6 Things to Know When Buying Watercolours

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Watercolour paints come in so many styles from so many manufacturers that it can be hard to know where to begin when you’re shopping for them!

Even though the choices can be overwhelming, watercolours are made from essentially the same elements. Once you know some basic facts and terminology, you can easily choose the ones that suit you best!

1. Know what watercolour is made of

All watercolours are made from combining a powdered pigment with a liquid binder.

The binder is usually a substance called Gum Arabic, which is the hardened sap of the acacia tree. Some manufacturers do different things with the binder; for example, it’s not unheard of to put honey in the binder because some people enjoy that texture.

Pigments can be naturally derived from the earth or made synthetically.

Natural pigments are more costly but make richer and more vibrant paints. A little goes a long way, and the colours pop nicely.

Synthetic pigments are getting better all the time. They can be a great alternative if you want to save money or are concerned about potentially toxic minerals used in natural pigments, like cadmium.

Personally, I don’t worry about the toxic minerals because I don’t lick the paintbrush and wash my hands between painting and eating.

2. Know how different pigments behave

Depending on how a pigment is made and sourced, it could act very different on the paper than another pigment that looks very similar in colour.

Some pigments stain the paper permanently, making it more difficult to correct mistakes, while others lift off and leave the paper almost white.

Also, there is the phenomenon of granulation, which I will show you now. Some watercolours have an even, smooth finish on the page, while others have a slightly grainy, speckled texture, kind of like a stone. You can mix and match granulating and non-granulating pigments to make exciting texture mixes.

In this small cloud painting I did a while ago, you can see that the mixture I used on the cloud itself doesn’t granulate, but the blue I used for the sky does. The contrast makes for an interesting piece.

3. Know about lightfastness

Lightfastness, commonly measured on a scale of 1 to 8, means fade-resistance. A lower quality pigment will fade when exposed to light, in the same way cheap paper turns yellow over time.

If you intend to sell your pieces, the only fair thing to do for your buyers is to use pigments as lightfast as possible because when someone buys your art, they are making an investment.

Frequently paints with higher lightfastness scores use more expensive ingredients, but Etchr paints are premium student grade and offer high lightfastness for an affordable price! 

4. Think about what colour selection works best for your preferences

Honestly, all you need to make any colour you want are a warm and a cool version of each primary colour, and preferably you will also want a couple of different brown shades to mix in and make things more toned down and natural. But if you have the budget to go all in and select more colours than that, think about what colours you will realistically use and not which colours look pretty out of context.

Think about what colours of art supplies you never use entirely (in my case, it’s purple, I don’t like purple very much at all), and don’t buy them; instead, buy extras of the colours you do use.

5. Choose tubes or pans

Watercolours can either come in tubes or pans, and the substance of the paint is the exact same. In the tube, watercolour is similar in consistency to peanut butter, and in a pan, it is dried hard.

Generally, when people buy tubes, it is to refill their pans. I don’t have a preference between tubes and pans, but pans usually come in a palette, whereas if you buy tubes, you’ll also need to buy an empty palette.

When you buy pan watercolours, they come in a tin like this. They are nicely labelled by colour. You should write down the colour names before you throw away the labels.

As you can see, the watercolour is entirely dehydrated but will activate and behave precisely like tube watercolour once you add water.

6. Compare by testing

Once you’ve done all the market research you can do, you’ll make a confident and informed decision on your watercolours. However, there’s no experience quite like trying paints for yourself to compare the different brands and styles.

I recommend swatching the colours every time you get a new set.

Conveniently, the Etchr watercolour set comes with a high-quality swatch card with the colour names already printed on it!

By swatching the colours, you will get a sense of how the pigments behave on paper before committing to an actual painting. (Quick Tip! Swatching colours is perfect for the first page of a new sketchbook.)

The next thing I like to do to compare all of my watercolour sets is make mixing charts, the details of which are for a future blog post. For now, I’ll show you the one I started for my Etchr watercolours. First, I make a diagonal line of each colour in little squares.

Then, I move down the line, mixing each colour with the other colours, with one column representing mixes that are mostly one colour and the other column representing mixtures that are primarily the other colour.

This will be an excellent reference for choosing what colours to mix later on, and it also helps to get a feel for how intense certain pigments are. Some pigments overpower others with only a few drops, while others need quite a lot added before the colour changes at all.

I hope these tips helped you feel more confident while shopping for paints! If this information was valuable to you, make sure you subscribe to the Etchr email newsletter, so you continue getting helpful hints like these!

Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator and graphic novelist based in Minnesota. She specializes in all things cozy and calm, but adds humor where she can. When she isn’t drawing, she enjoys playing musical instruments, but you’re more likely to see her staring at some silly tree or something. 
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