Watercolour is such a fun, expressive medium but it’s tough to know where to get started, especially in regards to which are the best watercolour paints for beginners.
Watercolour paint can be confusing! Choosing a watercolour paint set is difficult when starting out as there as so many options and price points. How do you know where to start?
In this guide, I am going to go over all the best watercolour brands.
I will explain the difference between student grade watercolour and professional-grade watercolour and in what circumstances you might want to choose each option.
I’ll also cover the types of watercolour and explain the differences and why painters prefer one option over the other. I’ll show you the best watercolour pan sets and the best watercolour tubes. Finally, I will show you the best watercolour sets for students and artists watercolour paints so whichever you decide is best for you, you will have some great options to choose from.
By the end of this guide, you will know exactly which watercolour set for beginners you want to chose so you can get painting!
Best Beginner Watercolour Paints Comparison Chart
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Watercolours for Absolute Beginners
Before you jump in, it’s good to have an understanding of the different qualities watercolour paints have and subsequently the things you need to take into consideration when buying watercolour paint sets.
There are 6 qualities you need to know about when on the lookout for a quality watercolour paint set. These are;
Pigments are what give the watercolour paint it’s colour. Although different brands use different colour names, all paints use a Color Index Name so that colours can be identified universally across brands.
The colour index name assigns each pigment a code. IE Viridian Green is PG18.
The common colour codes are as follows:
- PY – Pigment Yellow
- PO – Pigment Orange
- PR – Pigment Red
- PV – Pigment Violet
- PB – Pigment Blue
- PG – Pigment Green
- PBr – Pigment Brown
- PBk – Pigment Black
- PW – Pigment White
Most good quality watercolour paints will display the pigment code somewhere on the label or tube, albeit it is usually very tiny. You can also find out pigment information on the watercolour paint manufacturer website.
All watercolours can be made more transparent when you add water, that is part of their appeal. However certain colours are more transparent than others. There is again a measure of this on the label or the manufacturer website – Transparent, Semi-Transparent or Semi-opaque, and Opaque. Opaque colours don’t allow much light to pass through them so they are less effective when layering. The colour is more intense and has the potential to overshadow other colours. On the flip side, transparent colours sit on top of the paper and allow light to pass through them making them more vibrant. They also mix really well, even with opaque colours.
The next thing you should consider is the lightfastness of the paint. This is a measure of how quickly the watercolour paint would fade if you hung a painting on a wall in the sunshine. Every colour has an ASTM rating (American Society for Testing and Materials if you want to know). These break down as follows:
- I=Excellent (100+ years),
- II=Very Good (100 years),
- III=Fair (50-70 years).
- IV=Fugitive (15-20 years),
- (NR)=Not rated by ASTM.
Again this information will be on the label or on the manufacturer’s website.
As you would expect, granular paints feel grainy once they are dry. This is down to the size of the pigments, larger particle pigments are more likely to be grainy. Not all paints have a measure of granulation on their label however, so this one requires some experimentation if it isn’t clear.
It is also a matter of personal choice as to whether you like the texture some of the more granular watercolour paints supply so you won’t know this right away and you can put it out of your mind when considering your first paints. Once you know down the line, you can factor it into your paint choice though.
The series number relates to the cost of the watercolour paint. The higher the number the more expensive the paint. Often this relates to the cost of the pigment itself.
How to read a watercolour paint label?
Windsor and Newton have a really helpful guide on how to read a watercolour label which is worth a look.
Other Things to Consider when choosing Watercolour Paints
Artist-quality watercolour paints or student grade watercolours?
This will ultimately come down to budget. If you can afford them and are sure your love for watercolour painting will be enduring, then definitely go for the artist or professional standard paints. They look nicer, perform more reliably and generally have better qualities in terms of the pigments, lightfastness etc.
Having said that, if money is a factor, there are also plenty of excellent student grade beginner watercolour paint sets. Starting with a student set won’t hold you back in terms of learning how to watercolour and you can always upgrade gradually over time. I would highly suggest that you start out with a reputable brand of watercolours such as Windsor and Newton watercolour paints like their Cotman Series or Sennelier.
Branded or Unbranded watercolours?
As stated in the last section, definitely stick with a reputable brand no matter what level of watercolour you invest in.
Well-known brands include Daniel Smith, Winsor & Newton, M. Graham, Sennelier, Da Vinci, Holbein and Schmincke.
Watercolour Tubes or Pans?
Pans are filled with dried cakes of watercolour paint in them. You can get full-pans and half-pans. They often come in a little case that you can carry around.
Tubes have liquid paint which you squeeze out onto a palette.
People generally chose pans for convenience and being able to carry a small watercolour set around with them. However, you can buy these sets empty and fill them up with watercolour paint from a tube.
With tubes, you get more paint for your money. You can then either work with paint fresh out of the tube or you can put some of the liquid paint into an empty travel set and create your own palette to carry around with you.
The tube paints can be revitalised by spraying them with a bit of water.
Ultimately I would say that tubes are more versatile and better value for money. They do have a little bit more effort in terms of set up but not a great deal. Pan sets have the convenience of being ready to go right out of the box.
It is personal preference really. Also, don’t forget that you aren’t stuck with your choice. If you decide down the line that you would rather swap, you can.
What colours should I buy?
If you want to go really basic, you really only need 6 colours in your watercolour set. You want a warm and a cool version of each primary colour (Red, Yellow and Blue) and from these you can mix up the rest of the colours.
Realistically though, it is better to flesh this out to around 12 colours as below:
How do I know what watercolour paint to buy?
Number of Pigments Used
Some watercolour colors combine multiple pigments to create a new colour, in theory, to save you mixing them up yourself. For example, Daniel Smith’s “Moonglow” colour has PG18 (Viridian), PB29 (Ultramarine) and PR177 (Anthraquinoid Red)
Now some artists maintain that the best watercolour set should only use single pigment natural watercolour paints. If you can mix 2 of your existing colours together to make the 3rd colour, you should, they say. Particularly as single pigments tend to mix better generally.
Obviously, this flys in the face of the huge beginner watercolour sets offering 100 different colours. Often this is unnecessary and you learn a lot from mixing colours with a smaller set than a larger one!
I would say, that most beginner sets have around 12 colours and sometimes include a few multi-pigment colours. There is no harm in this. Similarly, if you find yourself using a certain multi-pigment colour a lot, by all means, splash out. I find that most watercolour artists have a few favourite colours that they always keep in their watercolour set, single pigment or not.
Where possible though, go for single pigment colours.
Transparent colours provide the most vibrant and saturated colours from watercolour paints. They also mix well together and don’t muddy your colours up as much as Opaque colours would.
Therefore aim for transparent colours, where possible.
A lot of folks would tell you to aim for the highest lightfastness here but ultimately it depends on what you will be using your watercolours for.
Personally I use watercolour in my sketchbook a lot and this changes how I look at lightfastness in 2 ways.
Firstly, the paint isn’t exposed to light a great deal. Once a painting is finished then I close my sketchbook and other than an occasional flip through, the paintings aren’t exposed to light a whole lot. Lightfastness has limited effect.
Secondly, it is my sketchbook, which is where I experiment. Things in my sketchbook aren’t perfect and often not even vaguely good. So if my wonky attempt to paint my mother-in-law doesn’t last over a hundred years, I am not going to be that bummed!
Sometimes to help combat perfectionism, it’s better to not worry so much about the quality of the paint. Better to paint prolifically with no worry about how expensive the paints are, especially with something light lightfastness which has little bearing in relation to how I am using my paints at the moment.
If you change things up and begin doing watercolour pictures you want to hang on the wall, again you can upgrade and pay more attention to lightfastness.
Best Watercolour Paints for Beginners
When deciding upon the best watercolour paints for beginners, I have not solely based this on which are the best paints. If I were to do this the options would be mostly expensive.
Instead it is based on a balance of what you get for your money as well as a range of paints spanning from the affordable to the more luxury.
That said, let’s move on to the overall best watercolour paint set for beginners.
Overall Best Watercolour Paint Set For Beginners
Schmincke 12 Tube Set
Starting with my overall pick for best watercolour paints for beginners are the Schmincke 12 Tube Set.
It is one of the more expensive professional-grade options however it has all the colours that I suggested you would need.
Plus it is in tubes, giving you the best of both worlds. So you have the option of creating a travel pan palette from this set to carry about with you.
Schmincke is a really reputable brand with some lovely paints. These tubes are lovely and moist and great to work with.
Budget Student Watercolours for Beginners
Windsor and Newton Cotman Watercolour Paint Sketchers Pocket Box
This cute little set has everything you need, plus a few extras. I started out with this set and found it useful to discard the White and one of the brown earth tones and replaced with a more vibrant colour that suited my style.
Obviously the paints aren’t as high a standard as some of the artist or professional grade options however the Cotman selection from Windsor and Newton perform really well for student watercolours, with people often being surprised by the quality of these paints.
They are a fantastic introduction to watercolours especially if you do not want to spend a fortune in order to get started.
Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolour 12 Tube Set
If you want to take my advice and cut out the pans and go straight for tubes, therefore this is akin to the above pan set but with tube.
Everything I said about the Cotman series stands for the tubes as well so again although they are student quality, you will be surprised by the quality.
Obviously it doesn’t come with a palette but that is easily remedied if see the section about buying empty palettes at the end of my review.
Budget Starter Professional Watercolour Tubes for Beginners
Daniel Smith Watercolour Essentials Set
This set comes with the more basic option of just the primary colours in warm and cool.
Daniel Smith is known to be a quality brand with really good quality paints however so it may be worth it to you to pay for that extra quality and start with a smaller set.
These paints are very pigmented and flow really well making them a delight to work with.
Also although the tubes are teeny tiny, a little goes a long way, so don’t be put off by the size on arrival.
Sennelier Travel Box Set – 8 Tubes
Sennelier is another really reputable brand and these tubes come in a handy travel case.
The paints are honey-based, giving them a reputation for smooth creaminess. This is especially useful if you do intend to decant them into pans along the way.
Sennelier watercolours are also known for their transparency and vibrancy.
The tubes of paint are twice the size of the Daniel Smith ones for comparison as well.
They also have a larger set, if you are want to buy Sennelier paints but feel that the 8 tube set isn’t big enough.
More Expensive Starter Watercolour Tubes for Beginners
M Graham 5 Tube Basic Watercolour Set
M Graham paints are slightly pricey when considering the best watercolour paints for the UK as they are made in the USA. You have to factor in that they come in whopping 15ml tubes so pack in almost 3 times the amount of paint as some of the other watercolour brands I have mentioned.
They are absolutely gorgeous paints so worth mentioning.
These watercolours have increased pigment for more vivacious colours. They also have a consistency and texture that is difficult to match. This, of course, makes them mix really well and a dream to work with. These paints create beautiful washes with no hard outlines.
Also, these paints are made with honey to retain moisture and prevent hardening. Not just any honey though, natural blackberry honey.
Holbein’s Artist Watercolour Set of 18
Moving on to this Japanese import now, Holbein paints are also known for quality and seen as one of the best brands of watercolour.
The paints are nice and vibrant and Holbein state they use a simple combination of the finest pigments and gum arabic only.
This ensures that the colours look strong and pure. They also re-wet nicely if you are planning to put the paint into pans.
More Expensive Professional Watercolours
Schmincke Watercolour Set 12 Tubes
As I picked these for my overall best choice, it’s no surprise that I love Schmincke paints! They are delightfully moist and easy to work with.
This set comes with 12 small tubes in a handy metal palette which is perfect for beginners. As with the Daniel Smith watercolours, a little goes a long way though so do not be deceived. A tube this size can fill up a half pan 2-3 times.
Also, 10 of the 12 colours included in this set are single pigment which makes it a great set for getting started.
M Graham Intermediate 10 Colour Set
Everything I already stated for the 5 tube set stands for this set, though obviously this doubles your options.
The colours are beautiful and intense. They also come in 15ml tubes which is 3 times the size of some of the other options, so bear that in mind when considering the price.
These are definitely more of a choice for someone who is totally all in on improving their watercolour paintings.
Best Travel Watercolour Set for Beginners
If you are after a travel set that comes with everything ready to go you are going to be looking at pans rather than tubes but here are my two top picks for travel watercolour sets:
Windsor and Newton Cotman Watercolour Deluxe Sketchers Pocket Box
As a student grade choice, this can’t be beaten for sketching and watercolour on the go.
It comes with a six-well palette, a thumb ring, a pencil, eraser and mini paintbrush. This is on top of 16 half pans of paint.
Windsor and Newton Artists Watercolour Field Box Drawing Set
If you want to upgrade a little to a professional travel set, then again, Windsor and Newton excel themselves.
This compact little box has 12 half pans, a pocket brush, sponge, water bottle and water container. It has 3 palette-wells that fold out and a thumb ring as well.
If you want to you can also fit an additional 2 half pans in the area where the sponge is located.
Empty Watercolour Palettes
If you are in need of an empty palette to decant liquid colours into there are loads of options, with these being just a couple:
I hope you found the best watercolour paints on the market for your needs.