Best Watercolor Paint Sets

Updated October 2021
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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

33 Models Considered
10 Hours Researched
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60 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Buying guide for Best watercolor paint sets

Whether it's a means of personal expression, self-care during a stressful period, or simply a way to pass the time, finding a hobby that truly resonates with you can be life altering. Something that doesn't have too many upfront costs is a great way to develop your pastime without depleting your bank account, and one excellent option is watercolor painting.

Watercolor painting is an affordable, low-maintenance hobby that can be done anywhere, even outside in nature. You can start at any age and any skill level. The only thing you need is a quality watercolor paint set, some brushes and paper, and your imagination.

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While many individuals have a preconceived notion of what can be done with watercolors, in truth, watercolor painting is a highly versatile medium that can be used for every style from abstract to photorealism.

Key considerations

To help make the process of selecting a quality set of watercolor paints as easy as possible, we're focusing on six key factors: quality, permanence, transparency, staining, type, and colors.

Quality

Like acrylic paint sets, there are two general levels of quality in watercolor paints: student and artist. The paints in an artist's set have a higher concentration of pigment to offer more vibrant, consistent, and permanent colors. In contrast, student watercolor sets are more affordable, but the paints contain more fillers. While a student set is suitable for a beginner or someone who is interested in trying watercolor painting, a more advanced or serious artist would probably find it inadequate.

Permanence

How well watercolor paint holds up over time is called its permanence or lightfastness. The higher the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) rating, the longer your artwork will last. Unless you’re just experimenting and don’t plan to keep what you create, at the very least you will want a paint set with an ASTM rating of very good or excellent.

Transparency

This is what makes watercolor paints stand out from every other painting medium. The more light that can pass through the paint and reflect back, the more luminescent your artwork will appear. It’s also important to understand transparency so you know how to layer the colors to achieve the best effect. While it’s possible to add water to increase the transparency of the paint, this also waters down the vibrancy of the color and can make your artwork appear a little dull.

Staining

When you get into more advanced techniques, it will be important to know if the watercolor paint you’re getting will penetrate and stain the fibers of the paper or if it will dry on the surface so it can be scraped or sponged off. Staining doesn't make a paint better or worse. You just have to choose the paint that is most appropriate for the technique you intend on using.

Type

This simply refers to watercolors that are in paste form in tubes or small, dry cakes that come in a pan. Pan paints are more portable, easier to use, and have additives in them that allow them to retain their vibrancy even after repeated rewetting. However, since it’s harder to get a great deal of paint on your brush from the little cakes if you plan on doing large washes, it's best to get your paint in tubes.

Colors

The final aspect you want to consider before selecting a watercolor paint set is the colors contained in the set. A very basic child's set may have half a dozen colors that roughly match the colors you find in a basic crayon set. For an artist who is interested in a set that can be used to paint everything from a still life to a cityscape, the colors should be slightly different. For the most versatility, look for a watercolor paint set that includes at least cool and warm versions of yellow, red, blue, and green, light and dark earth tones, and crimson.

There is no single “right” way to paint with watercolors. The best way to get better is to experiment so you can discover what works best for you.

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Accessories

Easel: MEEDEN Lightweight Watercolor Field Easel
Plein air — painting outdoors — allows you to be immersed in the subject, incorporating natural light and color into your work. This affordable, adaptable, lightweight, and portable watercolor easel with a palette is easy to take with you to paint wherever you desire.

Brushes: ArtBrushes Watercolor Paint Brush Set
Even if your watercolor paint set comes with a few brushes, they may not be the best quality. This set of six professional-quality brushes offers the control and precision needed to create your masterpiece.

Watercolor paper: ARTEZA Watercolor Paper
You can't paint with watercolors unless you have the right paper. This two-pad pack provides 64 sheets of premium cold-pressed 140-pound paper to paint on.

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Did You Know?
While you can achieve some gorgeous effects by mixing watercolors, if you’re after vibrance, it is best to choose a single pigment color rather than mixing two or more together because mixed colors are less intense.
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Watercolor paint set prices

Inexpensive: At the low end, less than $12, most of the watercolor sets are pan paints that are best for children or someone who is experimenting to see if they enjoy the medium.

Mid-range: From approximately $15 to $40, you can find fairly decent watercolor paint sets with accessories that range from brushes to boxes to books. These are suitable for the average hobbyist or maybe a more serious painter, but they’re still reasonably priced.

Expensive: If you’re looking for a watercolor paint set that is designed for artists, something with more vibrant pigments and finer quality brushes, you'll need to look in the $40 to $100 range. While the most expensive sets can cost several hundred dollars, even the most accomplished individuals should be able to find what they need for less than $100.

Be careful when opening a fresh tube of paint because it’s easy to squeeze the tube too hard and squirt out too much paint.

Staff
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Tips

Now that you have a watercolor paint set, focus on your brushes for a bit. If you don't take care of your brushes, you won’t be able to do your best work. The following are a few simple brush care tips to help you.

  • Handle your brushes with care. Don’t forget that watercolor brushes are extremely delicate and can be unintentionally damaged rather easily. Only use watercolor brushes for watercolor paints.
  • Don’t grind the brush into the paint. When applying paint, keep it on the brush. Don’t grind the handle into the paint to try and get more paint on the brush because this will damage the brush hairs and the ferrule (the metal piece that holds the hairs on the brush).
  • Rinse your brushes often. Get into the habit of rinsing your brushes while you’re working as well as when you’re done.
  • Never soak your brushes. Leaving them in a jar of water will damage the brush.
  • Clean your brushes. For a more thorough cleaning, use mild soap and water. If you’re regularly rinsing your brushes, you’ll only need to give your brushes a deep cleaning once every few months.
  • Reshape the tip. After rinsing or cleaning each brush, carefully reshape the tip. This is done by gently squeezing the water out with your fingers (without pulling) and reforming the brush’s original shape.
  • Dry your brushes correctly. Dry them lying horizontally or hanging with the bristles pointed down. Don’t store your brushes until they’re thoroughly dry.
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Even if watercolor paints dry on your palette or in the pan or tube, they can be brought back to life and used again simply by adding water.

FAQ

Q. Is painting with watercolors easy or hard?

A. While you can find a wide variety of answers to this question, the best answer is it's a little bit of both. While watercolor paints are easy to use, learning to control the flow of water, or using it to your advantage, can take a lifetime to master. In short, watercolor painting can be instantly gratifying — you can feel fairly accomplished right from the start — but it has challenges and techniques that keep it endlessly engaging.

Q. Why don't watercolor artists use white?

A. Traditionally in watercolor painting, white is the color of the paper, not the color of the paint. In other words, you achieve the most vibrant white by not painting. Additionally, adding white to a color doesn't make it brighter; it makes it cloudy. For these two reasons, using white is frowned upon by some purists. However, white isn’t inherently good or bad; it’s simply a tool. If you know what you want to achieve, and you can best achieve that by using white, that’s the color you should use.

Q. Do I really need to stick with the same manufacturer when choosing watercolor paints?

A. No. However, that’s the best strategy if you like what you see. The names of watercolor paints only vaguely define a color. Cadmium red varies from manufacturer to manufacturer because they use different pigments and different formulas to make that color. In other words, a cadmium red from one company might be a darker shade than a cadmium red from another. If you know and understand this, you can use it to your advantage. If you’re unaware, you could ruin a painting by applying a color that you think is the same. For consistency, it’s best to stay with the same manufacturer, but for creativity’s sake, you can certainly mix and match.

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