Best Watercolor Paints (2020): Brands, Brushes, Travel & MORE!


This is a complete guide to watercolor painting supplies for beginners and pros alike.

Here is an overview of what you’ll learn in this new guide:

·       Best watercolor paint for beginners and advanced painters 

·       Watercolor paint brands

·       Choosing paint brushes for watercolor

·       Watercolor paper choices

·       Choosing a watercolor paint travel set and water brush

·       Best watercolor sketchbook 


Introduction to watercolor

Are you starting out in watercolor? You don’t need many supplies to make an excellent painting, just a few good-mixing colors, a solid brush, and some forgiving paper.

Are you an experienced painter? Then this article will connect you to pigments and paper you may not have tried, like the super fun Daniel Smith dot card and the Hand•book brand of watercolor sketchbooks.

Let’s get started!

Best watercolor paint:  Beginners

When you’re starting out, a basic set of exciting colors is what you need.  If you have colors that are good mixers and are easy to experiment with, you will create your own unique color blends in your paintings.  You are looking for colors that are transparent.

Yarka watercolor set

If you are looking for an inexpensive way to try out watercolor painting, try a Yarka student watercolor set.  It looks like a standard child’s palette of watercolors, but it is a huge improvement over the typical set:  each of the 12 colors is transparent and full of pigment. The colors in the set are well chosen and they blend cleanly to create new colors. It includes a brush, but the brush does not hold much paint. See below for several other inexpensive brush choices.

To create the brightest colors in your paintings, though, you’ll have to take the next step and assemble your own watercolor palette by purchasing tubes of paint. You’ll be able to make unique color mixes and even mix your browns (French ultramarine + burnt sienna) and blacks (Perm. alizarin crimson + thalo green) with them. Look for these eight colors and the brand names that go with them:

Our picks for best watercolor paints

You can arrange and mix your paint on a white china plate, but it is easier to transport the paints and keep them fresh if you use a plastic palette.  When I’m working in my studio, I use a John Pike palette. It has a large central mixing area and wide wells for holding paint.

Best watercolor paints: Not your first rodeo

Shake up your usual palette and try the Daniel Smith Dot Color Chart.  Its five cardboard pages hold 238 large dots of actual watercolor paint so you can try any Daniel Smith color before purchasing it.  I’ve used this dot chart for travel, too, because it is easy to tuck into a backpack or sketchbook, lighter even than my tiny travel palette.  When I’m traveling and take out these dots, they always attract a curious audience!  It’s a great way to meet people and talk about art.

If you’ve been painting for a while, you’ve developed your color preferences, and they may be pretty hard to shake! Try adding these colors into your mix to add granulation and to help you create unusual color blends:

•   Cadmium yellow light:  M. Graham, Daniel Smith.  Strong greenish yellow, makes an amazing chartreuse when mixed with thalo green or permanent green.

•   Manganese blue hue:  Winsor & Newton.  Warm, granulating pale blue, creates a mysterious, shadowy purple when combined with cobalt violet.

•   Cobalt blue:  Daniel Smith, Winsor & Newton, M. Graham.  Darker, cooler blue than Manganese, makes great shadowy colors and a wonderful warm gray when combined with raw sienna or yellow ochre.  Add perm. alizirin crimson to make an energetic limited palette of color.

•   Cobalt violet:  M. Graham, Maimeri:  Beautiful granulation, combines with yellows to make a surprising dark orange.

Viridian:  M. Graham:  Although this color is hard to re-wet, it is a subtle substitute for the thalo green, which can be so difficult to use in a painting because of its high tinting strength.  If you’re painting realistic evergreens, viridian + ultramarine violet is the way to go.

Green apatite:  Daniel Smith:   Ground from the actual mineral, green apatite, this color adds zing to any mixture because it granulates not only to the green side, but also to the red. An amazing color!

Watercolor paint brands

Why these brands? Each manufacturer of watercolor paint formulates its colors a bit differently.  Some brands grind their pigments to fine powders, others grind them more coarsely.  Some manufacturers bind the pigment with honey, others with gum arabic.  All of this means the color “quinacridone violet” can look and behave differently across brands.  When you buy your favorite dark roast coffee, you know only certain companies  will do, and that’s the idea to keep in mind when buying paint from different manufacturers.

Quinacridone violet is also known by its pigment number, PV 19.  You can find this unique color number on every tube of artist’s paint.  If you are fascinated by pigment combinations (as I am!), you should check out Australian watercolor painter Jane Blundell for pigment explanations and beautiful photos of combinations.  And artist Stephen Quiller, with a gallery in Creede, Colorado, has created a color wheel painting system that allows you to combine pure colors and create beautiful neutrals without ending up with mud.

Choosing paint brushes for watercolor

Buy the best watercolor brush you can afford.  When it is fully loaded with water, a good brush will glide onto your paper like a skate over ice.  Look for brushes that are blends of sable and acrylic if you’re not ready to go for an all-sable brush.  You will likely use the round brush the most, so if you want to purchase one sable or sable-mix brush to start, make it the round.

I use three different brush types: a # 10 round, a one-inch flat, and a 1/2 inch Lowe and Cornell or Princeton dagger. I can create the edges and detail I need with these brushes.  Sometimes, if I am painting a 22 x 30 inch full sheet of paper, I wet large shapes first using a 3 inch flat or angle Redline brush.

Our picks for best watercolor paint brushes

Redline 3 inch brush, DaVinci 1 inch flat, Princeton dagger, DaVinci round

• DaVinci Cosmotop sable mix F: at Dick Blick

• DaVinci watercolor series 5580 at Amazon

• Princeton artist brush dagger/striper at Amazon

• Princeton Redline series at Dick Blick

•   Princeton brand acrylic dagger:  on Amazon

Watercolor paper choices

Paper plays an essential role in watercolor painting.  All paper reflects light back up through the paint to the viewer. Rough paper creates texture, and smooth-surface hot press paper encourages fine detail.  The most common paper surface is called cold press.  Cold press paper has a slightly bumpy texture. There is even a plastic “paper,” called Yupo, that I use when I play with color mixing, as colors race across its slick surface. George James was a master of Yupo painting, combining stamping and thick paint to create unusual portraits. Experiment with paper types to find the ones that let you express your own style.

Yupo comes in opaque and translucent pads

The most common paper weight is 140 lb. (or 300 grams per square meter in Europe).  This paper weight can take a lot of water without wrinkling, and it is easy to tear down into smaller sizes. Lighter weight paper (90 lb. or less) may buckle when you add more than a splash of water.  (If this happens to you, you can weigh down a damp, wrinkled painting under newsprint and a few heavy books to flatten it.)  300 lb. paper is quite stiff and heavy, does not buckle, but is considerably more expensive.

Watercolor paper comes in different shades of white, too.  Often you will leave areas of your paintings white to suggest highlights or to give the greatest areas of contrast in your work.  Choose papers that say “bright white” if this bright contrast is what you need in your paintings.

Papers can be internally sized or surface sized.  Internally sized paper keeps the color on the surface where it is more brilliant.  Color is easier to remove from the surface of this paper because it is not absorbed into the fibers of the paper.  Color can be removed from the surface of plastic Yupo, not by rubbing with a paintbrush, but by blotting out with rubbing alcohol.

Best paper for watercolor

140 lb. Cold Press papers I use and like are listed here. You can purchase them in a single 22 x 30 inch sheet, or in a smaller block of multiple sheets. These blocks are easy to travel with. The price difference between purchasing a block or buying the 10 sheet minimum of large paper that many merchants require is small, so the size choice is up to you. Canson papers are made in France and are my favorite for their robust sizing. Arches 140 cold press is the classic watercolor paper, creamy white and easy to work with. Fabriano Artistico comes is a bright white and a soft white and also has excellent sizing, allowing you to remove pigments with a damp brush. Bockingford is made in England. It is well-sized and comes in a variety of pastel colors: pink, yellow, gray and green, as well as white.

Watercolor travel set and water brush

Traveling light is easy if you are a watercolor painter.  I carry a water brush, a sketchbook, and a home-made tiny palette into which I’ve squeezed my favorite paints.  In a pencil case or zipper-lock bag, I tuck a .05 waterproof ink pen, my lucky pencil, a few paper towels, and a kneaded eraser. Usually I bring a snack or a cup of tea in a thermos.

Hand•book journal with water brush on top. Home made palette at bottom and ready-made palette top right.

Tiny, lightweight watercolor palettes are everywhere.  Mine was a gift, and someone made it from an aluminum tin and a plastic grid.  If you have a pre-made watercolor set like the Yarka one, above, you can repurpose the box if you are tired of the color assortment:     

Remove the Yarka colors by leaving the set submerged overnight in a dishpan of water.  In the morning, pop the colors out of each pan, and refill the pans with your own tube watercolors.

Here are a few other choices for small empty palettes you can customize with your own colors

•   Art tool kit: tiny aluminum case, steel watercolor pans, drawstring carry bag

•   Home made watercolor tin with watercolor pans on Etsy, similar to mine

•   Daniel Smith travel palette,  includes empty and filled half-pans at Cheap Joes Art Stuff

Below you’ll find lightweight travel palettes prefilled with excellent colors.  Some pre-made palettes include a water container and a tiny travel brush, but you don’t need these things.  The brush will be too tiny to paint with, and the water container often leaks.   These pre-made palettes are more expensive, but they make an amazing gift for the watercolorist in your life…maybe you!

•   Art Tool Kit with art palette colors and empty pans

•   Winsor & Newton Artist Paint Box, from Dick Blick

•   Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolors Pocket Box, student quality paint, but worthwhile to try and possibly refill with your own colors, at Amazon

Water brushes are paintbrushes that hold a reservoir of water in their handles.  When you squeeze the handle of a water brush, water drips from the tip of the paintbrush.  These are lightweight and easy to refill when you travel.  I carry two at a time, one for darker colors, and one for lighter colors, though by the end of a sketching session the brushes are often mixed.

I use the Niji waterbrush because the plastic has held up over many years to repeated squeezing!   It comes in many sizes and brush shapes and has never leaked.

Best watercolor sketchbook

I’m devoted to Speedball’s Hand•book brand of sketchbooks, but the best sketchbook is the one you will take with you when you go out!  Hand•book makes both watercolor sketchbooks and art journals.  Even though the journal has 70 lb. paper, it takes a watercolor wash well, and I have many years of books grouped by location on the shelves of my studio.  Both types of sketchbook include a plastic pocket glued to the inside back cover for all the memorabilia I pick up along the way. And, as a lefty, I find these books stay open easily, without bumping into my hand, when I paint. The Strathmore Field Journal has a great spiral binding and hard covers, which make it easy to use outside when you might not have a table to work at.

Websites to watch

Juliette Plisson:   French watercolor painter, amazing color mixes, loose, painterly style

Stephen Quiller:   All things color wheel, watercolor, acrylic and casein painting

Brenda Swenson:   Wonderful tutorials, make your own sketchbook,  and information on Urban Sketching

Maria Coryell-Martin:  Watercolor essentials and the Art Tool Kit palette

Sketchbook Skool:  Learn to sketch, paint in watercolor, keep a sketchbook all with an easy interface and welcoming platform

Urban Sketchers:  Join sketching meet-ups wherever you are in the world, yearly international sketching conference


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