Watercolor samples can be one of the best investments one can make in watercolor. Most of the sample sizes available are extremely affordable, but the main reason that I love them is because samples constantly save me from costly mistakes.
Paint swatches and descriptions aren't always accurate, especially when viewed on a computer screen. Watercolor samples not only allow one to see what a color is really like but also how the paint and pigments flow and dry on a page.
Since all of these attributes can vary according to brand and color, samples are a great way to experiment and explore without investing tons of money into costly, full tubes.
Watercolor dot sets and tiny tubes are not only a great way to test paints but they can also be an easy way to transport colors—useful for quick, on-the-go sketching. Samples are also handy when you rarely use certain colors and don't want to keep around a full pan or tube.
Manufacturers constantly add new products, but below is the latest information on artist-grade watercolor samples currently available. Products are listed in alphabetical order according to the manufacturer.
To see what I colors and brands I keep in my own palette, check out this post.
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American Journey Watercolor Samples
Cheap Joe's offers a fairly large selection of American Journey watercolor sample sets in dots and 5ml tubes. The sets are very affordable and range in price from $4 to less than $25 USD. Many of American Journey's more popular or experimental colors are also offered in individual 5ml size tubes.
Shipping is additional and can cost more than the samples, but Cheap Joe's often offers free shipping deals to email subscribers. All of their items are also available for purchase at their retail store locations.
If you're interested in learning more about American Journey watercolors, see my review.
Daniel Smith Watercolor Samples
Daniel Smith's watercolor dot cards have been around for a while and are currently available in two sizes—a 66-color "try it" set and a 238-color dot set that contains nearly every color in their collection. Also, Jackson's Art is currently offering a Daniel Smith 12-color dot set that's free with any purchase.
But be forewarned: DS is not generous with their dots! You'll be able to see the color, but that's about it. There's not enough paint to adequately evaluate performance.
Daniel Smith also offers many of their watercolors in a convenient and portable 5ml size and occasionally releases special edition and sample sets which are also available in these trial-sized tubes. Since DS dots are so limiting, I prefer these options.
If you're interested in learning more about Daniel Smith watercolors, see my overview.
Da Vinci Watercolor Samples
Da Vinci has a super sample set of 24 gorgeous colors and shipping on this set is free in the U.S. The dot set contains very generous samples of a wide variety of Da Vinci's best sellers from transparent to opaque along with plenty of single-pigment shades.
It's also worthwhile to keep an eye on Da Vinci's available sample set collections because DV often introduces limited edition sets in various mediums and colors. (I've already heard about a new goodie that will be released soon! Stay tuned...)
If you're interested in learning more about Da Vinci watercolors, see my review.
Holbein Watercolor Samples
Holbein offered dot sample cards for a while but these have gotten rather hard to find. However, if this is a brand that you really want to try, it may be worthwhile to track down a set. (At the moment, DaVinci Artist Supply has a few left.)
I hope Holbein will rerelease dot cards, but I'm not holding my breath. In the meantime, Holbein and/or their retailers occasionally offer small, affordable 5ml sets. Some of Holbein's colors are also available in individual 5ml tubes, though these can be rather pricey and hard to find.
Currently, Cheap Joe's has a 6-color Taste of Holbein set and Jackson's offers a 6-color Introductory set. However, the most bang for your buck is this 12-color set on Amazon that's currently about the same price as the 6-color sets.
Sennelier Watercolor Samples
Sennelier has just introduced new sample sets that are marketed as Test Packs. Their watercolor test pack contains 5 generously sized 10ml tubes of various colors and is much cheaper than buying each tube separately.
Also, Sennelier occasionally offers surprisingly affordable watercolor mini sets. (Also available at Jackson's.) These sets come and go, so if you see one you like, it's usually prudent to grab it at the best price that you can.
Besides half pans, Sennelier's smallest size is a 10ml tube. These tubes can cost nearly as much as Sennelier's 21ml tubes, so I usually don't recommend them. However, if you're unsure about the color and/or the brand, the 10ml size can still be a wise buy.
Schmincke Watercolor Samples
Schmincke Horadam offers a variety of ways to try their massive selection of watercolor paints, but at the moment, the best way to test Schmincke is for free. Currently, Schmincke's 12-Color dot card is available (one per customer) with any order at Jackson's Art.
Tip: To choose your country's currency at Jackson's, click in the upper righthand corner. Also, be sure to keep an eye on their test pack and samples page!
If you're interested in learning more about Schmincke Horadam watercolors, see my review.
Winsor & Newton Samples
So far, Winsor & Newton hasn't entered the dot sample market, but Jackson's Art currently has a small WN 6-color dot card sample set.
However, WN offers 100+ of their colors in a handy 5ml tester size, and because of the popularity of this brand, these tiny tubes are easy to find at a wide variety of retailers including craft stores, many which constantly offer 40-percent off coupons. (However, I've often found that the prices at craft stores are much higher that art supply retailers, so sometimes the coupon just brings a tube down to "normal" price.)
For the best price on WN's 5ml tubes, it pays to shop around. Look for coupons, deals, sets, and sales. And don't forget to check clearance areas! I often find the best prices at U.K. stores like Jackson's where international shipping can be surprisingly cheap or free.
If you're interested in learning more about Winsor & Newton watercolors, see my overview.
Other Ways to Score Samples
There are a few other ways I've been able to test watercolors without purchasing full-sized tubes... or making any purchase at all! The tips below may be worth the effort.
Poke around in art & craft stores.
I've found free samples and dot cards sitting out on store shelves. (If you're lucky enough to find these, please practice self control. I've seen folks stuffing their pockets with sample cards. Not cool!) Also, ask retail staff if they have any samples or dot cards to share. Because of certain greedy, uncouth people (but never me or you), these goodies are often kept behind the counter.
Contact manufacturers or distributors.
Some art supply manufacturers won't respond to requests for free samples, but some will! Again, it's good manners to only request samples from brands in which you're genuinely interested, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the generosity of many manufacturers and distributors. Most really do care about each individual, possible customer—and that would be you!
Look for free-with-purchase deals.
Like the Jackson's freebies that I mentioned above, other retailers occasionally offer free samples with purchase. The problem is that they're rarely advertised, so I often run across these deals either accidentally or when shopping for art supplies. Again, just another reason to build a great relationship with your local art store and/or subscribe to their emails!