If you’re new to watercolor, you may be wondering why artist grade watercolor paint is so expensive. Not only is it more expensive than student grade watercolor, it’s more expensive than oils and acrylics, if you compare the price by volume.

Why is watercolor paint so expensive? Artist grade watercolor paints are more expensive than the student grade variety because they’re made to a higher standard. Manufacturers use expensive pigments that are lightfast, and they limit the use of fillers. Watercolor paint is more expensive than acrylics or oils because they contain a higher concentration of pigment, and they often require more processing. A small tube of watercolor lasts a long time, so that balances out the higher price.

In this post, I take a closer look at each aspect of this question. I also thought it would be a good idea to directly ask a manufacturer about the price of watercolor paint. So I reached out to Golden and they took the time to consult with various departments to provide me with a well rounded answer. I’ve included their responses in quotations throughout this post.

Artist Quality Paint Is Expensive

The reason why artist quality paint is more expensive than the student grade varieties is because it’s made to a higher standard. That’s because artists require paints that won’t fade or deteriorate in time. Artist grade paints need to be vibrant and archival.

The lightfastness rating of a pigment will give you an idea of how long it can resist fading. For example, a pigment that has a lightfastness rating of “excellent” (link to Golden) would be able to resist fading for at least 100 years, under museum conditions. You can find the lightfastness rating for each pigment on the tube itself or on the color chart from the manufacturer.

There’s a science behind making a paint that has this kind of longevity. Paint manufacturers conduct testing to ensure that their paints won’t fade prematurely when exposed to UV light. You can conduct your own lightfastness test, but it would take years to get the results. Paint manufacturers have ways to accelerate these tests, such as exposing the paint samples to large doses of UV in order to mimic the effect of a long term exposure to UV.

Here’s a link to the QoR lightfastness tests conducted by Golden. The results were interesting because their Dioxazine Purple turned out to be more lightfast than expected. On the downside, they discontinued Hansa Yellow Medium because it didn’t meet their standards for lightfastness. They replacing it with Benzimidazolone Yellow.

It’s possible to find inexpensive sets of watercolor paint at craft stores, but the lightfastness of these generic watercolor paints is unknown. The packaging usually doesn’t include lightfastness ratings or the names of the pigments they contain.

If you decide to use student grade watercolors, select one that’s made by a reputable manufacturer. Check the color charts to make sure they’re lightfast.

The only student watercolor paint that I’ve tried is a set of Cotman watercolors from Winsor & Newton (link to Amazon). The tiny plastic palette that the set comes with is great for painting outdoors. Once you’ve used up the paint, you can refill them with a professional watercolor of your choice.

You may find that some of the less expensive student paints won’t be as vibrant as the professional quality watercolors. If you want to try out artist grade watercolors, here’s the introductory set of QoR watercolors on Amazon.

Artist Paints Are Priced in Series

The pigments that artist quality paints contain have a variety of sources. Basically, some pigments are mined from the ground, while others are created through chemistry. The cost of these pigments vary, so that’s why some colors are more expensive than others.

Artists paints are usually priced in series, where groups of pigments have the same price. The more affordable pigments are the earth colors such as Burnt Sienna, or Burnt Umber. The Cobalts and the Cadmiums are examples of the more expensive pigments.

It’s the pigments that are the most expensive component of artist quality paint, which brings me to my next point.

Watercolor Paint Contains More Pigment Than Oils or Acrylics

When you paint with watercolors, the colors remain brilliant even though you dilute them with water. That’s because watercolor paint contains a higher concentration of pigment than either oils or acrylics.

You have to dilute watercolor paint with a lot of water if you want a very light tint. A small daub of watercolor paint will go a long way.

If you were to dilute heavy body acrylics with the same amount of water, they wouldn’t have the same intensity. If you want to use acrylics like watercolors, you may have an interest in reading my tips about how to make acrylics look like watercolors.

I conducted a simple test where I squeezed out approximately the same amount of watercolor and acrylic onto a pad of Arches rough watercolor paper.

On the left is a daub of Golden Heavy Body acrylic. On the right is Phthalo Green in QoR watercolor.

The daub of watercolor in the above photo is darker than the acrylic version. I believe this is because the watercolor paint contains more pigment. The acrylic medium is also cloudy until it dries, which will lighten the appearance of the green somewhat. I wrote a blog post about why acrylic paint dries darker which includes tips on how to compensate for this effect.

The daub of Phthalo Green paint on the left is Golden Heavy Body acrylic. On the right is a daub of the same color in Qor watercolor.
The watercolor covers nearly half of the page, while the acrylic covers a much smaller section.

First, I brushed out the acrylic paint without diluting it with water. The color is dark and intense, but it only covered a small section of the paper.

Next, I diluted the daub of Phthalo Green watercolor paint to roughly the same intensity as the acrylic paint sample. I was able to cover a much larger section of the paper with the Phthalo Green watercolor.

While this isn’t a precise scientific test, it does give you a rough idea of how concentrated watercolor paint can be. The tube of watercolor paint is smaller, but you can get a lot of coverage from it.

Why Is Watercolor Paint More Expensive Than Oil or Acrylic?

If you use oils or acrylics, I’m sure you’ll notice that watercolor paint seems much more expensive. It’s not your imagination. Watercolor paint is much more expensive per milliliter than either oils or acrylics. Below is an illustration that’s based upon pricing that I found online.

A price comparison of acrylic paint to watercolor paint.

A 59ml tube of Burnt Sienna in acrylics costs approximately six dollars. That’s $0.10457 per milliliter. The 11ml tube of Burnt Sienna watercolor paint costs around $8, which is $.73 per milliliter.

You end up paying more money for the tube of watercolor that contains approximately one fifth of the volume.

I had my suspicions that it was the concentration of pigment that makes the watercolor paint more expensive, but I also thought that there were other variables at play. I contacted Golden and asked them for their input, below is their response.

“You are correct that the main difference is in the amount of pigment present. Based on how Watercolor is bound and used, one can simply fit more pigment into the paint. There are also some additional cost associated with processing since watercolors (or at least QoR watercolors) receive many mill passes to assure tint strength and to control grind. Finally, Acrylic and Oil are used and manufactured in much larger volumes, so there is an economy of scale in these systems. Watercolor, in contrast, might not to be made at these high volumes. When less of a product is made it can be more expensive to create.” -Golden

Another employee from Golden provided more information about the impact that packaging has on the pricing.

“Per unit costs of product packages is apt to vary tremendously. So the comparison of an 11 ml tube to a 59 ml tube is not apples to apples. Packaging makes up a significant cost of any item, so that packaging cost is spread across many more ml of product in this example. That’s only part of it, but a significant part of it.” -Golden

This is true with other products as well. A large tube of toothpaste is less expensive per milliliter than one of those travel sized tubes. In other words, you get a discount when you buy any product in a larger volume because it costs less to package it.

In this example, you’d have to buy five 11ml tubes of watercolor to equal 55ml, which is close to the volume of the large 59ml tube of acrylic. That means you’re buying the packaging five times which includes the metal tubes, labels, and caps. There’s also the cost of the labor to package those five small tubes instead of one large tube.

Watercolor Painters Consume Less Paint

You can apply oils or acrylics to the canvas full strength. Some oil and acrylic painting techniques involve applying the paint to the canvas in a very thick manner. For instance, impasto is a painting technique where you apply thick paint to the canvas with a brush or palette knife.

As you can imagine, this will consume a much greater volume of paint than what you use in a watercolor painting. You wouldn’t want to apply watercolor in a thick manner like this because it will probably crack as it dries.

So why don’t they offer larger 59 ml tubes of watercolor? I know from my own experience that it would take a very long time to use up 59 ml of watercolor paint. It would probably dry up in the tube before I could finish it.

That’s another advantage of watercolor, you can still use the paint if the paint dries up on the palette. Oils or acrylics are no longer usable when they’re dry.

Below is a comment by the author of an article on Goldens blog. The article is about pigment concentration in different painting mediums.

“One goes through a lot of oil paints in terms of volume, while a tube of watercolor might last a watercolorist years if not decades before needing another one. Plus even if it dries on the palette it can be reused – so there is never any waste. From that perspective, the more expensive watercolor tube can easily outlast the oils and, besides the initial layout, might cost an artist less in the long run.” -Golden


This was one of those interesting topics that looks simple on the surface, but quickly becomes complex when you investigate it. And the reality is the opposite of the initial assumption: watercolor paint is probably less expensive than other mediums when you factor in how long each tube will last.

Watercolor painting is a very efficient painting medium because you can apply the paint in such a thin manner. So, my recommendation is to buy the paint that you believe will give you the best results, and to ignore the upfront costs. If the cost of art supplies concerns you, then you may want to read my post about how to save money on art supplies.

Related Questions

Is watercolor painting difficult? Most artists would agree that watercolor is probably one of the most difficult painting mediums. This is because it’s a transparent medium which makes it difficult to correct mistakes. The transparency also means that you can’t overwork the painting without making it look “fussy” or “muddy.” For these reasons, watercolor painting requires planning before you begin. Beginners generally don’t have enough experience to draw upon to avoid these pitfalls.

What’s the best watercolor paint? This is a personal preference, but I recommend using any professional brand of watercolor that appeals to you. Some of the more popular brands of watercolor paint are Daniel Smith, Holbein, M Graham, QoR (Golden),Schmincke, Sennelier, and Winsor & Newton. There are others. If you insist on using student grade watercolor, select one that’s from a reputable company.

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