When choosing my watercolour paints, I was initially very focused on finding the “best” brand(s), and totally confused by the varied and often contradictory assertions made by different brands and their devotees. How can these two brands both be 5x as concentrated as each other? Are hand poured or extruded pans better? Is honey in my paint a good thing? A terrible thing? Why do these two brands use completely different names for the same pigment?
The truth is that most brands use the same basic set of pigments and other ingredients from the same sources, with only minor variations. Artist-quality paints should not contain unlisted fillers, brighteners or dyes – they contain only the listed pigments and some binding/humectant ingredients. While exact recipes and proportions do vary, you could choose any one of a dozen or so artist-quality brands and get great results. Brand preferences are very dependent on paint texture, and depend a lot on how you use your paints.
My preference is for tube colours squeezed out and dried into pans or a studio palette. I paint primarily in the studio, though I also have a portable sketch kit. I like bright, saturated, transparent colours with minimal granulation except in some greens/earth tones. I use only single-pigment paints, because with the wide variety of available pigments, I don’t see the need for convenience mixes.
In this post, I will walk you through the differences and pros/cons of each the main artist-quality watercolour paint brands I am familiar with. In order of my preference:
M. Graham: M. Graham is my favourite brand because of their high pigment load, their easily rewettable honey formula, their focus on lightfast single-pigment paints, and their unbeatable price point (locally, anyway). Three other brands claim to be 5X more concentrated than their competitors. According to my pigmentation tests, they are full of shit. M. Graham trounces every other brand in pigmentation. M. Graham formulates their paint with honey, which keeps the paint from ever fully drying, making it wonderfully easy to re-wet. Some people in hot/humid climates report problems with messy running paint in their travel palettes, particularly with the cadmium and cobalt pigments. I live in a cold/dry climate, mostly work in the studio and don’t use cobalts or cads, so this isn’t a problem for me. While M. Graham offer a few unique pigments (try their PY110 Indian Yellow, it’s a beautiful transparent deep orange-yellow) they have a relatively small line, so pigment magpies such as myself will have to diversify. M. Graham is only available in tube form.
Daniel Smith: Daniel Smith is THE brand for pigment magpies. They offer an astounding range of over 250 colours, including several unique single pigments, a “Primatek” line of paints milled from natural minerals and gemstones (I love the Serpentine and Amazonite paints, both very useful in botanical work), in addition to some wacky shimmery and sedimentary convenience mixes. They are also the only remaining supplier of real P048 Quinacridone Gold. Many of their paints are strongly granulating and “assertive”. They also seem to shrink a lot in the pan, but most re-wet easily. Daniel Smith is available in tube form, with a limited line of watercolour sticks (which can be used in the same way as pans).
Schmincke: For those of us who prefer less granulation and predictable behaviour, Schmincke’s finely milled paints are a real plus – their Ultramarine Finest is a barely granulating PB29. Translucent Orange and Purple Magenta are lovely too. Schmincke paints have a lovely creamy consistency coming out of the tube (no weird little watercolor turds), and dry to nice, smooth pans, making them a good choice for travel kits. My biggest frustration with Schmincke is that they have a real naming problem – often using names that other brands use for single pigments for their own unnecessary convenience mixes, while naming the single pigment something else entirely. Also, here in Canada, they are hard to find and ferociously expensive to import. Available in tube and pan formats
Maimeri Blu: Similar upsides and downsides as Schmincke, though even harder to find in Canada, and I don’t have any personal favourites in their line. Available in tube and pan formats
Winsor & Newton: The world seems to be split between WN devotees and WN haters. I suspect many of the haters simply had a bad experience with the ubiquitous beginner kits, and the devotees simply haven’t tried many other options. The biggest advantage of WN paints is name recognition and reliability. They are sold in nearly every art store in the world, mentioned in every instructional book. There is no need to research and cross-reference pigment names if you stick with WN. Other than that, they’re a solid but not particularly noteworthy line. They have a fairly extensive range but few unique pigments. I have quite a few WN in my collection simply by convenience but most are not standouts. Their main downside, in my opinion, is that they insist on formulating their pans differently from their tubes, such that some of the tube paints do not rewet well when dry. Their small 5 mL tubes are priced just under other brands 15mL tubes, so they’re fairly expensive in the long run.
Yarka St. Petersburg: Another brand with some fiery debate around it. This budget line is sold as artist quality but includes many fugitive pigments and cheap convenience mixes. However, it has a cult following and came very highly recommended by my sister for it’s easy rewetability and transparency. The pans I got were indeed bright and easily wettable, but are less pigmented than the other brands in my palette. I use them regularly but when I finish them I won’t buy this brand again. This is partially because I prefer to buy tube paints, and this brand is available only in pans.
Holbein: An extensive, relatively affordable line of paints including several unique or rare pigments. However, also lots of fugitive pigments and convenience mixtures, so careful label reading is required. Available in tubes locally, and I think pans are available somewhere.
QOR: Made by popular acrylic brand Golden, the QOR line of watercolours advertises that they use a proprietary Aquazol binder in place of the traditional gum arabic. They claim to be 5x more concentrated than their competition, but in my tests they ranked on par with WN and Schmincke. I tried dry samples, but the different binder did seem to have an effect on the behaviour of the colours when used from dry samples, making them stay in place more, rather than lifting and blending when layered. I didn’t love the feeling, but my friend Ralf Wall swears by the brand, and it seems to suit his style of painted on location nature illustrations. Apparently they behave more like traditional watercolours when used from the tube. The brand offers a large number of 3- and 4- pigment convenience mixes, even for those that are not single-pigment purists, this is too much. However, the colours in their high-chroma collection are all quite bright and clean and single-pigments (except for the quin. gold). Available in tubes.
Sennelier: I strongly disliked the feeling of this paint – weirdly sticky both straight from the tube and dried in the pan. This was not helped by the cryptic naming and overwhelming proportion of convenience mixes in the line. Two of my favourite botanical artists swear by Sennelier, though. Available in tubes and pans.
Old Holland: I haven’t tried this brand because they are both the most expensive watercolour brand on the planet, and also full of misleadingly named convenience mixes. According to Handprint, they are also not highly pigmented. I would love to hear from someone who uses this brand what sets them apart
Mission Gold: I rank this brand lower than the overpriced brand I haven’t tried above for one simple reason – this ridiculous advertisement. Not only do they claim to be 5x stronger than their competition, they use a very rigged video to “prove” it, loading significantly more paint and water onto their paint-out and pushing much harder, then barely skimming the WN sample. The free sample tube I tried was weak in tints and separated in the tube. Available in tubes.
There are also several other artist watercolour brands I haven’t tried – BlockX, Daler Rowney, American Journey, Da Vinci, Kremer, Lukas, and Utrecht, to list a few. I am curious to try many of these.