This is a topic that I could write pages about, but I’ll try to keep this a quick introduction. There are basically two types of watercolor paints, pan (dry), and tube (wet). There are even liquid watercolors if you prefer using them premixed. You probably remember using pan paints like the set on the left when you were in elementary school art class. they are non-toxic and inexpensive. My first few paintings were done with a set of Prang watercolors. The pan set in the middle is an inexpensive assortment from Michaels. They are fun for learning – all you need is water and a brush.
However as my skills improved and I wanted to do some paintings to hang on the wall, I found out that these cheaper paint sets often contain pigments that are not lightfast. I did a little test by painting strips of color and putting the paper in a sunny window for a few months. The red and purple colors either faded or vanished completely. Even my little Koi watercolor field kit that I love had many colors that were not stable. So they’re fine for sketchbooks which will not be exposed to light or just for practice, but if you’re serious about art, you need to look for lightfast, artist grade paints.
Tube paints are used by squeezing some of the paint onto a palette containing wells or onto a surface like a porcelain plate or pan. There are many different types which I’ll cover in another post, but even the tube paints have two different quality distinctions. Student grade is less expensive and you can do decent paintings, but the ratio of pigment to binder (usually gum arabic or honey) is much lower so it can be hard to get intense color. Artist grade paints seem a lot more expensive, but they take much less to get the same results.
Every artist has their own preference but my two favorite brands are M. Graham and Daniel Smith. Both of these companies are environmentally conscious and produce excellent products for the price. The tubes seem small compared to acrylic or oil tubes, but you use very little. A tube of watercolor can easily last you a couple of years and usually even longer. Be sure to check lightfast ratings when you buy paint. They are listed on the manufacturers’ websites and on the tubes. If you want your paintings to last without fading, always choose excellent/permanent lightfast ratings.
Because of my health issues I stay away from any pigments containing cadmium and cobalt. These are considered toxic and while it would take a considerable amount to have symptoms, it’s best to avoid them if you can. Some people have pets that like to drink their rinse water when they’re painting and I have seen some very sad stories about their animals dying from poisoning. Lead is no longer allowed in paints. It’s always a good idea to wash your hands before eating because pigments are made from various chemical and natural sources that can cause some mild symptoms. Never lick your brush to get a point! I like online stores that clearly show the pigments that are considered toxic: DickBlick.com Look for this symbol.
It is possible to get artist grade pan paints. These are popular with artists who paint outdoors just because they are easy to carry in travel palettes. But I have never seen a set that didn’t include toxic pigments, so I don’t use them. I just squeeze some of my tube paints into a cheap plastic palette with a lid. My M. Graham paints stay moist and are easy to rehydrate. If you live in a humid climate, tube paints are prone to mold, especially if they are kept in a closed palette, so pans may be a better choice.
To summarize, artist grade paints have a higher pigment load and will go further. Some pigments are toxic so read labels carefully. Certain pigments fade or even disappear over time with light exposure. Check lightfast ratings to determine how permanent a particular paint will be.
If you have questions about a particular brand or pigment, feel free to contact me!