Best Watercolour Sets for Urban Sketching: Beginner to Advanced


When considering which set of watercolour paints to buy there are a number of factors to consider. If you are starting out then you probably don’t want to spend too much money, just in case you don’t enjoy your new hobby, however, you don’t want to buy a cheap poor quality set that’s not going to behave as it should and completely uninspire you – if this happens, then you probably will want to give up before you even really get started!

Some of you reading this may want to take the next step forward and buy a more expensive artist quality set. Or perhaps you want to build your own set, choosing your box, pans and paints for a totally unique collection to paint with.

I hope this post can cover most bases, whichever stage of your urban sketching journey you’re at. 

Things to Consider Before Buying:

  • Size/weight
  • Pans or Tubes
  • Number of paints
  • Mixing space
  • Price
  • Quality
  • Making your own set

Size / Weight

This is probably going to sound a bit strange but take it from me, after walking around or travelling continuously with limited luggage space, lugging around a metal box of watercolours filled to the brim with pans of paint, it can actually get heavy and a bit annoying.  

If you are planning on doing excessive amounts of travelling and have your watercolours with you everywhere you go I really advise taking this point seriously.  Life on the road got better for me when I cut my tin size (and amount of paints I carried) by half.

The size of your tin will also determine how much space you have for mixing.  Take this into account when looking for the right set for you. Having as much space for mixing as possible is always useful, especially if you do no clean out your mixing spaces very often (guilty)!

Sets of watercolour paints will usually feature half-pans or full pans. This refers to the size of the plastic container which the paint fills up.

Number of Paints

This feeds into my next point as the larger / heavier the paint set the more paint it probably has in it. You will see watercolour sets with anywhere from 8 ‘pans’ (plastic containers that hold the solid cake of watercolour paint) through to 50!

Something I learned fairly early on is that the higher number of paints in the set does not mean better.  For a start, this makes the set heavier to carry around, as mentioned above.

Having too many paint colours can also make you a bit lazy, you won’t learn how to mix colours as much as you would if you only had 8 of them as chances are you have a colour close to what you need in the set.

If you are a watercolour artist, painting in a studio, then the consideration of how many colours or the size of your set is not so important.  As we are discussing urban sketching, portability is important for the reasons mentioned in the section on size and weight.

Pans or Tubes?

As a beginner, I don’t think you should consider this question too hard. Just get a set of paint formed into pans. Later down the line, you may want to consider using paint from a tube. In the long run, it’s more economical, you can choose the pigments you want and you can pour the paint from the tube into an empty plastic pan and leave it to dry so it forms into a solid ‘cake’ of paint (see the later section ‘Make Your Own Set’ for more details).

Artists are divided on which form of paint is best. As we know by now the term ‘best’ is relative and depends entirely on your own circumstances and preferences.

Quality: Student vs Artist Grade Paints

Student grade paint can be a bit of a false economy. You will use more of student grade paint compared with artist-grade, so while student grade may appear cheaper you will actually use more of it, more quickly than you would do with artist-grade.

Taking a step up to artist-grade paint really helped my enthusiasm.  My colours were more vibrant and I became more confident in my abilities.

By all means, if you are starting out, go for student grade paints.  Don’t spend too much money upfront, just get sketching, that’s the most important thing. I’m fairly certain there are sketchers out there doing wonderful things with student grade paints. In some respects, there is more freedom using inexpensive materials as you are less scared of “wasting them” and perhaps that’s indicative of the “student” grade label.

If you find you love sketching and you are ready to take the next step, then invest in artist quality paints (and better quality paper).

Watercolour Sets: Organised by Price Range & Quality

Budget

I have named this section ‘budget’ as in some cases they are the same price as a few sets I have mentioned in the mid-range section. I wanted to mention these popular starter sets for the sake of balance and to highlight the kit I started with but as you will see if you read on, I highly recommend you skip the sets in this Budget range and choose something from the mid range section. Budget here is not really referring as much to price as it is the quality. For the same price you could buy an artist-grade set, such as the St Petersburg White Nights Watercolour Set which is my personal recommendation to get started with.  

PLEASE do not buy cheap watercolour sets intended for ‘craft’ or for kids. They are horribly cheap for a reason, they’ll put you off using watercolour forever and by trying to save money you will endanger the promise of your journey to watercolour mastery!  It’s a false economy – don’t do it!  Please buy something over $20 from a reputable art supply brand – I beg of you!

You can check out the HUGE range of watercolour paint at Dick Blick Art Supplies.

Winsor & Newton Cotman

Cotman is Winsor & Newton’s brand of student grade art materials. As well as watercolour paint, they offer brushes and paper under this brand name too. This was the set I started off with and I think many other people do too (I have seen the set in many photographs on Instagram or videos on Youtube).

The set contains the essential colours (well all except the white, this is not a pigment that’s required). By the time you have used up the pigments in the box, you will probably have a much better grasp of how watercolour works and what you may want to experiment further with.  In which case you could load the box with pigments of your own choosing.

The box is plastic and super nice and light, it’s a small size that can fit perfectly in your bag. The set also comes with a small travel brush. It’s not all that great however and far too small to produce a whole watercolour sketch. It does come in handy for smaller details though.

How to sketch in public
One of my first urban sketches, sat in my car, sketching a car!

Be careful with the price of this set – I have seen it in some art supply stores at a horribly inflated price.

This set is a reasonable price on Amazon. However, if you are in North America, Dick Blick has a great price on this little set.

Arteza

Arteza is a brand I keep seeing around more and more. I think they have been marketing their products heavily recently. They offer affordable art materials but it seems they do have an eye on the higher grade materials too. When I get a chance I am keen to try out some of their watercolour sketchbooks.

If you are looking for an affordable starter set then their 12 pan student grade kit here on Amazon is a bargain and a great kit to start with. It also comes with a water brush, although I am not sure whether it’s of a good standard.

If you want to try out a water brush please buy a decent one! The cheap ones are rubbish and will end up in the trash can very quickly. Decent ones are not too much more expensive (about US$7 each) and they actually work! I can recommend buying a  brush made by Pentel or you can buy a set such as this one. For more information about watercolour brushes for urban sketching, check out my post here.

Royal Talens Rembrandt Set

Made in the Netherlands, these are student grade watercolours, however, many who try these paints are surprised they are not artist-grade as the colours are so highly pigmented and they have a high lightfast rating. As such, these paints somewhat bridge the gap between budget and mid-range, as well as student and artist grade.

For those in the US & North America you find a range of these sets at Blick Art.

The sets above are great to start off with but for the same or similar price you can take a real step up in terms of quality and get artist grade paint that’s so vibrant and rich, it will make you grin ear to ear. 

Mid Range

The sets below are all artist grade paints at a very reasonable price, in some cases almost the same prices as the sets in the budget section.

St. Petersburg White Nights Watercolours

These are currently my favourite paints.

I bought a set in February 2020 after seeing Alicia Aradilla work with them in many of her demo videos over on her Patreon channel and in her photographs on Instagram.

The pigments are so vibrant.  Three-quarters of the paint range are made from single pigments, making the whole range easy to mix together and lightfast. These extra-fine watercolour paints are liquid poured and made traditionally in Russia.

The price of these paints is unbelievable. If you want to start with artist-grade paints then I highly recommend you start with the White Nights range, you will probably never need to look any further, to be honest.

There are various paint sets available with different numbers of paints and in either plastic or metal boxes.

The set I bought was labelled as an urban sketching set and I bought it directly from St.Petersburg here, it comes in a metal tin and has 14 full pan paints, I absolutely love it.

I cannot find the same set available to purchase with other retailers but Blick gave a range of sets which you can find here.

There also some sets here on Amazon or here on Jacksons Art.

I would spend my $23 on this set of paints any day. Skip the sets in the ‘budget’ section – they are the same price and nowhere near the same quality as these paints from St. Petersburg.

Winsor & Newton Artist Grade

My next step up from the Winsor & Newton Cotman set I mentioned above in the budget section was a Winsor & Newton set but with artist-grade paints (not the Cotman student grade). I think I stuck with Winsor & Newton because it was a brand I knew and also there was a great deal on Jacksons Art website at the time. 

Winsor & Newton are widely available across the world. The prices of their sets do seem to vary wildly from what I have seen but if you do see a set you can afford then I can highly recommend grabbing one. They are the best known brand for a reason.

For those in North America, check out the Winsor & Newton Professional (Artist Grade) sets available check out Blick Art Materials.

For those in the UK (and mainland Europe), check out the range available at Jacksons Art, my favourite art supply store, run by artists for artists.

I wasn’t quite as blown away with the pigment vibrancy as I had hoped when I opened up my first artist-grade set of paints. With that in mind, I would still recommend the St. Petersburg White Nights set above. However, as mentioned Winsor & Newton are more widely available across the world. 

Jacksons Art Own Brand

Jacksons Art (based in the UK but ship worldwide with very reasonable delivery rates) have their own range of watercolour paint which is professional-grade but far more affordable than the big name brands.

I have a few tubes of Jacksons Art watercolour paint squeezed into pans in my palette and I’m very happy with them which is why I would not hesitate to recommend checking out their own-brand sets.

They offer their own sets of watercolours in metal tins at various price points. A set of 12 half-pan paints are currently £28.50 which very roughly is US$36 (at the time of writing – 2020). So, again, a very reasonable price for artist grade paint and not too much more than student grade ‘budget’ sets mentioned earlier.

Top Range

As I am sure you can imagine, and possibly have already witnessed with your own eyes, watercolour paint can get expensive, like really expensive. That’s why it’s great to get a solid grounding first with more affordable materials before the temptation of trying something a little pricier lures you in.

Some of the sets below can still fall into the ‘mid-range’ price bracket but I have put them in the ‘top range’ section because of their quality. If you bought a full set of one of these brands, it would certainly set you back a lot of money. However, you can dip your toe in the water by just buying a few pigments in small tubes just to try them out and see what the fuss is about, which is exactly what I did when I decided to by some Daniel Smith paint.

Daniel Smith

People rave about Daniel Smith paints and I knew when I felt the time was right and I had a bit of cash to spare I wanted to try them out. Luckily, you can buy Daniel Smith paints in small individual tubes, or in small sets.

dickblick.com

I tried out the Daniel Smith Essentials set which comes with 6 pigments in 5ml tubes. Now, these tubes are small. Very very small. But once you take a minute amount of pigment from that tube and start to use it, you realise that a very small tube of paint will probably last you a year, or 5, depending on how much you paint.

This circles back to my point earlier when we discussed student versus artist grade paint. Student grade paint is less money upfront but for the length of time, artist-grade paint will last due to how highly pigmented it is, artist-grade is actually the better value. This argument means little though when we are genuinely a beginner who just wants to try watercolour out for fun.  Later down the line if you are painting every day and very serious about using watercolour, this point becomes more valid.

It’s true to say that when I painted my first swatches with this tiny little set of tubes from Daniel Smith, my mind was blown. I just didn’t ever realise watercolour paint could be this vibrant. 

Since my first Daniel Smith experience which was only ever available in tube format, the company now makes sets of pan paints in a box so that’s worth a look at too.  Here’s a useful review from Teoh Yi Chie:

Schmincke

I have not tried Schmincke paints as yet but they are a brand name I see and hear of continuously through the urban sketching world. Having not tried them myself I cannot offer too much insight into the nature of these paints. They are made in Germany and considered extremely high-quality artist grade paints. You can buy them individually in tubes or pans, and in sets of both as well.

Their student range is called ‘Akademie’ (pictured below) so if you want artist-grade paint from Schmincke, make sure you double-check the descriptions. The price is probably an indicator too!

This is a great portable set for urban sketching with 12 half pans. The paint is of extremely high quality and the colours are highly pigmented. The set comes with a Da Vinci travel brush (a very high-quality brush). The set is over US$100 though, so not one to be bought on a whim!

Or there’s this set which can carry water inside the travel tin, its absolutely beautiful – if I had the spare cash this Schmincke travel set would be right at the top of my “to buy” list.

For an in depth look at Schmincke paints, check out the video below:

There are of course a wide range of other top range brands offering staggeringly high quality artist grade paints. As I have not tried many myself, I feel it would be disingenuous to talk about them in anything other than surface facts.

As such, here is a list of some of the sets that would be practical for urban sketching (bearing in mind our keyword of ‘portability’) and you can dig deeper if you are comfortable with this price range of paints. If and when I try more paint sets I shall come back and add to this guide.

  • Mission Gold – highly regarded brand of paint manufactured by Korean company Mijello, available in tubes or as a set of pans
  • Holbein – made by a Japanese company, predominantly available in tubes
  • Golden QoR – only available in tubes, there’s an introductory set of 12 5ml tubes available here on Amazon.
  • M. Graham is one of the most highly regarded watercolour brands on the market. The paints are made in the USA and only available in tubes. Here is a 5 tube starter set, great if you want to learn how to mix any colour!

Making Your Own Watercolour Set

You can buy separate components to make up your own watercolour set. This is probably not something you want to do if you are a beginner.  Experiment with existing sets from various brands for a while first, then after a time, you will start to develop favourite pigments or have a better idea of what you may wish to experiment with.

An advantage of making up your own set of watercolours is that you can include pigments from different brands into one set. One pigment can vary quite a lot from brand to brand. You may prefer one pigment made by Daniel Smith, another by Winsor and Newton and a different one from Schminke for example.

You can also choose what size of tin or box you want to put your paints in and then whether you want to include half pans or full pans, or a mixture of both.

You can buy empty pans in whatever size you want (half or full or a mixture of both) and fill them with your chosen pigments in tube form. Leave the pans to dry for a couple of days and then you have your own set ready to go.

This metal tin from Amazon is a great size for urban sketching and also comes with 12 empty half pans ready to fill.

Or if you have a suitable box already you can buy empty pans by themselves, like this pack of full pans or this pack of half pans. There are lots of options on Amazon, I believe they are much the same as essentially they are just empty plastic pans.

Check out the video below for how to fill empty pans with watercolour from a tube – there is a bit of a technique to it.

The great thing about buying tubes is that they are more economical and depending on what size of tube you buy you can refill your pans a few times over. 

Jacksons Art now offers their own service where you can pick your size of metal tin (12, 18 or 24 pans) and then fill them with your own choice of colours from their own brand of artist-grade watercolour paints. I have a few of Jacksons Art own brand watercolour paint in my own palette and I love it. Certainly, something to check out for an easy way to create your own customised set of colours.

For a more in-depth look at you would even go about choosing your own colours for your watercolour palette, check out Alphono Dunn’s video here:

Final Thoughts

As you can see there are a range of factors to consider when choosing a watercolour set for urban sketching. If you are just starting out and you’re really not sure if urban sketching is for you yet, or you think you shall be using your set very infrequently, go from something like the Winsor & Newton Cotman set.

However, as we have seen for a tiny bit more money, you can get an artist-grade set like the St Petersburg White Nights set, which I highly recommend. The increase in quality and vibrancy plus the fact that most of the colours are made from single pigments and therefore make them easier to mix together, make this set just unbelievable value for money.

If you’re ready to take a bit more of a leap and get into choosing and experimenting with different pigments across different brands, consider creating your own set. This is very fulfilling and opens up a whole other level of painting completely unique to you.

If you have any questions about watercolour sets for urban sketching, I will do my very best to help, you can send me an email: hello@urbansketching.com

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