How to Determine Good Quality Watercolours

Whether you’re in the market for new watercolour paints or not, it’s always handy to know how to pick out good-quality paints! In this blog post, I’ll share some quick tips on determining watercolour paint quality, which you can use on all your current and future paints.

Tip #1: Saturation

Off the bat, good quality watercolours are often more vibrant than lower quality watercolours, which you can see in the image above.

While vibrancy can also be affected by paper quality, a good quality paint will still be inherently more saturated than low-quality paint, as there is more pigment and less binder in the paint’s formula.

Binder is something that all paints are mixed with to make them flow better, but they’re often relatively colourless and dilute the paint to a certain extent, even in its dried form.

If you’re looking to buy a brand of paint you’ve never tried before, one way to see if their paints are saturated is to purchase a dot card sample. They’re much cheaper, and you get to see which colours you like before investing more into that specific paint brand. 

If they don’t sell dot cards, you can try purchasing 3 colours or so and testing their performance that way. If you’re not sure which colours to get, I recommend going for one of each primary colour – red, yellow, and blue. Most reputed watercolour manufacturers will sell their paints separately, whether in tube or pan form. 

Tip #2: Lightfastness

Lightfastness is a term used to grade how lightfast a paint is; i.e. how well they resist fading from sunlight. While all paints naturally degrade and/or change colour over time, it happens to some paints much faster than others.

A paint that has good lightfastness will last around 100 years with barely any fading, while a poor quality paint will last maybe a few weeks. This means good paint stands the test of time, especially under adequate protection!

Of course, lightfastness might not matter as much if you only paint inside a sketchbook, or hide your paintings in a dark room. But for the painting put on proud display, you’ll want good quality paints that will last longer.

Tip #3: Transparency

Watercolours’ unique quality is that they’re transparent, meaning they allow light to pass through. So if watercolour paint isn’t transparent, then do they deserve to be called watercolours? Unless they’re specifically labelled as “opaque watercolours” (a.k.a. gouache), then good quality watercolours should be transparent, especially when diluted.

Even so, certain colours and pigments can’t be fully transparent, such as buff titanium or anything that has white mixed in. These colours will be labelled “semi-transparent” or even “opaque”, which means you either have to dilute it quite a bit so it’s not too opaque or use it as it is without expecting it to be so transparent.

This means that some good-quality paints may not be fully transparent. For this, I’d say it depends on what kind of watercolourist you are.

Some only work with fully transparent paints, since they love glazing and layering colours, so need the extra transparency to make their paintings glow. Others don’t mind mixing in some semi-transparent or even opaque paints, especially if they like painting on black paper or creating some visible paint splatter at the very end of the painting process.

So how can you tell between high- and low-quality paints that aren’t transparent? For one, low-quality paints may dry with a weird “chalky” or “waxy” texture that might flake off when you touch it, which you’ve probably seen in a lot of children’s watercolour paint sets. Additionally, all the paints won’t be transparent, even for colours that are supposed to be transparent. 

Tip #4: Transparency (The Other Kind)

Again with transparency! But this time, I’m referring to transparency in terms of labelling.

Good quality paints will often have labels that show more than just the paint’s colour. They’ll also tell you the exact pigment(s) used, and the binders that have been mixed in as well.

Note: Not all paint manufacturers will have paint information on their labels, especially handmade paints from small business owners. This means you may have to do some research online to find out. If you can’t find any information at all, then that’s usually a sign that the paints aren’t as high of a quality. 

A good label also displays a bit of info on paint performance, such as lightfastness and transparency – qualities that I just mentioned. It may also mention whether the paint granulates or not, which only happens with high-quality watercolours.

Tip #5: User Experience

This one is more subjective and requires a bit of personal experimentation, but it’s arguably the best way to determine paint quality. Like trying out a new phone, you need to feel for yourself whether the paint is a pleasure to work with or not.

A good quality paint should be easy to rewet (if in a pan form), mix easily with other watercolours, and lay down smoothly (i.e. it flows well from brush to paper). It should also be easy to layer without disturbing the underlying layers too much, although this depends a little on the paper you use too. 

For example, when I’m using a children’s watercolour set, I’m finding that the paint has an almost “waxy” quality. Additionally, it’s very difficult to paint more than 2 layers because the paint underneath keeps lifting off and blending with the other layers, even when I’m brushing lightly. It’s also extremely difficult to get any sort of saturation in the paints’ colours, so my painting looks quite washed out compared to this one I’ve done using Etchr’s paint set.

The downside of this is that you have to buy the paint to try it out, but as mentioned before, you can save some money by trying out a dot card or just buying 2-3 paints first. The point is that each person is different, and may prefer different things, so it’s best to find something that’s suited to you and your art style.

Final Tips

Of course, there’s always the tried-and-true method of checking reviews from other users. While a few reviews aren’t very reliable, a few hundred or thousands will be more than enough to gauge the paint’s performance.

A cheesier way to determine paint quality is to look at its cost, but I would say you want to get the best value from your paints within your budget. Even within the same paint brand, you’ll find that some pigments cost more than others, either because of rarity or increased difficulty in the manufacturing process. But most of these can be easily substituted with similar colours or mixed using other cheaper colours. 

And just because a certain brand of paint is cheaper or not good quality doesn’t mean it’s useless, or that you shouldn’t use it. This kind of paint is perfect for practising or doing thumbnail paintings in preparation for larger, more serious paintings.

In any case, it’s always best to test the paint to determine its quality! There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finding just the right paint for you, whether you like to mix and match or stick to a single brand.

What qualities do you look for when buying paints? Do you have a favourite paint brand? Let us know in the comments below!

Also, if you’d like to learn more tips and tricks about art, feel free to subscribe to our email newsletter. We’ll keep you updated on all the latest happenings with Etchr, including our workshop schedule, product releases, and flash sales!

Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 
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