Best Watercolor Paints (A Complete Guide)

Here’s the thing… There are countless “reviews” out there claiming to have the best watercolor paints on the market. However, most of them fail to explain how to choose the best paints for your individual needs. It seems like these reviews were written by people who have never even picked up a paintbrush!

As someone who has been using watercolors for over 15 years, I understand the frustration of selecting the perfect paints. Comparing different brands, colors, and characteristics can be overwhelming. That’s why I’m here to give you the simple truth about what to look for when it comes to choosing watercolor paints.

How to Choose the Best Watercolor Paints

Is it a good idea to choose your paints at random? Probably not. Before making your selection, it’s important to understand a few basics about the characteristics of watercolor paint. Here are the key factors to consider:

1. Number of Pigments

The ingredients used to make paint include one, two, three, or sometimes more pigments. These pigments are identified by a color index code. For example, “PB28” represents “Pigment Blue number 28”, commonly used to make cobalt blue.

2. Transparency

Certain watercolors are more transparent than others. Although all watercolors can be made transparent by diluting them with water, certain pigments hide the underlying paper or previous wash of color more effectively. Transparent, semi-transparent, and opaque are the usual categories for paint transparency.

3. Lightfastness

Lightfastness refers to how much a paint will fade or discolor over time when exposed to light. Watercolor paints are rated using the ASTM scale, ranging from “excellent” to “very poor”.

4. Granularity

Granular paints have a grainy texture when dry due to the uneven distribution of pigment particles on the paper surface. Granularity is a characteristic of certain pigments themselves.

To find this information, you’ll need to read the paint labels or do some research on the manufacturer’s website.

How to Choose?

Okay… Imagine you’re looking at a manufacturer’s paint chart. What should you be looking for? Here are the criteria I use when choosing paints:

  • Single pigment: I prefer paints with a single pigment because they provide the most saturated and intense colors. They also mix well together and don’t create muddy mixtures.
  • Transparency: Transparent paints allow for layering and glazing techniques. They offer more depth and luminosity in your paintings.
  • Lightfastness: I always choose paints with “excellent” or “very good” lightfastness ratings to ensure my paintings won’t fade over time.
  • Granularity: While this is more of a personal preference, I generally prefer paints that are not too granular because they can be more difficult to handle. However, I do use granular paints when I want to achieve a specific texture.

It might be challenging to find paints that meet all these criteria, so prioritize your preferences. Start by looking for paints with good transparency and single pigments. If this isn’t possible, try to find the best characteristics within your budget. Remember that most modern professional watercolor paints have excellent lightfastness, so that should be an easy criterion to fulfill.

By focusing on these components of watercolor paint, you can make informed decisions and find the best choices for your artistic endeavors.

Professional or Student Grade Paints?

Student grade paints are cheaper than professional watercolors because they use less or cheaper pigments to reduce costs. However, I recommend avoiding cheap watercolor sets and sticking to reputable brands like Sennelier or Winsor & Newton’s Cotman Series. As you progress in your watercolor journey, consider transitioning to professional-grade paints.

Tubes or Pans – Which is Best?

Watercolor typically comes in two formats: tubes and pans. Tubes contain liquid paint, while pans are small containers with dried cakes of paint. I highly recommend choosing tubes for several reasons. Not all brands are available in pans, and buying tubes gives you more flexibility in choosing your own colors. Tubes also tend to be more cost-effective in the long run, as you can fill empty pans with paint from the tube.

Which Brand to Choose?

The choice of brand is a personal one, as different artists have different preferences. However, I personally prefer Daniel Smith watercolors. They offer vibrant colors, smooth application, and excellent re-wettability. Other reputable brands include Winsor & Newton, M. Graham, Sennelier, Da Vinci, Holbein, Schmincke, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt. Make sure the brands you choose are labeled with the characteristics we discussed earlier.

Which Colors to Choose?

Choosing colors can be overwhelming, but it’s essential for creating the desired mood and emotion in your paintings. Start with a set of six primary colors, including warm and cool versions of yellow, blue, and red. This will give you a good foundation for mixing a wide range of colors. Daniel Smith’s Essentials Introductory Set is an excellent starting point.

Expand your palette by adding secondary and convenience colors. Secondary colors can be mixed using primaries, but having them readily available can save you time. Convenience colors are frequently used colors that add convenience to your painting process. Earth colors, such as yellow ochre and burnt sienna, are essential for capturing natural tones. Additionally, consider including dark colors like Prussian blue and Payne’s gray for shading and shadows.

Experiment and discover your preferences when it comes to color selection. If possible, visit an art store to see swatches of color in person or request paint samples from manufacturers.


Choosing the best watercolor paints is a personal journey, but understanding the key factors can help you make informed choices. Consider the number of pigments, transparency, lightfastness, and granularity when selecting paints. Prioritize your preferences and choose reputable brands that meet your criteria. With the right paints, you can unleash your creativity and enjoy the wonderful world of watercolors.

Related reading: What is watercolor paint?

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