I'm all about saving money and see no reason to spend more on something when spending less will do. The same principle works when purchasing watercolors.
When it comes to cost, watercolor paints can vary widely even within the same brand. There are valid reasons for this—for example, raw pigments aren't all priced equally—but there are also some rather ridiculous and even unexplainable reasons that a particular tube of paint may cost more. And sometimes, it's much more!
To save money, it helps to take a deeper look at the true cost of various brands and paints. Below, I'll compare costs of popular brands and colors and share 5 tips for saving money on watercolors. At the end of the post, I also share a printable watercolor cost comparison booklet that you are welcome to download and use as a handy reference.
So here's to saving money and making valid, informed decisions about which brands and colors to buy. I hope these 5 tips help!
Important Information about Pricing
Unless noted otherwise, all of the prices below are per milliliter and were taken 9/13/17 from Cheap Joe's Art Stuff website. Prices constantly change, so feel free to use this as a guide, but always do your own cost comparisons before purchase.
Saving a few pennies per milliliter may not seem like a big deal at first, but a 15ml tube that costs only 15 cents more per ml will cost $2.25 more at checkout, not including the additional sales taxes. Multiply that increase by the 12 to 24 colors in a palette, and your wallet can take a serious hit with this seemingly tiny increase.
I recognize that these prices will only be relevant within the U.S. If you live outside of the States (or even if you don't!), I highly encourage you to spend an hour or two compiling a spreadsheet that compares costs of a few of your favorite brands and colors. It was an extremely helpful, eye opening experience for me, and it may be for you also!
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Tip #1: Value size
If you’re on a tight budget, I know it’s tempting to purchase a 5ml tube of paint because it “cost less.” However, you’ll actually pay dearly for this size tube—oftentimes thrice as much. The 5ml sample or tester sizes are only a good value if you’re unsure whether or not you’ll like or use a color and/or brand. After all, wasted paint is wasted money.
However, if the pigment and brand is a beloved color in your stash, it’s worth saving up for the largest size available. High quality watercolors will last nearly forever, so if you'll eventually use it, it won't go to waste.
American Journey, Da Vinci, Sennelier, and Winsor & Newton are all excellent brands and offer economical 21ml or 37ml sizes in many of their colors. The chart above shows how much you can save by sizing up.
Tip #2: Choose a similar but less expensive color.
I’m not really picky about yellow. A yellow is so easy to manipulate, and as long as it’s not an extremely cool yellow or an opaque Cadmium, I can usually paint and mix with it just fine.
Daniel Smith's Hansa Yellow (PY97) was the first yellow tube watercolor that I ever owned. It worked fine so I stuck with it… at least until I began comparing prices. After that, I chose a more affordable option and have never looked back.
The same goes with other stable, common pigments like Phthalo Green and Pyrrol Red. These colors usually showcase little variance among professional-grade brands, but prices can vary widely. As long as the paint performs well, I see no reason to pay more for a particular brand of these pigments.
Another way to seek out affordable colors is to keep an eye on series numbers or letters.
The wholesale prices of pigments vary, but instead of pricing each color separately, manufacturers or brands sometimes group similarly priced colors into “series.” Each series contains a range of colors that are offered at the same price.
As a general rule, as the series numbers or letters increase within a brand, so does the price. To save money, look for staple colors in the lower series.
Tip #3: Fill your own pans.
A typical half pan can hold around 2ml, so a 15ml tube of Daniel Smith's Burnt Sienna (one of the pricer brands) that currently costs $11.26 at Amazon will fill a half pan more than 7 times at a scant $1.60 per pan.
To figure out your own costs, divide out the price per ml in a tube of paint. Multiply that by two (for 2ml) to find out the cost of a half pan, by four (for 4ml) to find out the cost of a full pan, and then add in the cost of the empty pan.
By the way, pan sets are normally a horrible deal. Not only will you end up with colors that you don't care for or use, but you're paying for the packaging. No matter how you do the math, you'll nearly always come out ahead if you DIY.
If you'd like ideas on putting together an affordable watercolor palette using pans, this article may help.
Tip #4: Consider the entire cost.
It’s important to recognize that good value goes beyond the price of the tube. Before spending your hard earned money, ask yourself… Do you like the texture? Does it shrink, crack, or fade when drying, or is it hard to rewet? Does it mesh with the other brands/pigments in your palette? Do you enjoy using it?
For example, a watercolor that's extremely affordable or downright cheap but isn’t good quality or doesn’t fit your painting style will turn out to be a wasteful, expensive choice. On the other hand, if you love a brand but the prices make your heart drop, I’m certain there are other high quality but more affordable alternatives.
Wisdom strikes a balance and can help you find watercolors that work well yet won’t break the bank.
*I did reach out to DS about the shrinkage issue (twice), and here's their response: "Daniel Smith watercolors in tubes contain water. When squeezed into pans the water will evaporate over time (losing moisture) possibly showing shrinking." Since all tube watercolors contain water, I learned nothing that would explain why DS shrinks a lot more than other brands... unless I'm paying for a whole lotta water. If I ever discover the truth, I'll let you know.
Tip #5: Network.
Sign up for sales notifications. Seek out online groups and forums that host art supply trades or sample swaps. Shop used, and be willing to dig through clearance bins. Ask manufacturers for samples. (But don’t be base… only ask if you’re really interested in their product.)
Also, consider joining a local sketching or watercolor group. Artists are usually very kind, generous folks who love to talk shop. Through networking, you'll learn a lot about the various watercolors that members use, and many in the group may be happy to let you test a pigment or two from their palette. Plus, you'll pick up a lot of valuable information along the way!
Most importantly, get to know the folks at your local art supply store.
Not only can this help you track prices and possibly even discover freebies and deals on samples and full-size products, but you’ll also learn a lot of valuable information about watercolors that will help you make informed decisions. And wise purchases will always save you money.
Printable Watercolor Cost Comparison Chart
To help you make informed decisions, I've put together a 5 page watercolor cost comparison resource booklet that's free to download. It's not all-encompassing, so consider the information as a mini guide to the prices of some of the top pigments of 9 major brands.
It should also give you an idea of how widely prices can vary, open up your eyes to affordable options, and give you an idea of the pricing range of each brand.