Watercolor is one of the most accessible forms of painting, making it a popular choice for beginners and professional artists alike. They’re versatile, portable, and even better, the best watercolor sets aren’t too hard on the wallet.
Whether you’re just starting your watercolor paint journey or looking for an upgrade from student-grade paints, I’ve researched, tested, and boiled down everything you need to know to make a smart purchase in this extensive guide.
To keep things simple for you, I’ve broken the guide down into the best watercolor sets for beginners, then professional sets, and finally portable watercolor travel sets.
If you’re in a hurry, the best of each category is listed below, and they’ll all serve you well. I’ve also included links to several shops around the world, so you can save on shipping. Let’s get started!
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Best watercolor sets: Quick picks
Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolors
- Rich colors and great transparency
- More affordable option from a trusted brand
- Perfect for beginners
- Sold in both pans and tubes
Van Gogh Watercolor sets
- Bright pigments
- Exceptional value
- Great for beginners and above
- Sold in both pans and tubes
Schmincke Horadam Aquarell Watercolor
- Best watercolor sets on the market
- Premium pigments and lightfastness
- Professional quality and priced accordingly
- Sold in both pans and tubes
Kuretake Gansai Tambi Portable Watercolor Set
- Portable travel set
- Japanese watercolors with high opacity
- Includes water brush and fineliner
- Relatively affordable
Best watercolor sets:
- Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolors
- Van Gogh Watercolor sets
- Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolors
- Sakura Koi Watercolor sets
- Schmincke Horadam Aquarell Watercolors
- Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolors
- Holbein Artists’ Watercolor Paint sets
- Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketchers’ Pocket Box
- Kuretake Gansai Tambi Portable Watercolor Set
- Raphaël Watercolor Travel Pan Set
How to choose the best watercolor set for you
Watercolor art sets, just like most art supplies, come in two broad categories: student-grade and professional-grade.
Student-grade options are great for beginners or gifts since they tend to be cheaper. Manufacturers typically achieve this by adding less (or cheaper) pigments.
This doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t give good results. Any watercolor set for beginners from a top brand will have vibrant colors and excellent lightfastness (how long the color holds over time, typically 100+ years).
But if you do want better quality paints (or just have a bigger budget), professional watercolor sets are the way to go.
Pigments are ground to finer consistency for better dispersion. Paints also have a higher pigment ratio with better quality binders and additives, leading to paints that are easy to work with and colors that leap off the page.
Certain pigments, like cobalt and cadmium, may also be exclusive to professional sets. This is because the pigment itself is rare and exclusive, driving up the cost of production.
For the artist on the road, watercolor travel sets are a fantastic investment. They tend to be more student-grade quality (with some premium sets on offer too), but they’re perfect for a quick urban sketch or sketchbook painting from a cafe window.
Watercolor pans or tubes?
Watercolors are most often sold in pans (the little plastic cups) and tubes. Both can be good quality, and both have advantages and disadvantages.
Pans are dry, making them easy to transport and clean up. This also means they need to be “activated” with a bit of water before use (a spray bottle works wonders here).
Watercolor tubes, on the other hand, are wet. This means they’ll mix with water faster than pan paints, which can be a blessing or a curse. If you’re not careful, you may end up wasting good paint by squeezing too much out of the tube!
It’s also worth mentioning that you can refill watercolor pans with paint from tubes. Just make sure that the pan is clean and dry first. I’d recommend pouring the paint three times (1/3 each time), and letting it dry between each pour.
Half pans hold about 2ml of wet paint in total, so if you buy a small 5ml tube you can get at least 2 refills out of it (or a little more than one refill for full pans).
Ultimately, it will come down to personal preference. I recommend trying both and seeing which one you prefer. If you’re an absolute beginner, start with a watercolor set of half pans as they tend to be cheaper and last longer.
What watercolor brands are best?
There are quite a few companies making paints worth buying, but when it comes to the very best watercolor brands, there are just a handful of trusted choices.
Here’s a quick list of some of the best watercolor brands you can buy (in alphabetical order):
- Daniel Smith
- M. Graham
- Paul Rubens
- Royal Talens (Van Gogh and Rembrandt)
- Sakura Koi
- Winsor & Newton
Best watercolor sets for beginners
Now let’s get to the nitty gritty. These are the best watercolor sets for beginners, which again, are still very good quality. I’d also recommend these if you’re looking for a watercolor gift set for any budding artist, as they’re relatively inexpensive and easy to work with.
Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor Paint set
Winsor & Newton is one of the most trusted names in watercolor, and its Cotman sub-brand is perfect for beginners. It offers the same great quality the company is known for, but at a much lower price point.
The line has an extensive color range, although some pigments have been substituted with lower-cost alternatives. Still, you’ll get rich colors and good transparency.
Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolor sets are sold in a variety of ways, including tubes, half pans, and full pans. If you plan on doing a lot of painting, I’d recommend one the Painting Plus set with 24 half pans. If you’re a true beginner, the Blue Box Set of 12 half pans is also a great value.
There are a few more Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolor sets featured here in the travel sets section below. Scroll down to check them out if you’re looking for something even more portable.
Van Gogh Watercolor sets
Van Gogh watercolors are a sub-brand of Royal Talens, which also makes premium watercolors under the name Rembrandt. Although the Van Gogh versions aren’t quite as high-end, they’re absolutely perfect for beginners. In fact, they were my very first set!
Unlike most beginner watercolor sets, Van Gogh watercolors have bright, excellent pigments. Some of the colors may be named differently than you’re used to, but the paints themselves are an incredible value.
Van Gogh watercolors come in a variety of sizes (including tubes), with the most complete being the “metal tin” sets of 24 or 48 half pans. Any set is highly recommended, and despite not being “professional” quality, many professional artists include them in their palettes. If you can spend a bit more, check out Rembrandt watercolor sets as well.
Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolor sets
Daniel Smith is another popular brand of watercolors, with an astounding 235 color options in its lineup. Each color is also highly pigmented, with finely ground pigments that result in spectacular color.
Daniel Smith watercolors are most often bought in tubes, but the company also sells a few half pan sets. I’ve included them among the best watercolor sets for beginners here, but the truth is they punch above their price tag and can serve as professional paints, too.
Sakura Koi Watercolor sets
From the same brand as the incredibly popular Pigma Micron pens, Sakura Koi watercolor sets are great for beginners. They have bright, saturated colors, and come in a bit cheaper than the alternatives above.
That said, there are a few frustrating things that might deter buyers. First of all, the half pans are stuck in place, making it difficult to clean and refill them. Also, some buyers have reported pans shipping half full. You can get around this by purchasing tubes, but not all of the Sakura Koi’s colors are sold in tubes.
Still, these are good watercolor sets for beginners, especially if you can get a good deal. They also all come with a small water brush, making them solid travel sets as well. Check current pricing around the world at the links below.
Best professional watercolor sets
If you’re looking to sell your artwork or just have a bit more money in your art budget, upgrading to a professional watercolor set is more than worth it. They feature more vibrant colors, as well as more color options to choose from.
Schmincke Horadam Aquarell Watercolor sets
If you want the absolute finest quality, look no further than Schmincke Horadam watercolors. These are some of the best watercolor sets on the market, so you can expect some truly incredible results.
Schmincke Horadam paints use the best possible pigments and a unique binding medium (Kordofan Gum Arabic) from the Sahara region. This means that you’re getting the highest level of lightfastness (how long the pigment lasts) available, as well as vivid colors and a smooth finish.
Keep in mind that these sets can be pricey, especially in the US. If you happen to live in the UK or EU you can pick them up for significantly less. The line includes nearly 140 color options in both tubes and pans.
Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor sets
Winsor & Newton’s more expensive line also deserves a spot among the best professional watercolor sets. If you’re used to working with Cotman line watercolors, they are a logical step up.
Colors are deep and the paints are generally a joy to work with. Winsor & Newton watercolor sets are some of the best and most popular around, so they’re also easy to get your hands on.
They’re sold in both pans and tubes, and thankfully they’re much less expensive than Schmincke in the US. You really can’t go wrong with these sets.
Holbein Artists’ Watercolor Paint sets
When it comes to Japanese watercolor sets, Holbein is one of the most respected brands there is. Consistently ranked among the finest watercolors in the world, they’re a superb choice for professional artists.
Apart from brilliant colors and best-in-class lightfastness, Holbein watercolors also do away with dispersants, meaning that brush strokes are preserved in the final piece. This follows a long tradition in Japanese art, and provides interesting results for experienced artists.
Best watercolor travel sets
Popping a watercolor travel set into your bag is a fantastic way to breathe a little extra life into your travel journals or urban sketches. These travel sets also make fantastic gifts, since they take up very little space and pack up well.
Bear in mind that many of the sets above will work for travel, too. That said, I’d stick to pans instead of tubes, as they clean up easier. I’d also still pack extra brushes and a mixing plate, since many of the containers are simply too small for mixing.
Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketchers’ Pocket Box
There are actually several watercolor travel sets in Winsor & Newton’s product lineup, but the most affordable (and pocketable) is this Sketchers’ Pocket Box. It comes with 12 half pans and a collapsible brush, with a decent sized mixing area. There’s also a larger Deluxe Sketchers’ Pocket Box with 18 half pans and a kneaded rubber eraser. If you want an all-inclusive set, there’s even a 12-pan Field Plus set with a small water bottle inside.
Professional artists many want higher quality paints, so thankfully Winsor & Newton also sells travel sets in its professional line. The compact Field Box is a great choice, with 12 half pans, a water bottle, container, brush, and sponge. There’s also a 24 pan lightweight set, but it’s a bit pricey to use as a travel set in my opinion.
Kuretake Gansai Tambi Portable Watercolor Set
Japanese watercolors are renowned for their intense color and heightened opacity, and this portable watercolor set from Kuretake lets you take all that on the road.
The compact set has 14 half pans, a water brush, and a 1mm Mangaka fineliner. Apart from water and paper, that’s everything you need to create beautiful works wherever you may be.
Raphaël Watercolor Travel Pan Set
The last pick for the best watercolor travel sets is this round set from Sennelier sub-brand Raphaël. It isn’t quite as high-quality as its parent brand, but the compact form factor and 10-half pan color layout make it an ideal choice for travel or beginners.
It’s also very inexpensive, so you don’t have to worry too much about the case getting lost or breaking. However, the included brush is very small and doesn’t hold much water, so you’ll want to keep a few extra brushes with you.
Other watercolor supplies and accessories
Paints are obviously just a part of a watercolor painter’s kit. There are plenty of other supplies and materials you’ll throughout the process. Here are just a few basic supplies that every painter needs.
Many of the best watercolor sets featured above come with a small brush, but you’ll want to invest in several more for your artwork. These can have wooden, plastic, or acrylic handles, with synthetic or natural fibers.
The handle is mostly a matter of personal preference and comfort, but the brush fibers make a big difference. Natural fibers have ridges and imperfections in each fiber, meaning they hold much more paint.
Synthetic brushes are smooth and hold less liquid. They also don’t spring back as well. They are, however, significantly cheaper, and you can still get great results with the right techniques.
There are many brands to choose from here. For example, Winsor & Newton makes excellent affordable synthetic brushes, as well as premium Kolinsky Sable brushes. Try a few different options to see what works best for you.
Watercolor paper is typically separated into two categories: cold pressed and hot pressed. Both are great choices, although cold pressed is more common. Here’s a quick breakdown of the differences:
Cold pressed watercolor paper (labeled CP) has a textured finish, absorbs paint faster, and presents slightly duller colors when dry. It’s also very easy to use and suitable for all kinds of watercolor.
Hot pressed watercolor paper (or HP) has a smooth finish. This gives you more time to work with a paint before it dries, and results in brighter colors in finished works. It’s best for precise watercolor paintings, since it retains brush detail very well.
As for brands, Arches is one of the very best on the market. The company sells both cold pressed and hot pressed paper in pads. Cheaper options like the Strathmore 400 Series can also be great for non-professional works.
Ceramic mixing palette
The plastic (or metal) trays on most watercolor sets will work for a while, but eventually you should invest in a separate mixing palette. Cheap plastic ones aren’t much of a step up though — you should aim for a slightly better ceramic or porcelain option.
My personal favorite is this rectangular porcelain palette that runs about $7. You can also buy round porcelain palettes in a variety of sizes. They’re heavy though, so keep that in mind if you want to travel with them.
A simple, small spray bottle is invaluable when working with watercolors. A few sprays is all it takes to activate pans in your watercolor set or wet your paper for washes.
You don’t need to spend much here. This bottle from Holbein is perfect for the job, and runs less than $3.
Where can I buy watercolor sets?
I’m a huge proponent of shopping local, so I’d recommend shopping at your local art store whenever possible. If buying online, somewhat larger retailers like Dick Blick in the US and Jackson’s Art Supplies in the UK/EU have a variety of watercolor sets in stock. Otherwise, Amazon is the biggest online retainer for a reason, and you can find many sets there, too.
Do watercolor paint sets work on canvas?
Normal canvas is a poor material for watercolors, as it isn’t absorbent enough. There are some specialized watercolor canvases, but generally you’re better off sticking with paper.
How is watercolor paint made?
Watercolor paints are made by pulverizing pigments into fine particles, then mixing them with a binding agent (typically gum arabic). The binding agent is what holds the pigment against the paper once it dries. Schmincke has a fantastic video about its manufacturing process for high-end watercolor paint sets.
Is watercolor paint toxic?
Watercolor paints are generally harmless, although some traditional pigments containing cadmium, cobalt, and zinc can be harmful. Still, you would need to swallow a large amount of pigment for it to be dangerous, and many companies have moved away from these pigments in recent years.
Is watercolor paint washable?
Watercolor paints can be washed out of most materials, as they can always be reactivated by adding water. If you’re particularly concerned about this, you can also buy washable watercolor sets, although these are generally marketed for kids.
Do watercolor paints expire?
Watercolor paints do have a shelf life, which varies depending on the manufacturer. For example, Schmincke estimates that its tube watercolor paints will last for 5 years, and pans can last indefinitely. That said, it’s usually possible to revive expired paint by dissolving it in water.
Do watercolors work on wood?
Yes, although it will require practice and proper preparation of the wood. Wood also has a tendency to absorb a lot of water unpredictably, so I’d recommend using less water and more pigment. Once finished, make sure you seal the wood with a clear varnish or it will wear off over time.
That’s it for this comprehensive guide to the best watercolor sets you can buy. Which paint set are you using? Let everyone know in the comments below!