Were these old sketches done with student or artist grade paint?

September 17, 2018 | 36 Comments

Following on from last week’s discussion about artist grade vs student grade watercolour paint, I spent a little time looking through some old sketchbooks and what I discovered was very interesting! There were examples of good use of student grade paint and examples of poor use of artist grade paint. So I thought it might be fun to choose four sketches and see if you can pick which is which. And some of my more recent followers might enjoy seeing some of my early work. These date from 2007-2008, the first 18 months of my sketching journey, when I was teaching myself to use watercolour and didn’t really understand anything about watercolour magic.


  • All sketches have been scanned today on the same scanner with no adjustment so they all look a bit flatter here than they do in real life.
  • They were all painted in the same type of sketchbook – Moleskine Watercolour A5 size.
  • For each example I have included a full spread and then a cropped square., so all the images are the same size.

(Aside: Isn’t it fun to see how my work has changed and in particular my linework!)

A. Australian Landscape

B. Prague

C. Tasmania

D. Siena


So, which of the above were painted with WN Cotman Water Colour (student grade), and which with WN Professional Water Colour (artist quality)? And how can you tell?

Hmm…. I just thought that it would be a better comparison if I did a sketch with Cotman paints now and compared it with an artist quality.

UPDATE: The answer has now been revealed – click to find out which ones were Cotman.


  • Cori says:

    Hi Liz, This is a really interesting comparison… I am guessing A and C to be the student grade, as they just don’t have the brightness or vitality of color that B and D have… Can’t wait to know the answer!

  • pbass wil says:

    Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to tell which is which, I just notice that these are all a bit less saturated than much of your recent work. (The lime green jumps out a bit, though.) I don’t necessarily react negatively to that slight timidness; we’re so lambasted by blaring colour, all over the internet, that tone-down hues can be refreshing. But I guess everybody has their own, er… ‘intensity reaction threshold’, so-to-speak.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Totally… these are much flatter as they date from 2007-2008 when I first started.

      • pbass wil says:

        Another variable for web viewing is: Every scanner & camera scans colours differently. (Your scans look pretty neutral, though.) And they can be _made_ to render colours differently (or computer edited to). If someone wanted images like these to pop, a tweak of ‘Vibrance’ or Saturation could make them retina-searing! They might not look that natural, but a skilled operator could come close.
        Not to suggest Artist Quality paints aren’t worth it – oh, the richness, the texture, the mixability! Most of us would never go back, eh? (<—Canadian :^)

  • Greg Nott says:

    My guess is A and C were the student grade and B and D were the artist grade.

  • Diana Ryman says:

    I’d have to guess that A & C are the student grade paints as they don’t look as transparent or as blendable as the other two. But it is a close call at that.

  • Judy K Kistler-Robinson says:

    I suspect A and C are the Cotman student grade sketches.

  • Mair Morgan says:

    Not sure but think that B is artists grade due to the granulation in the blue.

  • Liz Steel says:

    I will confirm which is which soon… just waiting for a few more comments 🙂

  • Ania says:

    All of them are Cotman?

  • Wendi Sorensen says:

    A and D are student grade?

  • Angie woodacre says:

    I was also thinking A and C as the student grade paint due to the depth of colour but also the ink work.

  • Amy McLaughlin says:

    A and D student. Guessing.


    C is cotman. the rest I could guess either way.

  • Beth Pickett says:

    I’m guessing A and C are Cotman from the flat hues.

  • Patricia Wallace says:

    I think A and D are artist quality because of the mingling of the colours. I also might think that B is a good example of student quality.

  • Julie Dober says:

    Hi Liz, I think A and D might be the artist grade paint, not so much because of the paint, but also because os the way you’ve painted them ie in D it looks like you’ve painted the sky first which I think maybe a more recent way of painting. But then again, to have a bet each way, A and C are similar colours and are softer more even colours and when looked at a bit closer, they look a nice even paint. Whereas B and D look sharper.
    Some rambling thoughts from Julie on the beautiful east coast of Tasmania.

  • Lael Sorensen says:

    I still think B is the only artist’s grade because of the granulation in the blue sky. But I’m influenced to admire A & C especially for the lively painterly effects of working wet in wet (A grassy foreground, C to capture changing color/light on the stone bridge) and layering mixed with wet in wet in D (the darkening sky). Happy to learn the truth.

  • agnes bolley says:

    Same for me B and D have more vibrancy (ARtist ‘s grade) than A and C-…. looking forward to know the answer! Yes your line work has evolved too! cheers

  • Arna Wesley says:

    I believe B is artist quality – colour more vibrant.

  • Alessandro Melillo says:

    I might be fool but, in a total countertrend, I believe B and D to be the Cotman student grade watercolors and A and C to be the professional grade ones.

  • Peggy Wilson says:

    I think they may all be Cotman. I used them for a long time, and I’m certain you could get work from student grade that would pass for artist quality!

  • Mayela Lameda-Lyver says:

    I think C and D are Cottman. It’s hard to say really.

  • Carmen Bernhardt says:

    I guess B is artist quality. Love the granulation and the colours are more vibrant. I am excited to get to know the truth!

  • Rita Stalder says:

    A and D = Cotman because of the granulation.

  • Marta Raaka says:

    I chose B & D for having higher grade watercolour paints because I see more granulation and deeper colors.

  • Bruce Lowe says:

    I agree with those who select A and C as student grades since they are not quite as vibrant. .btw, I selected these before reading comments. Fun game, dying to find out, thanks.

  • Going out on a limb here.

    I think A and C show a bad use of professional quality paint; while B and D show a good use of Cotman student grade paint.


  • Liz Steel says:

    Hey everyone – the answer has now been revealed!

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