Watercolor Basics: Pick a Palette- Selecting the Paints for Your Needs

Over the past couple years, I've shared a handful of cheap watercolor reviews- Crayola, Up and Up, Alex, Daler Rowney Simply Watercolor.  I stay away from reviewing expensive watercolors because I've found that in general, most expensive watercolors perform very well, and the only thing that significantly differs for me is a preference for particular brand mixes.

This post covers two topics- cheap vs expensive watercolors, and assembling a personal collection of watercolor to suit your needs.  I want to equip you guys with working knowledge of what to look for, so you can shop for your own preferences.

Now is an excellent time to mention that the only sponsorship this blog sees is through my Patreon, my own pocket (commissions, conventions, comics sales- visit my shop to help that out), and the largess of like minded friends who occasionally send me supplies to check out.  I have no brand sponsors and no inherit brand loyalty.

This is a fairly complex topic, with a fair number of dissenting opinions, so it doesn't really count as a "Watercolor Basic", but it's important enough that I wanted to talk about it here.

Cheap Vs Expensive Watercolor Paints

What Do I Mean, Cheap Paints and Expensive Paints?

or Student Grade Vs. Professional Grade

In my Watercolor Terms You Should Know, I provide definitions for Student Grade and Professional Grade, but now it's time to provide some context by listing some brands

Student (cheap) Paints
Van Gogh
Koh-i-noor Color Wheel

Professional (expensive) Paints
Winsor and Newton
Daniel Smith

Decent Store Brands (your mileage may vary)
American Journey (Cheap Joes)
Soho (Jerry's Artarama)
Blick Studio (DickBlick)

Not all expensive paints are professional grade and perform to professional standards- I highly recommend you take your purchasing online and learn to comparison shop with DickBlick, Cheap Joes, and Jerry's Artarama.  And not all cheap paints are bad- experience and context may dictate careful addition of inexpensive paints that perform well or have particularly attractive qualities.

A cheap watercolor usually costs less than $5 per tube openstock, when not on sale, whereas a professional grade watercolor generally starts at $6 and goes up from there.  Professional watercolors have a lightfast rating and a transparency rating on the tube, and have codes listing the pigments used to make the color, many cheap watercolors do not have any of those things. Cheap watercolors may use dyes rather than pigments, and may not be lightfast at all, which is fine if you're doing work for reproduction, but not good if you want to display or sell the originals.

Example of Student Grade Vs Professional Grade

All examples were inked with a Sailor Mitsuo Aida brushpen on Fabriano cotton-based watercolor paper.

Cheap/Student Grade

 From left to right:  Angora Watercolors, Crayola Watercolors, Daler Rowney Simply Watercolors.  Reviews are linked.

Professional Grade

 All images were painted with an assortment of Winsor Newton, Holbein, and Daniel Smith watercolors.

High quality watercolors are better able to handle the sort of techniques you're going to want to use- washes, graduated washes, blending, glazing effects.  Inexpensive watercolors will not layer translucently and may become muddy with glazing.  With many inexpensive watercolors, chalk or talc has been added to make the pigments seem brighter and more saturated, as with the Angora watercolor example shown above.

Watercolors In My Work

For my current work- my comics and illustrations, I use two fairly large palettes.  I work with a lot of convenience colors, and I work with pan watercolors as well as dehydrated tube watercolors.  There are many artists who argue that rehydrated tube colors never work as well- they're right.  When I want something specific that would work best with fresh color, I go for the tube or the pan.

Above:  A selection of recently completed pages from Chapter 6 of 7" Kara.

Of course, I didn't always have access to quality watercolors, nor did I have the knowledge or education to confidently go to an art supply store and know what to select.

When I first started playing around with watercolors as an artist, I began with a Koh-i-Noor color wheel set and some inexpensive watercolor pencils.   I used this set from highschool through undergrad.

Sample page from Cloud's Tale, a children's book completed in my sophomore year at UNO.  Illustrations were watercolor with text inserted using Photoshop.  
Notice how scrubby the background was- that's the effect of cheap watercolors on cheap watercolor paper, applied with cheap synthetic brushes.  The paper didn't take water particularly well, the water absorbed so quickly that the paint appeared streaky.

Still from Little Red, a stop motion animation completed my junior year of undergraduate study at UNO.  Everything was cut paper or watercolor, and Koh-I-Noor watercolors were used.  You can purchase a digital copy of the book through my Gumroad
Most of the actual watercolor on these cut paper figures was washed out and chalky- at the time, I didn't realize that watercolor could behave differently.

 I had done zero research before plunking down my money, asked for very few opinions, and didn't have a watercolor mentor to turn to.  Now the internet is full of fantastic resources for artists who are interested in watercolor, many of which are linked in my Second Opinions and Things to Consider section. 

The next time I seriously picked up watercolors was during graduate school- as mentioned in my Watercolor Basics: Materials You Need to Get Started post.  I upped my game with a Winsor and Newton 12 half pan set, and added half pans piecemeal from Sekaido while in Tokyo on the SCAD Tokyo Trip (and while you're at it, check out the super old, kinda ugly art in the Tokyo Trip Art Dump post).  My initial set looked like the one above.

Here's my watercolor setup augmented with an additional palette for mixing, and the piecemeal Winsor and Newton watercolors mentioned above.  Colors weren't really selected for the type of work I wanted to do, just due to personal preference.
Works created with the above palette:


Now I work with a much wider range of colors for my watercolor pages.  I currently have in rotation about 45 half pans in my black metal palette, 32 from tube colors in my Mijello palette. Some colors see heavy use, some have not been touched since I assembled the palette. With the half pan palette, I remove colors I don't use, but this is more difficult with the Mijello palette.

Assembling a Palette to Suit Your Needs

You are going to find a wide gamut of opinions regarding essential colors, but at the very least you need:
  • A warm red
  • A cool red
  • A warm yellow
  • A cool yellow
  • A warm blue
  • A cool blue
From these six, you should be able to mix any color you need, but let's face it, as a comic artist, you are going to need to be able to mix colors quickly and consistently, and you'll probably find that you need more colors than just six.

Recommended colors based on my own palette:

Yellow ochre (Winsor Newton) +Scarlet Hue (Winsor Newton) (for Caucasian skintones)
Sepia (Winsor Newton)
Neutral Tint (Holbien) (From tube)
Payne's Gray (Winsor Newton) (I keep both tube and pan- they are slightly different hues)
Green Gold (Winsor Newton) (From tube)
Indian Red (Winsor Newton)
Van Dyke Brown (Winsor Newton)
Napthol Red (Daniel Smith) (From tube)
Cherry Red (Holbien) (From tube)
Indian Yellow (SoHo) (From tube)
Hooker's Green (Holbien) (FromTube)
Indigo (Winsor Newton)
Alizarin Crimson (Winsor Newton) (From tube)
Opera Rose (SoHo) (From tube)

Assembling Your Own Palette Vs Purchasing an Assembled Palette

Purchasing a pre-assembled palette or selection of tubes is a great way to get started quickly, and save money in the process.   As time progresses and you experiment more, you'll start adding other colors to your collection to fill in the gaps.  Attempting to create a watercolor collection entirely from openstock paints gets expensive fast, so I recommend finding an existing palette you like that offers room to grow.

Some assembled starter kits to get you going (astrix denote that I have tried and recommend these)

Daniel Smith Extra Fine Essentials Introductory Watercolors, 6 tube set*
Saint Petersburg White Nights Watercolor 12 Piece Set
Winsor and Newton Artist Watercolor Half Pan 24 Color Set (includes metal palette)*
Winsor and Newton Professional Watercolor Compact Set*
Hyatt' Daniel Smith W/C Essentials Set (includes box, brush, and Fluid 100 paper)
Holbein WC Travel Set 12 cakes
Holbein Artists' Watercolor 12 color set
Sennelier Watercolor Metal Box 12 Half Pan Set
Schmincke Watercolors, Metal Box Set of 12 Half Pans
Sennelier Watercolor Box 12 Half Pan
Sennelier Aqua Mini French Watercolor Set (8 Pans)
Mission Gold Water Color Palette Set, 36 Colors
Mission Gold Watercolor Intro Set, 9 Colors
Mission Gold Perfect Pan Watercolors, Set of 24

Want to try before you buy?  Many companies offer samples.

Daniel Smith Try Before You Buy 66 Dot Card
Daniel Smith Try Before You Buy 238 Dot Card
American Journey Quinacridone Sample Set
American Journey Sample Set of 4
American Journey Top 10 Sample Set
American Journey Joe's Essentials

Empty Palettes for Your Collection

For Half Pans, Pans, and Tubes:

Empty Metal Watercolor Box:  Will Hold 12 Half, 6 Full
Empty Metal Watercolor Box:  Will Hold 48 Half Pans, 24 Full
Empty Half Pans

For tubes only:
Martin Mijello Airtight Leak Proof Fusian Watercolor 33 Well Palette

Working With a Limited Palette

This isn't to say you can't paint with a limited number of colors.  I complete my convention watercolors and convention commissions using an inexpensive Sakura Koi Field Sketch Set consisting of just 12 cakes of paint, plus a tube of white gouache.

The backgrounds on many of these are Brusho watercolor crystals, which I have used on my YouTube channel and will discuss in a future post.

Some of the watercolors above are available for purchase!  Email me for availability, or commission your own.

Image Source

You can easily mix whatever colors you need (except purple, I can't seem to mix a good purple) with this set, and when it comes to inexpensive watercolor sets, I highly recommend the Koi 12 color Field Sketch set, as I've used it for several years with few complaints.  Some colors are a bit chalky, and this set is not suited to multiple layers of glazing as the colors will lift and turn muddy, but its great for simple watercolor illustrations.  You can read about how I create my convention watercolors here- I discuss the palette in a little more depth and compare it to my regular style of painting using my regular watercolor palette.

Sakura Koi Setup
Image Source
Self Assembled Palette Setup
Add caption
In an upcoming post, I'll go over assembling your watercolor palette (if it isn't already).

Pan Vs. Tube

Some artists have a distinct preference for one over the other, but I use a combination of both.



  • Easier to transport
  • Less Mess
  • More convenient
  • Less waste
  • Need to be 'activated' ahead of time (couple drops of water a few minutes ahead of time)


  • Less expensive overall
  • Can be put into pans and dried
  • Work really well for washes when fresh ('open') 
  • Available in more brick and mortar store as openstock

The Verdict

I recommend starting with a small set of quality watercolors, and building your set as you discover what colors you use the most often, and what colors you need.  I started out with a set of pans, but starting with a set of tubes (and some pans to maybe put them in) is also a great way to start.  There are some great deals on watercolor sets, and a set will last you years, so make the investment early.

Second Opinions and Things to Consider

Color Theory:  Facts and Thoughts in Color
Pigments and Paints:  What You Make Art With
Review of Mijello Mission Gold Class Watercolors Pure Pigment Set
My Favorite 8 Colors for Watercolor
Cheap V/S Expensive water colour- Koh-i-noor and Kuretake
Koi Watercolors: Box of 30
Product Reviews- Artist Loft Watercolors

Want a detailed review on any of the watercolors mentioned but not reviewed?  There are several ways we can make that happen!  For watercolors I currently own, you can become a Patron of my Patreon and let me know via comments which brands you'd like to reviewed in depth.  For watercolors I do not own, you can become a Patron OR you can donate a set via Amazon for review purposes.  Are you a company interested in having me review your products?  Shoot me an email.

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