Between the planner and journal trend, the rise of mixed media, and growing interest in painting itself, there’s more and more interest in travel watercolor sets. They are an affordable way to invest in a basic set of watercolors for someone who is still learning to paint, as well as a great for taking along for creative time on the go.
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Wondering which travel watercolor set you should buy? In this article, we’ll takes a look at five different “student” level travel watercolor sets, and review their quality and design to recommend what is the best set for your needs.
Sakura Koi Pocket Field Sketch Box
This Sakura Koi Pocket Field Sketch Box is the heavyweight of this group of travel watercolor sets – in more ways than one. It’s by far the heaviest physically, weighing in at three to four ounces heavier than the others I tested. And it also seems to be by far the most widely available of the tested sets – especially if you include the 12, 18, 30, 36 and 48 color versions that are available of this set.
There’s a reason this set weighs so much, though. Inside, you’ll find 24 half pan watercolors, a larger selection than in any other of the tested kits. You’ll also find an entire kit of tools for watercolor painting: palettes, sponges, and a waterbrush. With the large divided palette – which can be made to hang off the side by putting the pins on its bottom in the holes on either side of the set – and the inside of the lid, this set has loads of space for mixing and blending colors. The sponges provide surfaces for dabbing off a too-moist brush. And the included waterbrush, which disassembles to store in the tray at the front, includes a small cap so that water can be kept in the brush even when it is taken apart.
This set includes a full rainbow of colors, plus brown, black, grey, and white. Four blues and four greens provide lots of options for plein air landscape painters to mix with. If you’d like to make your own swatch reference after buying this set or another Sakura Koi set, Sakura has published a color chart with an area for swatching on it.
The Sakura Koi half-pan watercolor paints are fairly creamy and blend nicely. The colors are nice and vibrant while still maintaining transparency, and their saturation means they can be diluted extensively to make lighter colors.
Despite its popularity, there are a couple of cons to this set, however. Refills are not available for the Sakura Koi half-pan sets – Sakura recommends refilling them with the Sakura Koi watercolor tubes. However, only 18 colors are available in the tubes, and the colors are not all the same as the half-pans, so some colors won’t be able to be refilled that way.
There’s also an issue that can be seen above that the pans are very close together with no lip separating them, making it easy to contaminate one color with another. See the blue in my green and red? Unfortunately, to keep travel sets small, there isn’t a lot of room to spread out, and this shows the downside of cramming a lot into a small space.
I’ve owned this set for quite some time (and even traveled with it internationally). While this travel watercolor set may be a little larger and heavier than its competitors in this review, the space and weight is put to good use in an efficient design that packs in a lot of utility.
Sakura Koi Pocket Field Sketch Box
Price: $21-$60 retail
Availability: Blick Art Materials, Amazon, A Cherry On Top, Simon Says Stamp, plus many other local and online art retailers
Size & Weight: 6.5″ x 4.5″ x 1.125″ 9.375oz
Includes Brush?: Yes – Round #6 Waterbrush
Colors: 24 – China White, Lemon Yellow, Aureoline Hue, Permanent Yellow Deep, Permanent Orange, Jaune Brilliant, Vermillion Hue, Cadmium Red Hue, Crimson Lake, Quinacridone Rose, Purple, Cobalt Blue Hue, Cerulean Blue Hue, Ultramarine Deep, Prussian Blue, Permanent Green Pale, Viridian Hue, Permanent Green Deep, Olive Green, Yellow Ochre, Light Red, Burnt Umber, Payne’s Grey, Ivory Black.
Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketcher’s Pocket Box
This little box is truly a pocket travel watercolor kit! Slightly smaller than the size of my iPhone 6S (but a bit thicker), it’s also the lightest of the sets I tested. That’s not to say it’s a lightweight, however – it’s built of a sturdy plastic that should stand up well to life on the road.
Inside the case, the design is spare and efficient. This small of a package doesn’t allow for a lot of bells and whistles. The Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketcher’s Pocket Box contains just 12 half-pan colors, along with a very small round travel brush. The inside of the lid is divided and serves as a palette area.
The paints in this case are sunk nice and low into cubbies that have good dividers between them to prevent splash over or inadvertent mixing of colors from one to the next. These half-pans are also in pans that come out (sometimes too easily, as I’ve found them sitting in the lid after the set has been juggled and moved around) so the colors can be refilled. Even though the paints are designed to be able to be refilled, I was unable to find any Cotman refills for sale online (at least in the U.S). I was able to find, however, the professional level half-pan watercolor paint refills from Winsor & Newton. These could be used to refill this Sketcher’s Pocket Box, and of course the box could also be refilled with watercolor tubes.
With only 12 colors in this set, obviously some things have to be left out. This set has no black, and no purple.What colors are included flow and blend beautifully, with the ability to be diluted to very pale tones. The color saturation is nice, although the starting tones aren’t as deep as I perhaps would like. The transparency is good, except in the really dark tones like the Intense Blue.
For those who want more color options (and more working area) Winsor & Newton makes a box with similar features to the Sakura Koi that includes 24 colors.
As portable as this package is, it’s not self-contained. You’ll need access to a water source or need to carry water separately to be able to use it. The easiest option is to carry a water brush, or you could try the Field Plus version of the Cotman sets, which includes it’s own water bottle and rinsing cup!
Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketcher’s Pocket Box
Price: $11-$25 retail
Availability: Blick Art Materials, Amazon, A Cherry On Top, plus many other local and online art retailers
Size & Weight: 5″ x 2.375″ x .75″ 3.25oz
Includes Brush?: Yes – Small travel brush
Colors: 12 – China White, Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Red Pale Hue, Crimson Alizarin, Ultramarine, Intense Blue, Emerald Green, Sap Green, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber.
Daler-Rowney Aquafine Travel Set
This travel set is in a round metal tin about the size of a CD (remember those?) that has a hinged lid. Despite containing 18 colors, this set’s construction makes it relatively light, the same weight as several sets I tested with fewer colors.
When you first open the case you are greeted by a plastic flap laying over the color tray that shows the names and numbers of all of the colors in the set. (Although Daler-Rowney makes replacement colors for this line of half-pans, I was only able to find them sold in the U.S. via an Amazon 3rd party seller that appeared to be shipping from the U.K.) This clear flap looks like a great idea until you try to paint with this set, and then it becomes an annoyance because it has to be held back to access the paints – it won’t fold back and stay out of the way on it’s own. After a bit of struggle I cut it off with a craft knife, finding no other way to remove it.
Inside the set, you’ll find four small mixing wells and a travel sized #4 Round brush. The small wells are removable for cleaning but not very durable as they are made of flexible plastic packaging material. Because it is made of metal, this set lacks the ability to have the inside of the lid double as a mixing area like in plastic boxed sets.
Of all the sets that I tested, this was the one that frustrated me the most trying to paint with it. These paints were just difficult to use. In my opinion, they didn’t flow, blend, or dilute nearly as well as the other “student” grade kits that I tried out. It took two times loading the brush to do what I could do with one load of most of the other paints.
Overall, for the price, other sets offer a better value than the Daler-Rowney Aquafine Travel set.
Daler-Rowney Aquafine Travel Set
Price: $23-$30 retail
Availability: Amazon, plus a few other local and online art retailers
Size & Weight: 5.5″ x 5.25″ x .75″ 5.5oz
Includes Brush?: Yes – Mini Aquafine Round #4
Colors: 18 – Chinese White, Lemon Yellow, Gamboge, Cadmium Yellow Hue, Vermillion Hue, Alizarin Crimson, Purple, Cobalt Blue Hue, Coerulean Hue, Ultramarine, Prussian Blue, Permanent Green Pale, Viridian Hue, Sap Green, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Ivory Black.
Prima Watercolor Confections – Tropicals
Art supply enthusiasts may not recognize the Prima brand, but I included this set because Prima’s mixed media line – including their Confections line of watercolors – was well reviewed to me by experienced mixed media artists in the paper crafts industry that I know. How, I wondered, would it stand up against fine art brands’ student products?
The answer was that it did surprisingly well. Even after all the recommendations I’d been given, I’ll admit that I was still surprised.
The Prima Confections watercolors come in a palette tin that is about the same size as my iPhone, but slightly heavier and thicker. Twelve half-pan watercolors snap into metal brackets, so the palette’s colors can be arranged in any order, and refilled easily. (Half-pan refills recently started shipping from Prima.) The one slightly annoying thing about this arrangement is that the pans have a tendency to slide from side to side when the palette is moved around. (In the photo below, some of the pans slid when I set up my picture, creating the gap next to the orange, and I didn’t notice at the time.) Also, of course, since the pans are butted directly up against each other, it’s easy to transfer color from one pan to the next by accident.
Empty palette tins similar to this one are available from several art brands to use to create custom travel palettes of artist grade watercolors.
With a fold out shelf with wells, plus a divided lid, this tiny palette has a surprising amount of area for mixing and blending colors. The center area between the pans is large enough for storing a small travel paintbrush, but one is not included with the set.
The color palettes of the five Prima Confections sets are a bit unusual for watercolor paint. They do have one set called “The Classics” that is a traditional rainbow palette. But the rest of the color palettes are basically themed: Tropicals, Pastels, Shimmering Lights, Decadent Pies. Some of the palettes include duplicate colors, so you aren’t building a “full set” by buying all of the palettes. The palettes being themed this way can be annoying if you like to paint lots of different color schemes, but if you to create a specific signature look, having a palette tailored just for it can save a lot of work mixing and blending colors.
I’ll admit I was skeptical about these paints before I tried them, but I ended up really enjoying working with them. They are creamy, flow and blend easily, and the color saturation and transparency are gorgeous. These seemed to dilute forever, to endlessly lighter tones.
Prima Watercolor Confections – Tropical
Price: $14-$25 retail
Availability: Amazon, A Cherry On Top, Simon Says Stamp, plus local scrapbook retailers
Size & Weight: 4.75″ x 2.75″ x .75″ 5.375oz
Includes Brush?: No
Colors: 12 – #13 Island, #14 Coconut, #15 Hurricane, #16 Parrot, #17 Hibiscus, #18 Palms, #19 Pitaya, #20 Reef, #21 Pineapple, #22 Sunset, #23 Ocean, #24 Tiki.
Dixon Prang Half-Pan 16 Semi-Moist Watercolors
This set is the only “scholastic” level (versus “student”) watercolor set in the test. It’s designed for high volume, hard use in schools by younger kids. I bought this set for my homeschooled daughter to use on some color exercises for her art class, so she could use these for learning basics before. I included it in this comparison thinking it would show what you get in the difference in quality by paying the price for moving up to a real “student” set. Instead, I was surprised at how much I liked this set!
Most of us probably used a set similar to this at some time in our childhood – a big flat plastic case with large pans. Although this set is labeled as half-pans like the other sets reviewed, they are shaped different than traditional pans, so the visible paint surface is larger.)
This set contains 16 colors, labeled to match the color wheel. The pans are replaceable, but because the paints re designed for school use, and are so affordable, the replacements come in packages of 12! Unless you really like a certain color and use a lot of it, it’s really more cost effective to just replace the entire palette when one runs out.
These paints are nice and creamy, and flow and blend and dilute quite well for what they are. They are pleasant to work with for basic tasks, and quite saturated and bright. One place that they do fall down is on transparency. These are quite opaque for watercolors, especially when used at maximum concentration. But some people like that look and if you do, you may enjoy these for basic tasks. These also make a great set for portable coloring book use. Throw a pair of waterbrushes with different tips in the center well between the rows of pans, and you have a great tool kit for coloring wherever you may be with a few minutes to kill.
[Note: There are two versions of these paints, one with round pans and one with square pans. This review is of the square pan set.]
Dixon Prang Half-Pan 16 Semi-Moist Watercolors
Price: $8-$18 retail
Availability: Blick Art Materials, Amazon, plus many other local and online art retailers
Size & Weight: 9.25″ x 4″ x .625″ 6.25oz
Includes Brush?: Yes – Round #6
Colors: 16 – White, Black, Brown, Red, Red Orange, Orange, Yellow Orange, Yellow, Yellow Green, Green, Blue Green, Blue, Blue Violet, Violet, Red Violet, Turquoise.
Travel Watercolor Paint Sets: Compare & Contrast
Now that we’ve seen an overview of all of these travel watercolor paint sets, how do they compare to each other – and which one should you buy?
It was clear examining these travel watercolor paint sets that three of them were in a class separate from the others – the Prima Confections, the Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketcher’s Pocket Box, and the Sakura Koi Pocket Field Sketch Box.
Below, you can see that those three diluted to nice gradients (well as nice as my skills in that area would make). The Prang made a pretty decent gradient. The Daler-Rowney didn’t spread or dilute well and to get this level of color that is pretty much equal to the other paints, it took two brush loads of color.
Since we are talking about travel, there are several things to possibly consider when choosing a watercolor set. Size and weight is one issue. The idea of watercoloring in your journal as you make your way around an exotic foreign locale might sound fabulous, but it becomes less fabulous when your art supplies are a pain to lug.
The Sakura Koi watercolor set is great in that it is all self-contained, but it also weighs nearly twice what the smaller Prima and Cotman sets weigh. It’s also a bit too big to truly slip into a pocket the way the two smaller ones are. So, if you want to throw it in a suitcase to leave in a hotel room, or don’t mind a few extra ounces in your backpack, the Sakura Koi is a good option to have lots of colors. It’s also a great option for using on board a plane or train to entertain yourself with everything contained right in the box. If flying, the waterbrush can be brought through security empty and filled with a water bottle on board (or pre-fill it and stash it in your liquids bag).
On the other hand, if you are traveling super lean, or want something that you can slip into a hoodie pocket to grab for a quick sketch, the small Prima or Cotman sets are great options. Both of these sets will require carrying either a water source and/or a brush or waterbrush.
The metal box on the Prima Confections watercolor set might cause security hassles while flying, but has the advantage of being able to contain a custom palette (either by purchasing the themed palette of your choice or by mixing and matching colors from multiple sets into one box). It also has the advantage of providing a very large mixing area for such a small container, and has a thumb ring on the bottom to enable holding it more securely on the go.
The Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketcher’s Pocket Box is the ultimate in lightweight portability out of all these sets, especially because it includes a brush in the set. This is a great basic set for planner users who want to tuck it in their bag with a waterbrush, for coloring on the go and while traveling, or for plein air painting.
The Cotman Sketcher’s Pocket Box is also the winner to me for pure paint quality, but it’s a small margin over the Prima and Sakura sets. These three are all excellent quality student pan watercolor sets that will be good for coloring, journaling, and quick travel painting.
If affordability is more important to you than paint quality, and you are only interested in using basic techniques with your paint, the Prang Dixon paints are a robust and very affordable option. But at an upgrade cost of only about $3-$4 to go from them up to one of the Prima or Cotman sets if you shop at the right place, it’s worth considering making a minor investment in better paint (although you’ll get fewer colors).
For those who are very serious about their painting, and who want artist quality paints, the name to look for in travel pan sets is Sennelier, which is made with a high honey content. But be prepared to pay a high price – over $60 for a 14 color set of half-pans.
Whatever set you choose, don’t forget that other things like the quality of your brush and your paper will also affect the results that you get. Next in this series, watch for a watercolor paper comparison coming soon!