Supplies Deep Dive: Watercolor Paint, How Does That Work?

One of the most important supplies for watercolor is paint itself. Oh, okay, you could go back and forth all day with galaxy brain paint hipsters about whether the real most important supply is the paper, the brushes, or the water, mannnnn. But paint is pretty important, anyway.

A bin containing far too many tubes of watercolor paint.

Properties of Watercolor Paint

Watercolor paint is made from pigment – some natural or lab-made substance with a strong color- suspended in a water-soluble binder, usually gum arabic. Some paint companies will use other binders, including honey. Other types of paint, including oils and acrylics, will often use the same traditional pigments. It’s the binder that gives watercolor its unique properties:

  • Water-soluble
  • Able to be diluted to make lighter colors
  • Dries hard but can be re-wet on a nonporous mixing surface (ceramic, metal, plastic)
  • Adheres to paper and becomes permanent once dry on paper

These are properties that all watercolor paints, for the most part, share. There are also properties that can differ from paint to paint, in addition to the actual color. These are:

  • Series: How expensive the pigment is, basically. Series 1 is the cheapest and Series 4 is the most expensive. This can affect the pricing of the tube of paint, but it does not mean quality. Series 1 paints are no less vibrant, long-lasting, or anything else – it just has to do with what it’s made of and how rare or expensive the ingredients are.
  • Transparency: Is the paint totally see-through, totally opaque, or somewhere in between? Most watercolor is at least somewhat translucent, moreso when diluted. There are fully opaque paints that share many properties with watercolor: gouache.
  • Granulation: Granulating paints have visible flecks of color which lend texture to the final product. Non-granulating paints are smooth, more like ink. Some artists love granulation and some don’t, but many have mix of granulating and non-granulating paints on their palette for different purposes; for example, granulating blues or greens may be used to mix up greens for textured masses of foliage, while non-granulating blue may be used for a clear blue sky. Or maybe you want smooth leaves and a textured sky! It’s up to you.
  • Staining: Highly staining paints immediately stain the paper with some level of permanent color whereas non-staining paints can be lifted while still wet – mopped up with a paper towel or rag – to reveal plain white paper. Non-staining paints can be useful for applications like a sky where you want to lift out clouds. Both staining and nonstaining paints are permanent once dry. Personally, I don’t see a ton of difference; it is possible to lift staining paints if you’re quick enough. Highly staining paints are usually more intense in terms of color so can dominate mixes with less-staining paints.
  • Lightfastness: This has to do with the permanence of the paint over time. Is the color prone to break down and fade upon longterm exposure to light (years), or will it look as vivid in a decade as it does now? Professional artists who sell their work need lightfast colors because customers expect to buy a painting that will last for the ages on their wall. If art, for you, is less about the product than the experience, or if the end result of your painting is going to be a photograph on Instagram or a digital scan, then lightfastness is probably pretty irrelevant for you.
In this CMY gradient, I used granulating paint (Daniel Smith Cobalt Teal Blue) for the “cyan.” You can see how differently the granulating paint grades vs. the two non-granulating paints, Schmincke Horadam Purple Magenta and Daniel Smith Lemon Yellow.

Information about these four properties, along with the pigments used to color the paint, is available on the tube or online for you to research before you buy a new paint. Most of the time (except with lightfastness), there’s no “good” or “bad”; transparent and opaque, granulating and non-, high- and low-staining paints all have their uses. You may find over time that you tend to prefer some properties over others, or you may like to see a mix represented in your palette.

All About Pigments

Pigments are designated on paint tubes with a code like: P + (first letter of color) + (a number). So PB 27 = Pigment Blue #27 (usually called Prussian Blue). Different manufacturers will name things differently, so using the pigment number is sort of like using the scientific name of a flower instead of the common name: it lets you compare paints made from the same chemicals across different common names/color names.

Caveat #1: there are different ways of preparing pigments so that two paints made from the same pigment may look quite different. Companies may sell more than one paint made with the same pigment, especially in the earth tones. Raw and Burnt Sienna is an example; they’re both usually made from (Pigment Brown #7, an iron oxide) which becomes darker-colored when heated.

Caveat #2: Some paints don’t use a traditional pigment. For example, Daniel Smith’s Primatek line uses gemstones. “Amazonite Genuine” is made of the actual rock amazonite.

Here are some commonly used common names and their pigments:

  • Alizarin Crimson: PR 206
  • Yellow Ochre: PY 43
  • Viridan: PG 18
  • Phthalo Green (Blue Shade): PG 7
  • Phthalo Blue (Green Shade): PB 15:3
  • Prussian Blue: PB 27
  • Ultramarine/French Ultramarine: PB 29
  • Cobalt: PB 36
  • Indanthrone Blue: PB 60
  • Raw and Burnt Sienna: PBr 7

Find any pigment you want at the Art is Creation Pigment Database. There’s also interesting information about how pigments are made, now and historically, at Pigments Through the Ages.

Pigment FAQ

Are some pigments toxic?

I will do a future post on pigment toxicity, but the short answer is “not really, but still don’t eat paint.”

What’s a hue?

In common usage, the word “hue” just means “color”, but in paint names it has a very specific meaning. It means the paint uses a synthetic alternative to the traditional natural mineral. If you see a paint called “Cadmium Red Hue,” it means, “This color looks like the Cadmium Red, but it doesn’t use the typical natural mineral pigment for Cadmium Red (i.e. cadmium).” Cadmium Red Hue, in other words, is cadmium-free, but a similar color to traditional Cadmium Red.

Another case study: Typically any paint called “Viridian” uses the pigment PG 18, a hydrated chromium oxide which produces a granulating, cool green color. Holbein offers a traditional PG 18 Viridan, as well as “Viridian Hue.” The pigment used in Viridian Hue is PG 7, which is usually called Phthalo Green (Blue Shade). It’s a similar cool green color, though not granulating.

I was initially taught that a paint with “hue” in the name is a mix of pigments and all other paints are single pigment, and that is just simply not true. “Hue” paints may be single pigment, like Holbein’s Viridian Hue; and any many many paints are not called “hue” but still use multiple pigments.

“Hue” is also sometimes defined as “synthetic,” but a lot of pigments are synthetic and don’t contain the word “hue.” For example, when PG 7 is called Phthalo Green, it doesn’t need to be called “Phthalo Green Hue”, even though it is a synthetic. Why? Because PG 7 is what Phthalo Green usually is. There’s no traditional, natural mineral pigment associated with the term “Phthalo Green.”

Still confused? Try replacing the word “hue” with “lookalike.” Cadmium Red Hue isn’t Cadmium Red… It’s a Cadmium Red lookalike. It’s Cadmium Red-colored. It’s a Cadmium Red alternative. It’s Cadmium Red… NOT! It’s faux Cadmium Red. I can’t believe it’s not Cadmium Red!

Are single pigment paints better?

Some paints use just one single pigment, and others are mixes of multiple pigments.

Filling your palette with single pigment paints can make it easier to mix up new colors yourself. With multiple-pigment paints, you’re not just mixing two paints together, you’re mixing all the pigments that make up both of those paints, and sometimes using more than 2 pigments in a mix can produce unexpected, muddy results.

Some multiple pigment paints mix up just fine, or you may find they mix up just fine with the rest of your palette. For example, I often mix with Daniel Smith Quinacridone Gold (PY 150 + PO 48), and I have no problems with it.

Multiple-pigment paints may also be useful on your palette as “convenience mixes” of colors you find yourself mixing a lot. For example, if you’re always mixing up Quinacridone Gold with Phthalo Green Blue Shade (PG 7), you might want to buy Sap Green which is a premixed combo of the two. You may find that the exact balance that the manufacturer strikes between the two shades is better than the one you get, or it’s easier to match paint from one day to the next with a premixed color than if you had to mix it up yourself twice.

Personally, I tend to avoid multiple-pigment paints (except those that I know mix well) because I’m not far enough along in my journey to know which mixes I use the most often, and I want to save money and keep my options open. Sometimes when I find out a color is a mix, I realize I already have both colors in my palette already; for example, Daniel Smith Rose of Ultramarine is beautiful, but it’s a mix of Quinacridone Rose and Ultramarine, both of which I have. That pushes it way down my priority list because I can mix it up myself, but I can’t do that with a new single pigment color. If you absolutely love the mix and use it a lot though, it may make your life easier to get the premixed version than to mix it up all the time.

Paint Formats

Traditionally, watercolor paint comes in one of two forms;:

  • Pans: dry paint in a little cake that is often pre-loaded in a palette tin. To use the paint, wet it with a drop of water or a spritz from a mister, wait a minute or two and then it will be liquid enough to load up your brush. Standard pan sizes are full pan (about 4ml), half pan (about 2ml) and sometimes quarter pan (about 1ml). Confusingly, half pan seems to be the most standard size.
  • Tubes: wet paint in a sort of toothpaste tube that comes out wet but can also be allowed to dry and then re-wet, so then you’d use them the same as dry pans. Tubes are usually purchased individually in 5ml or 15ml sizes.

There are also some other specialty types of watercolor such as liquid watercolor (similar to ink) and sheets (generally used for special detail work, like photo retouching).

So which should you get? I jumped right into tubes, being advised that it’s cheaper in the long run. You can buy a 5ml tube for about the same as 2ml half pan, and a 15ml tube is only about double the cost. However, half-pan sets can be an easier way to start, sort of a sampler of a bunch of different colors that’s already in a palette tin. If you use tubes, you need to provide your own palette to squeeze them into/onto, and you generally need to pick your own colors individually (the subject of a future post).

You can mix tube and pan watercolor in the same painting, so you’re not locked in either way.

Student Grade vs. Artist Grade

Student grade paints are usually cheaper, have less pigment and more binder, and come in larger sets with more colors. When you start out with watercolor, you may decide to:

(A) try out student grade paints just to get your feet wet, because they are cheaper and you don’t even know if you will like this hobby, or

(B) to jump directly to artist grade paints, which are higher quality.

I initially chose option A, and this is a legit way to go, especially if you have budget constraints. But, if I were to do it over, I would go with option B – artist grade right away, but a smaller number of shades. Here’s why:

  1. Artist grade paints tend to have a higher pigment load, which means they last longer (you use less at a time) and they’re easier to work with. As a beginner, why not make it as easy as possible on yourself?
  2. Artist grade paints rewet well, which means you can let them dry on your palette and then reuse them later, and it will be just as good. That’s not a given with student grade paints. I found best results from student grade paints by using them wet, but then I just had to throw out the unused dry paint, which was wasteful.
  3. The high pigment load and rewettability is also why, in the longer run, using artist grade paints can be just as cheap (or cheaper). That’s especially true if you choose a smaller number of shades.
  4. Having a smaller number of paints forces you to get to know them really well, and to learn to mix. When I had a ton of student grade paints, I used them like colored pencils: find the shade closest to what I want to paint, and just use it out of the tube. No shade on painting that way which can be fun, but mixing opens up a lot of options.

Arist-Grade Watercolor Paint Brands

Not an exhaustive list:

  • Daniel Smith (USA). I have mostly these. They’re well-regarded and well documented online and have a huge library of 250+ colors.
  • Schmincke (Germany). Artist grade paint line is called Horadam; student grade is Akadiemie. I don’t have many Schmincke Horadam shades, but the ones I have are excellent. Jury’s still out but I may find these slightly harder to work with as a beginner.
  • Winsor & Newton (England). Another super well-regarded company that also makes gouache and brushes. Professional is artist grade, Cotman is a high quality student grade that’s almost like professional. It’s good compromise if you’re not sure you want to go artist grade right away. You can also mix-and-match with a combination of Cotman and Professional.
  • Da Vinci (USA). Haven’t tried, good reputation. Made in California.
  • Holbein (Japan). Haven’t tried, good reputation. They also make highly regarded gouache.
  • M. Graham (USA). Haven’t tried, good reputation. They use honey as a binder, which means the paints stay more liquid in a humid environment and can be harder to send in the mail.
  • Sennelier (France). Haven’t tried, good reputation, also use honey as a binder.
  • Mijello (Korea). Haven’t tried. Mission Gold is their artist grade watercolor brand which uses GoodBinder, a combination of honey, guar gum, sorbitol, and gum arabic. Relatively inexpensive but high quality, apparently; I just haven’t been able to find them locally.
  • QoR (USA). Haven’t tried. Subsidiary of oil paint company Golden. Uses an unusual binder called Aquazol (registered trademark), which they claim holds more pigment than gum arabic. My understanding of their reputation is that the colors are quite bright but may act differently than typical watercolor. Only come in 11ml tubes which look to me at least as expensive as others’ 15ml tubes.
  • Smaller companies like Greenleaf & Blueberry and Ruby Mountain Paint Co. tend to be more expensive because they only offer hand-poured half pans, but they’re a great way to support a small business with environmental values.

Colors

Okay, so what colors should you choose to start with? I’ll have a whole other post about that coming up!

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