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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.
Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor Tubes and Set
If you’re happy working with a more classic European palette, Winsor & Newton’s line is an excellent studio staple. Artists have 108 colors to choose from—79 of which are single-pigment colors—each carrying a high pigment load and diluting easily with water for wet-on-wet techniques. Bright and clean, these paints are generally more transparent than Daniel Smith’s, and they’re more consistent in texture, too. If you find strongly granulating pigments more challenging to mix and control, you might prefer the uniform smoothness of this highly reliable professional series, sold individually or in one set of 12.
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Sennelier French Artists’ Watercolor Paint Tubes and Sets
Like M. Graham’s watercolors, Sennelier’s 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 travel well and showcase creamy, saturated color.
ANOTHER GREAT OPTION
M. Graham Artists’ Watercolor Tubes and Sets
A slightly more economical artist-grade series of watercolors, M. Graham’s paints are remarkably concentrated, incredibly fluid, and easy to use for glazing. Yet they are a relatively thick paint, made in small batches with pure Northwest blackberry honey in addition to gum arabic and glycerin. Honey not only increases moisture to help paint flow off the brush and glide along the canvas; it also allows the paints to rewet beautifully. These paints do not have strong granulation and mix well among themselves and with watercolors from other brands.
TOP OF THE LINE
Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolor Tubes and Sets
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.
Holbein Artists’ Watercolor Paint Tubes and Sets
Made in Japan and similar in price to M. Graham’s, Holbein’s watercolors are generally the most saturated of the brands listed here. Paints are buttery and thick, similar to Winsor & Newton’s, milled to a grain-free substance. The colors have an eye-catching vibrancy but can’t match Daniel Smith’s colors in terms of complex depth and dimension. 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.