Not all watercolors are made equal. Depending on the kinds of pigments used and how they’re processed and formulated, the quality of watercolors can range from paints designed for kids to those ideal for discerning artists. Professional-grade paints use high-quality pigments and make little to no use of fillers or extenders; they should also offer superior lightfastness. While available in pan form, watercolor paints in tubes are a convenient way to build up a palette and have greater control over your usage. Try one or all of our favorite brands, reviewed below.
1. Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor Set
If you’re happy working with a classic European palette, Winsor & Newton’s line is an excellent studio staple. This highly reliable professional series is made with finely ground pigments to yield a noticeably uniform smoothness across its 108 colors, 79 of which are single-pigment colors. The resulting strokes are bright and clean and do not display granulation. The paints carry a high pigment load and dilute easily with water for wet-on-wet techniques. This set features 24 five-milliter tubes in colors like Payne’s Gray, French Ultramarine, and Burnt Sienna.
2. Holbein Artist’s Watercolor Set
Made in Japan and less pricey than our top pick, Holbein’s watercolors are generally the most saturated of the brands listed here. Paints are buttery and thick, and, similar to Winsor & Newton’s, milled to be grain-free. The colors have an eye-catching vibrancy and can be diluted without dulling, instead spreading evenly. Because these paints lack ox gall (a wetting agent), they lift easily and are among the most forgiving professional-grade paints. Holbein offers a lot of colors—108 in total—but only about half are single-pigment paints. This set of 24 is a considered mix of single- and mixed-pigment colors.
3. Sakura Koi Assorted Water Color Tube Set
Even if you’re a pro, it can be nice to have a set of watercolors you don’t have to feel overly precious about. For a more affordable set of paints that still uses carefully selected and reliable pigments, we like this one from Sakura. Though the paints are not lightfast, they are highly concentrated. You need only a small amount to create vivid color, and they showcase beautiful transparency. This 18-tube set offers a useful range of colors for the beginning watercolorist.
4. Daniel Smith Essentials Mixing Set
The competition’s tough when it comes to professional watercolor brands, and Daniel Smith just edges out other contenders for the top spot here. The main reason: With 260 colors, this Seattle brand offers not only the most extensive but also the most interesting range of pigments, from Quinacridone Gold to the luminescent Moonglow. Out of those, 206 are made with single pigments. After being carefully sourced, pigments are finely milled by hand into paints with granulations that vary by color to bring out the unique characteristics of the particles. These watercolors move freely without diminishment of color or vehicle separation, and they can be rewet with ease. (Note, though, that some may find these strongly granulating pigments more challenging to mix and control.) This set of six colors in five-millileter tubes plus a one-ounce bottle of titanium white ground offers a thoughtful introduction to the brand.
5. Sennelier French Watercolor Tube Set
Sennelier’s watercolors are formulated with honey to yield smooth and lustrous paints that are easy to reconstitute. The French company’s recipe results in a softer paint, and while the pigments are ground to an extra-fine consistency, they do not have the best dispersion and aren’t ideal for wet-on-wet applications. Still, if you don’t frequently create large washes and like to paint en plein air, these are great paints that showcase creamy, saturated color. This travel set comes with 12 ten-milliter tubes in basic colors, a tin with two mixing areas, and a brush.