Several watercolor manufacturers produce two lines of paints—a student series alongside their more expensive and usually more extensive line of professional or artist paints. I've long been curious about the differences between the two, so I thought it was time to put student grade watercolor brands to the test and compare several affordable sets.
Several years ago, I briefly tested a major brand of student grade watercolors. I was very pleased with them so I've often recommended that brand to readers, students, and beginners. However, I've learned a lot since then so I thought it was time to retest my initial impressions to see if there was a another budget watercolor set that could beat it.
Lately I've been experimenting with four different brands of student grade paints: Cotman, Daler-Rowney, Sennelier, and Van Gogh. Just like their professional counterparts, I've found that each brand is different and some perform better overall than others.*
Below, I share my opinions and short review of each of these brands along with several factors to consider before purchasing student grade watercolors. So let's dive into the showdown!
*I say this all the time, but I truly believe that there is no perfect brand of watercolor paint and results of each brand or color vary per user. Regardless of my reviews, always choose the pigment or paint that works best for you.
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Student vs Artist Grade Watercolors
When comparing student grade watercolors to artist or professional grade paints, I've noticed a few key differences. If you're serious about watercolor, these can quickly become major hindrances to the enjoyment of painting. However, student grade watercolors do have their uses, and I can think of many instances where one might prefer student paints.
Student grade watercolors tend to be less expensive so a quality set can be a good choice for someone on an extremely tight budget. They can also be useful for someone who only wants to sketch or occasionally paints, or adults or older children who want decent paints but don't need a $200 set... at least not yet.
Of course, the only one who knows what will work for you is YOU, but when it comes to student versus artist grade watercolors, there are several things to consider.
Student grade watercolors lack a variety of pigments.
Many pigments are too expensive for student grades' price point, so manufacturers tend to rely on a few common, inexpensive pigments to create a variety of colors. (In student grade, you'll see a lot of hues which is code word for "not the real thing.") Because of this, the color selection isn't as varied, more brighteners or extenders are added to enhance the colors, and many of the colors lack the excitement (granulation, flow variance, etc) of artist grade paints.
A brand's student grade and artist grade watercolors often have similar characteristics.
I've tested and painted with nearly all of the artist series of the brands featured in this review, and each brands' painting personality is very apparent and consistent in both lines. If you enjoy painting with a student grade line, it may be worthwhile to check out the brand's artist grade watercolors or vise versa.
Student grade paints can't and won't perform like the pros.
Watercolor manufacturers invest the most money, time, and testing into their artist grade lines. Because student paints lack a lot of the higher grade pigments, flow agents, and fillers (aka ingredients) that give artist grade paints their characteristics, student grade watercolors won't perform like the pros.
Artist grade paints should dilute and mix easily on demand and also flow and mix beautifully on paper while retaining their value. In comparison, student grade paints often won't dilute or flow nearly as well and have more of a tendency to fade, blossom, and turn muddy in mixes. Also, student grade color choices, tube sizes, pan and set options, etc, tend to be more limited.
Student grade paints were created to get an artist going, not to carry him or her through a lifetime of painting, so you may get bored with student grades' lack of options and performance. But for the occasional painter and beginner, high quality student sets will often work surprisingly well.
If you're interested in comparing several top brands of professional or artist grade watercolor paints, please see my overview. If you'd like to jump right into an artist grade 12-pan set, I've got information on building your own here or I also recommend Da Vinci's 12-color travel set.
Comparison of Student Grade Watercolor Sets
There's a ridiculous number of cheap watercolors floating around arts and crafts aisles, so when I set out to compare student grade paints, I knew that I needed a few guidelines. Most no-name watercolors aren't worth my time or yours. Since I was sick of sorting through junky paints, I devised three rules for a set to qualify for testing.
- A student brand had to be made by a company that also produces artist grade.
- The company had to disclose pigment info. (There’s one exception; details below.)
- A set of 12 had to be less than $25.
To give these paints the best chance of survival, I painted with all of these sets on artist quality 100-percent cotton watercolor paper and used only high quality Kolinsky sable brushes. I also tested for added brighteners with Canson Mi-Teintes black paper.
I've reviewed and listed each brand in alphabetical order below. Click on the brand's swatch photo to enlarge.
- Each of the sets that I tested included a minuscule travel brush. Since I don't enjoy using tiny little brushes and that's not what this article is about, I ignored those.
- If a set showcased a high level of brighteners in more than 75-percent of its colors, I ranked it heavy; 50 to 75-percent earned a rank of moderate; less than 50-percent ranked light.
- Bronzing is a visible sheen on the surface of dried paints that can be an indication of too much binder; further diluting the paint will usually mask this issue.
Cotman Sketchers' Pocket Box
Cotman is Winsor & Newton's student line and these popular watercolors are offered in a wide variety of sets and individual tubes. My favorite arrangement is the Cotman Sketchers' Pocket Box, a handy and highly portable 12-color set housed in a very sturdy case.
The pigment information is not on the box or insert but is located on the individual pan wrappers. Each of these wrappers has to be removed before use which is a bit of a pain. (Be careful not to discard pigment info along with the wrapper!) Also, the pans are very loose so I used a bit of adhesive putty to secure them.
When I first removed the wrappers, Cotman's paint surfaces appeared rather sketchy. And I don't mean that in a good way. The surfaces lacked uniformity and I was worried that the apparent roughness would be an indicator of grainy, washy paints. Out of the four sets tested, these are the only paints manufactured in China, so yeah, I was concerned.
My fears were totally unfounded. Cotman pans rewet and dilute easily, and the colors are flowy and glowy on paper—choice characteristics for watercolor. Colors are softer and more even than all of the other sets I tried. The colors aren't washy but they don’t vibrate off the page, and the paints also allow gentle layering. Cotman is probably the closest I’ve come to artist grade consistency, movement, mixing, granulation, and behavior.
Cotman is the student grade watercolors that I tested a couple of years ago, and my good impressions of them remain strong. You can learn more about Cotman watercolors at Winsor & Newton's website or download a Cotman color chart here.
Price paid: $13
Current colors available: 40
Case Size: 5" w x 2.5" h x .75" d
Case Weight: 3.3 oz / 95 gm
Replaceable/removable pans: Yes
Bronzing: None detected
Verdict: Even after testing many other student grade sets, the Cotman Pocket Box is still my favorite. As long as the quality remains the same, I have no qualms continuing to recommend these student grade paints.
Daler-Rowney Aquafine Mini Travel Set
Daler-Rowney produces three lines of watercolor: their professional grade called Artists' Watercolour, an Aquafine student grade, and a "value" watercolor range called Simply which I plan to avoid. I'm not very familiar with this brand but their Aquafine pan sets come in a lot of options including a 12-color set, but to save money I went with the 10-color set.
The case doesn't include what I would consider pans. Instead, the somewhat smallish paint cubes are housed in a flimsy plastic insert set inside a metal tin. However, the insert is removable and the tin is decent; see tips for refurbishing it here. I had a slight bit of trouble mixing on the metal surface (paint beads galore!) but I resolved this issue with a light scrubbing.
My first impression of Aquafine watercolors was good. All but one of the colors are single pigment, and it was a nice surprise to find Prussian and Ultramarine in a student set instead of the predictable Phthalos. However, my initial swatches dried streaky and I struggled with inconsistencies while painting—some colors painted out strong while some were very weak; some rewet easily and some didn't.
Aquafine watercolors have some flow but also a tendency to blossom. There's no pigment information on the packaging but Daler-Rowney shares it at their website where you can learn more about Aquafine watercolors and download a color chart.
Price paid: $11
Current colors available: 48
Case size: 4.5" w x 3.75" h x .5" d
Case weight: 3.4 oz / 96 gm
Replaceable/removable pans: No
Bronzing: None detected
Manufactured: Berkshire, England
Verdict: Out of the bunch, the Daler-Rowney Aquafine set can be the most affordable and offers the most colors but I found the watercolors rather unremarkable. However, if you want a lightweight tin or are a fan of Daler-Rowney's artist watercolors, you may enjoy them.
Sennelier La Petite Aquarelle Watercolour Travel Box
Sennelier's La Petite Aquarelle line is marketed as their student grade paints, but it's very easy to confuse the name, packaging, and paints with their artist grade L’Aquarelle. Though many artists profess that these two lines are the same, there are color differences. Also, I think Sennelier's artist grade paints are smoother (though I'll admit this could just be psychological).
If they are the same, it's a brilliant marketing scheme because La Petite is a more economical albeit more limited choice. Repackaging at a lower cost can gain Sennelier a new audience, but I'll cut right to the chase and state for the record: I don't recommend these paints.
After purchase, I was extremely dismayed to discover that Sennelier doesn't share pigment information for their La Petite paints. Had I known this, I would never have bought these because I want to know what's in my stuff. Not only does this information help me to be a better painter but it also enables me to handle paints responsibly.
For example, what if my cat or child drank my paint water? And I think 307 Cobalt Blue Hue is actually Ultramarine, but how can I know? Shame on Sennelier for this omission!
Since I believe it's essential for an artist to know what they're painting with, I repeatedly reached out to Sennelier—twice regarding this issue and also several times in the past regarding other issues. I've never received any response. As best I can tell, Sennelier's customer service is nonexistent.
*Sennelier artist grade is on the left & student grade is on the right.
La Petite watercolors rewet easily and flow really well but are highly variable; some colors are extremely weak (like Burnt Umber and Cobalt Blue Hue) and some are way too strong (like Deep Green and Primary Blue). Most of the colors are nicely transparent, but for some odd reason I had a difficult time cleaning Sennelier watercolors from my brushes.
Also, the case is bulky and the colors are close together which causes constant accidental mixing. (Contamination is easily apparent in the lead photo.) There aren't any pans so the paints must be completely used or removed to reuse the box. The hinge is very flimsy, and the case sometimes has trouble remaining flat during use.
Sorry for the artist rant, but unless Sennelier comes clean about what's in these paints [*note: see update below], I recommend skipping these. You can view Sennelier's limited information on La Petite watercolors at their website.
Price paid: $16
Current colors available: 24
Case size: 4.875" w x 3.75" h x 1" d
Case weight: 4.9 oz / 138 gm
Replaceable/removable pans: No
Verdict: When I finally found a sweet spot with La Petite (pro tip: skip the nasty greens and blues and mix using Payne's Grey), the remaining colors performed very well. But no pigment information, uneven color application, and messy paints make La Petite too frustrating to recommend. Regardless, if you love Sennelier or think you may like these...
*Update! After my review posted, a very kind reader reached out to me regarding La Petite watercolors. Paul M. has La Petite tube watercolors, and pigment information is printed on the tubes. Much thanks, Paul, for this information. Primary Yellow (PY74); Orange (PY83/PO73); Primary Red (PR254/PR188); Rose Permanent (PV19); Primary Blue (PB15:3); Cobalt Blue Hue (PB29); Deep Green (PG7); Green Yellow (PG7/PY74); Yellow Ochre (PY42); Burnt Umber (PBr7); Payne's Grey (PB29/PBk9); Titanium White (PW6)
Van Gogh Pocket Box
When I first dipped my brush into the Van Gogh Pocket Box and began painting test swatches, I immediately thought, "Ah ha! I recognize these paints.” Van Gogh watercolors swatch out extremely similar to Rembrandt, a brand that I reviewed more than a year ago. My initial impression makes sense because both brands are produced by Royal Talens.
The Van Gogh case is so heavy and bulky that I'm not sure it qualifies as a "pocket" box, and the plastic sticker overlay left a permanent residue. Ick. But the case is very roomy with a fantastic, pop-out expandable mixing surface. My big brushes really enjoyed the spacious, flat wells.
The case also seems very durable. While testing, the box suffered a rather nasty spill and survived intact. However, Van Gogh watercolors stay semi moist so several colors didn't survive the fall. Since I've struggled with sticky paints before, this makes me leery of traveling with Van Gogh.
The watercolors themselves rewet very easily and paint out extremely bold and opaque. When my swatches displayed a white residue, I immediately became suspicious of brighteners. My tests revealed that Van Gogh is absolutely saturated with them, probably more so than any other brand that I've tested.
I like to build watercolor paintings in gentle layers, but Van Gogh doesn't go for that. This watercolor likes to go down strong and be left alone but I did enjoy using them similar to gouache. The opacity and lack of flow also allow these paints to hold together better than traditional watercolor on inexpensive, colored, or kraft papers.
Price paid: $23
Current colors available: 40
Case size: 5.5" w x 3.75" h x .875" d
Case weight: 5.2 oz / 149 gm
Replaceable/removable pans: Yes
Verdict: Though Van Gogh is by far the most expensive set in the bunch, the case is very functional and these aren't bad watercolors IF they suit your painting style. If you want one-stroke boldness with very little flow, Van Gogh may be a good place to begin.