Contrary to popular belief, having a lot of options doesn’t make your decision any easier. This is especially true when buying watercolor paints. For one, watercolor comes in so many forms: tubes, pans, palettes, pencils, even watercolor sheets! Talk about an art medium where you’re spoiled for choice.
But how do you know what to choose anyway?
Pro-tip: quality over quantity. Always.
The fun and beauty of watercolor is how soluble it is. You can create a whole rainbow from just the primary colors. Want your shades darker? Add more pigment. Need them lighter but have no white paint? Just add water!
When choosing watercolor paints, it’s not so much about collecting all the colors for your palette. There’s so much more to consider and we get how confusing and over-technical it can get. So don’t fret, we’ve simplified it for you.
Here’s a guide to picking the best watercolor paints. Plus a rundown of our very best watercolor paints from the ZenART shop!
But first, know thy watercolor
Watercolor is perhaps the most accessible art medium to get into. It’s available in so many forms and at varying price points. You can grab them in individual colors or in curated sets or palettes. There’s no right or wrong option. In art, do what works for you.
Here’s what to consider when choosing watercolor paints.
Tubes vs. Pans
On the left: Watercolor palettes from ZenART's Virtuoso series. On the right: Watercolor paint tubes from various brands.
The most common types of watercolor are paints in tubes or pans.
Tubes keep the watercolor paint in its fluid form. You can either use the paint straight from the tube or create your own palette by letting it dry in a pan. Either way, watercolor paint in tubes is the more cost-effective option in the long run. You usually get around 15 mL of paint—more volume than if you were to get watercolor in pans.
Now watercolor pans are dried-up “cakes” of paint that you activate with water. These most often come in sets or palettes with 12, 18, 24, and even 48 colors. Though some artist brands also sell pans individually. You’ll find them in either full pans (roughly 3-5 mL) or half pans (roughly 1.5-2 mL). The exact volume can differ per brand.
Watercolor pans offer you better portability. You can find many watercolor palettes with as little or as many colors as you want. On the other hand, with pans sold individually or in movable sets, you have the option of curating your own watercolor palette.
So which one to get? Honestly, it’s up to you. I personally get both. A palette of half pans can last longer than you think—I’ve been using a pocket-size travel palette for years and I still haven’t hit pan! Start with a basic watercolor palette and grab your favorite colors in tubes for when you need to refill.
Permanence or lightfastness
You'll often find these pertinent information on the tubes or wrappings of the watercolor paints of artist or professional grade paints.
Real talk: What’s the point of spending well-earned money on watercolor paints that won’t even last? You never know when you’ll create your next watercolor masterpiece so you might as well look into your materials’ permanence. In the case of watercolor, we call this lightfastness. It’s the ability of a pigment to keep its color after being exposed to the elements, particularly light.
Low-quality paints and cheaper student-grade paints will fade in color and vibrancy over time because light alters pigments.
Permit us to get a bit technical here. You can find a paint’s lightfastness by looking for the ASTM rating, usually on the packaging. Some tubes, pans, and palettes will also label this as “Permanence.” Accept nothing other than ASTM I (Excellent lightfastness) or ASTM II (Very Good lightfastness).
The beauty of watercolor is how opaque or translucent you can make it. Paint is more transparent if it allows light to pass through. Transparency makes mixing and layering colors much easier.
Most brands will tell you if their paints are transparent, semi-transparent, or opaque. I find that the more opaque a watercolor paint, the more difficult it is to work with. On the other hand, opaque watercolors are best used to apply finishing touches or a final layer of paint.
To test for transparency, draw a line of permanent black ink on a piece of paper. Swatch your watercolor paints and see which colors let the black mark show through.
Watercolor paint is typically made with two main ingredients: pigment and a binder like gum arabic which gives it that translucent, fluid quality.
Artists can get real nerdy about pigments—you’ll find the exact ones used in your paints on the packaging in the form of a color code or index name. Though these color names might differ per manufacturer.
Knowing what pigment is used in your paint gives you a better idea of how it’ll behave or layer unto the paper. For example, a brand can create a Raw Sienna with more yellow or more blue.
You might find that even within the same brand, some colors of paint are pricier than others. Different colors use different pigments, which can be easier or more difficult to source, process, and refine.
It’s a good-to-know, but not a total dealbreaker.
The best way to get to intimately know your watercolor paints is to create swatch cards for each color you have. You can test out and note down all the useful info for each one. Here's a video from one of our lives on how to make watercolor swatches and here's the watercolor swatch sheet template and guide that you can download for free if you don't want to make your own.
Here's the guide on how to go about it:
And below is the full sheet. You can cut it up into individual cards or swatch similar colors in one sheet together to keep things organized.
How to choose watercolor paints for a beginner
If you’re on your first venture into the world of watercolor, it’s easy to get sucked into the trap of over-buying watercolor painting supplies instead of refining your skills. You can get so excited about starting a new passion project that you overlook the practical stuff. So let’s be real, not all of us can afford to get every color of paint out there.
Sometimes we think bigger is better, whether by price tag or by the amount of product you get. But that’s not always the case. Here’s how to make better decisions when you’re stuck at an impasse in the art aisle.
Stick to the basics
Technically you can create the entire spectrum of color just by mixing primary colors. So if you’re on a budget, I highly recommend sticking to a basic palette. Trust me, a mere six to eight colors will give you much versatility.
The best watercolors to start with are a warm yellow and cool yellow, a warm red and a cool red, a warm blue and a cool blue. Optional: earthy tones like raw sienna and burnt umber. Notice we didn’t say black or white? You can easily lighten paint by diluting it with more water. And to create black, just mix all primary colors together.
Again, you have the option of getting your watercolors in tubes or pans. You can make your own palette with empty pans and a tin box—you can also find empty palettes in the art store—with what watercolors you have in tubes as well.
A compact palette has more to offer than being travel-sized. These palettes usually contain all the basic colors you need to paint on the go or in your art-making space!
Artist vs. Student Grade
Watercolor palettes under the Virtuoso line are all of artist grade quality. While those under the Aspiring Artist line are beginner or student grade.
If you’re serious about watercolor, you may want to purchase professional or artist-grade paints. However, if you’re on a budget or just starting out, you can also opt for student-grade paints. The main difference is that student-grade watercolors have less pigment and more extenders whereas artist-grade watercolors contain more pigment—meaning you get better color intensity and permanence.
That doesn’t mean student grade watercolors suck. At the end of the day, look into reputable brands. Sure, they won’t perform the same way as professional paints but they should still mix and flow beautifully on the right paper.
But what if we told you that the best professional watercolor paints needn’t break the bank? Yes, you can get vivid, fade-resistant, and impeccable quality watercolors made for artists by artists—all here on ZenART Supplies!
When in doubt, pick a palette
It’s all in the details as well. Watercolor palettes come with bonus features that can enhance your art experience. If it’s a palette curated for travel, does it come with a brush inside the packaging? Can you move around the pans in their container or are the dried watercolor cakes already in a pre-set order?
I love when a palette has space for paint mixing as I like to reuse colors I’ve mixed in previous artworks. Also, I appreciate it when my paint palettes show clear labels of the different color names.
One detail I love about the watercolor paint palettes here on ZenART Supplies is that they all come with a swatch card! No need for me to keep testing the paints every time I move sketchbooks. And I can see how each color behaves, from translucency to vibrancy.
All of ZenART's watercolor palettes come with labelled color swatch cards
Now without further ado, here are ZenART’s best watercolor paints for beginners and professionals alike!
Don’t let the size of the Espresso Palette fool you. Sure it fits snugly in your pocket, but it packs a colorful punch! With 12 vivid and essential hues in half pans, this palette was carefully curated by artists for artists. You can create so many tones with just these basic colors, which makes it a good beginner watercolor set as well. The same thing goes for the Classico Palette - all the classic colors you need for color mixing if you're looking for an artist grade set.
Again, I highly recommend a palette with basic colors! It’s all about learning through constant practice. You’ll master color theory faster through color mixing versus if you start with a more colorful palette.
Grab the ZenART Espresso or Classico Palette and take it with you on your next coffee break. Go on a walk or go people watching. See if you can sketch and paint some scenes from a cafe!
When was the last time you took your inner artist out on a nature date? By this I mean a walk in the park or a trip to a nearby beach, maybe even a hike. Sometimes finding your creative flow means immersing yourself in the healing wonders of nature.
And the ZenART Sereno and Vista watercolor palettes are the perfect companion for finding inspiration in the great outdoors! You never know when creativity strikes! Many artists create their best works while painting en plein air. Think: JMW Turner and Paul Cezanne!
These palettes were carefully curated with cool colors and earth tones. Perfect for capturing verdant views and serene seascapes. They come in sturdy metal tins with ample space for mixing colors. Plus! A round water brush and flat brush is included in the Sereno Palette, so you can paint anywhere and any time!
This one’s my pick as the best watercolor for beginners and art journalists. The Allegro watercolor palette features warm colors made to lift your spirits and fire up your creative energy.
I truly believe in art as therapy. Keeping a watercolor journal or sketchbook isn’t just for documenting your daily life. It’s also a safe space for self-expression, self-discovery, and self-care. And this palette is perfect for painting and journaling your daily life.
This palette is wonderful for painting in the golden hour, keeping a food diary, or even fashion design. The possibilities are endless! Not to mention, the paints are vivid and fade-resistant—a result of extensive research. It’s a masterpiece in a hefty tin box!
Just like the Sereno palette, it comes with two brushes and a mixing palette.
What’s life and art without a little sparkle? The ZenART Prezioso palette is my personal fave because it tickles my love for crystals, magic, and shiny things.
With this palette, you’ve got 18 sparkly shades named after precious minerals like pink quartz, pyrite, and blue topaz. In terms of color payoff, these colors can go from opaque metallic to sheer shimmer.
Unlock your inner mystic through art. Try out meditative painting, calligraphy, or Zentangle. These sparkly colors look fantastic on dark paper, too! While they shine like precious stones, they don’t break the bank either.
We’d love to hear from you!
Have you tried our watercolor palettes yet? They’re all made with love, by artists for artists. And they’re safe to use around kids, too.
We’re rooting for you and your colorful, creative journey! Let us know in the comments below what guides you’d like us to cover next.
- MEET THE AUTHOR -
Belle O. Mapa is a writer and artist based in Manila, Philippines. She believes that everyone is born with an inner creative spirit—we just need to nurture and discover it on the blank page. Currently, she lives out her passion: writing stories, hosting journaling workshops, and advocating for mental health awareness.