When lurking in painting forums and stalking well-known art bloggers, you'll likely see Daniel Smith, M. Graham, and Winsor & Newton mentioned most often. Though I use a mix of artist-grade watercolors from a variety of manufacturers, these three watercolor brands comprise the bulk of my palette.
Though I don't think it's important to be brand loyal and doing so can actually work against an artist, brands are often known for certain attributes that fit a particular painting style. So I thought it might be helpful to compare these three, top watercolor brands along with their typical characteristics. However, all three brands are extremely well made, highly reliable watercolors that can work perfectly well together in a palette.
The comparisons below are simply my personal observations regarding the three brands of paint and not necessarily true of every tube in every color of that particular brand.
Also, brands and paints react and appear differently with each individual artist, so my opinions may not be yours. I highly encourage you to compare my observations with other watercolorist. Good places to start are these pages at Handprint and Wet Canvas (scroll down to “What Brands are Best”).
Oh yes, and for the sake of fingers that quickly get tired when repeatedly typing out the full brand name, WN is Winsor & Newton, DS is Daniel Smith, and MG is M. Graham. Of course.
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Overview of Winsor & Newton Watercolor
Winsor & Newton watercolors (or watercolours for the diehard WN fan) have been in production since 1835 and currently offer 96 colors. Through the years, WN has consistently produced an excellent product which has resulted in the brand often being described by artists as "The Standard."
And I do see the attraction. WN watercolors tend to be very transparent (I rarely notice any granulation in the colors I own) and look like traditional watercolor should on the page—very clean and bright. They lift easily (sometimes too easily) and move beautifully and, in my hand, build up slowly to darks which leaves me plenty of time to work the page.
Many artists love WN’s light value because the paints work so well in glazes, yet this characteristic can cause them to go washy in mixes, and their transparency often doesn't play well when mixed with highly granulating pigments.
Because of WN's longstanding popularity, this brand is very convenient to find; even general craft stores often carry them. Though WN is typically the most expensive of the three, in addition to their 14 ml sizes, WN offers many of their colors in an economical 37 ml size.
WN also offers plenty of their colors in 5 ml sizes, and though you'll pay dearly per ml for these tiny tubes, purchasing a few can help you test colors without a serious investment.
In conclusion, Winsor & Newton watercolors tend to be:
- light and translucent
- convenient to find
- the most expensive of the three
Overview of Daniel Smith Watercolor
Daniel Smith began in 1976 with the manufacture of printing inks, but they have become one of the most popular watercolor brands available— and with good reason. Not only does DS offer more than 200 colors, but their high-quality watercolors are often made with pigments that no other company offers.
DS is known for pushing the pigment envelope with masterly beautiful results, and they aren’t afraid to introduce new pigments and colors. The sheer number of choices along with the constant introduction of new ones is great for artists who love color and experimentation, but it can be overwhelming for beginners or frustrating for those who quickly tire of sorting through 40+ reds.
Also, DS has a strong love affair with granulation. Many seasoned artists love this, but many don’t. Strongly granulating pigments can be especially hard for beginners to control and may not play well in mixes. When using these pigments, sometimes I just have to back away and let the paint do its thing. Many artists aren't happy giving up that control, and I understand.
One other small issue I've noticed is that some DS colors (like raw umber) shrink drastically while drying, which wouldn't be an issue except I prefer to squeeze my colors into pans. Because of shrinkage, some of my DS colors have trouble staying put and will pop out of their pans.
Like WN, DS does offer 5 ml sizes for sampling, but smaller sizes are nearly impossible to find over the counter. DS offers various dot cards for testing, but again, they are nearly impossible to find in stores. Most art stores do carry DS full-sized tubes, so if you don’t mind shelling out a moderate sum for a color you know you’ll use, these watercolors are worth every penny.
In conclusion, Daniel Smith watercolors tend to be:
- strong & highly granulating
- offered in an array of colors
- moderate to highly priced (tubes vary)
Overview of M. Graham Watercolors
M. Graham was founded in the early 1990s by two artists, and they have remained a small company (by choice) that concentrates on producing extremely high quality watercolors. When I requested information, MG mentioned that their entire operation is “nine folks and a part time stray cat in a 3000 sq ft cinderblock building surrounded by hops fields in rural Oregon.” Gotta love that!
MG currently offers 70 colors of watercolor paints, and most of these are single-pigment tubes which makes them extremely artist friendly. MG was the first tube paints I ever purchased, and my experiences with these watercolors quickly won me over. They rewet immediately, are easy to control, and their strength helps beginners (and possibly experts, also) avoid overworking the paper.
MG tends to be more opaque than WN yet not as strongly granulating as DS, but MG is strong enough to mix well with many granulating pigments. This is my favorite mixing paint because it holds its strength quite well even when diluted.
MG paints are also very vibrant, particularly when wet, but vibrancy appears similar to other brands once dry. Some artists don’t like MG’s strength, especially when working in glazes, and I do think their pigments stain more easily. However, the paints are easily thinned and the power of these paints makes one tube go a long way. Since MG is already the most affordable of the three brands, this makes these pigments highly economical for artist grade paints.
Because MG adds honey to the base, these paints stay semi-moist in the palette are are easy to rewet. They also shrink very little while drying, and this characteristic keeps them tight inside my pans. However, I do have to be careful where I put my fingers! Long after painting, I've found traces of MG paints in surprising places.
In conclusion, M. Graham watercolors tend to be:
- very vibrant with a tendency toward opaqueness
- semi-moist; an excellent mixer
- moderately priced; the most affordable of the three
M. Graham update (Oct 2017): Since I first began painting, I've been a firm MG fan. I had heard of others having trouble with MG staying put in their palettes, but I've used them and carried them nonstop all across the hot, humid Southeastern U.S. with no problems. Ever. Until...
I moved to the N.C. mountains. Since our move, I've had nonstop issues with MG acting like soup in my palette. It has become such a mess here and ruined so many of my sketchbooks, packs and paintings that I've had to give up on MG completely.
I don't know if it's related to the climate or altitude, or if MG has changed their formula, but I've since switched over to mostly American Journey paints. (See below.) I'm reaching out to the company and working on a blog post about this, but in the meantime, I just thought you should know.
More Watercolor Brands
Below are my reviews on additional watercolor brands that are worth considering. I also have an in-depth article that shares how you can save money on paints and includes a printable brand cost comparison chart.
So which watercolor brand is the best?
I’m often asked, “What brand of watercolors do you recommend?” Actually, I don’t. There are more than a dozen major manufacturers of artist-grade watercolors, and there are also many small companies producing watercolors. Most of these folks make excellent watercolor paints overall.
I highly encourage anyone who asks to buy artist-grade paints. When it comes to watercolors, you usually get what you pay for, so splurging for quality materials can be worth the cost. But once you enter the world of well made paints, there really is no perfect brand.
Much of what brand you prefer depends upon how you paint, so favorite brands vary widely from person to person. Many artists (like me) use a mix of brands. When it comes to watercolor brands, the only “rule” is this:
Use the color that you love regardless of brand.
The same colors and pigments can vary widely from brand to brand. (You can see an example of this at my post here.) As long as you are using a high quality paint, its best to ignore brand names and focus on individual colors and pigments and how they work with your painting style.
Best wishes as you search out the best watercolors for you!