Best watercolor sets: Beginner, professional, and traveler sets

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Watercolor painting is a wonderful creative hobby that can be enjoyed by anyone who has the desire to create. However, you’ll need to purchase a few essentials before getting hands-on, starting with a simple watercolor paint set!

To help get you started, I’ve picked out the best watercolro sets you can buy, broken down into the best watercolor sets for beginnersprofessional sets, and portable watercolor travel sets for your convenience!

If you’re in a hurry, the best of each category is listed below, and they’ll all serve you well! 

Totally new to watercolor? Our in-depth watercolor beginner’s guide is a great place to start learning from scratch! 

Affiliate disclosure: Articles on Tiny Workshops may contain affiliate links.

Best value
Best for beginners
Best professional
Best travel set
Best value

The perfect match for demanding beginners looking for trusted brands and beautiful results at a great value.

Best for beginners

Available in pans and tubes, ideal for starters searching for bright pigments and bold colors.

Best professional

Premium, first-rate watercolor sets offering sublime pigments and lightfastness for experienced artists.

Best travel set

This lovely Japanese watercolor set offers high opacity for travelers and artists on the go, including a water brush and fineliner.

12/09/2023 06:08 am GMT

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 cotman watercolor set

Winsor & Newton is one of the most trusted names in watercolor supplies, and its Cotman sub-brand is perfect for beginners. It offers the same 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 various forms, such as tubes, half pans, and full pans.

If you plan on doing a lot of painting, I’d recommend 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 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 Watercolor set for beginners

Van Gogh watercolors are a sub-brand of Royal Talens, which also makes premium watercolors under the name Rembrandt. Although the Van Gogh line isn’t quite as high-end, it’s absolutely perfect for beginners.

In fact, these were my very first sets many years ago!

Unlike most beginner watercolor paint sets, Van Gogh watercolors have bright, bold 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.

I highly recommend any of these sets, and while not “professional” quality, many seasoned artists include them in their palettes!

If you can spend a bit more, check out Royal Talens’ slightly more premium Rembrandt watercolor sets as well.

Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolor sets

Daniel Smith watercolor set

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

Sakura Koi watercolor set

From the same brand as the incredibly popular Pigma Micron pens, Sakura Koi watercolor sets are great for beginners. They feature 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 among the best 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!

If you’d like to explore mixed-medium work, the brand’s Pigma Micron pens are waterproof and look fantastic when incorporated with watercolor!

Best professional watercolor sets

If you’re looking to sell your artwork or 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 hues to choose from. Check some of my favorites out below!

Schmincke Horadam Aquarell Watercolor sets

schmincke horadam aquarell watercolor set

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, 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 lineup includes nearly 140 color options in both tubes and pans.

Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor sets

winsor newton professional watercolors

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. The colors are deep, and the paints are 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.

In addition, refills are easy to find and buy just about anywhere in the world!

Holbein Artists’ Watercolor Paint sets

Holbein Artists watercolor 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. Holbein watercolor sets are sold in both pans and tubes, although the 5ml tubes are generally easier to access.

Be warned, though, they can be pricey!

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. They also make fantastic gifts since they take up very little space and pack up nicely.

Bear in mind that many of the sets above also work for travel. 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 containers are simply too small for mixing.

Another convenient alternative to compact watercolor sets for travel is watercolor pencils; check out our favorite watercolor pencil sets to learn more! 

Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketchers’ Pocket Box

Winsor Newton pocket box travel watercolor set

There are actually several watercolor travel sets in Winsor & Newton’s product catalog, 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 16 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 may want higher quality paints, so thankfully, Winsor & Newton also sells travel sets in its professional line. The Field Box is a great choice, with 12 half pans, a water bottle, a container, a brush, and a sponge.

There’s also a 24-pan lightweight set, but it’s a bit pricey to use as a travel set, in my opinion. Make sure you keep it stored safely!

Kuretake Gansai Tambi Portable Watercolor Set

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.

This is an excellent pick if you’re into map illustration or botanical illustration projects.

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

raphael watercolor travel 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 artsy travelers 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.

How to choose the best watercolor set for you

Best watercolor sets_FEATURE
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Watercolor art sets, just like most art supplies, come in two broad categories: student-grade and professional-grade.

Student-grade sets are perfect for complete beginners and curious artists taking a few watercolor classes. They also make for great gifts since they tend to be cheaper! Manufacturers typically achieve this by adding fewer (or cheaper) pigments.

However, 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 reasonable lightfastness (watercolor paint isn’t the most lightfast overall!).

On the other hand, if you’re after higher-quality paints (or just have a bigger budget), pro-grade watercolor sets are the way to go.

Pigments are ground to a 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 café window.

Watercolor pans or tubes?

How to fill a water brush_FEATURE
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Watercolor paint sets are most often sold in pans (the little plastic cups) and tubes. Both can be of 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).

Using a water brush pen also helps lessen the mess!

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 two 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?

Watercolor pan_watercolor vs acrylic
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

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 (at least in my opinion).

Here’s a quick list of some of the best watercolor brands you can buy (in alphabetical order):

  • Daniel Smith
  • Holbein
  • M. Graham
  • Paul Rubens
  • QoR
  • Royal Talens (Van Gogh and Rembrandt)
  • Sakura Koi
  • Sennelier
  • Schmincke
  • Winsor & Newton

Other watercolor supplies and accessories

Watercolor sets_Gouache vs watercolor
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Paints are obviously just a part of a watercolor painter’s kit.

There are plenty of other supplies and materials you’ll need throughout the process. Here are just a few basic supplies that every painter should look into!

Watercolor brushes

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 either synthetic or natural fibers.

The handle is mostly a matter of personal preference and comfort, but the type of 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 Series 7 Kolinsky Sable brushes.

Test out a few different options to see what works best for you!

Watercolor paper

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 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 are also a great alternative for non-professional work.

Our watercolor blocks and watercolor sketchbook guides cover our favorite picks for beginners and up; check them out for more tips!

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 $10. 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.

Spray bottle

A simple, small spray bottle is invaluable when working with watercolors. A few sprays are all it takes to activate pans in your watercolor set or wet your paper for washes.

You don’t need to spend much here. For example, this bottle from Holbein is perfect for the job and runs less than $3.

This is also something you can DIY very easily for $0!


Where can I buy watercolor sets?

I’m a huge proponent of shopping local, so I’d recommend shopping for the best watercolor sets 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 options in stock.

Otherwise, Amazon is the biggest online retailer for a reason, so you can find the majority of the best watercolor sets there, too.

Do watercolor paint sets work on canvas?

Standard canvas is a poor material for watercolors (even when using the best watercolor sets) 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 and 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 the same as acrylic?

No! Watercolor paint uses natural binders, while acrylic uses manmade acrylic resin binders. Acrylic is also more opaque, which makes it more suitable for different surfaces.

Check out our watercolor vs acrylic comparison to learn more!

Is watercolor paint the same as gouache?

Gouache is very similar to watercolor since they both use natural water-based binders, such as gum arabic. However, gouache paint has a much higher pigment load, creating a more opaque look.

Check out our watercolor vs gouache comparison to learn more!

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! Also, 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 five 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?

Although most of the best watercolor sets and paints will work well for this purpose, practice and proper wood preparation will be required.

Wood also tends 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!

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