🌿 My Experiences With More Than 20 Watercolor Sets



🌿 Choosing a watercolor set from everything available on Amazon and popular art store websites is no easy task. I've tried dozens through my own collecting and thanks to manufacturers who have kindly sent me sets to review. I hope this list of considerations will help.

As you grow in your watercolor journey, you'll learn to seek out individual pigments from a variety of suppliers to build your own custom palette. However, when you're a beginner or would like an easy, breezy set for convenience, it's nice to purchase a good quality, ready-made set which won't get in your way. 

These are things I personally consider when shopping for watercolor sets:

  • The paints should not be chalky
  • I prefer transparent colors
  • Pigment information (e.g. PV19 or PY154) should be provided so we can better understand the chemistry of mixing as well as each color's lightfast qualities 
  • Highly pigmented paints are better for my workflow than anything dye-based; I only rarely like my watercolors to look "inky"
  • A good, transparent yellow is necessary
  • I need a Quinacridone Rose or other magenta color to paint flowers and mix purples
  • I paint a lot of botanicals and landscapes, so a good quality Sap Green is a must
  • I'm a lazy painter; I can mix but prefer to have a few of my most-used colors already provided for me
  • Although I don't sell my work in galleries (yet), I do enjoy giving paintings as gifts so I need to keep lightfastness in mind; I aim to find sets with over 80% lightfast colors overall and try to make sure the most important colors I'll use most aren't fugitive
  • Ideally, I select sets manufactured by respected companies in countries which protect workers; many sets listed here were sent to me for review and do not meet this goal
When compiling this list, I considered lightfast ratings offered by the companies themselves and cross-referenced with Kim Crick's problem pigment lists and extensive, brand-specific lightfast tests. I also used a UV flashlight to check for fluorescent brighteners which can cause fading in a short time and, in some cases, conducted my own summer window tests.

I hesitate to call these notes "pros" and "cons" because each artist has different goals. Let's call these observations.


sets I have tried

    • Available on Amazon
    • Typically under $45
    • Manufactured in China
    • Company based in Miami, Florida
    • Friendly, helpful customer service
    • Huge, 15ml tubes
    • No box or tin provided
    • Excellent color selection
    • 38% single pigment
    • 96% lightfast according to pigment numbers; no colors faded in my own 3-month test
    • One color (permanent red light) pings on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Will crack when dried in pans, but in a smooth way which does not present a problem
    • Ridiculously easy to rewet
    • Disperse well in water
    • Not inky at all
    • An early issue with Cerulean Blue has been remedied; new sets do not have the hardening problem mentioned in earlier reviews
    • Note: these paints are completely different than Art Whale's half pans (see below)

 

ART WHALE - 48 HALF PANS

    • Available on Amazon
    • Typically under $45
    • Manufactured in China
    • Company based in Miami, Florida
    • Friendly, helpful customer service
    • Extruded half pans in a traditional size
    • Fantastic, sturdy tin with rolled edges
    • Excellent color selection
    • 83% single pigment
    • 71% lightfast
    • Zero colors ping on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Tend to stay where you put them rather than dispersing wildly in water
    • "Heavy" and highly pigmented colors, but not particularly opaque
    • Not inky at all
    • Chinese Red (PR254) is especially nice
    • Burnt Sienna and Umber seem to have flip-flopped labels
    • Note: these paints are completely different than Art Whale's tubes (see above)

 

ARTISTIK

    • Available on Amazon
    • Typically under $35
    • Manufactured in China
    • Box feels cheap and won't close
    • They smell toxic
    • No pigment information provided
    • Nine colors ping on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Incredibly "inky"
    • Colors look unrealistic and unpleasant

 

COTMAN SKETCHERS' POCKET BOX, 12 HALF PANS

    • Available on Amazon | Blick | Jackson's
    • Typically under $35
    • Manufactured in China
    • Company based in London, UK
    • Extruded half pans in a traditional size
    • Pans arrived loose, falling out of the box; box leaks on table during use due to insufficient seal
    • Color selection was not what was shown in the Amazon listing; I did not receive quin rose and payne's grey as advertised; fine print says colors may vary which seems like a ridiculous policy for an art supply
    • 67% single pigment
    • 100% lightfast
    • Zero colors ping on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Tend to stay where you put them rather than dispersing wildly in water
    • Some difficulty in re-wetting
    • Not highly pigmented overall
    • Sap green and browns are weak
    • Not inky at all

 

DANIEL SMITH EXTRA FINE ESSENTIALS INTRODUCTORY MIXING SET, 6 TUBES

    • Available on Amazon | Blick | Jackson's
    • Typically under $50
    • Manufactured in Seattle
    • Company based in Seattle
    • Tiny 5ml tubes
    • No box or tin provided
    • Color selection is fine for what it is: a cool and red of each primary; however, this is not a robust enough set for beginners who may find it much too complicated to need to mix every other color (greens, violets, browns, greys)
    • 83% single pigment
    • 83% lightfast
    • Zero colors ping on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Disperse well in water
    • Five colors dried without issue in pans; French Ultramarine shrank and became so mangled it will be hard on brushes to re-wet
    • Very highly pigmented, vibrant colors
    • Cool yellow (Hansa Yellow Light) is not transparent enough
    • Cool red / magenta (Quinacridone Rose) is delightful
    • Daniel Smith paints are excellent; I just don't recommend this set for beginners; see below for a great 24 half-pan set which would be easier to use


DA VINCI OPEN STOCK TUBES

    • Available at Blick | Da Vinci Website
    • Made by a family-owned company in California
    • Most colors are lightfast; refer to Kim Crick's problem pigment lists to cross-reference your selections
    • Set up nicely in pans with very little shrinking
    • Re-wet easily
    • Wonderfully pigmented colors which are not "inky" at all
    • Excellent, moderately priced, artist quality paints, especially for those living in the US

 

DA VINCI 12 FULL PANS

    • Available only on Da Vinci's website
    • Typically under $60
    • Made by a family-owned company in California
    • Most colors are lightfast; refer to Kim Crick's problem pigment lists to cross-reference your selections
    • Hand-poured full pans in standard size
    • Tin provided
    • Color selection is excellent, including a Quin Rose and Sap Green, but there is no grey so you'll need to mix that when needed
    • 92% single pigment
    • 100% lightfast (I or II)
    • Re-wet easily
    • Wonderfully pigmented colors which are not "inky" at all
    • Excellent, moderately priced, artist quality paints, especially for those living in the US

 

GENCRAFTS, 24 HALF PANS

    • Available on Amazon 
    • Typically under $20
    • Made in China
    • Clever box which includes a lift-out mixing tray and movable pods housing six colors each
    • Extruded half pans in a traditional size
    • No pigment information
    • One color (lavender) pings on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Disperse decently in water
    • After using, paints dry cracked with what I call an earthquake pattern of little fault lines across the top of each pan
    • Very difficult to re-wet
    • Color names aren't consistent with watercolor terms (e.g. dark green, ink blue, tangerine, etc.)
    • Very "inky"
    • Overall, there are much better options within this price point; consider the Van Gogh 12+3 instead
    • Note: GenCrafts tubes were unusably clumpy and gelatinous

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ISARO

    • Available at Jackson's | Isaro's Website
    • Made in a small studio in Belgium
    • I do not have a set, just an assortment of individual colors
    • Isaro watercolors are only available in tubes
    • Most colors are lightfast; refer to Kim Crick's problem pigment lists to cross-reference your selections (for example, Ultramarine Pink PR259 is rated 8 by Isaro but listed by Kim as a pigment which tends to fade in light washes)
    • Disperse decently in water
    • Dried nicely in pans with just a bit of shrinking from the sides
    • Re-wet remarkably easily
    • Wonderfully pigmented colors which are not "inky" at all
    • Isaro Yellow Light (PY129) makes an excellent, transparent mixing yellow


JANE DAVENPORT "BRIGHTS", 12 HALF PANS

    • No longer produced; described here only for comparison purposes
    • Manufactured in China
    • Extruded half pans in a traditional size
    • Small aqua-colored tin is adorable, but mixing area stains terribly
    • Color selection is designed to suit a niche; this will not likely be your primary, everyday set (there are four pinks, no Ultramarine Blue, and no earth tones at all)
    • 67% single pigment
    • 17% lightfast (suitable only for journaling or work which will be scanned)
    • One color (Best Friend) pings on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Disperse fairly well in water
    • Difficult to re-wet
    • Vibrant colors
    • Ridiculously fugitive 
    • Oddly, I still like this set given all these qualifications; it's actually fun to paint with because every color combination you mix results in an interesting retro-vibe 70s style which might be fun for a particular project in your sketchbook or for illustration purposes

 

MEI LIANG PRETTY EXCELLENT, 36 HALF PANS

    • Available on Amazon
    • Typically under $30
    • Manufactured in China
    • Made by the same company as Paul Rubens
    • Extruded "half pans" which are not typical size and cannot be moved around within the box
    • Fantastic, sturdy tin with rolled edges
    • Excellent color selection
    • 50% single pigment (no pigment information provided in this set, so I'm using the 48 set for reference)
    • 47% lightfast (no pigment information provided in this set, so I'm using the 48 set for reference; the company is not truthful about the number of fugitive colors included in this set)
    • Three colors (Alizarin Crimson, Mauve, and Dioxazine Violet) ping on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Disperse well in water
    • Re-wet fairly easily
    • Vibrant colors
    • Many colors are extremely "inky" with a high proportion of dye present
    • Fun to paint with thanks to the cute tin and loads of convenience colors, but only use these on watercolor paper or heavier journals and planners (several colors will bleed through a typical 80gsm notebook)
    • I cannot call these student grade because they don't offer pigment information to help new artists learn how to mix properly
    • There are too many fugitive colors for this to be a universally useful set; I would not choose these for painting anything to be given as a gift or sold
    • At this same price point, I'd recommend the Van Gogh 12+3 set instead because they are more lightfast and provide pigment information

MEI LIANG PRETTY EXCELLENT, 48 HALF PANS

    • Available on Amazon
    • Typically under $40
    • Manufactured in China
    • Made by the same company as Paul Rubens
    • Extruded "half pans" which are not typical size and cannot be moved around within the box
    • Tin is not as nice as the one included in the Mei Liang 36 Half Pan set, and it's a large footprint on your work surface
    • Excellent color selection for standard colors; shimmer colors are not strong
    • 38% single pigment 
    • 52% lightfast 
    • Three colors (Deep Magenta, Fresh Purple, and Deep Violet) ping on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Disperse well in water
    • Re-wet fairly easily
    • Vibrant colors
    • Many colors are extremely "inky" with a high proportion of dye present
    • Fun to paint with thanks to the loads of convenience colors, but only use these on watercolor paper or heavier journals and planners (several colors will bleed through a typical 80gsm notebook)
    • There are too many fugitive colors for this to be a universally useful set; I would not choose these for painting anything to be given as a gift or sold
    • At approximately the same price point, I'd recommend the Art Whale 24 Tubes or  Van Gogh 12+3 set instead because they are more lightfast

PAUL RUBENS ARTIST, 48 HALF PANS

    • Available on Amazon
    • Typically under $80
    • Manufactured in China
    • Made by the same company as Mei Liang Pretty Excellent
    • Extruded half pans in a traditional size
    • Fantastic, sturdy tin with rolled edges
    • Excellent color selection in the 48 set (I do not recommend the smaller sets as they leave out too many essential colors)
    • 79% single pigment 
    • 73% lightfast 
    • One color (Yellow Green) pings on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Disperse well in water
    • Re-wet extremely easily
    • Vibrant colors
    • Several colors are extremely "inky" with a high proportion of dye present
    • Extraordinarily satisfying to paint with, but I am frustrated that some of the most useful colors like Permanent Lemon Yellow and Tree Green (Sap Green) are not lightfast; therefore I can only recommend this set if you will be primarily painting in an art journal or planner
    • At approximately the same price point, I'd recommend the Daniel Smith 24 Half Pans Set With Extra Tin if you plan to sell your work or give gifts which will be hung on display

PRANG, SET OF 16 SQUARE PANS

    • Available on Amazon | Blick
    • Typically under $15
    • Manufactured in Mexico
    • Parent company Dixon Ticonderoga based in Florida
    • Extruded "half pans" in a unique size
    • White box offers a small mixing area; pans can carefully be moved around within the box but are not interchangeable with other brands
    • Included brush performs poorly
    • Decent color selection, but only one earth tone (a very weak brown)
    • No pigment information
    • No color names
    • No idea how lightfast these are
    • One color (I call it "mauve") pings on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Disperse well in water
    • Re-wet fairly easily
    • Colors are not particularly vibrant
    • Reviews from years ago are usually complimentary, but more recent reviews indicate quality may have dropped
    • I cannot call these student grade because they don't offer pigment information to help new artists learn how to mix properly
    • At approximately the same price point, I'd recommend the Van Gogh 12+3 set instead because they are more lightfast and provide pigment information

 

PRANG, SET OF 8 OVAL CAKES, WASHABLE

    • Available on Amazon | Blick
    • Typically under $10
    • Manufactured in Mexico
    • Parent company Dixon Ticonderoga based in Florida
    • Extruded oval pans in a unique size
    • Clear box offers a no mixing area unless you put white paper behind it; pans cannot be moved around
    • Included brush performs poorly
    • Decent color selection, but only one earth tone (a ridiculously weak brown)
    • No pigment information
    • No color names
    • No idea how lightfast these are
    • One color (I call it "orange") pings on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Disperse fairly well in water
    • Re-wet fairly easily
    • Colors look washed out; far too faded to be used as a primary set
    • Most colors are extremely chalky to the point they may rub off on your fingers when dried on the page
    • Reviews from years ago are usually complimentary, but more recent reviews indicate quality may have dropped
    • I cannot call these student grade because they don't offer pigment information to help new artists learn how to mix properly
    • At approximately the same price point, I'd recommend the Van Gogh 12+3 set instead because they are more lightfast, offer a lift-out mixing tray, have a serviceable brush, and provide pigment information

 

ROMAN SZMAL

    • Available at Jackson's 
    • Made in Poland
    • Small company directed by a gentleman named Roman Szmal who continually develops new and interesting colors
    • I do not have a set, just an assortment of 28 individual colors
    • Available in tubes and generous, filled-to-the-brim, hand-poured full pans
    • Many colors are lightfast, but be sure to refer to Kim Crick's problem pigment lists and her Roman Szmal review to cross-reference your selections because the company uses supplier information rather than their own independent, long-term testing
    • Disperse decently in water
    • Pans arrive quite sticky; place in freezer to loosen before unwrapping
    • Can be fairly difficult to re-wet depending on the color
    • Wonderfully pigmented colors
    • On the "heavy" side, performing similarly to White Nights
    • Incredibly affordable compared to other artist quality paints
    • Offers some fascinating colors which aren't available in most brands (e.g. Hematite Violet Shade, a PR2102 earth pigment that would be fantastic for painting animals and Cherry Quinacridone Red, a cheerfully transparent PR209 pigment which reminds me of a vibrant raspberry Slushy in the summertime)

 

SAKURA KOI, 24 HALF PANS

    • Available on Amazon | Blick
    • Typically under $25
    • Manufactured in China
    • Company is headquartered in Japan
    • Made by the same company as Holbein
    • Extruded half pans in a smaller chicklet size
    • Pans cannot be moved around
    • Box includes an extra lift-out mixing tray
    • The set I purchased included a fantastic Sakura water brush
    • Excellent color selection in the 24 set 
    • No pigment information
    • No idea whether they are lightfast, though I did my own window test and noted six colors which showed evidence of fading after the summer months
    • Two colors (Cadmium Red Hue, Jaune Brilliant) ping on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Disperse well in water
    • Very difficult to re-wet; pans dry crumbly
    • Vibrant colors
    • Several colors are extremely "inky" with a high proportion of dye present while others are extremely chalky to the point they may rub off on your fingers when dried on the page
    • I cannot call these student grade because they don't offer pigment information to help new artists learn how to mix properly
    • At approximately the same price point, I'd recommend the Van Gogh 12+3 set instead because they are more lightfast, offer a similar lift-out mixing tray, allow the pans to be moved around to your liking, and provide pigment information

 

SENNELIER L'AQUARELLE AQUA MINI, 8 HALF PANS

    • Available on Amazon | Blick | Jackson's
    • Typically under $25
    • Manufactured in France
    • Extruded half pans in a traditional size
    • Adorable tin similar to an Altoids tin, but no mixing area unless you put a white card behind the lid
    • Included brush is tiny but performs exceptionally well
    • Color selection is not conducive to making this your main set as there is no quinacridone rose (or even a cool red), no warm yellow, etc.
    • 38% single pigment 
    • 79% lightfast 
    • Zero colors ping on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Disperse well in water
    • Re-wet extremely easily
    • Vibrant, highly pigmented colors
    • I can't recommend this is an all-in-one useful set since it doesn't have a mixing area or a cool red, but it's a tremendous value for eight half pans of top-of-the-line, artist grade Sennelier watercolors; consider purchasing this and then buying a few extra colors like Quinacridone Rose (PV19) and Burnt Sienna (PBr7) along with an empty box and some empty half pans for a well-rounded setup

VAN GOGH 12+3 HALF PANS

    • Available on Amazon | Jackson's
    • Typically under $30
    • Manufactured in The Netherlands
    • Extruded half pans in a traditional size
    • Box includes thoughtful lift-out mixing tray
    • Included pocket brush is serviceable to start, but you'll want to collect other brushes for everyday use
    • Color selection is fantastic, including a nice Quinacridone Rose and Sap Green along with cools and warms of all primaries and helpful earth tones
    • 60% single pigment 
    • 93% lightfast (the only color which is possibly not lightfast is Prussian Blue which can shift in any brand)
    • Zero colors ping on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Disperse very well in water
    • Re-wet extremely easily
    • Vibrant, highly pigmented colors
    • Can run on the more opaque side when painting on journaling notebooks and planners, but seem much more transparent on actual watercolor paper
    • Van Gogh bridges the gap between cheap student grade paints and ridiculously expensive artist quality watercolors; it sits somewhere in the middle and is an ideal starting point for beginners; there may be better values at $100 or $200, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better, more complete set from a reliable brand for under $30


VAN GOGH 36 HALF PANS

    • Available on Amazon 
    • Typically under $85
    • Manufactured in The Netherlands
    • Extruded half pans in a traditional size
    • High quality tin with rolled edges
    • Included brush is decent
    • Color selection is fantastic, including a nice Quinacridone Rose and Sap Green along with cools and warms of all primaries, helpful earth tones, and several really nice convenience colors like Olive Green and Permanent Blue Violet
    • 53% single pigment 
    • 94% lightfast (the only colors which are possibly not lightfast are Permanent Orange because of its PO73 and Prussian Blue which can shift in any brand)
    • Zero colors ping on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Disperse very well in water
    • Re-wet extremely easily
    • Vibrant, highly pigmented colors
    • Can run on the more opaque side when painting on journaling notebooks and planners, but seem much more transparent on actual watercolor paper
    • Van Gogh bridges the gap between cheap student grade paints and ridiculously expensive artist quality watercolors; it sits somewhere in the middle and is an ideal starting point for beginners; if your budget is under $100, these are an excellent choice; if you have over $100 to spend, I might go with Daniel Smith 24 Half Pans Set With Extra Tin for a bump up in quality
       
WHITE NIGHTS 35 FULL PANS (LAVENDER TIN)

    • Sometimes available on Amazon | Sometimes available at Etsy
    • Typically under $85
    • Manufactured in Russia
    • Hand poured, filled-to-the-brim, full pans
    • High quality tin with rolled edges
    • Color selection is fantastic, including a nice Quinacridone Rose and one of my favorite Sap Greens along with cools and warms of all primaries, helpful earth tones, an especially transparent cool yellow (Aureolin, PY151) and several really nice convenience colors like Cobalt Turquoise, Quinacridone Violet, and Ultramarine Violet) 
    • 89% single pigment 
    • 89% lightfast (only four colors are possibly not lightfast, and all of them can be mixed using other colors in the set instead)
    • One color (Orange, PO64) pings on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Stay in place in water; great for illustrators
    • Re-wet extremely easily
    • Vibrant, highly pigmented colors
    • Not "inky" at all
    • This is my favorite watercolor set of all time, but the war has made them difficult to source in the United States; at a fairly similar price point, I might go with Daniel Smith 24 Half Pans Set With Extra Tin instead

 

WHITE NIGHTS 36 FULL PANS WHITE BOX

    • Sometimes available on Amazon | Sometimes available at Etsy
    • Typically under $85, but prices soared in 2022 because of the war
    • Manufactured in Russia
    • Hand poured, filled-to-the-brim, full pans
    • Proprietary box which will not fit pans from most other brands
    • Color selection is serviceable but not as strong as the White Nights 35 Full Pans (Lavender Tin)
    • 72% single pigment 
    • 69% lightfast 
    • Zero colors ping on my UV fluorescent brightener test (most likely to fade quickly)
    • Stay in place in water; great for illustrators
    • Re-wet extremely easily
    • Vibrant, highly pigmented colors
    • Not "inky" at all
    • I especially like Quinacridone Lilac (PV19), Indanthrene Blue (PB60), Green (PG8, not totally lightfast but gorgeous for painting forests), and Mars Brown (PBr6tr)
    • This is the older set and therefore more opaque and less lightfast than the far better White Nights 35 Full Pans (Lavender Tin); the war has made them difficult to source and more expensive in the United States; at a similar price point, I would go with Daniel Smith 24 Half Pans Set With Extra Tin instead

promising sets I have not tried yet

DANIEL SMITH, 24 HALF PANS WITH EXTRA TIN

    • Available on Amazon | Blick | Jackson's
    • Typically under $150
    • Manufactured in Seattle
    • Company based in Seattle
    • Hand-poured half pans; level may vary by color
    • Two tins provided along with 24 extra, empty half pans
    • Color selection is excellent
    • 79% single pigment
    • 96% lightfast
    • I have not purchased this set yet, but it's in my shopping cart as I have enjoyed most of the other Daniel Smith offerings I've tried
    • Be sure to choose a listing which says "shipped by Amazon" for ease of returns if necessary

Happy painting,
Ann




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