Transparent Watercolors Guide: Best Picks & Tips

  • By: Michael Smith
  • Time to read: 16 min.
Michael Smith
I'm Michael Smith, the founder and creative director of Art and Drawing. With over a decade of experience in the art and design industry, my keen eye for detail and passion for creating inspiring artwork drive my work. I'm dedicated to capturing the world's beauty through vibrant, expressive pieces that spark imagination and emotion.

Welcome to our comprehensive guide on selecting the best watercolor paints! Whether you’re a seasoned artist or just starting your watercolor journey, finding the right paints is essential for achieving the vibrant and transparent effects that make watercolors so captivating.

Watercolor paint is a blend of pigment, binders, and additives. The quality and amount of pigment used determine the price and color intensity of the paint. Cheaper paints often contain more binders and lower-quality pigments, resulting in dull and chalky colors. On the other hand, expensive paints have fewer binders and higher pigment concentrations, offering richer and more vibrant hues.

There are two main grades of watercolor paints available: student grade and professional grade. Student grade paints are recommended for beginners due to their affordability and ease of use. Professional grade paints, although more expensive, offer higher-quality pigments and better color intensity, making them ideal for experienced artists looking for professional results.

When it comes to choosing the format of your watercolor paint, you have two options: pans or tubes. Pans are small containers filled with dried paint that can be activated by adding water. Tubes, on the other hand, contain liquid paint that can be squeezed out as needed. Both formats have their advantages and choosing the right one depends on personal preference and painting style.

If you’re just starting out, watercolor sets are a great option. They provide a range of colors in a convenient palette, allowing you to experiment and explore different shades. Alternatively, more experienced artists may prefer to create their own custom palette by selecting individual colors based on their personal artistic preferences and subject matter.

When selecting watercolor paints, it’s essential to consider factors such as pigment quality, transparency, lightfastness (how well the color holds up over time), and granularity (the texture of the dried paint). By understanding these characteristics and experimenting with different brands and ranges, you’ll be able to find the paints that best suit your artistic needs and style.

Key Takeaways:

  • Watercolor paints are a combination of pigment, binders, and additives.
  • Cheap paints have more binders and lower-quality pigments, while expensive paints have fewer binders and higher pigment concentrations.
  • Student grade paints are recommended for beginners, while professional grade paints are for experienced artists.
  • Pans and tubes are the two formats for watercolor paints, each with their own advantages.
  • Watercolor sets provide a convenient range of colors, while artists can also create their own custom palette.

What is in Watercolor Paint?

Watercolor paint is composed of pigment, binders, and additives. Pigment is the part that gives color to the paint. The quality and purity of the pigment affect the price of the paint. Cheap paints use more binders and lower-quality pigments, resulting in chalky and faded colors. Expensive paints use fewer binders and higher levels of pigments, resulting in richer and more vibrant colors.

Understanding the components of watercolor paint is essential for artists who want to create vibrant artworks. The pigments are responsible for the colors, while the binders hold the pigment particles together in a paint form. Additives are used to improve the flow, drying time, and other properties of the paint.

Pigment is the color-producing ingredient in watercolor paint. It can be derived from natural sources, such as minerals and plants, or created synthetically. The quality and purity of the pigment greatly influence the color intensity and lightfastness of the paint. High-quality pigments create vibrant and long-lasting colors, while lower-quality pigments may result in dull or faded hues.

Binders are substances that hold the pigment particles together and bind them to the painting surface. They are typically made of natural materials, such as gum arabic or gum tragacanth. The ratio of pigment to binder affects the paint’s transparency, consistency, and handling properties. Cheap paints often contain a higher ratio of binders to pigments, resulting in less vibrant colors and a chalkier appearance.

Additives are used to enhance the paint’s performance and characteristics. They can include wetting agents, dispersants, anti-mold agents, preservatives, and more. Additives help improve the flow and dispersion of the pigments, prevent mold growth, and extend the shelf life of the paint.

In summary, watercolor paint is a combination of pigment, binders, and additives. Understanding the composition of watercolor paint can help artists make informed choices when selecting paints based on their desired color intensity, transparency, and overall quality.

Student and Professional Watercolor Paint

When it comes to selecting watercolor paint, artists have options that cater to different skill levels and preferences. Most watercolor brands offer both student and professional grade paints, each with its own unique characteristics and benefits.

Student Grade Paints:

Student grade paints are designed for beginners and those on a limited budget. These paints are more affordable and often contain lower-quality ingredients compared to their professional counterparts. While the pigments used may not be as vibrant or lightfast, student grade paints still provide a good starting point for those new to watercolor painting.

Professional Grade Paints:

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Professional grade paints are recommended for experienced artists who seek higher-quality pigments and better color intensity. These paints are typically more expensive, but they offer a wider range of colors and superior lightfastness. The use of higher-quality ingredients ensures that the colors remain vibrant and true over time, making them a preferred choice for professional artists and those seeking professional-level results.

When choosing between student and professional grade paints, it’s important to consider personal preference and budget. Beginners may find value in starting with student grade paints and gradually transitioning to professional grade as their skills develop. Professionals and experienced artists may prefer the superior quality and performance of professional grade paints.

Features of Student and Professional Watercolor Paints

To further illustrate the differences between student and professional grade paints, refer to the table below.

Features Student Grade Paints Professional Grade Paints
Price Lower Higher
Quality of Pigments Lower Higher
Color Intensity Moderate High
Lightfastness Fair to Good Excellent
Range of Colors Limited Extensive

“Student grade paints are a great choice for beginners looking to get started with watercolor painting without breaking the bank. However, professional grade paints offer an unmatched level of quality and color intensity, making them the preferred choice for serious artists.”

By understanding the differences between student and professional grade paints, artists can make informed decisions based on their artistic goals, preferences, and budgets. Remember that the quality of the paint can greatly influence the final results of your artwork, so choose wisely.

Pans or Tubes

When it comes to choosing the format of your watercolor paint, you have two options: pans and tubes. Both have their advantages and it ultimately boils down to personal preference and painting style.

Watercolor Pans:

Pans are small plastic containers filled with dried paint that is activated by adding water. They come in various sizes, with half pans being the most common. Pans are convenient and portable, making them ideal for artists who enjoy painting on-the-go. They are also great for quick sketches and plein air painting.

Watercolor Tubes:

Tubes, on the other hand, contain liquid watercolor paint. Some artists prefer to squeeze the paint straight from the tube onto their palette, while others squeeze it out and let it dry to use as a pan. Tubes are favored by artists who prefer a more saturated and intense color palette. They also offer the advantage of being able to mix custom colors easily.

Whether you choose pans or tubes, both formats offer the same high-quality watercolor pigments. The decision ultimately depends on your personal preference and painting style. Some artists even like to combine both formats in their art practice, using pans for certain projects and tubes for others.

If you’re a beginner or unsure which format to choose, you can start with a watercolor set that includes both pans and tubes. This way, you can experiment and find which format suits your needs best.

Pros and Cons:

Pans Tubes
Convenient and portable Intense and vibrant colors
Easy to use for quick sketches and plein air painting Ability to mix custom colors easily
Might require more water to activate the paint Can be messy if not squeezed carefully

Ultimately, whether you choose pans or tubes, selecting the format that suits your artistic needs will contribute to an enjoyable and creative painting experience. Experiment, explore, and let your imagination flow.

Buying Watercolor Sets

Watercolor sets are a popular choice, especially for beginners who want to start their artistic journey with a range of colors at their fingertips. These sets come in various sizes, from compact travel sets to larger, comprehensive sets, catering to different preferences and needs. Whether you’re exploring watercolors for the first time or looking to expand your collection, choosing the right watercolor set is essential.

When selecting a watercolor set, consider the following factors:

1. Set Size

The size of the watercolor set refers to the number of colors it contains. For beginners, it is recommended to start with a small or medium-sized set. These sets usually offer a balanced selection of essential colors, allowing you to learn and experiment with different shades and hues.

2. Color Range

Consider the color range offered by the watercolor set. Ensure it includes the primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) as well as a good range of secondary and tertiary colors. Having a diverse selection will provide you with more options for mixing and achieving the desired color palette.

3. Quality

Check the quality of the watercolor paints included in the set. It’s essential to choose paints with good pigment concentration and lightfastness. Higher-quality paints offer better color intensity and longevity, ensuring your artwork stands the test of time.

4. Palette Design

Examine the palette design of the watercolor set. Look for sets that have detachable pans or trays, allowing you to customize your color selection or replace colors when needed. A well-designed palette makes it easier to organize and access your paints while you work.

Once you have considered these factors, you can make an informed decision based on your preferences and budget. Remember, it’s always a good idea to start with a beginner watercolor set, as it provides a well-curated selection of colors and allows you to familiarize yourself with the medium.

“Watercolor sets are a fantastic way for beginners to dive into the world of watercolor painting. They provide a convenient and cost-effective option to explore a wide range of colors and experiment with different techniques. With a good set in hand, you’ll be ready to unleash your creativity!”

In the next section, we’ll explore an alternative to watercolor sets – setting up your own custom palette. This option allows for more personalization and customization of your color choices. Let’s delve into the exciting world of creating your own watercolor palette.

Recommended Beginner Watercolor Sets

Watercolor Set Brand Number of Colors
Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor Sketchers’ Pocket Box Winsor & Newton 12
Prima Marketing Watercolor Confections: The Classics Prima Marketing 12
Van Gogh Watercolor Pocket Box Van Gogh 12

Continued on Section 6: Setting up Your Own Palette.

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Setting up Your Own Palette

Setting up your own watercolor palette allows you to create a custom selection of colors that perfectly suits your artistic vision. By choosing and arranging your colors, you can personalize your painting experience and develop a unique style. Here are some tips for creating your personalized watercolor palette:

  1. Start with the primary colors: Begin with the three primary colors – yellow, red, and blue. These colors are the foundation for mixing other hues and can be used to create a wide range of shades.
  2. Add secondary and convenience colors: Gradually introduce secondary colors, such as green, orange, and purple, to expand your palette. Additionally, consider adding convenience colors like neutral shades or specific pigments that you enjoy using.
  3. Consider personal preferences and painting subjects: Choose colors that resonate with you and your preferred subjects. Whether you prefer vibrant and bold colors or subtle and soft tones, select hues that evoke the emotions and atmosphere you want to capture in your artwork.
  4. Experiment and explore: Don’t be afraid to experiment with different colors and combinations. Test various pigments, mix colors, and observe the effects they create. By exploring and playing with your palette, you’ll discover new possibilities and find the perfect colors for your artistic expression.

To help you visualize the setup of a personalized watercolor palette, here’s an example of a basic palette arrangement:

Color Primary Use Additional Notes
Cadmium Yellow Primary warm yellow Highly opaque, intense yellow color
Alizarin Crimson Primary cool red Transparent, vibrant red color
Ultramarine Blue Primary cool blue Transparent, deep blue color
Sap Green Secondary green Transparent, versatile green color
Burnt Sienna Convenience color Warm earthy shade, useful for toning
Payne’s Gray Convenience color Natural gray, suitable for shading

Remember, this is just a starting point, and there are numerous colors and variations available to artists. Customize your palette to fit your needs and artistic preferences. The process of creating your personalized watercolor palette is an enjoyable and ongoing exploration of color possibilities.

Best Watercolor Paints

Choosing the best watercolor paint is a matter of personal preference and painting style. There are several reputable watercolor brands that artists can consider when selecting their paints. Some popular choices include:

  • Winsor & Newton: Known for their high-quality watercolors, Winsor & Newton offers a wide range of colors and formulations to meet different artistic needs.
  • Sennelier: A long-standing and respected brand in the art community, Sennelier produces watercolors with rich pigmentation and excellent color vibrancy.
  • Schmincke: Schmincke watercolors are highly regarded for their professional-grade quality and extensive color selection.
  • Daniel Smith: Daniel Smith is known for its innovative watercolor formulations, including unique granulating and iridescent colors.
  • Art Philosophy: Art Philosophy offers a range of artist-grade watercolors that are ethically sourced and crafted with high pigment loads.

It is important to find a brand that is widely available and offers good quality paints. Each brand may have its specialty and unique characteristics, so testing different brands and ranges is recommended to find the paints that work best for individual needs.

Comparing Watercolor Paints

When it comes to selecting the perfect watercolor paint, it’s important to compare various options and understand the key characteristics. By reading the labels and understanding the paint’s composition, you can make an informed decision that suits your artistic needs. Here are some factors to consider:

  1. Pigment Number: The pigment number indicates the type of pigment used in the paint. Different pigments offer unique properties such as color intensity, transparency, and lightfastness.
  2. Lightfastness Rating: The lightfastness rating reveals how well the color will retain its original hue over time when exposed to light. It’s crucial to choose paints with high lightfastness ratings to ensure the longevity of your artwork.
  3. Transparency Level: The transparency level determines how the paint interacts with the underlying layers. Transparent paints allow for layering and glazing effects, while opaque paints provide better coverage.
  4. Series Number: Some brands use a series number system to indicate the cost and quality of the paint. Higher series numbers often represent premium paints with better pigment quality.

By comparing these characteristics, you can find paints that align with your preferences and artistic style. Here’s an example of how a watercolor paint label might look:

Brand: XYZ Watercolors

Color Name: Cobalt Blue

Pigment Number: PB28

Lightfastness Rating: Excellent (LF I)

Transparency Level: Transparent

Series Number: 4

Understanding this information allows you to compare different paints and make a well-informed choice. Here’s a visually engaging table comparing the characteristics of several watercolor paints:

Brand Color Name Pigment Number Lightfastness Rating Transparency Level Series Number
Brand A Ultramarine Blue PB29 Excellent (LF I) Transparent 2
Brand B Cadmium Red PR108 Good (LF II) Semi-Transparent 3
Brand C Yellow Ochre PY43 Very Good (LF III) Opaque 1

Remember, comparing watercolor paints and understanding their characteristics is crucial in achieving the desired effects in your artwork. Take your time to read labels, compare options, and experiment with different brands and colors to find the perfect palette for your artistic journey.

Cadmium Pigments

Cadmium pigments have long been favored by watercolor artists for their ability to create vibrant yellows, reds, and oranges. These pigments are derived from cadmium, a toxic heavy metal. However, concerns about the health risks associated with cadmium have led to varying regulations in different countries.

In some regions, health warnings have been added to cadmium paints to inform users about potential risks. On the other hand, other countries consider the use of cadmium pigments safe within certain guidelines. It is important for artists to stay informed about the regulations and guidelines in their respective regions.

If you prefer to avoid cadmium pigments altogether, there are alternatives available that can mimic the colors produced by cadmium. For example, there are hues of yellow that closely resemble cadmium yellow but are made with non-toxic pigments. These alternatives offer a safer option for artists who are concerned about the potential health risks associated with cadmium.


“Using alternative pigments with similar hues not only allows artists to create vibrant paintings but also ensures their safety and health in the long run.” – Jane Mitchell, Watercolor Artist

Remember, when working with any pigments, it is essential to follow safety guidelines. Avoid ingesting any paint and wash your hands thoroughly after painting. By making informed choices and taking precautions, artists can continue to create beautiful watercolor artworks while prioritizing their health and well-being.

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How to Choose the Best Watercolor Paints

When it comes to choosing watercolor paints, there are several factors that artists should consider to ensure they find the perfect paint for their artistic needs. By taking into account elements such as the number of pigments used, transparency rating, lightfastness rating, and granularity of the paint, artists can make informed decisions that result in beautiful and vibrant artwork.

Number of Pigments:

One important consideration is the number of pigments used in the paint. Paints with a higher number of pigments tend to offer more saturated colors, allowing artists to achieve vibrant and rich hues in their artworks. It’s worth noting that some artists prefer paints with a limited number of pigments to create a more cohesive color palette.

Transparency Rating:

The transparency rating of a watercolor paint indicates how transparent or opaque it is when applied to paper. Transparent paints allow for layering and mixing effects, which can result in stunning visual depth and complexity in paintings. Artists can use transparent paints to create luminous washes and build up transparent glazes.

Lightfastness Rating:

Lightfastness refers to the durability of the paint’s color over time when exposed to light. It is essential to choose watercolor paints with high lightfastness ratings to ensure that the artwork retains its vibrancy and integrity for years to come. Paints with excellent lightfastness ratings will resist fading or shifting, ensuring that the artist’s vision remains intact.


Granularity refers to the texture of the paint when it dries. Some watercolor paints have a granulating effect, resulting in a textured appearance that can add depth and interest to artwork. This effect is particularly noticeable in landscape paintings, where it can simulate the appearance of natural textures such as rocks or foliage.

Consider the Quality and Cost Difference:

When selecting watercolor paints, it’s important to consider the quality and cost difference between student and professional grade paints. Student grade paints are more affordable and are suitable for beginners or artists on a budget. On the other hand, professional grade paints offer higher quality pigments and better color intensity, making them a preferred choice for experienced artists who desire superior results.

By carefully considering these factors, artists can confidently choose the best watercolor paints that align with their artistic vision and meet their specific needs.

Considerations Description
Number of Pigments Higher number of pigments results in more saturated colors
Transparency Rating Indicates how transparent or opaque a paint is
Lightfastness Rating Indicates the paint’s resistance to fading over time
Granularity Refers to the texture of the paint when dry
Quality and Cost Difference Consider the variation between student and professional grade paints


When it comes to selecting the best watercolor paints, there are a few important factors to consider. Personal preference, budget, and painting style all play a role in finding the perfect paints for your artistic needs. The quality of the pigment, transparency, lightfastness, and granularity are all crucial considerations.

Popular watercolor paint brands such as Winsor & Newton, Sennelier, Schmincke, Daniel Smith, and Art Philosophy offer a wide range of options to choose from. It’s important to experiment with different brands and colors to find the ones that work best for you. Remember, everyone’s artistic journey is unique, so don’t be afraid to explore and have fun with transparent watercolors.

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced artist, this watercolor paint guide has provided you with valuable insights and tips to help you make informed decisions. By considering the pigment quality, transparency, lightfastness, and granularity of the paints, you’ll be able to create beautiful, vibrant artworks that reflect your individual style.

So, go ahead and dive into the world of transparent watercolors. Let your creativity flow and enjoy the process of discovering the best watercolor picks for your artistic expressions.


What is watercolor paint made of?

Watercolor paint is made up of pigment, binders, and additives.

What determines the price of watercolor paint?

The price of watercolor paint is determined by the amount and quality of the pigment used.

What is the difference between cheap and expensive watercolor paints?

Cheap paints use more binders and lower-quality pigments, resulting in chalky and dull colors. Expensive paints use fewer binders and higher levels of pigments, creating richer and more vibrant colors.

What are student grade paints?

Student grade paints are recommended for beginners and are more affordable, although they often have lower-quality ingredients.

What are professional grade paints?

Professional grade paints are for more experienced artists and offer higher-quality pigments and better color intensity, although they are more expensive.

What are the two formats to buy watercolor paint?

The two formats are pans and tubes. Pans are small containers with dried paint that is activated by adding water, while tubes contain liquid paint.

Are watercolor sets a good option for beginners?

Yes, watercolor sets are a great start for beginners as they offer a range of colors in a convenient palette.

Can I set up my own watercolor palette?

Yes, artists can set up their own palette by choosing individual colors based on personal preferences and painting subjects.

Which are some popular watercolor paint brands?

Some popular watercolor paint brands include Winsor & Newton, Sennelier, Schmincke, Daniel Smith, and Art Philosophy.

What should I consider when comparing watercolor paints?

Important factors to consider when comparing watercolor paints include the pigment number, lightfastness rating, transparency level, and series number.

Are there alternatives to cadmium pigments?

Yes, artists can choose alternatives or hues that mimic the colors of cadmium pigments, as there are concerns about their toxicity.

How do I choose the best watercolor paints?

The best watercolor paints depend on personal preference, budget, and painting style. Factors to consider include pigment quality, transparency, lightfastness, and granularity.