8 Artist Grade Watercolor Starter Sets for Under $50

Let’s say you have no more than $50 to spend on your first artist grade watercolors. What’s a good set to begin with? Here are some recommendations, based on my assessment of whether the colors included give you a good set of mixers to start with. (You do not need to buy more than one of these sets – they will be reduplicative. If you have more money, consider augmenting your set with additional colors not found in it already.) 

These are not affiliate links, just the results of my tendency to “fantasy shop.” 

Half-Pan Palette Boxes

These are boxes that come with an assortment of dried paint cakes in them, and generally that also have more room if you want to purchase additional paint cakes to slot in. If you buy extras, make sure they’re the right size for the box (typically “half pan”, but double check.) 

Da Vinci – Joyce’s “Mother Green” Mixing Set

A great value-for-money half pan set with 11 colors. In addition to a nice natural-looking mixed green, there is a lovely variety of bright single-pigment colors that includes primary colors, greens, and earth tones. If I were starting over today, I’d snag this. 

Daniel Smith – Sketcher Box

The Daniel Smith Sketcher Box of half-pans includes six great mixers: a magenta, a yellow, two blues, and two of my favorite earth colors. It also includes blank spaces you can fill with whatever pans you want – I recommend getting one or more greens.

Daniel Smith – Floral Colors of Inspiration 2

I also think the Floral Inspiration Box is a pretty nice six-color starter set with great mixers, including a magenta, a yellow, a cyan, two greens, and a gold. 

Schmincke Horadam – Prime Mixing Set

The SH Prime Mixing Set is a split primary set with two reds, yellows, and blues. Also leaves room to add six more pans of your choice. (I recommend green.)

Jane Blundell’s Ultimate Mixing Palette

Jane Blundell’s color selection has been hugely influential on me. The official Daniel Smith Jane Blundell set is out of my price range, but I found a smaller version being sold by Meow Cafe on Etsy

Small Tubes

5ml tubes can be a nice way to try colors that’s more economical than pans because you get more paint (you can fill a half-pan five times from a 5ml tube!) But it’s still small enough that you can get through them in a reasonable amount of time if you decide you don’t love the color.

Remember that when you buy tubes, even as a set, they typically don’t come with a storage palette – you’ll need to have a plan for where you’re going to pour this paint and let it dry.

Daniel Smith – Essentials Set

The Daniel Smith Essentials Starter Set is the one I started with! It’s a split primary set of 6 5ml tubes, with two colors each in the red, yellow, and blue families.

Da Vinci – Jane’s Color Wheel

Da Vinci’s smallest size is 8ml, which is nice because it’s more than your standard 5ml but still not overwhelming. If you’re just starting out, try the Jane’s Color Wheel 3-tube sampler set of the primary colors magenta, yellow, and cyan. (I didn’t see another sampler set that fills in the secondaries, so consider getting them individually – see my list below.) 

Da Vinci – Mixing Set

This set of six 15ml paint tubes amazingly fits the budget criteria I set for myself at the time of this writing! It’s a split primary with two each of reds, yellows, and blues. I’m not sure I would want to start out with 15ml tubes when you’re not sure if you’ll even like the colors (it’s like ordering a new Pop Tarts flavor from Sam’s Club), but it’s sure economical per ounce.

Pick Your Own Colors

Suppose none of the pre-filled color sets suit your fancy. That’s fine! Generally they are not really much cheaper in a set vs. purchased individually. In Building Your Watercolor Palette from the Ground Up, I recommended your first six colors. Here’s a quick version of that if you want to pick and choose tubes yourself, without a set. All of these are single pigment colors; check the pigment number if the names don’t line up.

  1. Magenta: Quinacridone Rose (PV19) or Purple Magenta (PR122)
  2. Yellow: Hansa Yellow Medium (PV97) or Pure Yellow (PY154)
  3. Cyan: Phthalo Blue Green Shade (PB15:3) or Red Shade (PB15:6)
  4. Green: Phthalo Green Blue Shade (PG7) or Yellow Shade (PG36), Viridian (PG18), or a mixed Sap Green or Hooker’s Green
  5. Violet Blue: Ultramarine Blue (PB29), Cobalt Blue (PB28), or Indanthrone Blue (PB60)
  6. Orange: Lots of options here; consider a red-orange like Pyrrol Orange (PO73) or Transparent Orange (PO71), an orange-red like Pyrrol Scarlet (PR255) or Vermilion (PR188), or an earth orange like Burnt Sienna (PBr7) or Transparent Red Oxide (PR101). 

Other Alternatives

Consider starting with a high quality student grade set, like Winsor & Newton Cotman or Schmincke Akademie. This can be an economical way to try a lot of colors. You can replace whichever colors you like with artist grade versions as you run out.