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Beginner’s Guide to Watercolor – Part 1 The Paint

This article is part of a series, the Beginner’s Guide to Watercolor, intended to help you have all the basics ready to begin watercolor painting. You will be fully prepared and have answers many common questions after reading this series.

To watercolor you really don’t NEED much. You need paint, a brush, paper, and of course, you need water. Today we are going to talk all about the paint. Your obvious choice is watercolor paint in various forms, but there are other options you can use. You probably already have items around the house you could use to practice watercolor techniques.

You can paint with a lot of materials and achieve a watercolor style of painting. Obviously true watercolor painting uses watercolor paint, but you can use other water based media. Water based media include markers, some ink pads, food coloring, and much more. There is a lot to know about all the different types of materials out there! The cool thing about using different materials is the effects you can create or even the ability to do more without buying more supplies. If you are already a stamper, you have most of what you need! Have a box of Crayola markers sitting around from the kids? Scribble those puppies onto something nonporous like a ceramic dish or acrylic stamp block and you’re in business! If you want to start, grab what you have, and see what happens!

Now for those of you who are reading this saying

“What? I want to know the real stuff!”

You are covered! We’ll come back to the markers another day.

With pretty much everything in the art supply world you will see 2-3 classifications. Sometimes they have different names, but they mean the same thing.

Professional or Artist Grade

This is the top of the line high quality stuff. Some artist grade products are better than others depending on brand, but this is that brand’s best products. Usually the paint will have the least added fillers if any. If a painting being lightfast is a concern for you (ability to withstand long term UV exposure,) then you are going to want to check out artist grade paints and compare them to your brands student grade paints in terms of lightfast ratings for each color. When you are just starting out, and practicing, this isn’t as much of a concern.

Student or University Grade

When referring to student grade products, the manufacturers mean art students more or less. By “art student, I mean a person choosing to study art, not necessarily in art school. This paint is geared towards students who are learning and need cost effective materials.  Student grade is typically still great quality. Some products only differentiate between student and artist grade with no lower level grade offered. Student grade is cheaper than their professional counterparts. Less costly pigments are used, and sometimes more fillers, to  produce the paint. In general, if it isn’t artist grade, it’s considered student grade.

Scholastic or Child Grade

When I think of scholastic grade I think of the supplies used by kids in elementary school. These are the Crayola watercolors that you probably knew and loved as a kid. They probably ended up a big muddy mess with a terrible plastic brush. You may remember using them on cheap copy paper. (Maybe that’s just me. I didn’t know what I was doing ok!) Scholastic grade paint is still ok paint to use, but don’t expect the art you create to last forever. This kind of paint is usually really light on the pigment and heavy on the fillers. I actually really love the Prang paints and often recommend them to friends just starting out. They have an 8 and a 16 count set.

Quality varies even within each grade so read reviews, or try out what you can, to see what you like. Ask other friends to try their supplies. Decide what your budget is and where you want to start.


Before we go any further I want to tell you, use what you can afford and what you feel comfortable with.

If you spend a lot of money on artist quality paints, but you are afraid to use them and waste them, they are worthless.

I’d much rather see you spend $2 on a Crayola watercolor palette and be free to paint to your heart’s content. I started out with some cheap chalky paints from an art kit my daughter got for Christmas a few years ago. When I was ready to move on and try something new, I did. Watercolor can be a very affordable hobby.

Now I’m going to show you a few products I own, in different quality levels, and I feel about them.

Artistloft 36 Cake Watercolor Palette

This palette is very popular on Instagram. The paint is very bright and pigmented. Many of the colors are semiopaque to very opaque, which is not typically desired in watercolor painting. They dry VERY chalky. In fact, you can rub your hand across your paper after they dry and pick paint back up. I don’t know enough about how this particular brand is made, but my guess is that it has to be the binder and filler they use. It reminds me of cornstarch. The lid acts as a mixing surface with little bubbles to isolate color. These paints are difficult to activate. You have to add quite a bit of water and they suck it up super fast, only to dry back out equally fast. That’s some thirsty paint!

The nice thing about fast drying, and semi-opaque, is that they work great for watercolor lettering. You can use an aquabrush with these on heavy cardstock no problem! They are fun to use and pretty to look at! Guiltless painting! I wouldn’t recommend them if you really want to develop your watercolor painting skills though.

This palette is full of bright colors for a low price!

Winsor & Newton Cotman Compact Palette

Winsor & Newton make both a student and artist grade paint in tubes as well as pans. The Cotman line is their student quality line. It is an excellent place to start if you want good quality paint, but aren’t ready to jump into professional quality paints.  Definitely shop around as prices vary. It does come with a mini brush that is excellent, but also short so I find that uncomfortable to use. This palette folds up small and offers a slot to insert your thumb for grip, a pull out drawer for more mixing surface, as well as a snap on water well. I use the water well as another mixing surface. These paints pack a punch with the pigment and a little can go a long way. They activate fairly easily and give a thick consistency until you mix them with more water to thin them out.

Winsor & Newton Travel Palette is awesome for painting on the go, or a nice set for beginners who want good quality.


Dr Ph Martin’s Radiant Concentrated Water Color

This is considered an artist quality paint. I discovered that this is a popular brand among commercial illustrators, because of the vibrant colors, it scans well. It is dye-based instead of pigment based just like Ecoline liquid water color. Not all colors are lightfast and that is something that should be considered if creating archival pieces. I started out with just 4 colors, 8A Turquoise Blue, 14A Black, 15B Daffodil Yellow, and 20B Cyclamen. I did this as it represented cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, the color palette for a CMYK color wheel. (More about that later) I’ve since added several other colors.

There are currently 4 sets of the Radiant Concentrated Watercolors with 14 color in each, labeled sets A,B,C, and D respectively. Each set is designed to be a complete color set within itself, so if you’re looking to start adding to a collection, you can pick your favorite colors and then fill out that letter set. This paint is ready to go out of the bottle, but you will probably want to mix with water unless you want hyper pigmented paint on your page. I usually use no more than 2 drops per sitting. I love to create galaxies with this paint.

Dr Ph Martin’s has several other watercolor paints and inks including Bombay inks, and Hydrus Fine Art Watercolors. I plan to write full reviews and comparisons of each product in time.

These little glass bottles aren’t just cute, they are filled with super concentrated paint!


Mijello Mission Gold Class 24 Tube Set

A tube set like this often comes in a box. These tubes have a lot of pigmented paid instead that will last a long while.


I have a current love affair with these paints. This paint is also professional quality, and like Dr Ph Martins, a little goes a long way because there is so much concentrated pigment in the paint. I have squeezed a small amount of each color in this plastic palette and I will be working from it for quite awhile. This paint is made in Korea. The company also offers really great palette’s I plan to check out. The colors are beautiful. I can’t even describe how beautiful they are. I have no regrets. This is the paint I use most of the time. I would highly recommend this brand to anyone. Don’t feel you need to jump in this deep if you are a beginner though.

This Mission Mijello Gold paint is absolutely beautiful!

Are you asking yourself why my palettes are all “dirty?” I know I wondered at first when I was learning from artists online. All that “dirty” paint is still paint! It just needs water! If I mixed a color, and love it, I may want to use it again. Mixing the pure paints into like color areas will introduce those colors already in the well.  It tends to create variations in color within one piece giving it more depth and interest. We’ll talk more about color mixing another day. Unless I need the space on the palette clean I just leave it as is. I’m learning to love the beautiful messes on each palette. I look forward to all of them getting well loved and seasoned.

Final Thoughts

Goodness! I know that can be a lot of information to process at once. In depth reviews for each of the paints listed here, as well as some others that I have acquired, are in progress. Don’t get hung up on feeling like you need the best paint now. Grab what you have! If you need to purchase something, keep your budget in mind, and find something that fits your needs. Everything has it’s advantages and disadvantages. Watercolor is a lot about experimentation. If you love watercolor you will probably end up with loads of palettes just like me anyway!

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