What is the difference between student and artist grade watercolour supplies?


If you've ever been to an art store, which I'm suuuuuure you have - you've probably browsed the shelves and wondered why in the fresh frick is there SUCH a discrepancy between the prices of art supplies?

  • Why are some paints and brushes more expensive than others?
  • Does the higher price tag mean higher quality?
  • How do I buy what I need to succeed with watercolour without having to remortgage the house, sell a kidney and take out a small loan?

Well, sometimes a higher price tag can mean better quality, but not always. Generally speaking, there are two main levels of watercolour supplies - student and artist (or professional) grade - and we can probably have another two levels below student which we will affectionately name 'don't even bother'. (You know, the $2 children palettes with 24 non-toxic colours on them, and the Kmart or Michaels brand paints with no pigment or characteristics info for their colours).

Student grade supplies are aimed at, you guessed it, students. With many art forms, you can start off at an entry-level like student (beginner) grade and progress up to artist/professional once you've gained more experience and saved up for it - but with watercolour, we continuously find that this leads to wastage of time and supplies, and hella frustration.

With watercolour, you really do get superior results with superior supplies, and upgrading from student to artist/professional grade involves a huge learning curve. The defining feature of watercolour is - yup, you guessed it - water, and as you learn you begin to get used to water ratios - how much to use and how to apply it. When you upgrade from student to artist-grade, you need to re-learn AAAAAAALL of that. That's because better paints have more pigment, better brushes hold more water, and better paper absorbs differently.

If this is not a concern for you, and you're happy to start with lower-grade supplies and figure all that frustrating stuff out on your own, you don't need to read on. I get it, everyone is different and some people don't mind the longer route.

But if you're a busy person looking for a fun and fuss-free creative outlet, who wants to see results and doesn't wanna muck around - I'll explain the differences for you, in an effort to convince you that leveling-up your supplies at the beginning will save you in the long run!

PAPER (the most important)

  • Student: generally made from wood pulp, sometimes mixed with cotton. Colours can appear less vibrant, water absorption not as good as artist-grade, can create harsh lines and incapable of taking multiple layers of paint. 
  • Artist: generally acid-free and 100% cotton or 'rag'. Holds water well, harsh lines reduced, colours are more vibrant, multiple layers can be added without pilling. 
  • Recommendation: Arches or Fabriano Artistico coldpress paper


  • Student: made with cheaper ingredients, has more 'filler' and less pigment. You use more of it and need more layers. Can dry with hard lines and less vibrant than artist-grade. Finish not as 'nice'.
  • Artist: made with higher quality ingredients, has less 'filler' and more pigment. A little goes a long way.
  • Recommendation: Winsor and Newton Professional Series or Paint Wild watercolours

BRUSHES (the least important)

  • Student: don't hold as much water as artist-grade, can lose their shape and sharp tip (for round size), don't last as long.
  • Artist: most elite and expensive range are made from animal hair, but there are plenty of synthetic and cruelty-free options available these days. Artist-grade have good snap-back, hold a lot of water, keep their shape and last.
  • Recommendation: Princeton Snap!, Select or Heritage, or Paint Wild brushes

So how can you get the best quality supplies without breaking the bank? Minimise! You don't neeeeeed all 100 colours in a watercolour range. You don't neeeeeeed every size and shape of brush. And you don't neeeeeeeed 1000x pads of paper.

Start small. Paint Wild is based on this theory.

Buy larger sheets of loose paper, cut them down to size. It's cheaper than pads and definitely cheaper than blocks of paper.

Buy three primary colours, and learn to turn them into 144+ in my free mini-course Wild Colours.

Buy 1-3 round brushes, the most versatile shape. Sizes 6 or 8 are good mid-range sizes, with 3/0 a good detail size.