A beginner's guide to watercolor paint
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About 8 months into hand lettering, I decided to try watercolor. The only problem was I had no idea where to start or what to buy.
After a few days of research, I landed on a cheap Royal and Langnickel set from Amazon. I didn’t even have a mixing palette, so I used measuring spoons to mix and use my paint. (True story)
Even with that $10 student-grade set, I was smitten by the mesmerizing swirl of watercolor. It didn’t take me long to adopt watercolor as my main art medium, moving from calligraphy and hand-lettering to mainly watercolor illustration.
Now, it’s four years later, and I think it’s safe to say I’ve tried almost every kind of watercolor out there. From artist-grade to student grade, liquid or paste, in tubes or pans (or even on sheets), I’ve learned from experience that watercolor can come in all shapes and sizes.
I’ve also learned that not all watercolor is suited for all art forms. Especially since I do both watercolor calligraphy and illustration, it’s taken some experimenting (and failing) to find which paints I like the best for certain projects.
In this post, I take all of that experimenting, boil it down into a list of mini reviews of the different forms of watercolor, and give my favorite brand for each one -- a quick and easy rundown for any beginner wondering where to start.
Artist Grade vs Student Grade
First, let’s discuss student-grade vs artist-grade watercolor paint. The biggest difference between the two is their respective recipes. Student-grade watercolor is made up of cheap pigments and fillers, and while it’s considerably less expensive, the resulting colors can often come out chalky or slightly dull, particularly when color mixing.
Artist-grade watercolor is typically made up of pure pigment + binder, which makes the colors much more vibrant. The trade-off is the price tag, which is well worth it in my experience.
Just remember that you can always make something beautiful, no matter the tools you have on hand. I fell in love with watercolor using a super-cheap student-grade set!
Pigment Based vs Dye Based
Watercolor can also differ in its base make-up. Most watercolor paint is pigment-based, meaning it’s a mixture of natural or synthetic finely-ground powder pigments (and/or fillers depending on the quality) and some kind of binder (often gum arabic or honey), which helps the pigments stay viscous and stick to your paper.
Dye-based watercolor, on the other hand, is a solution of chemical components that make up the color.
Put simply, pigment-based watercolor gets its color from pigments, and dye-based watercolor gets its color from chemistry.
A few things to note that are important:
Dye-based watercolor is typically much brighter than pigment-based watercolor, but it’s not lightfast (meaning it will fade with age and in direct sunlight).
Dye-based watercolor isn’t rated as student-grade or artist-grade since it’s a chemical solution rather than a mixture of expensive pigments.
Dye-based watercolor will reactivate with water even after it’s dry (which means it has a low permanence, so it’s not great for layering), but it also stains whatever surfaces it’s on (which means lifting the paint with your brush to reveal white space is essentially ineffective).
Pigment-based watercolor is the traditional form of watercolor and can come in a variety of grades based on how pure the pigments are, affecting lightfastness, range, and other important watercolor traits. It’s much more versatile, which is why it’s what most traditional fine artists use.
5 Types of Watercolor
1. Watercolor in a Pan
Watercolor pan sets are probably the most recognizable form of watercolor. To create pan sets, paint makers mix the paint (pigment + binder) and pour it into a small metal or plastic pan to dry.
Dehydrated watercolor in a pan or palette is extremely useful because you have complete control over your water-to-pigment ratio. Since the paint is dried, the only water activating it will come from your brush. If you want a light value, transparent wash, you can add as much water as you need from your brush and use a mixing palette to make a little well of liquid watercolor. If you want a dark value, pigmented stroke, use only a little water on your brush to pick up directly from the dehydrated pan of paint.
Another benefit of a watercolor pan set is the array of colors. It’s not as much paint as in a tube, but especially if you purchase artist-grade paints, a little bit of that pigment goes a long way. If you’re just starting and want to get the most bang for your buck, I’d go with a pan set.
Favorite artist-grade watercolor in a pan: Schmincke Hodaram Aquarell
Favorite student-grade watercolor in a pan: Art Philosophy Co.
2. Watercolor in a Tube
One of the most recognizable forms, watercolor paint in tubes initially has a paste-like consistency. To use it as watercolor (as opposed to thick paste like oils or acrylic), you need to put some paint on a palette and mix it with water.
Using paint right out of the tube (and activating with water) results in luscious, vibrant strokes because you’re almost always picking up a high concentration of pigment. The downside of using tubed watercolor immediately out of the tube is how quickly you can use up the paint. Artist-grade brands can get especially pricey, so you want to use any method you can to make the paint last longer.
One popular way to get the benefits of tubed watercolor and preserve it as much as possible is to squeeze a glob of it onto a palette and let it dry for a few days, essentially making a DIY pan watercolor set. Traditionally trained artists don’t usually recommend this method because it supposedly diminishes the quality of the tubed watercolor. Personally, I’ve not seen a difference in quality, and I almost always make my palettes this way.
THAT SAID -- this method is only effective for artist-grade paint. When I’ve tried drying tubed student-grade watercolor in a palette, it usually cracks and degrades, diminishing its quality significantly. When using student-grade watercolor in tubes, I recommend keeping it in the tubes and squeezing only what you’ll use in one painting session.
Favorite artist-grade watercolor in a tube: Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolors
Favorite student-grade watercolor in a tube: Winsor & Newton Cotman Series
3. Liquid Watercolor
My watercolor journey started with brush calligraphy, and for the first couple months, I’d been mixing my own liquid watercolor wells with tubed watercolor. Then I purchased liquid watercolor, and it was like… magic. Quite accidentally, I stumbled into the perfect medium for vibrant, stunning watercolor calligraphy.
Liquid watercolor is excellent for brush calligraphy for the same reason it’s not so great for illustration: You begin with the ideal water-to-pigment ratio for liquids. While the ability to control the water-to-pigment ratio (meaning, sometimes having thick, pigmented strokes and sometimes having fluid, watery strokes) is necessary for careful layers in illustration and fine art, watercolor brush calligraphy needs only one, smooth, liquid consistency to form delicate letters every time.
Dye-based liquid watercolor is especially colorful and vibrant, which makes your letters pop. Dye-based liquid watercolor is by far my favorite for brush calligraphy!
To sum up, I love love love liquid watercolor for forming beautiful letters, but I don’t really use it for anything else.
Favorite dye-based liquid watercolor: Royal Talens Ecoline
Favorite pigment-based liquid watercolor: Dr. Ph. Martin’s Hydrus Fine Art Watercolors
4. Watercolor Pencils
Watercolor pencils can be cool tools to have in your art arsenal. Essentially, they’re water-soluble colored pencils, so you can use them alone with a paint brush and water or in tandem with traditional watercolors to add texture or more defined details.
That said, I don’t use them as much as I could. As standalone products, I’ve found them to be a little tricky to get right. If you are expecting traditional watercolor results using only watercolor pencils, you’ll probably be a little disappointed at first. But! If you’re looking to create a watercolor effect using the detail and control pencils can give you over using a paint brush, then watercolor pencils would be worth giving a try. I’m also a fan of using color pencils with watercolor as a fun mixed-media experiment.
Favorite watercolor pencils: Faber-Castell Goldfaber Aqua
5. Watercolor Sheets
Last but not least: Watercolor sheets. Some makers have managed to manufacture dye-based or pigment-based watercolor into sheets as thin as paper! To activate, all you need to do is use a wet brush on the sheet to pick up some color.
This watercolor form is most useful for travel and plein air painting because it’s so easy to carry. Combining a book of watercolor sheets with a water brush would make for an excellent portable watercolor kit!
Truth time: I only have one brand of watercolor sheets (Peerless), so I don’t have a lot of experience using it. But the times I have played around with these sheets, I’ve been impressed with how vibrant the colors are. If you’re looking for something fun and easy for watercolor play, watercolor sheets won’t disappoint. I’ve used them for both illustration and calligraphy.
Favorite watercolor sheets: Peerless Transparent Watercolors
While I use pigment-based, artist-grade watercolor (usually from a tube but sometimes from a pan set) for most of my paid illustration work, I find immense value in experimenting with new watercolors just for the fun of it.
High-quality watercolor usually gets its high price point from its ability to withstand the test of time and provide convenience and satisfying results for the artist.
But creativity doesn’t always get its value from the end result -- sometimes, what’s more important is simply how good it feels to put paint to paper and watch the colors flow.
No matter which watercolor you choose, I hope you lean into your creativity and have fun!
P.S. If this post was helpful for you, I’d love to hear why! Leave a comment below, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.