I had never used handmade natural watercolor paint before, but I had done some watercolor painting for fun over the years.
The reviews of the paints online seemed to indicate that I was missing out on something, so I decided to try out some handmade paint to see if it was that much better than the kind I bought at the store.
I also looked into what exactly the differences between handmade and store-bought actually are.
Table of Contents
- What is natural pigment watercolor paint?
- Different types of watercolor paint
- How to use watercolor paint in a pan
- How many watercolors do I need in a palette?
What is natural pigment watercolor paint?
Natural pigment watercolors are paints made from insoluble organic pigments that are mixed with a water-soluble binder made from gum arabic or synthetic glycols. These pigments are mainly derived from minerals or plants, but certain pigments such as bone black are animal-based. Each pigment is treated in different ways to fix and enhance the colors.
Natural pigments are used in many types of paints, and the base that they’re added to will determine the opacity, workability, and drying time of the paint.
A more opaque type of watercolor, gouache, will have the addition of a white extender, usually Calcium carbonate, which creates an opaque water-based paint.
Handmade watercolor and gouache generally use a water-soluble base made from gum arabic, which is a natural gum that’s derived from acacia trees. The gum arabic is dissolved in hot water, and honey and/or glycerin is added.
A preservative such as natural clove oil is added to prevent mold from forming in the finished paint. This liquid is the binder for the pigments, and is added to the pigment bit by bit until the paint is the preferred consistency.
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Different types of watercolor paint
Watercolors come in different forms and different qualities, so you need to choose the type that fits your needs best.
I always think of the super basic trays of watercolors that I gave to my kids to use when I think of the solid pan varieties.
Since those are horrific quality-wise, I used to buy myself tubes of paint when I needed to do watercolor painting because I didn’t think the pan types were any good.
However, I didn’t know that there’s also the complication of student vs. artist grade paints.
So, what are the different types of paint that you can buy?
Watercolor tubes and pans contain the same paint, but the pan version needs to be rehydrated before the paint can be used. Watercolor paint in tubes isn’t dried after making it, and it may have more glycerin, so it can be used without adding water, resulting in a more intense color. Paint in pans needs to be rehydrated by adding water with the paintbrush or a dropper before using it.
Student watercolor paints have more filler and fewer pigments than artist-grade paints. Student paints are generally less expensive but may require more paint to achieve a vibrant color, so they may look muddy and less vibrant than artist grade. Artist colors have more pigments and fewer fillers, so the color is more intense without layering the paint.
My experience with the cheap pan paints made me think that they were all pretty terrible.
However, as I mentioned above, I didn’t know that there was such a huge quality difference between professional and student paints, and commercial vs. handmade watercolors.
I asked Carolyn of Cate Regan Designs about this, and also why most of the handmade paints I was seeing were in pans and not tubes.
She told me “The tubed paint is mostly mass manufactured and contains fillers and brighteners that we don’t use. Some people do use tubes but they’re in the minority.”
I decided to stick to the pan version of paint to test, since that seemed like a more direct comparison as far as workability would go. I bought some of Carolyn’s paint and I bought a palette set of Winsor and Newton student-grade paint. Before starting, I had to get both sets of paint ready to use.
How to use watercolor paint in a pan
Watercolor paints in pans need to be hydrated before using them, either by gently brushing some clean water on the top of the paint, or by dropping some water on top and letting the paint soften. To keep the colors clean, mix the paint on a palette and clean the paintbrush thoroughly before touching the pans. The more water that is added to the paint, the more transparent the color on the paper will be.
Trying to keep the amount of water fairly equal in both sets of paint, I did some comparison swatches.
After testing both the handmade watercolor and the commercial student grade, I think that there were some differences that were noticeable, and that tipped the scales in favor of the handmade paint.
First, when I tested the handmade pans, it didn’t take much water at all to get a very strong color.
Even though I had read the reviews of the paint before buying it, I was surprised at the intensity of the color with a single brushstroke, and it was obvious to me that I wouldn’t need to use as much of it to get a good result.
The colors from the student grade pans were fine, but the interesting thing about them was that I needed two or three coats to get a similar color intensity as the handmade versions.
I could definitely tell that the handmade paint had either more pigment, or a higher quality of pigment.
Another difference is that the handmade paint had a more even coverage.
In the photo above, you can see that the store-bought blue paint had a more blotchy look to it, and the handmade paint looked smoother.
When I was painting it on it felt smoother, for lack of a better description, so I think it’s interesting that it basically dried looking smoother, too.
The last difference that I noticed was that the handmade colors had more of a depth of color to them, and they didn’t seem as flat.
The handmade yellow shimmer paint had a richer look to it and was a little more opaque than the store-bought paint. (This was not Winsor and Newton, it was a different brand that was also a student grade.)
The paint on the left was one coat, and the one on the right was two coats, so it did take more paint to give a similar shine.
The wet-on-wet sample above shows the handmade paint on the left and the Winsor and Newton on the right.
This photo doesn’t do the color on the left justice, the transparency that’s created by the wet effect looks like there are multiple layers of different colors in the swatch.
The color on the right is transparent in spots, but it doesn’t have the same rich tones that the lavender paint does.
Overall, the handmade paint had better coverage, a smoother feel and appearance when it dried on the paper, and it had more depth of color and didn’t look as flat as the commercially made student-grade paint did.
Different grades and types of watercolor paint have useful roles for artists, depending on whether you’re doing some practice work or something that’s meant to last.
But if you’re thinking of getting some nice watercolors, good-quality natural handmade paint will provide superior results for your artwork.
How many watercolors do I need in a palette?
In general, a watercolor palette should at least have the three primary colors of red, yellow and blue, possibly white, plus black or brown paint for shading. For a more expanded palette, an assortment of cool and warm shades of the primary colors plus some of the secondary colors should be included for convenience.
You want to choose enough basic colors to be able to mix the shades of other colors that you need, but honestly, the answer to the question of how many watercolors you need is totally subjective.
Some people are happy with a smaller palette that they can use to mix other colors, and other people prefer to have ready-made colors so that they don’t have to mix as much.
There are also metallic and shimmery colors, so you can add some of those if you want to expand your options as far as paint effects go.
I bought 7 colors from Cate Regan Designs to start my handmade watercolor palette.
They included a range of the basics, plus a couple of shimmer colors that could be used for highlights or for mixing.
I wanted to see how the colors would mix, so I made this simple chart to show the gradation between some of the colors, plus a couple of the shimmer colors mixed:
Making the chart showed me that I probably need to get a brighter red and a green that’s more on the yellow side to round out my collection of basic colors for mixing.
I’ll also add that making the chart did verify that the handmade watercolors have really good coverage without having to use more than one layer of paint.
If you’ve never used handmade watercolor paints before, give some professionally-made watercolors a try.
The quality is noticeably better, the coverage is better, and the pigments are more intense. And by the way, the answer to the question of how many watercolors you should have is “all of them.”
To see the directory of craft supply sellers, click here: Artisan Shopper Craft Supplies
To see handmade watercolors on Etsy, click here: Cate Regan Designs
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