Watercolour testing (and thoughts on student grade kits)

September 11, 2018 | 24 Comments

It’s full-on watercolour for me at the moment, and this includes some testing of different palettes.

They are:

  • Testing a few cheap student grade kits. I’m teaching architects again and these are the kits which various people have purchased (mainly under $50 from Eckerseleys) and include the Koh-i-noor discs, Winsor and Newton Cotman kit (which is actually $70 these days – what!), a Reeves kit in a long red metal tin and a large plastic Jasart Voyager Watercolour Travel Set.
  • Getting to know the White Nights Plien Air kit (I tested and reviewed a large set a few years ago).
  • Testing some brand new paints by Roman Szmal whom I met in Krakow (these beautiful artist quality paints are still in the development stage).
  • Trying to find Winsor and Newton and Schmincke equivalents (if possible) of my 12 colour kit which I use in SketchingNow Watercolour.

Hmm, this is going to keep me busy for a while!

I can’t post this photo without saying a few words about student grade paints.

When you are starting out with watercolour it can seem like a good option to buy the cheaper kits because after all you don’t know if you will like watercolour painting. It’s also easy to think that you are not good enough to use the top quality paints. But in many respects this is false economy as the quality of some of these kits can be so inferior that you don’t really experience the magic of watercolour. The colours might be either be flat and insipid or too intense and there will be no pigment interaction)and your results will be disappointing.

I totally respect anyone who can’t afford artist quality paints, I really do! I was telling people in a workshop last week that my kit would cost nearly 300AUD to set up – so that is not something you can really expect everyone to be able to do at the start. Especially if you are just doing a brief ‘intro to sketching’ type workshop. (Hmm, I’d also like to discuss how building your own palette is a process of trial and error that occurs over years of painting. Copying other artist’s entire set, although handy to get you going, will not (and should not) work perfectly for you. It’s a topic for a separate article.)

However, I do think that it’s better to buy a few tubes (or pans) of artist quality paint and learn to mix, rather than buying a big kit of student grade paints. These few artist paints (such as my basic palette of six colours) will give you a much better sense of how beautiful watercolour is and this will be a greater motivation to develop your painting skills. I think it’s much easier to get frustrated and discouraged when learning to paint with student grade watercolour.

I know some people don’t think that they are good enough to use artist grade paint, but the student grade can really hinder your progress. Plus it’s always best to have a more positive attitude: ” I want to give myself the best chance of learning how to paint with watercolour.” And I can’t resist adding the comment, that doing a watercolour course, is a great time to invest in some artist quality paints. You have licence to upgrade!

Having said all that, it is possible to get acceptable results with student grade paint – you just have to work harder and pick up a lot of paint with your brush for every wash. I started with a Cotman kit and used it for 15 months before I decided to upgrade. Of course I wish now in hindsight that I had started with artist quality but in the overall scheme of things it’s not a big issue. It’s also good to note that the White Nights paints are a great entry level kit.

In terms of a limited set of artist quality paints, as I mentioned earlier, I have a recommended starter palette of six colours. And… drum roll please… I’m super excited that Daniel Smith are bringing out a few pan sets including one called the Sketchers Kit. This kit will contain my six colours with extra pans to expand your palette. There is no need to tell you how excited and honoured I am to have worked with Daniel Smith on this. THis low res image is the only one I can find of the sketcher’s kit.

I don’t have any more details about these sets but it was nice to see a preview of one of the sets on Instagram in the past week. You can read more about the sets here on Doodlewash and about Jane Blundell’s Ultimate Mixing Set here.

Anyway… I’ve gone on a few tangents today. But would love to hear from you.

Did you start with student grade? When and why did you switch to artist quality?

Or are you still using student paint? Have I convinced you to upgrade?



  • Megan says:

    Great article! I started with a basic Cotman set and later got a basic Lukas set. I hate them both. I found them chalky and difficult to use. It bummed me out because I felt like I sucked at watercolor painting. I did some research into paints and discovered M Graham. I promptly purchased the city, landscape, and marine sets (I think). Man, it made ALL the difference! My advice is buy the best quality you can afford. Now I just wish I had more time to paint!

  • Chris Fitzgerald says:

    The art supply store where I’m working just got in the Windsor Newton Portable Palette. I would send you the picture in case you hadn’t seen it, but WordPress won’t let me. I like the case that becomes water cups really well. They also allow it to hug your knee and stay on your lap. But the 12 dinky quarter pans (or whatever they are) are a no go for me and replacing them with six larger ones is a step I’m not ready to take. I just can’t let go of at least 12 colors. I guess I have to work on that. We are also carrying the small Schmincke set, which I know nothing about. It is about the size of the standard Prang set you might have used in school. AND there is a small QOR set. I haven’t tried any of the Golden colors yet, so I’d love to meet someone who has really tested them. Any thoughts on these?

  • I got rid of my student grade paints early. It was too hard to get enough pigment to do a satisfactory peace, so it was always a battle. I tell people starting out to buy artist grade pigments, even if it means buying fewer colors. You can always start out with 3 or 6 and move up. Using the student grade paints just leads to frustration.

  • Lorrie Church says:

    Better tools will enhance whatever you’re trying to do, and increase the joy. From my experience, a fine piano will improve your musical abilities and be way more fun. And don’t get me started on cheap garden tools!
    My friend got me started with small sample pans of WN paints, so I soon threw away the old Prang set. Liz your advice and Sketching class are spot on. Thank you!

  • Corinne McNamara says:

    I started with a Cotman travel kit and never did much with it. I was fortunate to go to an art methods and materials show about 20 years ago and got a pan set of Fragonard/Pebeo paints on sale. The paints were good and the metal box was nice, but there were 24 half-pans – way too many for a beginner! I had no clue about using them effectively. I read about pigments and slowly collected artist quality tube paints, a few at a time, and learned to mix the colors I wanted.

  • I had a gouache set from The French School to start, but quickly switched to a recommended palette of 6 Winsor Newton primary colors – 3 cool and 3 hot. It was great fun mixing all of the colors, and by buying the tiny tubes of paint I was able to set up a pallete, let the paints dry, and rewet them for use. Because I draw and paint in sketchbooks, the small tubes last me a very long time!!

    I switched out Cadmium red and yellow for transparent warm red and yellow pigments, but otherwise I still use the remaining 4 colors I started using in 2005. I have never had any secondary color paints on my palette and love mixing them. My only addition, about 10 years ago, was another “triad”: WN burnt sienna, yellow ochre, and payn’es gray (which is really a gorgeous blue).

    I’m so happy that my first watercolor book recommended starting with only 2 triads and mixing all of your other colors. .

  • Judy Kistler-Robinson says:

    I started 2 years ago with the W&N Cotman set, then last year I found the Koh-i-noor discs in London and thought “whoo-hoo, look at all these colors!” until I discovered how pale they were. Yes, Liz, you convinced me to use professional pigments and sketchbooks (I was of the “I”m not good enough” thought until I met you a year ago). Thank you! So now I’m using about 5 W&N professional tubes and about 5 DS tubes in my half-pan DIY Altoids tin travel palette. I still carry the Cotman set on a daily basis but use it just to add a touch of color to ink sketches.

  • Susan Fyfe says:

    I started attempting to do watercolors about 25 years ago. Back then there was no internet and shipping was really slow so you were stuck with whatever you could find locally, which wasn’t much. I always used tube paint, but it was mix and match with manufacturers. Also, back then I couldn’t afford as much as I can now. I still have some of my really old stuff. I don’t know why I keep it. I am still very much a beginner, but now I can afford the good stuff. But, I still have issues with finding supplies. I live in Indianapolis, IN and there is only one art supply store and it only had the large tubes of Daniel Smith! I just wish I had more time to use it. Too many hobbies and too little time.

    • Cindy Cali says:

      You may want to check in to Jackson’s Art Supplies on the web http://jacksonsart.com
      I live in Pennsylvania and they ship to me all the time. They have great sales on paints and brushes. If you set up an account on their webpage your prices will be even less. Their shipping is very reasonable. I have also purchased from Cheap Joe’s, Dick Blick, Amazon, and Jerry’s Artarama.

  • Jenny K says:

    Those long Reeves tins (very similar ones are known as Prang in the US and Major Brushes here in the UK) make a good container for a DIY sketching kit. Just discard the insides and use for empty pans filled from tubes (preferably artist grade). I first came across the idea in a post by Cathy (Kate) Johnson. In the UK, the whole set is about half the price of a single tube of artist grade paint, and they are widely available, not just in art stores

    They take 11 whole pans easily with space for a brush or slim pen, I currently have 14 whole pans in mine along with a tiny mechanical pencil and spare leads and I think I could fit another 3 or 4 if I used the whole space for paints. Because it is made of ferrous metal, it is possible to hold the pans in place with magnetic tape as well as with Blutack or rubber cement.

    The lid of mine has 5 mixing wells (1 large, 4 medium), but DH’s has 2 large and 2 medium and I’ve seen them with just 3 large wells. It is separate, not hinged, which may be a problem for some sketchers.

  • Carmel Campbell says:

    A good article. I also started with Cotman’s however only used them for a short time before I was changing out the colors with artist quality. I still love the palette the Cotman’s came in. It has lasted for years and I use it as a back up palette.

  • Sherri says:

    I started 1.5 years ago with general watercolor pencils, bought 5.00 set, now have upgraded to cotman travel set, jan e Davenport was good inexpensive set and now this month to Daniel Smith.

  • Cindy Cali says:

    This is a great article. I started with the Cotman set and I still like the durability of the case. I soon became obsessed with those small metal tins and assembling my own sets. I use a smaller set for traveling and a larger set for home and classroom. I have somehow become a collector and now have Schmeinke pans and tubes; Holbein pans; Daniel Smith; W&N Professional tubes and pans; White Nights; and various samples of others. I really like all of them. I would encourage you if you are starting out to try a few samples of a couple of different brands to decide for yourself if you like the color intensity, color choices, tubes vs pans, cases, etc….

  • Tina Koyama says:

    Agree completely about the false economy! And the same goes for paper. I see so many new sketchers struggle with the wrong kind of paper (trying to paint on sketch pads intended for pencil, for example) because they don’t want to “waste” expensive paper until they get “better.” But they will not get better if they practice that way.

  • Charlotte Berwind says:

    Hello Liz. Hello All.
    First time I’ve felt like I had something meaningful to contribute because you do such an exemplary job of describing everything. I began my art instruction with watercolor and then came into your sketching world. My watercolor teacher, Jeanne DeMotses, uses only 3 colors. Just 3. And that’s how she teaches.
    All Winson & Newton Artist grade
    Aureolin Yellow
    Rose Madder Genuine
    Cobalt Blue.
    I have moved on from these but they do remain solidly on my palette. Using just the 3 I learned about mixing and, for the beginner, these colors are liftable meaning complete failures can be “erased” with carefully lifting the color off the paper.
    Two of these colors are considered fugitive and I would have my reservations for archival work but we’re talking sketchbooks that will not be subjected to constant light exposure which would hasten the fugitive properties.
    Buying 3 small tubes of artist grade paints kept my initial investment to an absolute minimum and let me learn to love the medium. Reading your blog is how I began to expand my palette and every artist knows that once you unleash the “acquisition beast” its a wonderful obsession!
    Thank you Liz!

    • Jenny K says:

      I think Liz’s 6-colour minimum palette is also a good alternative, still keeping the cost down but giving a few more options. I do have more colours in my palette, but as a beginner I find that rather intimidating. I’m taking Liz’s SkN Watercolour course and I’m considering using just the equivalents of her 6 colours for doing that, then I think I’ll feel more confident about branching out afterwards.

  • Trudi says:

    I bought student grade when I took a class at Michael’s and didn’t go any further for several years. Then I started taking internet classes and doing a little more sketching and painting. I learned more about the differences and was frustrated that the colors had faded in my sketchbook, so bought a few artist grade…going by the recommended two of basic colors…warm and cool versions. I’ve added one or two colors and need to add a few more because some colors are just difficult to mix! I’ve been tempted by some of those sets with a greater variety but will try to continue patiently adding as I can afford to!

  • Liz Steel says:

    Thanks for all the great comments everyone – they are fun to read and I hope really helpful for others!

  • Elizabeth says:

    I’m kind of an anomaly. (This is nothing new. :D)

    I started with a kids’ set. Like, literally, a $4USD set of 48 colors in a little plastic pan with hinges that broke more often than they worked. The paint was horrifyingly chalky and pale, and I LOVED IT SO MUCH. I was doing a lot of sketching in art journals at the time, probably what we’d call urban sketching today, and it was perfect for coloring my drawings. (Made with…brace yourself…the fine Sharpies with the solvent in them. Ah, youth and inexperience. How they bite you in the buttocks.)

    I loved them so much, though, that when I finally ran out of yellow ochre (my favorite at the time — I mixed it with *everything*), and I bought a slightly upgraded version/artist’s colors, I had no idea what to do with them. They were so bright and pigmented and I had no idea how to control that much pigment.

    Obviously, I got used to it and ended up loving it, but the learning curve was steep for me. (I mostly use Sennelier now, and I think that’s because I like the way the layering/glazing works with them…since that’s kind of how I learned, way back when, thanks to using essentially glorified water-soluble chalk when I started. :D)

  • Amy McLaughlin says:

    I started with the Cotman set, ok but I was such a beginner. Then I got the D. Smith starter 6 pack- 3cool/3warm. What a difference. I wish more places sold sampler packs. Like the D.S. dot cards, in just a triad of yellow/red/blue. That would be enough for a short class session, then one could decide. Nicer if one could get samplers for different brands. I have purchased some other colors (tubes and sticks) in other brands, on sale, just to try. Paper is a stickler, good paper is so expensive, and there are differences that may suit one artist over another. I’ve done some strange practice things. I couldn’t mix a decent purple to save my life and I was trying to paint leaves in a single brush stroke like in a book I was using but having trouble, how, which brush, etc. So now I’ve got several pages of purple leaves. 2 birds, 1 brush.

  • Jason Liu says:

    As an artist that for a while could only get their supplies in store, i would reccomend the koh i noor watercolour disk in white. The ones in black are extremely chalky and terrible. The white ones though are transparent and go down smoothly which is very surprising for their price. I like them better than cotman, considering the price difference its a no brainer.

    If you have the luxury of purchasing online, sonnets and white nights are always reliable.

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