Do cheap watercolor paints work just as well?

Feb 22, 2023

For those who are not watercolor artists, the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of watercolor painting is a plastic container with circles of dry pigment that we all used as kids.

We all kind of know what it’s like painting with these - they can feel chalky, gritty, and watered down. For this reason, I have people respond with surprise when I tell them my paintings are painted with watercolor. They can’t imagine someone rendering a compelling scene with what they associate with watercolor paints. 

But how much of a watercolor painting’s success really has to do with your supplies? Have you wondered if the money you spend on watercolor supplies is truly worth it? I’ve certainly overestimated the difference an upgrade in supplies - buying a certain watercolor brush or easel - will make in my paintings.   

Today, I am going to see what I can accomplish with the same watercolor paints I was given as a boy. This experiment is brought to you by this messy paint set used by my kids.

The differences between cheap paint and professional-grade paint

First things first, let’s address how to use these watercolor paints. First, I wet them down with a spray bottle. They are really dry, and I have to do this periodically throughout the painting process. Secondly, I soak the color up with my brush and mix them on the lid of my palette. 

As I attempt to make this scene with these cheap paints, the differences I notice from the Daniel Smith paints that I am used to are:

  • It’s much more difficult to get the rich color and saturation that I am used to. 
  • When mixing, things get muddy really fast, so it’s hard to make the colors I want.
  • The texture of the cheap paint is chalkier and grittier.
  • It’s nearly impossible to achieve the consistency I am used to.
  • Dry brush marks and texture are more difficult to achieve.
  • The paint dries very quickly. 

How did painting with cheap paint go?

The painting process was more frustrating than usual, that’s for sure. You can hear my aggravation and annoyance as I go along. This is my reference photo, and I have to say, the result wasn’t half bad. 

See for yourself:



What matters more than your watercolor paints?

There is a significant drop off in quality, in appearance, in mixing, and in strength when you go from a professional-grade paint to the very cheapest level of paint that you can get, but what doesn't change is your ability to see values, to see the shapes of the scene, to come up with a good composition.

You might wonder: Do I have the right paper? Do I have the right brushes? Do I have the right easel? I remember being there too. I would always want to see what certain artists had on their palette, but really the secret ingredient that makes the most difference is time - devoting time to your craft. It's the most difficult resource to get your hands on, but it's the one that’s the most valuable.

It is kind of surprising what you can accomplish with some really cheap supplies. If you know the basics of watercolor and some of the fundamental skills that will still translate no matter what supplies you are using. 

How much difference does the quality of watercolor paint make? 

Of course the quality of paints makes a difference, but there are things that affect the result of your painting much more than your supplies. A set of cheap watercolor paints used by an artist with knowledge of value, composition, and who has a solid watercolor painting still has potential. 

It is the time and effort that you put in - the learning you do with the supplies you have - that has the most influence over your finished product. The things that are going to make the most difference in your painting - more so than the supplies that you choose to use - is spending time in your sketchbooks, working out compositions, practicing your watercolor washes, and learning about values. 

That being said, I will be giving these paints back to my kids and I will continue using my Daniel Smith paints.



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Watch my FREE Video Lesson 7 Secrets of Fresh, Powerful Painting.

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