When you’re a beginner and you want to learn about watercolor, sometimes you get overloaded with the amount of information on the topic but it isn’t really that complicated. One of the first things you’d like to know is what to get since there are so many out there.
The first thing to consider is budget. Let’s face it, when you’re starting and you really don’t want to spend, you want to try the best kind that’s available with the least amount of money involved. If you have money and you’re more interested in getting the best, you can scroll down to see what I have to say about it.
If You are a Beginner and You Want Something Cheap but Good…
Almost always, I would recommend a beginner to start watercolor by using a pan set. Watercolor comes in 2 types, a pan and a tube. A pan is the watercolor mixture placed in an open container that can be used again and again. A tube is the watercolor mixture in a tube with a tight seal that is like a miniature toothpaste container where you squeeze out the paint as desired.
Tubes left, Pans right :3
The pan is easier to use because most beginners don’t know how much watercolor they’ll be using with tubes and tubes might dry out when not properly sealed. For more information about tubes and pans, scroll below.
There are a few brands out there that stand out in terms of cheapness and quality so I’ll list the three that have helped me the most:
Prang – Prang is a relatively inexpensive pan watercolor set. It’s available in most stores from what I know. In the Philippines it’s sold in a lot of National Bookstore outlets. It’s more or less around 3.50 USD, and around 286.00 PHP or less in the Philippines for 8 colors. With regular use it lasts for about 1-2 years or more.
The Good: Prang has the intensity of color. When you first dip into it, even a tiny bit will give you a lot of color. The colors also mix well with each other. The quality it has for its price is the best. When you smudge the watercolor onto the paper, the paint easily spreads. The design is also ideal for beginners. They come in two types, the oval and square ones. The cheaper oval ones are big enough for newbies to play around with. When organizing a class who are new to watercolor, this is one of the best non-expensive alternatives. Pan refills may be purchased.
The Bad: It has a crappy brush so you might have to get a better brush. The brush cannot hold water and can’t hold its shape. It also slowly starts to lose its hairs. The watercolor is semi-moist, now more often than not this isn’t a problem. People who are new to watercolor however might put too much water and scoop up too much pigment. This means that it might run out faster than other normal watercolors. The watercolor is a little opaque than transparent but that depends on the amount of water used.
Sakura Koi – A little better than Prang with a larger amount of colors to choose from. It’s packed in a dry pan and is in available in several sizes. It is also available in tubes. The price is around 17.19 USD and the cheapest one in Philippines is around 500.00 PHP which is good enough for its quality. It lasts for 2 or more years.
The Good: It has very intense colors just like Prang. It comes with a good enough brush. Depending on the set you get you either get a water brush or a regular brush. Both are good however the water brush might not be easy to use. They come in very compact sets that are just right to put in a small bag. The case is a good hard plastic. You may refill the pans with watercolor tubes but I am not sure if the tubes can be bought separately.
The Bad: The pan is placed on a thin plastic container that doesn’t feel solid. It sticks well though and it has stood the test of time but some people might find that it looks cheap. The water brush for the small set isn’t that great and you are better off getting the bigger set if you’re after a good water brush. The small ones tend to open in a 30 or so degree angle meaning the mixing palette is slanted so the palette can’t hold as much water as opposed to when it’s flat. This might be useful for some but annoying for others. The watercolor tends to have cracks but it isn’t really that much of a bother.
Koh I Noor – Undeniably the cheapest out of the three but not as available in other countries. It’s almost around the same range as Prang. There are a lot of types of koh I noor watercolors but I’m talking about the kid friendly ones. There is the chalky opaque one and the dye-based colors. The chalky one functions more like how watercolors are but the dye based one is more vibrant because it comes from dye. We’re not talking about the artist quality and more of the student grade ones.
The Good: If you want to give a gift to a kid who wants to learn about watercolor but you don’t want to spend too much, out of the three, this is the cheapest alternative. It is also available in different designs, a rectangular case and a circular case that stacks on top of each other. The colors are not as intense but it is more intense than most kid’s watercolors available out there.
The Bad: The watercolor tends to crack and separate into little pieces from the pan and this can be annoying but this doesn’t happen all the time. The texture on the paper tends to be powdery which indicates that the watercolor is of lower quality. The watercolors tend to run out fast too but it will last for several months even with intense usage. The dye based watercolors aren’t as mixable and tend to have 1 tone of color.
I have used other student quality watercolors out there like Grumbacher and Van Gogh. I would recommend to stay away from Grumbacher since even if it does give a brilliant color, it is more difficult to work it. It’s the first watercolor set I’ve invested in and I love it to bits but I have to be honest here. There is also Van Gogh but it is more expensive than any of the three. There might be others out there that are good so please don’t hesitate to tell me.
If you are a Beginner and You Have the Money
Do not give artist watercolors to a kid and if you are planning to, always check if they are non-toxic or at least supervise them when they use it since higher grade watercolors are almost always toxic. Do wash your hands after using them.
You can either try student grade watercolor or artist grade watercolors. In another article, I’ll try to cover the difference between the two in more detail however for now let us just say that artist grade watercolors are purer, less chalky, and more often than not, have more intense watercolors.
Student grade watercolors have more particles in them and less pigment.
If you have the money, I’d suggest you buy yourself an artist grade watercolor. By trying the best, you can compare the quality with other watercolors that you might later purchase. The artist grades of different brands have different qualities too and it shows in how they behave on the paper.
For example, let us take the ever popular Winsor & Newton Artist Watercolor pan set. Almost immediately after purchasing this watercolor set, I noticed the difference in the quality of the paint. Everything was more pigmented. By this, I mean, the color was easier to lay down on paper. It was also less chalky to the point where I can’t feel anything when I touch the paper unless there’s thick paint. I didn’t have to scrub it because it was semi moist. It had a certain behavior in paper that can’t be compared to how prang was or any of my other watercolor.
It’s also probably 6-30 times more expensive than what I’ve recommended from above.
When it comes to buying artist quality paint, it falls down to the question of curiosity, and if you can afford it. If you don’t have a particular brand of watercolor, you might find yourself wondering… what if I have this watercolor set? If you’re talking about the artist watercolor set, you’ll find yourself wondering if doing artworks would have been easier if you have artist quality watercolor. Would it also look better?
The answer is yes but it depends for some. Some people like to stand by the idea that they are producing such amazing works of art by just using cheaper watercolor paints like Prang and Sakura Koi. In my case, I just found myself wondering what it felt like to actually own one and do art that way. I can safely say I’ve produced more variety in color with artist watercolor since it blends so well.
Another advantage of having an artist set is that it usually conforms to a uniform size. It also guarantees you quality that you might find yourself doubting when you buy cheaper sets. Artist brands usually also have a higher color range.
Tube VS Pan
I decided to write this down since there are people who might still find themselves wanting to use tubes rather than pans and I admit I am a little biased with pans.
Artist water color tubes are usually of better quality and don’t really dry up if you seal it tight. When it does dry up, you can scoop it up since the paint is still usable. Be careful with buying cheap watercolor tubes since they sometimes dry very fast or the binder doesn’t work very well and turn watery.
- The pan has a case and can be stacked in a container next to each other.
- They are easy to bring around and requires less hassle to be kept and stored.
- They can also contain your brush. It’s easy to just keep on buying the same sized pans and they contain preservatives that keep it from having mold for several years.
- Pans are usually more expensive than tubes (the artist quality ones). You will find out why later.
- When they run out, you will have to refill them.
- Not all pans are the same. They are available in different sizes and forms but the more common ones are the half pans and the full pans.
- Some pans might not be detachable and once the container is broken, the pan itself might not be as usable since it cannot be transferred. (Thus it is a must to take care of your containers)
- Some might be harder to work with depending on the quality.
- It is a little more difficult to color large paintings with pans.
- It is easy to bring out color with pans because it is very moist when out of the tube.
- You can create your own color palette with a pan by just getting a container and squeezing it out. It is also nice to refill pans with tubes since they are usually cheaper by having 2 times the amount or more of a regular pan.
- It is easier to work with tubes when dealing with large paintings as opposed to pans because you can squeeze out a large amount of paint and mix it with water.
- The watercolor in tubes sometimes dries up and makes it not usable. IF you want to check if the paint is still usable, cut it open with a scissor and try to scoop the color out.
- Dried watercolor from tubes need to be moistened to be usable again however it isn’t any different from pans. Some say it just takes more time but I don’t really notice the difference.
- The tubes might get lost if they don’t have a proper container since they’re very small.
- Beginners might find it difficult to check how much pigment the tube carries and might end up using too much.
- The tubes are not easy to carry around unless they have a container.
- They are more suited to studio paintings unless you have a palette that you can bring around.
Other things worth mentioning
You might also want to consider getting watercolor pencils. These act like your normal color pencils but are water soluble. You just wet them with water.
Water brushes might be useful too for people who know how to use a brush already since you can bring it around with you without having to bring water.
There are also watercolor in ink… and there are things like gum arabic, masking fluids, etc that you can also look up and I’ll see if I can write about them next time.
My collection looks something like this:
It’s not as much as what I know others collect and I’ve tried telling myself to stop buying although I’m neither stopping you or encouraging you. I just noticed that a lot of artists like collecting art materials.
Thanks for reading and I hope it was very informative. When I was starting watercolor, I searched through a lot of guides and websites and I’m just compiling what I’ve learned here. Here’s me trying to give back to the helpful and free community. If you have something to say or suggest I write about, you can leave a comment below.
Posted by Chie