What is Watercolor Paint, and How is It Made?

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Many years ago, I tried my hand at acrylic painting, and I wasn’t happy with the results. Then, a few years ago, I decided I wanted to try painting again, but was nervous about working with acrylics.

So, I thought I would just get back into drawing. An elderly lady I knew asked me if I was going to get into painting, and I explained that I wasn’t very good at it, but that I was considering giving watercolor painting a try.

She told me to give it a try and then to go back to acrylics. If I decided to keep painting and she saw that my skills were improving, she would give me the bulk of her art supplies that she was no longer using due to health issues.

So, I decided to give watercolor painting a try, and I loved it. It wasn’t long before I dove right back into using acrylics, and I noticed that my skills had greatly improved. I was able to control the brushes better, and I was enjoying painting with both watercolors and acrylics for the first time in my life.

Now, I teach what I have learned in paint and sip classes. While I usually teach classes on acrylic painting, some people ask me to teach watercolor painting classes, which I gladly oblige.

You may be wondering what makes watercolor paints different from acrylic paints since both are water-based. This is what we are going to discuss today. 

Are you ready to learn more about the wonderful world of watercolor paints? Let’s get started!

What Are Watercolor Paints?

If you think back to when you were a child, you will probably remember those pans of cake paints you used to use in school. These are watercolor paints, and they are great for kids because it is so easy to clean up after they are finished painting.

But, watercolors aren’t just for kids. There is a wide variety of types of watercolor paints that are made for artists of all ages and all skill levels.

So, what is watercolor paint anyway? Watercolor paint is a translucent art medium. In a nutshell, it is a combination of a colored pigment and a water-soluble binder.

When you add water to watercolor paint, the paint dissolves and you can spread the pigment with your paintbrush.

Watercolor paint is very thin and translucent. This means that it is nearly transparent. To get darker colors, you can use less water and paint in layers once the previous layers have dried (which only takes a few minutes).

One of the things I like the most about working with watercolors is that they are somewhat forgiving. If you make a mistake, you can easily lift off the paint you don’t need with a bit of water on your brush.

The History of Watercolor Paint

Oil paints have been around for hundreds of years. Acrylics have been around for a couple of hundred years. But, watercolor paints have been around for thousands of years!

Scientists have discovered cave paintings that were done with early forms of watercolor paints, and watercolors were also used in Egypt for art painted on papyrus.

It was around 4,000 BC when the watercolor painting we know today was developed in China. By the 4th century, this paint was being used for landscape paintings and was a popular medium in Asia.

Watercolor paints showed up in Europe during the Renaissance period. At this time, there were many advancements in how paper was made, as well as more availability of various types of pigments.

Watercolors were used for preparatory sketches in Europe during this period. They were also used for some illustrations, including wildlife and botanical, as well as maps.

By the 18th century, watercolor painting became popular in the West. This paint was used for mapmaking and landscape paintings, and it is still used by amateur and professional artists all over the world today.

Brushes Used for Watercolor Painting

Because it is so easy to clean up after using watercolor paints, you can use just about any paint brushes for this medium. Some brushes are specific to watercolor painting, but if you are just starting, they are not necessary.

If you have paint brushes that are used for acrylic paintings, these can be used for working with watercolors. I don’t recommend using oil painting brushes, just because they are more costly so they should be saved strictly for oil painting.

What is Watercolor Paint Made Of?

The ingredients list for watercolor paints is simple, and there are two main ingredients: pigment and binder. Some additives can change how the paint appears, performs, etc., as well as make it last longer.

Let’s take a look at the two main ingredients in watercolor paint.

#1. Pigment

The pigments used for watercolor paints are very finely ground. You might be surprised to learn that there are more than 100 different pigments used to create watercolor paints.

The pigments can be natural or synthetic. Paints made with natural pigments tend to be more expensive, as the pigments are harder to come by.

The grade or quality of the pigment will determine just how much pigment is used to create each color. In most cases, you will find two grades of watercolor paints, professional and student.

Student-grade watercolor paints are less expensive because they are usually made with cheaper synthetic pigments.

In most cases, the amount of pigment in any paint color is between 10% and 20%.

#2. Binder

In most cases, the binder used for watercolor paint is gum-arabic. Some brands use synthetic binders.

The binder is necessary because it aids the pigment in attaching or binding to the watercolor paper. It also holds the pigment particles together, which produces brighter colors.

The binder is transparent, and it makes up about half of the paint.

#3. Other Ingredients

Binders tend to cause paint to dry quickly, so often watercolor paint is made with a moisturizer and a plasticizer. These ingredients allow for a slower drying time, making it easy to apply color washes to your art.

Brightener is also used occasionally. Brightener is generally white or transparent crystals that work to enhance the pigment color. It is also used to change the lightness of the paint after it dries.

Some watercolor paints also have other fillers that help to improve texture and make the paint smooth and easy to spread on watercolor paper. Some additives even help to keep the paint from lifting off the paper after it has dried, making it easy to apply more layers.

Finally, watercolor paints contain water. The amount of water depends on the type of watercolor paint you are using. Watercolor paint in tubes or liquid form contains more water than paint in cake form.

What Are Watercolors Used For?

Watercolor paints are used for many different types of paintings. I love using them for landscapes, and I have even had some luck doing more detailed paintings, including portraits (still working on learning about portraits and figure drawing…maybe I need to take a paint and sip class that teaches these skills).

I wrote specific guides on watercolor painting techniques and watercolor painting tips you can read to learn more.

You can use watercolors to create interesting washes for backgrounds, and they can be used in a few different ways. The wet-on-wet technique is ideal for washes, while wet-on-dry is better for creating finer details.

In most cases, you will be using watercolor paper for watercolor paintings. If you wish to use other surfaces, you will likely need to prep them with a watercolor ground. This makes the surface more absorbent for the watercolor paint.


If you are new to the world of painting, I suggest giving watercolors a try. They are relatively easy to work with, and they are a great stepping stone to working with other mediums.

Playing around with watercolors gives you a chance to learn a variety of brush strokes, as well as how to control the brush. It will also help you to learn about color theory, and how to blend colors.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this article, and that you were able to learn more about this fun art medium. Happy painting!

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*image by Cavan/depositphotos