What’s the best artist-grade paint brand for beginners?

Photo by Eleonora Catalano on Unsplash

I’m by no means enough of an expert watercolorist to say “what’s the best paint brand” since there are doubtless things about watercolor and how to use it that I haven’t even begun to imagine. But as a person who just began watercolor last year, I am enough of a beginner, still, to know what feels easy or hard when you’re starting out. I’ve also tried a ton of paint in my short time since beginning watercolor because I enjoy trying things out. I feel like I’ve tried enough of the major artist-grade watercolor paint brands to get an idea of their personalities, and I have strong opinions about which ones are easier to work with for less-experienced artists.

Judging Criteria

Here’s how I’m judging a brand’s easyness for beginners:

The Individual Paints

Is the paint easy to work with? Does it rewet well? Can you get from dry paint to good, strong color without a ton of working at it? Can you paint a smooth gradient in one swoop? Does it resist unexpected cauliflowering? Does it paint out the same way each time (predictable)?*

* Many advanced watercolorists don’t want this, preferring to let the paint surprise them, but beginners generally do – at least while they’re learning. 

The Catalog as a Whole

Do the brand’s paints generally play nicely together? Are they generally comparable in tinting strength and range of values? If you chose colors at random from the line, would they be likely to meet the easyness standards above, or would some of them be more complicated? 

Value as a Learning Experience

Does the brand offer standard single pigment colors, and does it make them easy to find? Do they give their paints standard names, such that you can easily discuss the color online and find a similar color in another brand? Does it clearly label hues? (For example, a color that’s phthalo blue plus white should be labelled as ‘Light Blue’ or ‘Cerulean Hue,’ but never ‘Cerulean.’)

My Ranking

Based on that rubric, here are the paint brands I’ve tried, from easiest to hardest.

  1. Da Vinci: Reliable, strong, vibrant colors that are easy to rewet, mix, and grade. Very few granulating or special effects colors in the lineup. I’ve been happy with every color I’ve tried and found them to behave predictably. The only con is that sometimes the colors dry a little shiny especially in masstone (I assume this is the other side of the coin of the binder/dispersing agents they put in to make them behave so nicely).

  2. Holbein: Less common in the U.S. (easier to get in Asia), but the colors I’ve tried have also generally been strong, predictable, and easy to work with. I put them a bit lower on the list only because there are some colors in the lineup I would not recommend, like the pastels that are mixed with a lot of white, which I think would be appealing to a beginner but ultimately counterproductive to try to learn on. For single-pigment colors, I have found Holbein highly reliable in terms of usually being my favorite brand.

  3. Winsor & Newton: The Winsor & Newton Professional line of artist-grade paints includes many paints that are wonderful for beginners and many that are more complicated “varsity level” colors, as well as paints with such vastly different qualities that they can be difficult to use together. The paints have a tendency to dry quite hard, and can be difficult to rewet. Some are low in tinting strength, and some are non-standard (their New Gamboge doesn’t look like anyone else’s). The “Winsor” colors (e.g. Winsor Blue, Winsor Yellow, etc.) are good places to start – common, bright, single pigment palette staples. You just won’t learn the common names for them e.g. most companies call Winsor Blue, Phthalo Blue.

    The Winsor & Newton Cotman line of student-grade paints is a great place to begin if you want to start with student grade. They definitely meet the requirements I described above and some of its colors are just as good or better than their Professional line equivalents, IMO.

  4. Daniel Smith: A huge catalog including many colors that are wonderful for watercolorists of any experience level due to their vibrancy and pleasant, joyous handling. But also including a lot of colors I wouldn’t recommend to a beginner, including the highly granulating colors, special effect colors, rare mineral colors with unpredictable performance, etc. Even some of the basics are so different in tinting strength that they’re difficult to mix (the Phthalos are ridiculously strong, and most of the earth tones are quite weak). I started with Daniel Smith and continue to prefer them for specific colors, but the catalogue is vast and overwhelming, and I would recommend having some guidance to avoid wasting precious early-hobby money on colors that will frustrate you. (That said – a plus about this brand is that they’re very popular online and you can usually find lots of info and experience about each color, and their names for the colors are pretty standard.)

    Daniel Smith’s “Essential Colors” six-color split primary mixing set was my first set of professional grade paints, and I still think it’s a great one to start with!

  5. Mission Gold: This one was hard to rank because I found all the colors easy and pleasurable to use, strong, and predictable (the only downside being a tendency to go shiny in masstone). I think this brand would be fun and relatively problem-free for learning watercolor techniques. My main reservation is that their catalog includes mainly mixed colors (few single pigments), so it’s harder to learn about pigments and how they behave and be able to take that information to another brand. They also tend to give their colors incorrect names, e.g. “Viridian” that is made from a phthalo green rather than the traditional viridian pigment, “Cobalt” is made from phthalo blue and ultramarine, etc. so you have to watch the pigment numbers like a hawk to prevent yourself from learning wrong info.

  6. Schmincke Horadam: Although this brand offers a tempting catalogue, I still feel like I don’t have the skill to use their paints effectively. Something about the binder they use is non-intuitive to me, and I am always over-diluting them and creating unwanted blooms. I found the same problems on nearly every color I tried, with a few exceptions (Cobalt Turquoise has always treated me right). SH also is increasingly investing in its line of “super-granulating” paints which are like catnip to texture-loving artists, but I found high levels of granulation difficult to work with for my first year+.  

  7. [EDITED TO ADD] Qor: Trying a few Qor paints after about two years of watercolor painting, I found them fairly impossible to work with. They’re fussy and don’t like to be tinkered with. If you’re the kind of artist who can lay down a single layer of paints right the first time, more power to you, but I couldn’t get them to move on the page without disaster-level cauliflowers.

Not Listed: There are many brands I’ve never tried, or have only slight experience with. Some of them are just hard to get in my area (like Art Spectrum from Australia, Daler Rowney from UK, MaimeriBlu from Italy, Shinhan from Korea, etc). I also made an executive decision early on not to bother with brands that use honey as a binder because I live in such a humid climate that they’re likely to remain liquid in my pans, but if you don’t, it might be worth checking out M. Graham, Sennelier, Roman Szmal, or Isaro, among others. Finally, I tend to avoid companies that only offer pans, since I like to vary between tube and dry paint, and to use Art Toolkit pans (non-standard size). But if you like to buy pan paint (and you use a palette with standard size pans), there are tons of small companies who offer hand-poured varieties.

What about non-beginners?

I hate it when artists offer “beginner” advice that they themselves don’t follow – at what point are you no longer a “beginner” and can use the “real” artist methods? I hope I’ve made it clear that I ranked the brands according to learning curve, rather than suggesting that beginners use materials that are worse. All of these are professional-quality brands. As an “intermediate” artist (at least in terms of my knowledge of pigments if not my painting skill), these are still my favorite brands in roughly the same order, though I prefer certain colors in certain brands, as you can see from the variety in my palette.

I hope that helps you choose a brand to get started! For help choosing individual colors, see How to Build a Palette from the Ground Up.