Which watercolours?

An overview over all the different watercolour types and brands I’ve worked with, their advantages and setbacks.

Some general notes in advance. If you’re well-versed with the different features of watercolours, just skip this bit.

Quality: Watercolours come in two general distinctions: Artists’ quality (Fine Art/Künstler) or students’ quality (Akademie). All the paints I’ll be talking about here are artists’ colour quality. They’re generally more light-fast (unless noted below), and more highly pigmented. A pan of student’s quality watercolour lasts me two months. The same size pan with artists’ quality lasts me six. If you’re unsure whether you want to experiment with watercolour, by all means buy students quality. Once you’re sure you want to do more with them, and want your final products to be light-fast, go for artists’ quality.

Light-fastness: A colour that is light-fast doesn’t fade if exposed to sunlight. Some natural pigments like Crimson are less light-fast than others; they’ll fade over time. Some manufacturers of watercolours use traditional, natural pigments as well as synthetic ones that have been made for more light-fastness. If you’re going to paint just for fun, or colour comics, or any other type of illustration that is going to be reproduced, light-fastness won’t be a huge concern of yours. If your paintings are going to end up on a wall, better make sure your pigments are light-fast. More detail on each type of paint below.

Opacity: Most watercolours are more or less transparent. This means that if you paint them over an already dried glaze, or over lineart, you’ll still see what’s below. Many earth pigments are more opaque. There’s nothing good or bad about opacity or transparency. Opaquer colours result in a more solid look close to gouache or even acrylics; more transparent colours will look lighter, more feathery, and probably more watercolour-y. If you have a tendency to produce very muddy paintings, make sure you pick transparent pigments. Darker colours will look deeper in transparent paint – because they shine more, even when they’re dark. More detail on each type of paint below.

Every good watercolour pan, tube, or bottle always has information – usually in the form of little icons – on light-fastness, opacity, and sometimes staining qualities.

Different brands: For full, comprehensive and excellent information on many international paints, refer to this section of handprint.com.

1. Pans (Schmincke)


Type: Pretty much what most people know as watercolours. Little cakes of dry paint that you wet with a brush and then paint with.

Where to get them: Artists supplies online or offline. Other good brands include but are not limited to Daniel Smith, Lukas, Daler-Rowney, Winsor&Newton, Van Gogh. My American friends recommend M Graham, but I’ve never tried those.

Result: Varies. With transparency or opacity (see below), many different looks from light to more substantial can be achieved.

Light-fastness: Varies. On the package when you buy them, there are symbols that tell you how light-fast they are. For Schmincke, it’s a number of stars (see below, too). In my experience, Schmincke paints are very light-fast (even if the number of stars says they aren’t). For example, I stared conducting a light-fastness test in the summer of 2010, and not even the Alizarin Crimson or Indigo, which are supposed to be very fugitive, have faded after being exposed to sunlight for years.

Opacity: Varies. There’s another symbol that tells you how transparent or opaque any given pigments are. For Schmincke, a black square means very opaque; a white square means very transparent. Transparent vs opaque paint can result in very difficult final paintings. On average, most Schmincke paints are more transparent than not.

Useful for: Working in small formats, especially in the open. You can take a watercolour box anywhere and have all the paints handy without unscrewing lids.

Not useful for: Painting very large areas, mixing a lot of paint.

2. Tubes (Schmincke)


Type: Semi-liquid paste that you squeeze on a palette to paint with. Dried paint is infinitely reusable, just re-wet it.

Where to get them: Artists supplies online or offline. Other good brands include but are not limited to Lukas, Windsor&Newton, Van Gogh. I now use mainly Daniel Smith, Mijello, Sennelier, and Maimeri Blu.

Result: See above. Paints from tubes and pans from the same brand are otherwise identical if they have the same names.

Light-fastness: See above.

Opacity: See above.

Useful for: Working in large formats, to mix large amounts of paint at the same time. When I started to work in formats larger to A4, I switched to tubes permanently.

Not useful for: Travelling. You can still make a travelling kit with these – just squeeze some drops of paint onto a palette or into any tin or plastic box, let them dry, and you can take them anywhere.

3. Watercolour pencils (Dürer, Koh-I-Noor)


Type: Coloured pencils with “pan” watercolour instead of leads. They handle a lot like normal coloured pencils, but you need less pressure; they tend to be very bright. After drawing, you go over selected areas with a wet brush to soften edges and brighten colours.

Where to get them: Artists supplies online or offline.

Result: If little water is used, similar to a coloured pencil image. If much water is used, very bright colours.

Light-fastness: Depends on the pigments used; it can be difficult to find out which exactly were used, as watercolour pencils rarely name the pigments, as opposed to good quality pan or tube manufacturers.

Opacity: More opaque than regular watercolours, and always more irregular surfaces. You can get very dark, bright colours much more easily than with tube or pan paints.

Useful for: People who prefer a drawing approach to actual painting, people who like a look of single strokes.

Not useful for: Me. ;) They’re not my cup of tea.

4. Rohrer & Klingner liquid watercolour


Type: Rather thick liquid in a glass bottle, with a very practical eye-dropper in the lid. Insanely highly pigmented. One drop fills an entire background. I usually place one drop onto a palette and then thin it down. These are also reusable when they’ve dried.

Where to get them: In Germany: big (!) artists stores like Boesner, or online at Gerstaecker or Boesner. I don’t know about outside Germany.

Result: Very bright colours.

Light-fastness: Varies (they’ve got these little stars too).

Opacity: Extremely opaque if used undiluted. If used with more water, almost as transparent as pan or tube watercolour (but not quite). If applied very thickly, the paint (even blue and red etc) acquires a thick and oily bronze sheen.

Useful for: Filling large areas very economically.

Not useful for: Households with cats if you forget to screw the lid back on. If one of these beauties spills over, say good-bye to anything on your workbench that is not a wipeable surface.

5. Talens Ecoline liquid watercolours


Type: Rather thin liquid in a glass bottle; no eyedropper lid, which is a severe setback. You see that I’ve filled my Ecolines into pharmacy bottles. Reusable when dried, but as opposed to the tubes and Rohrer& Klingner above, they get noticeably thinner if re-wetted.

Where to get them: I’ve only ever found these online; they seem to be pretty internationally available.

Result: Very bright, very transparent colours.

Light-fastness: Not light-fast. Don’t use if you want to put a finished painting on a wall. Fine for reproduction.

Opacity: Very transparent, incredibly bright colours. (The white up there is opaque, of course, though not as opaque as gouache.)

Useful for: Brightly coloured, transparent paintings that are done for reproduction and don’t need to be light-fast.

Not useful for: I think I addressed the light-fastness thing…

6. Dr. Ph. Martin’s HYDRUS watercolours


Type: Liquid in a glass bottle (or in a plastic bottle); with eyedropper lid. If you buy them, go for the glass bottles (they’re the larger ones). I’ve had some bad luck with he plastic ones – paint drying up, flaking, or evaporating. And whereas tube or pan watercolour can be re-wet and re-worked ad infinitum, once Hydrus has flaked, that was it. I haven’t had this problem with the larger glass bottles at all. They can be re-wet like any other watercolour.

Where to get them: Not in Germany. =( They’re available in the US, for example online with Dick Blick. That’s where I get mine. EDIT: They’re now available at Easy Aquarell!

Result: Very bright colours that allow darker shading than most watercolours. If applied in many layers and undiluted, becomes rather opaque.

Light-fastness: Light-fast. Says the lid. I’ve been working with them for a year and so far, I agree.

Opacity: Transparent when diluted, though ever so slightly less so than pan or tube colours. Rather opaque when used in many layers and/or undiluted. Can be used to great effect in combination with pan or tube paints.

Useful for: Anything! Easy to administer, bright colours, dark colours, you name it, they got it.

Not useful for: Like all bottled paints, travelling with them is a nuisance if you don’t have a table to work on.