As you advance your skills as a watercolor painter, the quality of your watercolor supplies should evolve as well. While student-level paints and brushes are ideal for allowing beginner artists to try out the art form and learn basic techniques, they can be limiting for advanced painters. By choosing higher-quality watercolor tools—including paints, brushes, pencils, pens, and markers—you can enhance your ability to translate your ideas to paper or canvas.
Not sure what to look for in advanced watercolor tools? Below, explore our guide to selecting professional watercolor supplies.
Professional Watercolor Paints
As a beginner watercolor artist, you were likely more concerned with developing your technique and learning how to move and manipulate your paint than what watercolor supplies you’re using. As an experienced painter, however, the quality of the paint becomes more important. Here are a few ways to differentiate between low and high-quality watercolor paints.
Student- or beginner-level watercolor paints are often less pigmented—and less vibrant—than professional watercolor paints. Why? By using less watercolor pigment and more filler, manufacturers can keep student-level paints affordable.
Professional-grade watercolor paints include more and finer-ground watercolor pigment, which allows the paint to glide smoothly across the page. This can also help you achieve more vibrant colors.
While there’s no standard scale that allows you to identify the pigmentation of different brands of watercolor paints, look for paints that are labeled as “professional” or “artists’ watercolors.” These will generally be more pigmented, high-quality watercolors.
As a professional artist, you want your completed paintings to stand the test of time. However, some types of watercolor paint are fragile and can fade very quickly—within a matter of weeks—if they’re exposed to direct sunlight or even reflected light. That’s why it’s important to consider your paint’s lightfastness rating.
Lightfastness is the paint’s ability to retain its original color over time. There are a couple of different lightfastness scales that are widely used: the Blue Wool Scale and the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM).
On the Blue Wool Scale, the higher the rating, the longer the paint will resist fading due to sunlight exposure. Paints rated at a level 1, for example, are likely to fade within two years (even when displayed away from direct light and under UV glass), while paints rated at a level 7 or 8 can last for over 100 years.
If you are selling or displaying your watercolor paintings, it is critical that you choose professional watercolor paints with high lightfastness ratings, so you don’t risk irreversible damage or fading.
Professional watercolor paint brands often offer more color options than beginner- or student-grade paints. Student-grade watercolor paints, for example, may only be available in a handful of colors, which can be limiting as your work gets more detailed and complex. On the other hand, you can find professional watercolor paints in a wide variety of pigments, which makes it easy to build a custom and robust palette.
For example, Winsor & Newton’s student-grade watercolor line is available in just 40 shades, while the company’s professional line boasts 109 colors.
Watercolor Tubes vs Watercolor Pans
If you want high-quality watercolor paints, watercolor tubes are your best choice. Generally, watercolor tube paints come in more color options and contain more pigmented paint. Plus, watercolor tube paints are more concentrated, so they are more versatile when it comes to vibrancy and saturation—you can apply them as boldly or as lightly as you’d like.
However, that doesn’t mean that watercolor pans don’t have a place in a professional watercolor artist’s arsenal. Especially if you paint en plein air—in other words, you create paintings from start to finish in the field—watercolor pans are much more compact and convenient compared to watercolor tubes. For an even more compact experience, you can try watercolor half pans, which contain cakes of pigment that are half the volume of regular watercolor pans.
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Professional Watercolor Brushes
Over time, every watercolor artist develops preferences for different brushes. As a professional artist, it’s not required that you upgrade to more expensive brushes. Honestly, you may find that you simply prefer the more affordable options. However, if you are interested in investing in high-quality watercolor brushes, consider the following options.
In the art world, many say that the best, most high-quality watercolor brushes are made from sable hair—or, more specifically, Kolinsky sable, which is actually a type of weasel that has strong, supple fur. Kolinsky sable brushes come in a variety of sizes and shapes, and as long as you take proper care of them, they can last for years.
Squirrel hair brushes are another natural hair brush option. Squirrel hair is fine and thin, so these brushes hold a lot of water—and, as a result, beginners often find them tricky to work with. However, equipped with more experience, you can use these brushes to quickly wet large areas of your paper and achieve a loose, expressive painting style.
Of course, not all professionals use natural hair brushes—you may, instead, opt for synthetic brushes. Fortunately, today, the most reputable brush brands, including Winsor & Newton and Princeton Artist Brush Company, offer synthetic versions of the natural hair options listed above.
Professional Watercolor Pencils
As a beginner, you may have focused solely on paint, but as a professional, you’ll quickly learn that watercolor pencils, watercolor pens, and watercolor markers can be interesting and fun additions to your studio.
Watercolor pencils have water-soluble tips, which means you can either dip them in water and then draw on your paper, creating a watercolor-like wash, or you can draw with them on paper and then go over those lines with a damp paintbrush. Their fine tips make them ideal for adding small details to your projects without losing the overall look of a watercolor painting. Here are a few of the best brands to check out.
The water-soluble core of Bruynzeel Design Aquarel Pencils dissolves completely in water, making these watercolor pencils extremely easy to work with.
Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer Watercolor Pencils are known as one of the top options for professional watercolor pencils. They come in a wide variety of colors—up to 120 in some sets—and have strong leads that are less likely to break than those of other brands.
Derwent Inktense Water Soluble Pencils have bright, vibrant ink that is completely permanent when dry, so you won’t have to deal with colors bleeding together.
Professional Watercolor Markers
Watercolor markers allow you to achieve the look of watercolor paint with the control of markers. After drawing with a watercolor marker, apply water and see the creation transform into a watercolor painting. There aren’t too many professional watercolor markers on the market, but there is one key thing to look for when selecting them: They should be pigment-based.
Watercolor markers can be pigment-based or dye-based. Pigment-based watercolor markers are the most similar to watercolor paints. Winsor & Newton offer a great set of pigment-based markers. Dye-based watercolor markers (think: Crayola markers), on the other hand, aren’t ideal for professionals, as the colors easily bleed with water.
Professional Watercolor Pens
Watercolor pens, also known as brush pens, are similar to watercolor markers, but they have a more flexible tip and are generally used on their own, without water. Unlike watercolor markers, they’re not a true alternative to watercolor paints. Instead, they’re intended to be used like traditional markers, although you can dip the tip into water before marking the paper, which can create a more translucent color wash. They blend easily, allowing you to create beautiful gradients and ombre effects. Their flexible tip also makes them perfect for calligraphy and hand lettering.
For the best professional watercolor pens, check out sets by reputable brands such as Arteza, Tombow, and Ecoline.
Upgrade Your Tools
Your watercolor supplies matter. As your experience grows, your paints, brushes, pencils, and pens should evolve, as well. By selecting high-quality watercolors and tools, you can create higher quality, long-lasting paintings that you—and your buyers—can display for years to come.
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