Isaro Watercolor Review Paints from Belgium
Isaro watercolors are made in Belgium by Isabelle Roelofs, a colourwoman (paint maker) with an art related family history. Her great-great grandfather was Willem Roelofs, an oil painter whose work can be found gracing the walls of art museums in Belgium, Netherlands, France and Brazil. His son, Isabelle's great grandfather, was Albert Roelofs (Dutch painter 1877-1920) who also had a great talent for oil and watercolor painting as well as printmaking. He taught painting to Crown Princess Juliana from the Netherlands. This surely inspired Isabelle to provide high quality coloring materials aimed at fine artists. In addition to watercolor, she also offers oil paints, available at Jackon's here.
Isaro is a small business with somewhat limited availability (you will not find these watercolors in many stores, but Jackson's online art supply shop is a great place to order Isaro watercolor paints worldwide). While Isaro does not have a big factory, the quality is definitely on par with most pro grade paints. Despite Isaro being mainly a one-woman production, I would not consider this a "handmade" brand (a descriptor you may still see mentioned in online reviews). The tubes used to be labeled as "handcrafted", but colors I bought in 2022 now just say "crafted" in Belgium, so an effort has been made to clarify this. Isaro business photos show her manufacturing the paints using metal rollers and mixing machinery (not glass mulling on a table-top slab like you see in the handmade production of tiny home business Etsy sellers such as Prodigal Son's, Iuile, HydraColour or the slightly larger production of Italian maker A.Gallo). Like most commercial brands stocked at big art stores, Isaro paints include a chemical preservative (the biocide / anti microbial Méthylisothiazolinone, instead of natural fragrant preservatives like clove or rosemary oil found in handmade paints). I say this only to provide clear information, with no intention to devalue or dissuade.
You can find the Isaro 10 tube set seen in the above video at Jackson's here.
Colors come in 20ml or 7ml tubes, but as of 2022 Jackson's only carries the 7ml tube size (there is no dry pan option). This is a fairly expensive professional grade paint, similar in price to high end pro brands like Daniel Smith or Schmincke (but less than the highest priced brands like Blockx and Old Holland). Many of the 7ml tubes average $7 to $11 USD each. This is above average pricing for the equivalent of roughly one full size pan, or two half pans (once completely dry). I generally seek my primary mixing colors from more affordable pro grade paints, such as Roman Szmal, ShinHan, White Nights (which average $3 to $6 per full pan or slightly larger 10ml tubes) or DaVinci tubes in the USA whose earth colors can be as low as $12 for huge 37ml tubes. The price dissuades me from buying many of the common basics from Isaro, but I did find their catalog interesting due to including unusual brand exclusive convenience mixtures. Some include mica powders mixed with standard non-pearlescent pigments, providing unique choices you won't find elsewhere. It was the unusual mixtures that made me take a second glance at this line, especially as an artist who already owns standard basic primary colors from so many other brands.
Most of the colors had an average to low flow / disperse rate, generally being controllable and staying put (not unruly or prone to shooting across wet washes). I appreciated this formula, it allows for better gradient blends on wet than high flow paints. Most colors can retain a dark to light blend (masstone to diluted, where more paint was brushed into more water) as seen on the left side of my swatch cards. Many of the pigments are ground finely, including their ultramarine blue, resulting in smooth colors with clean salt reaction (salt and water blooms don't move heavy textural or large particle pigments well). Isaro also appears to grind pigments like Cadmiums to a more fine particle size, making them smooth and slightly less opaque than the same pigments from other companies. This does mean that there are less single pigment heavy granulators in this line though, so you may find yourself looking to Schmincke, RSzmal or DSmith if you love intense texture.
Several of the older colors I purchased between 2018-2020 were not ideal for re-wetting from dry with above average difficulty to reactivate with a damp brush. They contain glycerin and honey, but I wonder about the level of that content compared to other honey based brands. Isaro dried tube samples did not remain sticky (semi-moist due to the humectants). Instead they were totally dry to the touch, unlike most tacky honey based competitors (White Nights, Sennelier). I have seen older video reviews (from reviewers like YouTube's Dr. Oto Kano) who live in less humid climates have to really scrub certain Isaro colors to re-activate them with a damp brush from dry. The new colors might re-wet better than past releases. I am not sure if Isaro has corrected this issue or if the 10 new colors I got in 2022 are just better behaved pigments... but I did not have any trouble with getting strong color from dried pans this time around. The colors that gave me trouble in the past included Ultramarine Pink PR259 (a rare and always quirky pigment), Steel Blue (likely due to the mica) and Imperial Moon (likely the copper metallic) and Burnt Sienna PBr7. Despite their quirks I quite enjoyed the subtle shimmer of Steel Blue and Imperial Moon, which I took close up pictures at an angle to show off the shimmer not easily seen in the swatch card scans:
Isaro claims to strive for superbly transparent colors by making sure their gum arabic and honey have clarity and are pale in color (not yellow or brownish varieties). I did have binder separation in two tubes (PR259 Ultramarine Pink and PV15 Ultra Violet) which easily stirred back together - but not before I noticed that it is true - Isaro does have crystal clear binder with no brown tint. As someone who has hoarded watercolor over the years and had brown staining from darker binder in old Daniel Smith tubes, I appreciate that these colors are more likely to stay true even in long term storage.
Lightfastness: Isaro mainly uses lightfast pigments in their 76+ color selection. Because there are very few fugitive pigment ingredients used, I do not expect many fading issues in this brand. If you're going to use Isaro paints for long term wall display where UV durability is important, I would avoid the following pigment ingredients prone to fading: PR170 (in mixtures Pearly Rose Deep, Glimmer Green) - this red has a tendency to fade the more it is diluted. There may be slightly less than perfect lightfastness in Isaro Orange (a mixture made including the very uncommon orange PO61). As far as rare single pigment paints, Isaro offers Ultramarine Pink PR259. Unfortunately this is a fairly weak pigment which has some acidity and UV sensitivity, so may be prone to fading (more so if used on acidic papers or with non alkaline/purified water). PR259 seems to be the most sensitive of the ultramarines, so it's important to be using the right paper, water and not storing it outside / bathrooms / near moist windows. Ultramarines are otherwise pretty stable in acid-free, neutral, alkaline environments - just keep your glass of lemonade away from them. In case you see PR112 listed on Jackson's pigment list - I do not believe there is actually PR112 in Beverly Rose. It's probably a typo, since Isaro's website says PR122 (which is lightfast, where as PR112 would be fugitive).
I think the most unusual thing about this brand is some of the signature combination of colors offered. Isaro Green Light is a combination of phthalo green pg7, cadmium yellow py35 and magenta pr122. Eternal Summit is a gentle, very pale, certainly odd offering of white pw4, cerulean pb36 and mica pw20. My favorite is Nordman Green - a stunning combination of phthalo green pg7 and manganese violet pv16. In 2022 Isaro added buff titanium (a slightly textural, unbleached PW6:1 often used as beige alternative to white in mixtures/tints). I found the convenience mixture called "Powdery Pink" made with magenta PR122 and buff titanium PW6:1 to be a lovely delicate pink ideal for florals. If that sounds interesting to you, definitely take a look at Jackson's color chart. There's more examples of colors like these under the names Isaro Orange, Tropical Dream, Imperial Moon, Mindy Green, Pearly Rose Light etc.
Of course you can always mix your own DIY convenience mixture replicas using the single pigment ingredients. You can do this with any brand that carries that particular pigment, including Isaro's own single pigments - such as the recently added PW6:1 Buff Titanium. For example, Powdery Pink is a mixture of their Isaro Pink/Rose PR122 (magenta) and Buff Titanium PW6:1 (uncommon in pastel mixtures, where the brighter clean white of PW6 Titianium Dioxide is more often used for pastel tints). The Nordmann Green is a mixture of Phthalo Green PG7 and Manganese Violet PV16. You can find phthalo in just about every brand, but PV16 is less common. My default go-to brand for replicating any brand's convenience mixtures (including the Schmincke's super granulating colors) is Roman Szmal. The RS Aquarius line offers a huge variety of pigment options at a decent price. However, these Isaro mixtures are beautiful and worth it if you think a certain mixture is something you'll use often and don't want to have to "nail it" by DIY mixing each time you paint.
I do generally prefer to own single pigment colors, for versatility and cost savings (a smaller set of single pigment mixing colors will be capable of countless DIY mixture replicas). There are times though that a paint maker may introduce a color that is perfect for your particular art style, making your life easier and shortening your planning and color mixing time. Isaro's catalog is great for looking through even if you're loyal to a different brand of paint, as these mixtures may provide you with recipe inspiration. I did notice that Phthalo Green is highly staining and it is likely for that reason the PV16 in Nordmann Green is darker valued than most PV16 (if you mix these ingredients fresh on the palette, the purple will be brighter since it's fresh and hasn't been soaking in PG7). There are some minor variations between brands of PV16 as well. Here's how the Roman Szmal dupe looks:
Overall, this is a high quality brand with many lightfast options. The price is a little on the high side for common pigments, but I leave that to you to determine if the price is worth it (especially compared to availability of other brands in your area). The pigment load and performance of Isaro paints make them a solid choice for professional artists. The paints were very strong, well behaved and everything I expected from a pro grade watercolor. I am really happy that they carry PR255 - which is very likely the most lightfast pigment alternative to cadmium red light. It is more transparent, better for layering and is a great hue match. PR255 fills the palette slot of vermilion / warm primary mixing red / an orange leaning red. I have stopped using PR242 and PR188 since those have some fading in tints/diluted. I'm glad Isaro chose to stock the more durable PR255.
Regardless of price, there are far worse brands to get your basics from. I was impressed by the essential primary colors, particularly Isaro Yellow Light PY154, the warm and cool reds PR255 and PR122 as well as the incredibly pigmented PB15:3 (which is strong even for a phthalo, which are always strong). My main issue with the 10 tube set from Jackson's is that 4 of the 10 are earths, which may have been better if there was more variation between them. I would have liked to see another bright primary yellow or even a cool darker valued brown like Burnt Umber for broader mixing potential. Oxide Orange and Burnt Sienna were VERY similar:
If you're considering the investment, you're unlikely to regret the purchase. Personally, I most appreciate this brand's unusual combinations, which you will not find anywhere else. There are unique mixtures that may inspire artists with colors they would not have thought to mix on their own. I found this brand's beautiful colors actually spark creativity and got me thinking differently about mixing unusual combinations. It was a joy to use their paints and I had art ideas popping into my head just from the act of swatching Isaro's stunning convenience mixtures.
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If you'd like to see swatch cards organized by pigment number, check out the pigment database pages. You'll be able to see how every brand of a certain color compares to each other.