Watercolor Paint 101: A Crash Course in Using Watercolors (Paint List Included)

By Michelle Morris in Art Tutorials > Painting Tutorials

The very first time I used watercolor paint, I fell in love with it.

Something magical happens when watercolor mixes with and reacts to the water and dances across a white sheet of paper. . . it’s like no other medium, simply because of the unique quality of the paint itself.

So far we’ve talked about brushes and paper, and today—finally!—we’re going to talk about paint.

The color behind “watercolor”

Other mediums can be used with water as a solvent. These include Acrylics, Inks, Tempra’s and Gouche. The difference is not the method of application or that they are used with water as a solvent. The difference is the paint.

Every paint is made with a pigment that is then mixed with a binder. Without a lot of technical, fancy talk, binders are what hold the pigment together for application and adhesion to the support when dry.

Different types of paints use different binders. Other mediums use binders that make the paint more opaque. Watercolor paints are more vibrant and transparent because watercolor has fewer fillers to obscure the pure pigment and most of the binder (usually gum Arabic) is absorbed by the paper-further allowing a more pure color to show on the surface of the paper.

The results are bold, brilliant, luminous color!

Using water with watercolor paint

Everyone knows that watercolor painters use water to apply their pigment to the paper. What many people may NOT know is that using less water gives you a color closer to the intensity of color you see straight from the tube. The more water you use, the more you dilute the pigment and the lighter the hue.

Then there’s white paint. With other media, white is used to “tint” a color in order to lighten it. White watercolor paint is opaque, and will lighten a color, but it will also dull the translucence of the color it’s mixed with.

A watercolorist can lighten a color simply by using more water to dilute the watercolor pigment, thus allowing more of the white paper to show through. The benefit in doing this is that there is no dulling of the original color.

Some watercolorists never allow white watercolor paint on their palette. This was how I was taught, and I believe it was a good discipline and taught me a lot about how to work with the paper and the paints to keep the colors pure and transparent.

I eventually added white to my palette, with a greater understanding of its value and limited uses for my purposes, but in general I like the idea of using the white paper to lighten my colors rather than white paint.

Types of watercolor paint

There are many different manufacturers and types of watercolor paints. Pan paints are probably what most of us are familiar with, when it comes to watercolor paints, because we used this type of paint as children.

Pan paints are dried paints in small pans that you can scrub with water to get paint. There are a number of fine pan paints by good manufacturers that allow a painter to take watercolor in a very portable fashion. These are fine for small works done on site.

Better quality pan paints use certain binders that never fully allow the paint to dry out, making it easier to reconstitute the paint and keep the color intense, not washed out or diluted.

Pan paints are NOT your best option for larger works, however, so for our purposes, I will not be talking a lot about this type of paint.

The type of watercolor I recommend to students are from a tube. There are two “grades” of tube paint: Student and Artist/Professional. The difference here is quality and price.

Student grade watercolor paint has more binder and less pigment “load” or a lesser quality pigment. The price difference may also be significant (they’re often much cheaper than Artist grade paint).

As a teacher, I generally believe you will produce better works using better quality tools; yet as a student, I used Student grade paints for years with wonderful results. Many of those paintings are hanging in my home 25 years later and they look as good as the day they were painted.

I recommend to the beginner who is not sure if they will like watercolor, not to invest in Artist grade paint with the high price tag. Student grade paints provide good quality and are reasonably priced for the beginning painter.

As a professional artist, on the other hand, I need to use the best quality products for work that would be offered to the public, so I chose Artist grade paints.

Artist grade paints are manufactured with higher quality pigments and binders and have a higher pigment “load.” In my opinion, the difference has to do with the intensity of color straight from the tube more than any other factor.

I had to adjust my painting habits a bit when I switched to Artist grade paints, since I suddenly found myself working with colors that were a bit more intense. (Artist grade paints may feel like they handle slightly different as well.)

I’ve been told that Artist grade paints fade less over time, and when exposed to light, but as I said, I have not seen that to be a significant factor. While I now prefer Artist grade paint and notice a difference when I use Student grade paints to teach, I see no reason for a beginner to incur the cost of Artist grade when there are such good quality well priced Student grade watercolors.

Watercolor transparency and pigment characteristics

Watercolor paints are transparent, semi-transparent or opaque, and this varies by manufacturer and specific color. Most manufacturers have color charts with symbols that will tell you how transparent each color is.

One way to test a paint for transparency yourself is to run a magic marker down a sheet of paper. Then paint a stripe of watercolor paint over the top of the magic marker. When the paint is dry you will either clearly see the marker through the paint or there will be a film of paint visible on the marker line. In this way, you can see how transparent or opaque each color is.

Watercolor charts also list whether or not a pigment is staining or granulating. A staining pigment stains the paper and is not as easy to lift off. Few watercolors will lift off the paper leaving you clean white paper but some are less staining than others.

Granulating paints mix with other paint in a grainy way and leave a granulated pattern when dry. Some watercolorists do not like this, but I feel it adds to the unique nature of how watercolor is made and it does not bother me personally.

Buying your first watercolor paints

Now that you understand the major differences between the types of watercolor paints, I will recommend a few manufacturers as well as a basic list of paints I always suggest for my beginning watercolor students.

I use and teach with a split primary palette, which I will fully explain in a following article. Basically this limited palette consists of a warm and cool of each primary color, with two additional earth colors to help round out the palette. With these six primaries you can mix any color on the color wheel.

There are many manufacturers of watercolors. I use a few paints from different manufacturers because not all brands carry the colors I want and use. I would stay away from those sold in kits from craft stores. Most of those paints are fine for children, but are of poor quality and will not give good results.

Each manufacturer has different names for their colors and the color may vary between manufacturers even if the paint name is the same. Therefore for simplification purposes, I will list a Student grade and an Artist grade list in the manufacturers I use personally and teach with.

In Student grade paints I recommend Cotman paints by Winsor Newton. In Artist grade paint I recommend Winsor Newton Artist paints. Below are the corresponding lists for both brands.

(NOTE: An art store employee should also be able to help you choose a warm and cool primary in any brand of paint, but the Winsor Newton brand is widely available and I feel is of the highest quality available in both grades.)

(C)=cool (W)=warm

Student Grade Paints List – Cotman Brand

Cadmium Yellow Pale Hue (C)
Cadmium Yellow Hue (W)
Cadmium Red Light (Pale Hue) (W)
Alizarin Crimson Hue (C)
Ultramarine (W)
Cerulean (C)
Burnt Siena
Raw Siena

Artist Grade Paints List – Winsor Newton Artists Brand

Aureolin (C)
New Gamboge (W)
Scarlet Lake (W)
Alizarin Crimson (C)
French Ultramarine (W)
Cerulean (C)
Burnt Siena
Raw Siena

Hopefully this gives you a good idea of what to look for in watercolor paint!

Next time we’ll take a look at painting palettes, and also some other odds and ends that are necessary for painting with watercolor. Stay tuned!


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