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Watercolor painting (or aquarelle) is an art-form that's been around for centuries. The technique calls for preserved, water-soluble pigments, which soften and become paintable with a bit of water. Relatively straightforward and easy to clean up, it's often one of the first painting methods people learn—but that doesn't mean it's only for beginners.
Novices, established artists, kids, and everyone in between can explore their creative sides with watercolor. Having said that, not all sets are created equal. User-friendly pans are great for all skill levels, though tubes are versatile, ultra-smooth, and a little more mixable. You'll also find some kits that come with paintbrushes and brush pens—just add paper. If you're ready to get started, you've come to the right place. We pored through the internet to find the crème de la crème of watercolor sets.
Here, the best watercolor paints you can buy today.
Best Overall: Winsor & Newton Cotman Water Colours 45 Half-Pan Studio Set
Great color options
Will last a long time
Colors could be richer
Easy to contaminate colors
For a high-quality kit that checks all the boxes, your best bet is the Cotman Water Colours Studio Set. You'll get 45 half-size pans in a broad array of colors, ranging from lemon yellow to mauve to indigo to lamp black. With so many stunning shades, you won't have to spend much time blending colors.
The set is great for beginners and advanced painters alike. These long-lasting watercolor paints are brilliantly pigmented but also have good transparency and tinting strength. With a compact case and a built-in mixing tray, they're perfect for travel, painting classes, or at-home art.
"This is a great set for beginners who want to learn how watercolors react to water and different types of paper. I liked the way this paint looked on paper the best out of all the sets we tested." — Erika Owen, Product Tester
Best Value: Artist's Loft Necessities 36 Color Watercolor Paint Value Pack
For beginners and professionals
Good for card making, illustrations, and calligraphy
Acid-free, washable, non-toxic paints
Small pan size
If you're looking for an affordable set that doesn't skimp on colors, we recommend the Watercolor Paint Value Pack from Artist's Loft Necessities. It comes with 36 highly pigmented pans, with good distribution around the color wheel.
The paint itself has a smooth consistency and offers great coverage on paper, glass, ceramic, wood, and a range of other surfaces. The pans are on the smaller side, so this pack isn't a great pick if you find yourself favoring the same colors over and over or you plan to do a lot of painting right away.
Best for Beginners: MozArt Supplies Watercolor Paint Essential Set
Partitioned, 3-part lid can be used to mix colors
Small and portable palette
Only 24 colors
The Mozart Essential Set is ideal for those just beginning to explore the world of watercolor painting. With 24 go-to colors, a mixing tray, and a versatile paintbrush, you'll have everything you need to get started—except paper, of course.
The rich and vibrant colors are easy to blend and offer a clear, crisp finish on the page. This set comes in a lightweight yet sturdy metal box, making it portable and easy to store away if you don't have a designated corner of your home for crafting.
Best Color Selection: U.S. Art Supply Professional Watercolor Paint 36 Colors
Long-lasting paint tubes
Mixing wheel helps reduce paint waste
Good for beginners
Not professional grade paints
Advanced painters will appreciate this set from U.S. Art Supply. It comes with 36 high-quality watercolor paint tubes in a broad range of supremely pigmented, mixable colors. We're talking burnt umber, scarlet, viridian, and everything in between.
The set also includes a double-sided mixing wheel that helps you figure out what will happen if you mix certain tubes together. This tool can act as a guide for those who are newer to mixing their own colors, reducing paint waste.
Best for Professionals: Arteza Premium Watercolor Paint 60 Water Colors
Choice of 60 colors
Good for all skill levels
Watercolor paints can always be mixed to achieve a desired color, but with the Arteza Premium set, you can do less mixing and more painting. The box comes with 60 colors, each in a little easy-to-squeeze tube.
Information about the pigment, lightfastness, and transparency are printed right on the sides of the tubes. All of that information might seem overwhelming for beginners, but it can help more advanced painters choose the right paint. As for the paint itself, you can count on a non-toxic formula that's easy to blend and suitable for all skill levels.
Best Pan: Kuretake Gansai Tambi Watercolor 36 Colors Set
Slightly glossy finish
Large watercolor amounts
Palette and color chart included
Some may not like finish
The Gansai Tambi set from Kuretake comes with 36 watercolor pans in rich, striking hues. The paint itself is ultra-smooth, not at all granulated, and opaque with a slightly glossy finish. It comes in a pretty green box with a color chart.
The pans stay in place thanks to a protective sheet, but you can also take them out individually and use the tray as a mixing palette, if you need to create new colors. The pans themselves are larger than standard watercolor pans, which means they last longer and they're easier to paint with, since you can saturate your brush much more easily.
Best Tubes: M. Graham Artists' Watercolor Tubes
Colors are super-rich
Large paint tubes last a long time
Only five colors
You can't go wrong with M. Graham Artists' Watercolor paints. The impressively pigmented tubes come in a wide range of colors, which you can buy in singles or sets. Each color is individually developed to bring out the pigment's unique qualities.
The super-rich yet easily dilutable paints are produced in small batches and formulated with honey to prevent drying out. You can count on them to last for months—maybe even years—a quality hobby painters will definitely appreciate.
"If you aren’t an experienced blender—like, ahem, myself—the M. Graham option is great for experimenting because you get a hefty amount of paint in each tube. The colors are rich, but possible to blend even without an expert touch." — Erika Owen, Product Tester
Best Vivid: MeiLiang Watercolor Paint Set
36 vivid watercolors
Arabic gum increases gloss and transparency
Portable with box lid as a mixing palette
Small color pans
MeiLiang Watercolor Paints are extremely pigmented, not chalky or grainy, and glossier than most other formulas. This set comes with a user-friendly waterbrush and 36 intensely vivid colors, all set in pans within a cute teal case.
The sturdy metal box is small enough to take on a trip or to a painting class but also big enough that it doubles as a mixing palette. Paired with the waterbrush, this paint set is incredibly portable, so you can take it outside and be inspired by nature while you paint.
Best for Kids: Crayola Washable Watercolor Set 16 Colors
Great for all ages
Limited color range
The Crayola Washable Paint Set is the best option for kids. It comes with 16 watercolor pans in all the essential colors, plus a paintbrush designed for small hands. We like that the semi-moist paint is easy to lift onto your brush and that the non-toxic formula easily washes off skin, clothes, and furniture.
The color range is limited, but this set will keep any kid who loves to paint or color happy. It even comes with a paintbrush, and the clear lid can be used as a palette if your child wants to experiment with mixing colors.
Best Brushes: Benicci Artist Brushes High Quality Set of 12
Ideal brushes for watercolors
Wide variety of brushes
Quality is best for beginners
Benicci Artist Brushes can be used with all types of paints, but they're ideal for watercolors. This 12-pack comes with six flat brushes in various sizes, four round brushes, a fanned brush, and a filbert (filberts are a hybrid of a flat brush and a round one).
The soft yet durable nylon bristles on these paintbrushes work well with watercolor on paper, though you can also use them on canvas, fabric, or wood. And the easy-to-grip handles help you maintain a steady hand.
The best watercolor paints overall are Winsor & Newton Cotman Water Colours. The Half-Pan Studio Set comes with 45 high-quality paints, each with impressive pigment, tinting strength, and transparency (view at Amazon). However, if you prefer tube paints or want even more colors, you can't go wrong with the Arteza Premium 60 Water Colors set (view at Amazon).
What to Look for in a Watercolor Paint
Some watercolor paints are sold in individual tubes, allowing you to select exactly the colors you want. Others are sold in sets, so you’ll want to evaluate which colors are included to make sure they meet your needs. Beyond that, consider the pigment of various paints, as more heavily-pigmented paints will produce brighter, more intense colors.
Watercolor paints can vary widely in price. In general, the higher the quality of paint, the more expensive it'll be. Your expertise—as well as how you intend to use the paint—will help you determine how much you need to spend to get the effect you want.
Beyond pigment, a paint’s texture can make a big difference—some are creamier than others and easier to blend with water. The texture can also affect how the paint goes on the canvas (or any other material).
How long do watercolor paints last?
Watercolor paints last for two to three years on average, but the lifespan depends on the type, formula, and how it's stored. Pans tend to last longer than tubes—in some cases, you might get a whole decade of use out of them. However, many watercolor tubes are formulated with ingredients like honey and glycerine to prevent them from drying out, and they can also last for years.
To help your watercolor paints last longer, make sure you seal them in an airtight container and store them in a dry place. While you don't want them to dry out, too much humidity can soften and ultimately dissolve the water-soluble formula.
Are watercolor paints non-toxic?
Most watercolor paints are non-toxic, meaning they don't contain high enough quantities of substances that are harmful to humans. In most cases, you shouldn't have to worry about getting it on your skin or inhaling fumes.
That said, formulas vary among brands. If you're concerned about toxicity, check the ingredients list or look for an option specifically labeled as non-toxic. Kids' watercolor paints are often formulated to be safe on the skin. And even if small amounts are ingested or touch the eyes, they're usually unharmful. Having said that, you should always call poison control or a medical facility if paint is ever swallowed.
Can you mix watercolor and acrylic paints?
Since watercolors and acrylics are both water-based paints, they can be mixed together. Just bear in mind that acrylic paints have a waterproof finish once dry, so you won't be able to use watercolors over them, as they won't stick. Your best bet is to start with watercolors and finish with acrylics.
You can also apply an acrylic glaze over your watercolor painting. This will dry the paint underneath and seal your masterpiece with a waterproof finish.
Why Trust The Spruce?
Lifelong arts and crafts enthusiast Theresa Holland has been contributing to The Spruce since 2019. She has an appreciation for watercolors and enjoys painting with her son. You can check out more of her writing on MyDomaine and Byrdie. To make this list, she considered each paint's color, cost, and texture.