Watercolor’s Best Brands!

When you begin to paint with watercolors, you might think you need to decide on just one brand of watercolor paint.  You don’t, however, need to limit yourself to one manufacturer only.  Most brands combine and work well with each other.

No one brand of paint manufacturer provides the perfect collection of paint colors.  But a number of reliable, reputable companies are doing a very good job.  I will share my favorites below.


Keep in mind that pigment name and number are more important than choosing a brand of paint or purchasing simply by color names.  The actual pigment used indicates the character of the paint color and determines how long it will last.  Certain pigments used in formulating paints are fugitive (colors will fade over time and with exposure to light) but are still used even by more reputable companies. A color pigment, which has its own specific identifying name and number, is the actual substance that produces the paint color and, along with other ingredients, the characteristics of the paint. The color name on the tube can vary by company.  For instance, Pigment Blue #15 (PB15) is Winsor Newton Winsor Blue AND Phthalo Blue from many other companies.  On the other hand, Sap Green characteristics and pigments vary wildly by manufacturer – from a dark, dull olive (which contains these pigments PG7PO49PB15:4PY150) by Grumbacher to a brighter, medium green (containing pigments PV49P67) made by Maimeri.

Common pigments NOT recommended but still in production include:

*Alizarin Crimson (produced by Daniel Smith using PR [pigment red] 83) will fade.  You could instead use Permanent Alizarin Crimson  (produced by Winsor Newton from PR 206).

*Do not use the fugitive Gamboge Genuine (produced by Winsor Newton from NY24).  Try instead Gamboge Hue (by DaVinci made with PY42PY43).

*Don’t buy Rose Madder Genuine (by Winsor Newton, made with fugitive red pigment NR9).  A better choice is Quinacridone Rose (from Daniel Smith manufactured with PV19).

*Similarly, I would not recommend Dioxazine Purple (produced by M. Graham with PV23).  Mauve (produced by DaVinci from PV19PB29) is a transparent, reliable choice.

Paint color names are often confusing and can be extremely misleading, even in the more reliable paint manufacturing companies.  Many fantastic, silly names can describe the same pigment.  For example, PB60 (Pigment Blue #60) has been recently called Delft Blue, Indanthrene Blue, Indanthrone Blue, Indian Blue, Faience Blue, Old Delft Blue, and Royal Blue by various companies. Same paint pigment, but different names!

Conversely, different pigments (which determine the character and color of a paint) may share the same color title (name).  Magenta can vary from the reliable Schminke Magenta (containing PV 42) to the fading, unsuitable Daler-Rowney Permanent Magenta (with PV23PR122 pigments).  DO NOT rely on color names!

My palette!.jpg


Now, for my recommendations:

*Several companies produce watercolor paints that I prefer.  My favorite brand, Daniel Smith, began in 1976.  This company provides more than 200 pure colors, many of which are single pigment colors and thus ideal for mixing.  Daniel Smith offers pigments that no other company has for sale.  Prices are moderate to high.

*I also like the reasonably priced watercolor paints from DaVinci.  The company was founded in 1975 in California and offers 106 mostly bright, smooth colors.

*M. Graham, begun in the 1990’s, offers 70 well-made watercolors.  The colors are intense, bright, saturated, especially creamy, and easy to mix (perhaps because of the addition of honey along with the more usual gum Arabic and glycerin in their mixtures).  M. Graham paints are more affordable than Daniel Smith or Winsor Newton watercolor paints.

*Winsor Newton began producing watercolors in 1832.  They were the first to publish a complete list of the colors they offered with details of their chemical composition and permanence.  Winsor Newton offers 96 colors that are widely available.  These paints are among the most expensive on the market.  I also find that caps on the paint tube tend to stick if not cleaned carefully before recapping.

*Two other companies offer some good choices of watercolor paints.  Holbein, based in Japan, began in 1900.  They offer 106 colors, which mix easily.  Some fugitive colors are offered; other colors have deceptive or confusing names, or unusual color mixes.  Maimeri, an Italian company, was founded in 1923.  They sell 72 colors at a reasonable price.  Buyers should check light fastness, however, before purchasing their paints.

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Let’s simplify!  You don’t need to start out painting with a lot of colors.  Perfect starter colors include both warm and cool primaries.  In other words, start with seven colors:

*Cadmium Yellow (warm) and either Azo Yellow or Hansa Yellow Light (cool);

*Cadmium Red (warm) and Quinacridone Red or Permanent Alizarin Crimson (cool);

*Ultramarine Blue (warm) and Phthalo Blue or Winsor Blue (cool);

*And add a convenience earth color like Burnt Sienna, for fun.

You can buy tubes individually; try jerrysartarama.com, dickblick.com, or cheapjoes.com.  On the other hand, if you like, you can purchase Daniel Smith’s excellent Essentials Kit of six 5 ml. tubes.  This kit is available from dickblick.com ($34.76) and amazon.com ($34.74).  Colors included are Hansa Yellow Light, New Gamboge, Quinacridone Rose, Pyrrol Scarlet, Phthalo Blue, and French Ultramarine Blue.

I’d also recommend the DaVinci Scratchmade Eighteen-Color Pan Set available from davincipaints.com ($79.00).


The Wilcox Guide to the Best Watercolor Paints (2001-2001 Edition) by Michael Wilcox.

Why Did I Change My Palette Colors?

For many years, I used the colors and brands of watercolor paint that my instructors used. (Interestingly, each instructor had different preferences.) There were so many different colors to choose from I was unsure why they used some colors and not others. I didn’t worry too much about their color choices when I was just starting to paint, being more focused on learning technique, but as I gained experience, I wanted to understand why we used those particular colors. Was it just a matter of personal preference, or were certain colors better for some reason? Why?


‘Color’ became more and more interesting to me. I became fascinated by how many different ways there were to mix colors from the paint that was already on my palette. There was such variety! Yet at some point, I began to feel some dissatisfaction with certain black, gray, and green paints straight from the tube, and began to prefer my own mixtures. Unlike blends that I created from mixtures of often primary colors, some of these tube paints began to appear dull, flat, uninteresting, and lifeless to me. Other tube paints looked stark, strident, unnatural and out of place in certain pictures. What a revelation! I began to notice details that I had not been aware of before. And I was starting to feel unhappy with a few of the colors on my palette.


Why did some paints, like some of the reds, greens, and browns, look so flat and dull?  Everyone talks about ‘Transparent Watercolor,’ but what is it exactly? Are all watercolors transparent? And why is transparency important? How are opaque colors different from transparent colors? Where does the elusive ‘glow’ or luminescence of watercolor come from? Is it in certain pigments, or does it result from how the paint is applied? I decided to try to make my paintings glow!

As I studied and experimented, I learned more about the characteristics of pigments and how they behave. The issues were confusing! Some paints worked well in certain situations but not in others. Some colors mixed cleanly with others, but similar-appearing colors, when mixed with another color, turned into mud! Ugh! I realized that all watercolor pigments are NOT transparent or equal in intensity. All blues are not interchangeable. In fact, sometimes tubes of paint with the same name do not even contain the same pigments! How could one expect them to behave the same? And, further, some tube paints are not made from a single pigment but are mixtures of a number of pigments, each of which  has its own characteristics.


Jeanne Dobie, in Making Color Sing, describes how she makes vibrant, glowing color. She recommends transparent and pure color pigments as a base for your palette colors. To capture the ‘effect of light’ in watercolor, use transparent and single ingredient pigments! Jeanne says, “Because transparent colors permit the greatest amount of light to pass through to the paper, reflecting back to the viewer, they impart luminosity. Moreover, they remain transparent when mixed together – so there’s no mud!.. If you begin a watercolor with opaque pigments, you’ll lose the effect of light. Opaque pigments are denser and heavier, which greatly reduces the amount of light transmitted through to the paper. Because of this ‘thickness,’ an opaque pigment does not mix well with another opaque color. It only becomes thicker! If you mix two opaque pigments together, you are flirting with a muddy mixture. Should you mix three opaque pigments together, the result may be too lifeless to call a watercolor.”


Watercolor pigments are composed of several different types of materials. First, some pigments are made of ground MINERALS or EARTH. These have a tendency to float on the surface of the paper, whether transparent or not, and so may NOT be very good for mixing. (I think it is interesting that some mineral pigments are quite transparent — for example, genuine ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, raw sienna, cobalt blue, viridian, and manganese blue.) Second, some pigments are ORGANIC DYES. Third, other pigments are SYNTHETIC DYES. The dye pigments are NOT all transparent as one might expect, because some are combined with various fillers.


Gradually, I have added more transparent primary colors (red, yellow, blue) to my palette and reduced the number of opaque pigments. I have tried to find transparent colors made from a single pigment (i.e. ‘pure’, as Jeanne Dobie describes). I now have a wide variety of  transparent red, yellow, and blue primaries which can be mixed into numerous clear variations. I chose each paint for a particular quality; while some are very similar, no two are exactly alike.

On my palette, I continue to keep some additional “occasional use” colors that are opaque, such as cerulean blue, cadmium red, Winsor Newton Payne’s gray, and burnt umber. Many greens I mix from primary colors, but I have a few transparent greens on my palette. I removed any ochres and use burnt umber with care, as they are opaque. I like the siennas because they are transparent or semi-transparent, depending on how diluted the mixed wash is. While the above earth colors look beautiful when wet, they do seem to lose their richness as they dry, appearing flat and somewhat dull. (I plan to discuss the specific colors that I have on my palette in a later blog. Stay tuned!)


Jeanne Dobie also maintains that selecting pure transparent pigments is just the start. An artist needs to learn about color relationships to use the colors successfully – color mixing could be the subject of yet another, later blog post, perhaps. And, yet, there is also a place for the opaque colors on your palette. “To complement the pretty (transparent) colors” and to enhance their jewel-like tones, you need to use more subtle, “non-brilliant mixtures.”  Thus, my first discovery in the search for “GLOW” was that the glow begins with the use of transparent colors.

The second part of creating glow in a painting seems to be related to a technique called GLAZING. Most watercolor painters are aware that it is possible to paint one wash over another, a process called glazing. (The secret is to apply each wash, usually the lightest color first, to a THOROUGHLY DRY sheet of paper.) Now why would a painter want to do this? It seems like a lot of trouble! Is it worth it?

Yes, properly applied, layers of washes are what actually produce the characteristic GLOW of watercolor and a stained-glass effect that cannot be achieved by any other means. To achieve the much sought after GLOW FROM WITHIN in watercolor, an artist glazes layers of mostly transparent pigments. Pigments applied in glazes have MORE luminosity than the same colors mixed on the palette and applied in a single wash!

Once you have practiced your wash techniques and feel you are a bit proficient at them, here is the procedure for glazing:     1. Develop your glazes from transparent watercolors (eg. Indian yellow or Hansa yellow light, Winsor blue or Phthalo blue, Winsor red or pyrrol red).     2. Begin with your lightest pigment, usually a yellow.     3. Keep your washes DILUTED and transparent.     4. Make sure, VERY SURE, that all previous washes are COMPLETELY dry before a new wash or glaze is applied.     5. Use the most opaque paints toward the final stages of your painting. Using them in the initial stages runs the risk of creating mud or chalky washes. (I must give credit here to Don Rankin, who, in his book Mastering Glazing Techniques In Watercolor, gives these clear and simple ground rules for glazing.)


I now have more transparent pigments in my palette, fewer of the opaques. I try to employ the glazing technique with transparent color more often than I previously did. I like the effect! If you too are a painter who strives to find a way to have your work ‘glow from within,’ try what I have described above. See what you think, and let me know.