Sunday, January 4, 2015

My Favorite Watercolor Paints

My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist

I'm asked quite a bit what watercolor paint I use. Often enough that I decided to write a blogpost, anyway. The answer is: a few different ones. Here's my experience with the brands I've tried. Take it for what it is -- one person's experience. A person who loves to paint, but just one person, nevertheless.

Please note none of the links in this post are affiliated and I'm not paid or compensated in any way by the brands mentioned.

No matter what brand you decide on, I definitely recommend you avoid using children's or student sets. They're nowhere near as vibrant as professional watercolors and I imagine they'd be pretty deflating to use. In addition, they're usually not rated for lightfastness, which means the painting you so lovingly created could fade to nothing in sunlight, like a six-month-old Best Buy receipt. whomp-whomp.

I delved into the Wonderful World of Watercolors with this basic Winsor & Newton Cotman Compact SetDon't judge the messy palette -- keep reading...
Winsor and Newton Watercolors || My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist

It's a good buy at around $20, and I would recommend it if you just want to dabble in watercolors. It was a decent starter set while I taught myself basic techniques. You'd think these paints would be good for travel -- the whole Cotman palette is less than six inches long -- but, keep reading for a better option. Though it has just a basic set of colors, the pigment of those included is pretty good.
Theoretically, you can mix plenty of colors with the pans included in the Cotman set, but I wanted more. I presented the palette to my then-4yo son and his eyes lit up like it was Christmas. We have lots of fun painting together -- turns out he's great at mixing murky swamp water. :)

Painting with my son. || My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist
Also, he paints like a maniac, thus the messy palette.

In the meantime, I upgraded to an art brand I know and trust: Sennelier. I started with their l'Aquarelle Half Pan Set of 12 and added on colors here and there. Side note: I would definitely buy half pans vs full pans. I've been painting nearly every day this year and I still have plenty of paint left.
Sennelier l'Aquarelle Watercolors || My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist
Okay, maybe I'm a messy painter too.

Sennelier's palette is better than Cotman for travel because you can stow your full-size (short handle) brushes in the middle and, besides having many more colors at your disposal, you also have a lot of extra room to mix colors. Plus the case is metal (vs Cotman's plastic) -- it feels indestructible. Oh, and the Sennelier pans snap into the palette so they're much more secure. The Cotman pans just sit in the palette -- they fall out and move about quite easily. Not a good thing.

By the way, when I say "travel," I don't necessarily mean TRAVEL. Watercolors are great because they're so portable. You don't need a ton a solvents and additives like you do with oil painting. There are additives for watercolors, but you don't have to have them.You also don't need cumbersome canvasses or a large variety of paintbrushes. You can grab your palette, a block of paper, a brush or two, a small spray bottle of water, and you're set.

You can travel to a local park, a cafe, the waterfront, and have a dandy time painting away. Watercolor paintings dry fairly quickly too, so if you realize you need to rush home because you forgot to put the washer load in the dryer again, you're good to go.'s what Sennelier's l'Aquarelle half-pans look like: 
Sennelier l'Aquarelle watercolor half-pans || My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist
So French, so fancy. Once unwrapped, they snap into the palette, easy-peasy. From this angle, you can see the metal prongs holding each pan in place.

One regret I do have is that I didn't purchase the Set of 48 right away. I'm kind of itching to. My 12-pan palette is starting to feel cramped with all the colors I'm adding. So...if you think you're going to love watercolor painting in the long-term, I'd splurge on the 48-pan set.
Sennelier l'Aquarelle Watercolor Set, 48 Half Pans || My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist
oof, look at all those shades of yellow! I need my heart-eyes emoji right now.

I really shouldn't complain because I also have in my possession a gorgeous vintage set of watercolors -- I couldn't resist all the pretty colors.
Vintage set of watercolor paints, made in the UK. || My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist

Sadly, they're nowhere near as pigmented as Sennelier or even Cotman, but they're fun for just messing around. I have no idea what brand this palette is -- I just know it was made in the UK. That's it on the left:
Watercolor palettes. || My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist.

Now, back to serious business: watercolors also come in tubes. Unlike hard pans of color, the consistency of tube paints is like...warm pudding. Smooth and goopy. Just squeeze a bit out into a palette (#dailypalettes style) and add drops of water until you reach the desired opacity. Guess which brand I prefer? :)
Sennelier l'Aquarelle Watercolor Tubes || My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist

I've also tried Daniel Smith watercolor tubes with...meh results. The few colors I have were packed F-U-L-L with paint, which is not as good as it sounds. Even after uncrimping the end of the tubes and smooshing the paint around to try to redistribute it, the paint oooooozes out every time I uncap. It's such a traumatizing situation, I apparently didn't take a photo of the mess. Maybe I'll add one in later today. The takeaway here: I don't reach for the Daniel Smith tubes too often.

Man, there are a lot of tempting colors though...
Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolors || My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist
Oh, yes, that's the sound of my jaw dropping to the floor.

Okay, maybe I'll give them another go.


Now, which do I like better: pans or tubes?

I love both.

Sorry for the cop-out answer.

Pans are easy and convenient. Tubes are a bit messier, but more suited to mixing -- and it's easier to keep your mixed colors separate since you're forced to use a palette. Mixing colors when using pans always contaminates. Look at a macro shot of my "white" pan as proof:
Macro shot of a white watercolor pan. || My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist.
If you have some foolproof method of not contaminating your pans when mixing, please let me know!

To complicate what I like best even further, I also love LIQUID watercolors by Dr. Ph. Martin (Radiant Concentrated Water Color). They come in glass bottles with droppers attached to the screw-off lid -- I feel like I'm reliving my chemist days whenever I play with these.
Dr. PH Martin's || My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist

They're very pigmented and SUPER fun to mix.
Dr. PH Martin's || My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist

If you don't have a palette, you can always use a plate or even wax paper or foil to mix your colors. A painter's gotta do what a painter's gotta do.

One downer to Dr. Ph. Martin's watercolors is that "they are fugitive when exposed to direct sunlight over time" -- that's a direct quote from Blick. In simple words: they fade. Sad face. You can use a UV-resistant topcoat spray as a last step, but it's best to keep the finished piece away from direct sunlight.

SO, that's my arsenal. 
Make your own swatch cards to keep track of what paint colors you own. || My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist.

I'm off to shop Daniel Smith now.

Before I leave you -- four hours later -- I just want to note that there a couple other options for watercolor painting: dry pigments and sticks. I haven't yet ventured into that territory so I can't offer any advice. If you have some experience, let me know in the comments!

Whew! Maybe someday I'll talk about brushes. This post took way longer than I thought it would though -- hope it was helpful!
Random brushes. || My Favorite Watercolor Paints by Mari Orr, Artist.


  1. Have you tried the Dr. Ph Martin's Hyrdrus watercolors? They are light fast

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. what a wonderful post!!! Thanks... off to the art supply store:)

  5. Hi! Was wondering what's he lovely purple in the middle of your Sennelier set? :)