Buying Your First Professional Grade Watercolors: Here's What to Know
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
So, you’ve decided to take the plunge into buying professional grade watercolors. There’s a lot of options out there, but no one is telling you what is “the best of the best”. Well, that’s because there really isn’t one. Well, at least not a catch-all palette. Instead, you need to find a palette that works for you.
What to Consider
Pans vs Tubes
Pans are squares of watercolor paint that can be activated with a little water. Meanwhile, tubes are already in a viscosus form so they do not need any water to get them started.
There are so many benefits to pans:
They are portable
They are easily replaceable
They can dry out and reactive again and again with no loss in quality
They prevent you from using too much paint
That’s not to say tubes are without their own qualities:
They are highly pigmented and rich in color
They can be more opaque
You won’t need to constantly dip into them to load your brush
Great for large paintings
Now, when I was shopping around I was set on moving on from pans to tubes. I was delighted by how vibrant the colors from tubes were. I started out watercolor painting with a Winsor & Newton Cotman palette- and while excellent in color and handling, I was constantly dipping into the pans. I had had enough.
Or so I thought.
If you can get paint straight from a tube it is rich and easy to use, however, if you allow it to dry it loses it’s magic. Yes, you can reactivate it with water, but you will find that the consistency, the color, and the abuse on your brush to be not ideal.
So, I gave higher-quality pans a shot. They were not what I expected. Creamy and syrupy when activated, a gentle tap of my brush to the block and I already had more paint than I needed. I had to relearn how much paint to load up.
Lesson learned. Don’t cast aside one or the other too early!
Half vs Whole Pans
Half pans are 1.5 ml capacity while full pans can hold double the amount. Half pans are great for artists that like to take their palette on the go- you can hold more variety of colors with less space. And if you lean towards using smaller brushes this is no problem. However, for large paintings you might want to go with a full pan. Half pans will fray and frizz all of your nice large brushes so when you want to slap down a lot of paint, a half pan can be quite a frustration for many artists.
The lovely thing about pans is the ability to easily replace them when you run out of paint. Whether that is filling up an empty pan with tube watercolors and allowing them to dry (I recommend making sure that the paint lays flat before allowing them to dry- it will be easier on your brushes), or buying a new pan entirely, it’s up to you!
Choosing your Colors
Black and White
Some student-grade palettes will include white and/or black. Those new to watercolor won’t see much of a problem with this, but many purists find it frustrating as most mix black by using the primary colors (or instead opting to mix a dark blue or purple for shade).
White is often avoided. The transparency of watercolor plays a large role in this. Allowing the paints to thin out will let that white paper shine through, thereby lightening your colors. So, white paint is usually considered unnecessary.
Using white to mix a color is not considered to be best practice. It will dull the pigmentation and give what many consider to be a muddy-look. If you want pink, for example, a watered down red on a white paper will create a lovely blush.
If you are dropping a lot of money on a professional palette, chances are you have an idea of your own personal aesthetics and the colors you lean towards. But in general, it will be extremely handy to at least have both a warm and a cool tone of your primaries (Red, Yellow, and Blue) to make mixing the right colors attainable.
The downside of the Winsor & Newton Cotman palette is the decision to not include a warm red in the pallete. I would carry around not only my palette, but an extra tube of fire red gouache or watercolor to compensate for the gap in this arrangement.
If you are addicted to vibrant neon colors, this next bit is for you- it will be important to choose a palette with colors that are rich in pigment. Colors can be dulled down with the right mixing, but you can not make a primary color brighter. If you want a beautiful eye-catching turquoise, you will need to buy it. There is no possible way to make turquoise out of ultramarine or cobalt.
Pigment. Pigment. Pigment.
Pigment is the key to a good paint. What is pigment? Essentially it is the color itself, gathered from various sources throughout the history of time. They can be gathered from the most common of berries to the rarest of minerals.
With the boom of the Industrial Revolution, we saw the development of synthetic pigments come onto the market. Difficult and hard to find colors slowly became more widely available without needing to pay an arm and a leg to get a hold of it.
Now, this may be hard to comprehend with the world full of readily available colors, but before the 1700s, a certain color could be the difference between royalty and peasantry
Lapis lazuli, a prized stone in the Mesopotanian region (including Ancient Egypt), was considered to be the most treasured and sought-after stone. When this deep blue stone came to Europe, it was ground down and made into one of the most lavish colors available - Ultramarine.
Only those of the highest levels of royalty or the most renown artists could get their hands on this stone. Vermeer, a fan of hard to come by pigments, would use this expensive pigment extensively. King Tut, probably the most famous of Egyptian kings, had parts of his sarcophagus inlaid with lapis lazuil. It was a treasure.
Number of Pigments and Pigment Mixing
If you have perused the paint aisles at your local art store, you probably noticed that some colors are more expensive than others. What the heck? Why is this red more expensive than that red? Well…
Remember what I said above? The raw material is what will bump up the price of that little paint tube. Usually companies with have a number system connected with the price with the number “1” being the cheapest available.
Student-grade paints have fillers to make up for the lack of raw pigments. On the label, you can tell this if you see “color+hue”. This will be an indicator that they used a substitute filler pigment.
The number of pigments are also key.
Single Pigment Paints - there’s a lot of debate whether “single pigment paints” are better than “mixed pigment paints”. They both have their own purposes. While single pigment is usually easily to handle and mix, it is not “better”. Just different.
Mixed Pigment Paints - there’s advantages galore. If you often use a certain combination of colors, or if the exact shade of color is just not available as a single-pigment paint… well, this is your answer.
Different colors will have different characteristics. Some will stay. Some will dry differently than you expected. Some will be finicky when mixing….
Really, you just need to get to know your palette.
Gum Arabic? What?
Gum Arabic is the syrupy binder that holds all that pigment together. Once water is added, it will dissolve and leave you with that pigment you loaded up. Once you carry that paint over to paper, it will absorb into the paper.
Ever wonder why you could “lift” paint off the paper after it has dried? Gum arabic.
Ever wonder why some washes take longer to dry? Gum arabic.
Additives: Ox Gall, Glycerine, and Honey
While watercolor is usually a combination of pigment+gum arabic, you may see other additives included to change the consistency, feel, drying time, etc of the paints
Ox Gall - a wetting agent that increases flow, available in “original” and “vegan-friendly” forms
Glycerine - extends drying time, aids gum arabic
Honey - keeps the quality of the palette, smoothes washes, concentrates pigment
Terms to Know
Lightfastness/Permanence - fI you are a serious artist, you know that the test of time is the hardest for a painting. When you are researching your next palette, “lightfastness” or “permanence” will tell you how well it will last under light and in humid conditions.
The roman numerals I and II will indicate this. I is considered to be “high quality” and II will be “good quality”.
Viscosity - the ability for the color to flow
Transparency - how clear/transparent the paint is
Opacity - how “solid” the color looks
Staining - after you put a color down onto the paper, can you lift it off?
Lifting - removing paint from after it has dried with water or mediums
What to do Now?
Look at swatches - this is a rabbit hole. Be aware that you can end up pretty engrossed at starting at squares of colors for quite a long time.
Make a list of palettes you are interested in.
Compare! Compare everything! Colors, prices, size! Write down those specs.
Personal preferences need to be kept in mind. What George down the block likes might not be the same as what you like.
Feeling ready? Off you go! Happy shopping!