Watercolour Tip #3 – Paints

August 23, 2017 by Diane Marcotte

Watercolour paints come in hundreds of colours, various levels of quality, and have certain attributes such as transparency versus opaqueness and staining versus non-staining.  They also come in tubes, pans, sticks, and even markers.  This makes it hard for the beginner to determine what to buy.

Suggested Colours for Beginners

A cool and warm version (see later in this post for an explanation) of each of the primaries (red, blue and yellow) and a couple of earthy browns is all you need. You will be able to mix hundreds of colours from these eight.  The following list is of my personal choices.  Feel free to substitute pigments (warm for a different warm, cool for a different cool.)

  • Ultramarine Blue and Phthalo Blue (Green Shade)
  • Permanent Alizarin Crimson and Scarlet Lake (or Vermillion)
  • New Gamboge and Lemon Yellow
  • Quinacridone Sienna and Burnt Umber


Always purchase artist quality paints.  Although students’ colours, such as Cotman, are less expensive they often contain cheaper pigments and additional fillers and extenders.  Manufacturers substitute expensive pigments with synthetic alternatives that often lack vibrancy and lightfastness.

Look for the ASTM rating on the packaging and purchase those with a lightfastness rating of “Excellent” or “Very Good”.  You don’t want your painting fading over time!


There are many excellent makers of watercolour paints and it really boils down to personal preference.  All brands of paint can be intermixed freely so no need to stick with just one brand.  My favourites, in no particular order, are:

Daniel Smith – Check out their “Color Map List” of 10 colours at http://www.danielsmith.com/Item–i-E-ColorMap. The company says the list includes “the cleanest, truest representatives of their color families as well as two earth colors.”  The paints listed would also be an excellent group of paints for the beginner.

Holbein – The company says “Holbein Artist Watercolor is produced without ox-gall, animal by-products or other dispersing agents. This affords the user greater control in the dispersal of their pigments, enhances handling qualities and delivers color of unequaled intensity, purity and reliability for brilliant transparent washes and/or powerful, clean darks.”

Maimeri Blu – The company says “features an absolute purity of pigments that, together with gum arabic, comprise the totality of the mixture.  No blending powder, no additives: pure colours, pigments and nothing else.”  I especially love their Primary Yellow.

Winsor & Newton – the company says “With 75 single pigment colours in the range, we offer the widest range of modern and traditional pigments for superb colour mixing” and “The transparency of Professional Water Colour is due to the way the pigment is dispersed during manufacture.  In thin washes, the colour is present but the reflective white of the paper can still be seen.”

Colour Names

Be aware that colour names aren’t consistent from one brand to the next.  Manufacturers may use the same colour name but use different pigments that produce different hues. It is best to look for a specific pigment such as PB 15:3 which is sold under many different names.  Also be aware that certain mixed colours, such as Payne’s Grey, actually are made up of different hues depending on the brand. For instance M. Graham‘s Payne’s Grey consists of PBk6+PB29 whereas Winsor & Newton’s consists of PB15+PBk6+PV19.

Some pigments are scarce or difficult to mine, which is why some artists’ quality colours are much more expensive than others. Colours are classified by series – 1 being the cheapest and 5 the most expensive. Alternatively, students’ colours are all priced the same.

Other Terms You Need to Know

Warm versus Cool Colours – Every primary colour has another colour within it as no actual true primary exists.  This other colour acts as an undertone and determines whether a colour is termed to be warm or cool.  A warm yellow will have a bit of red in it, a cool yellow a bit of blue.  A warm red will have a bit of yellow in it, a cool red a bit of blue and a warm blue will have a bit of red in it, a cool blue a bit of yellow.  Mud is a mixture of all three primaries and so it is important, when mixing colours, to not mix a warm with a cool.

Transparency versus Opaqueness – All watercolours are transparent if mixed with enough water, but some are also naturally more opaque.  A transparent color lets the white of the paper, or whatever you painted underneath it, to show through.  Opaque pigments are denser with more ability to cover what’s underneath.

Staining – These pigments will sink quickly into the fibers of the paper making it difficult to “lift” or remove. Your palette and brushes will often be stained as well.

Granulation – Pigments that granulate separate from the binder and settle into the “valleys” of the paper when added to water.  As it dries in the “valleys” it leaves a grainy texture.

Fugitive – A fugitive colour is a pigment that, when exposed to sunlight, humidity, temperature or even pollution, is less permanent. The colour can change over time.  It can lighten, darken or fade completely away.  Do not use them in a watercolour painting. Examples of fugitive colours are opera, alizarin crimson, anything with the word “madder” or “gamboge” Look for terms such as “New” or “Permanent” added to the name.

Hue – The word “hue” after a pigment’s name means it’s a substitute for real pigment.  This is not a bad thing though.  Hues are made to replace toxic elements such as cadmium.  Hues are also used to replace pigments that are no longer available or have some undesirable characteristic quality such as being fugitive.

Quinacridones – These are pigments that were originally formulated for the car industry and are beautiful, transparent, vibrant colours that also have an excellent lightfastness rating.  They make a great alternative to earth colours that can have a dullness to them.  Daniel Smith’s Quinacridone Gold is simply outstanding.

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