how to choose watercolor paints

This section of the site provides the background and consumer information necessary to understand and use watercolor paints.

As the range of art supplies has become more diverse and complex, artists have relinquished their traditional practice of making their own materials. Now, painters rely on commercial brand reputation, stick to what they know, or rely on recommendations from other artists or art books. This has made contemporary artists susceptible to marketing manipulation and the apathy of "it's what I've always used."

Unfortunately, even good advice and good habits don't last. Paint manufacturers, just like car manufacturers or food manufacturers, change their products for many business reasons, not always for good reasons (remember New Coke?) or due to circumstances under their control. The brand may be acquired by a larger company which moves to cut costs and use cheaper materials, pigment suppliers may go out of business, may change pigment quality, or may stop making a pigment. Unregulated manufacturer marketing claims ("finest quality," "professional grade," etc.) often have only a poetic connection to the quality of their products. So whatever you may think a brand like Winsor & Newton or Daniel Smith or Old Holland stands for, the reality will almost certainly change in five or ten years.

Most artists feel intimidated by the idea of coming to grips with their materials. Yet testing all the paints you use is the work of a single day — and is actually a pleasure, because the physical variety of paints is fascinating when the materials are viewed outside the context of a painting. And there are many beautiful pigments and paint formulations out there that you probably have not yet discovered ... you just need to know where and how to find them!  

To streamline this process, I recommend the following five step strategy:

1 : Start with the fundamentals, and select only the best watercolor pigments. By consulting the guide to watercolor pigments you can identify these from the over 100 pigments used in artists' paints today. (To narrow the field somewhat, I recommend a selection of "top 40" pigments in the guide to watercolor pigments that you should especially look for in watercolor paints. These are the pigments that are generally the best in their hue category and the most reliable in terms of manufacturing quality, lightfastness, color mixing and handling attributes.)

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From these choose the pigments with the best physical attributes for your painting style. This is a step closely related to your palette design, so you will want to compare different palette paintings, consider my suggested basic palette, and understand the logic behind artists' color wheels.

2 : Choose the best brands of single pigment paint. In the USA, all the "essential" watercolor pigments and many of the more exotic pigments are available from two or more paint brands as single pigment paints. This gives you some brand choice as you build your palette. Admittedly you can develop a sense for brand and product quality only after long experience, but a good way to start is to compare the same single pigment formulated by different brands of paint. Note that you often must ignore the paint "color" name (marketing name) to do this.

3 : Test the paint pigmentation and handling attributes. This involves doing some basic paint tests and making paint swatches, then looking at the results for yourself. On another page I describe how to make paint wheels, which are fun to do and effectively display the overall color appearance of a paint line.

4 : Test paint permanency. Once you have verified a paint's quality, you can invest the time required to do your own lightfastness tests. If you use unorthodox or complex methods (unusual supports, vehicles or paint mediums or additives), you should test these as well for permenancy and durability.

5 : Watch for changes in replacement products. As I've said, manufacturers unpredictably change their paint formulations, either for business or consumer reasons. The notes and samples of your tests provide a benchmark that you can use to compare paints over time, to ensure that the quality and handling attributes of the paints remain at the level you expect.