Student vs. Professional watercolor

Student media is cheaper than professional from the same brand because creation of student media is also cheaper. Economy is in packing, pigments and binder. In student media may be:

  • less pigment;
  • low quality synthetic pigments;
  • two or more pigments instead of one basic;
  • dye instead of pigment;
  • cheaper or synthetic binder.

Sometimes the difference is huge, sometimes you will not see the difference.

I can tell you only about the media which I tried earlier and studied information about it: graphical media and oil. Let’s figure it out.

And I will not talk about lightfastness here. There’s almost no difference in it when you are comparing student and professional watercolor. There is one exception: watercolor with dye. It’s prone to fade faster.

Most of European brands use less pigments and synthetic binder mixed with natural, some of them like Russian brand Nevskaya Palitra uses dye in student watercolor.

Both dyes and pigments are decent in being colorants. Dyes are usually soluble in water whereas pigments are insoluble. In watercolor it’s usually synthetic dyes. They are not lightfast, and very unstable – it’s difficult to predict if it’s going to even stay on paper or not. Often their chemical composition is so different that reactions between two dyes can do dirty and nasty colors. Which is fine if your goal is to make dirty and nasty pictures.

Do you remember your school watercolor? Do you remember how fast colors got disgusting brown?

Most pigments used in the visual arts are dry colorants, usually ground into a fine powder. For use in paint, this powder is added to a binder, a relatively neutral or colorless material that suspends the pigment and gives the paint its adhesion. In watercolor most often binder is gum arabic because it dissolves easily in water. Water acts as a vehicle or a diluent to thin the watercolor paint and helps to transfer the paint to a surface such as paper. When all moisture evaporates, the acacia gum typically does not bind the pigment to the paper surface, but is totally absorbed by deeper layers. Usually with some parts of the pigment. And that’s how the color is transferred to the paper.

Professional watercolor is usually made with sugar syrup or even honey. It’s done for smoother strokes and better preservation of your paint. In student series preservatives are cheaper like starch or synthetic analogues of sugar. Most of them make watercolor dusty and soapy and finally – yes – make dirt in your clean and shiny artwork.

Dirt is featureless grey and brown colors. In other media it’s not so important because every color can be overpainted with another. But watercolor is transparent paint. And dirt in it most of the time looks sloppy.

Another way to make dirt in artwork is mixing colors mindlessly. The more pigments you are mixing the more probability to get the dirt. And here’s another difference between student and professional watercolor. Most of the modern manufacturers make student watercolor with pigments like in professional. But some of the pigments are too expensive and the same color in the student series have two or three pigments instead of one pigment from the professional series. Which makes mixing even two colors together quite a challenge. Which means sometimes yellow and blue makes grey or dirty brown instead of green.

Most of the student watercolor which I tried was really good. I even used watercolor with dye (and you too in childhood and in school, remember?) but I don’t use dye watercolor anymore (even opera rose). Choosing what media to use highly depends on the task. It doesn’t matter what watercolor you use if you need to do a quick sketch or while you are studying. But if you are going to do a commercial illustration or artwork professional meda will be preferable. Why is it so important? To make professional-looking work, you will want professional materials, which have the most important thing in there – predictability. Every time you get any two watercolor colors mixed together, in any professional palette they will make virtually the same mix.

If you are not mixing color on a palette or doing multi-layered illustration with optical mixing (layers are not mixing but the result looks like colors were mixed) you really don’t care about the student or professional media you are using. I have student colors in my studio set and I use student watercolor in my travel box.

I used Winsor and Newton Cotman as a student, Nevskaya Palitra, Schminke, Daniel Smith and Senneliere L’acquarelle as professional watercolor for demo. All colors were painted in two layers and I tried to do the same density for the purity of the experiment.

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