Watercolor paints come in two forms: in tubes of liquid paint and in pans of dried paint that must be hydrated. Which type to use is a matter of preference, but there are a couple of instances where pans are clearly the better choice. If you like to paint en plein air—a practice ushered in by Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille—you’ll likely find that watercolor pans, many of which come in compact carrying cases that can double as palettes, are the most convenient option. They are also a good choice if you paint only occasionally, as you don’t have to worry about your materials drying out. Whatever your reasoning, choosing the right professional paint will make all the difference in your work. For our top recommendations of highly pigmented, rich, flowing pan watercolor paints, browse the list below.
Daniel Smith Watercolor Half Pans and Sets
Daniel Smith watercolors are beloved by many artists for their high quality. Each rich color is extremely pigmented and consistent, with superior lightfastness for hues that will not fade. These pan sets contain the same handcrafted, U.S.-made, extra-fine watercolor paint that Daniel Smith sells in tubes. Hand-poured into the pans, the paints are available individually or as sets, several of the latter having been selected by artists (the shades in the Ultimate Mixing Set, for example, were chosen by Jane Blundell).
Purchase: Daniel Smith Watercolor Half Pans and Sets, $6.34–$114.37 on Dick Blick
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Schmincke Horadam Aquarell Watercolor Pan Sets
The creamy paints in Schmincke’s Horadam Aquarelle watercolor pan sets are quite vibrant. The 140-year-old company, still owned by the descendants of the original Schminckes, uses only natural gums and water-soluble resins to make its paints, which are softer than other brands. While certainly on the pricey end, the paints last for years without degradation. Unfortunately, Schmincke does not sell individual pans to refill or expand their sets, but the same recipe is used for their tubed watercolors, which are sold individually.
Purchase: Schmincke Horadam Aquarell Watercolor Pan Sets, $89.97–$346.09 on Dick Blick
Yarka St. Petersburg Professional Watercolor Pans and Sets
Semimoist pans, like these from Yarka St. Petersburg, occupy a handy middle ground between the dry paint in pans and the wet paint in tubes. These paint palettes come to life with just the application of a wet brush, eliminating the process of adding water every time you paint. The texture creates a robust color that is distinct in tone from many other palettes, but still true and bright. Note that these are opaque and do not granulate.
Purchase: Yarka St. Petersburg Professional Watercolor Pans and Sets, $6.23–$79.99 on Dick Blick
TOP OF THE LINE
Holbein Artists’ Watercolor Paint Half Pans and Sets
Holbein’s professional watercolors are made with superior materials and never contain ox gall, a dispersant that can enhance flow but can also dull color vibrancy. The company uses both traditional and modern pigments that are ground to an extremely fine texture for paint that applies smoothly, consistently, and richly. The half pans are available singly in 48 colors and a handful of useful sets; replacement pans come with magnets on the bottom to hold fast to metal travel kits.
Purchase: Holbein Artists’ Watercolor Paint Half Pans and Sets, $8.78–$308.75 on Dick Blick
Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor Half Pans and Sets
Winsor & Newton’s artist-grade watercolor paints are excellent for detail work and smooth washes. The finely ground pigments don’t display granulation, and they show up on the page as bright, stark colors. This attribute also makes them blend and mix well. For archival purposes, 96 percent of the colors in the professional line are given top marks for permanence. The product design deserves accolades as well, with handy palettes for mixing in even the smallest sets and color information printed on the sides of the half pans.
Purchase: Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor Half Pans and Sets, $6.47–$113.40 on Dick Blick