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Selecting Your Paint: Watercolor Kinds

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

Tubes? Pans? Fluid watercolors? Why are there so many different types of watercolor?

The Art Store Trip

Going to the art store goes something like this... glee as you walk in, overwhelm at the beautiful racks of rainbows, curiosity in trying to distinguish one from another, confusion over prices, resignation with a dash of hope as you walk out with something that should work. This quick little series on supplies will help cut through some of that middle-ground decision paralysis to keep that enthusiasm bouncing as you walk out of the store as well!

Pigment is a Powder.

Understanding this will help you understand those art supply store aisles. Pigment is found on earth and ground up in powder form. Us painters get to use that pigment with our brushes once it's combined with a substance to make it glide on the page. We call this variety of substances binders. Binders can be all kinds of consistencies: plastic-like goo makes acrylic, chalky gunk makes gouache, and a variety of syrupy-to-fluid ooze mix with pigments to make watercolors.

Different Forms, Same Pigment

Three Most Popular Forms

  • Tube: powder mixed with gummy agent. You can buy these as tubes and squirt into a palette or purchase them pre-squirted.

  • Fluid: concentrated color mixed with a fluid agent. Since the paint is fluid right out the gate, it'll flow through your wet paper quickly and seamlessly.

  • Cakes: much like a palette of pre-squirted tube paint but more chalky in substance. These have been baked into the pans. Less mess to the touch, but also less vibrancy.

Quality Plays a Big Role

I make it a point to discuss my materials in my classes for two reasons: you always want to know! And yes, because quality matters.

Not all pigments are made equal. Not all binders are made equal either. Consider another aisle, this time, we visit the grocery store. Let's say you're making spaghetti and need some pre-made tomato sauce. You'll face several options--from $1 to upwards of $10. You likely already have a favorite because this is not your first batch of spaghetti and you're not going to fall for a cheap solution that made you wonder if this is what the slums of Italy taste like.

I, too, have my favorites. My requirements are vibrant pigmentation and predictable consistency. I can't stand a gooey watercolor paint that needs to be massaged into the paper evenly, and you know that I like to pile on the colors! For this reason, I stick to my Dr. Ph. Martins Radiant Saturated Watercolors and my trusty back-up palette of Mijello Mission Gold Paints.

Of course, you could also purchase fresh tomatoes, garlic, sugar, salt and pepper, etc. to make your sauce from scratch. In the same way, purchase binder and pigment to make some paint! I can't help you much beyond that. But I will say that having Gum Arabic on-hand has helped revive the last bit of clumpy watercolor paint at the bottom of the tube.

It also makes me feel quite distinguished. Where's my artsy barret?


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