customer service, I have always been able to ask questions or voice concerns directly to the manufacturers. Not to mention they’re very green about the environment.

There aren’t many cons I can think of. Some people don’t like the smell of the paints. I personally like it a lot; the closest thing I can compare it to is some kind of plant. I’ve also heard of ants or bees getting attracted to the honey, but that’s never happened to me and I’ve been using these watercolors for around two and a half years. Perhaps it’s dependent on the environment you live in…

Sometimes there might be a little separation in the tubes, but you can squish the tube a little or stir the insides with a toothpick. There are also complaints of the paint being sticky in thick layers, but I don’t really understand why anyone would want to paint thickly with watercolors. There’s always acrylic or gouache for that.

Also in the place of back runs you might find the honey texture. Some people actually like back runs though I never have.

The only real con for me is the easy reactivation that I praise. In some cases (especially on a hot day) the paint will creep and drip out of the palette wells. I’ve found that in my palette Gamboge is the worst offender for this. I would keep your palette horizontal as possible. Some people can dry them into pans, but I haven’t yet found success in that. So for me they’re studio-only.

But I find that the cons aren’t nearly enough to keep me from using them. The paint is strong, easily re-wettable, very controllable, and it smells nice (to me, at least). The price is great, and the company is wonderful. I doubt I will ever find anything better. But if only, if only it would dry into pans…

Yet Another Beginning

After an odd mishap where my blog accidentally got deleted for a few days, I've decided to try experimenting by posting my art supply reviews (both old and new) on here. 

As I might have said in previous posts, I get no payment whatsoever to write these! I certainly wish I did though.