Van Gogh Watercolor Review Lightfast Test Best Student Grade Tubes Half Pans and Sets
Van Gogh was one of the first watercolor paints I ever used. It spoiled me by being an affordable way to pick and choose individual tube colors. It's also the most reliably lightfast student grade paint on the market. I've since collected several half-pan sets which come in well made, convenient, travel-ready "pocket-box" cases. These are paints that are ideal for serious beginners, with a quality that will help (not frustrate or hinder!) learning watercolor techniques. They will remain useful to you even as your watercolor journey becomes more serious. Van Gogh is also an ideal bridge for those upgrading from low end bargain paints/kids/crafting brands, but aren't quire ready to move onto pro grade paints that average over double the price.
Competitors in this price range: Depending on where you live and how easy they are to purchase, the lowest priced pro-grade paints such as Paul Rubens or White Nights could be a good alternative to Van Gogh if you're going right into pro grade pigment load without breaking the bank. Paul Rubens is not easily obtainable in individual pans or tubes here in the USA, but White Nights can be found in most of the world. Both have easy to find large sets if you're looking for a general selection vs picking a choosing colors. These alternatives average about a dollar more per 10ml tube than Van Gogh. If you compare them to the highest price individual pro-grade paints like Daniel Smith or Schmincke there is a more notable difference in price, but this is also reflected in quality and pigment selection.
Royal Talens (the manufacturer who also makes "Rembrandt", their professional grade watercolor) is pretty serious about using quality pigments across their watercolor, acrylic, oil and ink product lines. The major difference between Rembrandt the pro grade, and Van Gogh the student grade, is a slightly lower pigment load and the availability of certain colors. Rembrandt offers colors like cobalts, cadmiums and other more costly or toxic pigments, which tend to appeal to a smaller portion of professional artists. In many high-chroma colors (vibrant, strong mixers, such as phthalo blue) it's hard to tell the difference between the student and pro grade versions.
When I first started painting I remember hearing that many professional artists had a few tubes of Van Gogh in their collection. Not only did they start with these paints, but they also felt confident enough to use them side by side with their much more expensive pro grade paints. Fast forward 5 years and I'm still happy with Van Gogh, despite my collection of extra-fine quality Daniel Smith and Schmincke paints. Not a single color from my 30+ color Van Gogh collection has faded.
They have many pocket box sets, including standard non-mica watercolors as well as a pretty magical metallic and iridescent set. It's easy to get their tube paints for individual color refills as you run out. That's a nice perk, as many student grade paints come in sets that do not offer single color replacements. Their tube paints re-wet well, and for just a few bucks per color refill empty half-pans a few times over.
In 2019 Van Gogh added new colors to it's line up, several of which were very unusual to find in a student grade. While most of the colors handled well and had a high pigment load, I did notice a couple things of note. Turquoise Green, a phthalo and ultramarine mix, appears to be purposefully light / pale which could come off as "weak". The PV55 purples had an issue where, when used too thickly, they would no longer react to salt. That's not a huge problem for most people, but something to note if you're a fan of the salt texture trick in your watercoloring.
The metallic and Interference pocket box is a lovely set, rivaled only by the top professional mica based shimmer colors from Coliro / Finetec. These come darn close in sparkle while being totally lightfast and suitable for art to hang on a wall.
A spotlight on a specific color tube, compared to professional brands that also have this pigment ingredient:
Where to buy? I like to get my individual Van Gogh tubes from Blick here.
Swatch card template available for download here, or get the rubber stamp here. Swatch cards were painted on Legion Black or Arches Cold Press 100% cotton watercolor paper. My favorite Arches cold press paper and Princeton Neptune (for holding a lot of water) and Heritage (for fine detail) brushes are available at Blick, Jackson's or Amazon here:
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