What is Watercolor Made Of? | Composition and Manufacturing

Watercolor painting is a captivating art form that has captured the hearts of both amateur and professional artists alike. Known for its delicate yet vibrant hues and unique blending capabilities, watercolor continues to grow in popularity.

Watercolor paint is primarily composed of pigments, binders, and additives. Pigments provide color, binders (typically gum arabic) help the pigments adhere to the painting surface, and additives enhance the paint’s performance, such as improving flow, stability, or resistance to mold.

In this article, we aim to delve deeper into the world of watercolor by exploring its composition and manufacturing process. By understanding the ingredients and methods behind watercolor paints, you can further appreciate and elevate your own watercolor creations.

What is Watercolor Made Of? – Key Ingredients

Watercolor is a versatile and expressive medium, consisting primarily of three key components: pigments, binders, and additives.

Each of these components plays a crucial role in creating the unique characteristics of watercolor paints, and understanding their functions can enhance your artistic endeavors.

1. Pigments

Pigments are the heart of watercolor paints, providing the rich, vibrant colors that bring life to any artwork.

Derived from natural sources, such as minerals or organic materials, or created synthetically in laboratories, pigments give watercolor its hue and tinting strength.

Some common examples of pigments include ultramarine blue (derived from the mineral lapis lazuli), burnt sienna (from natural iron oxide), and quinacridone (a synthetic organic pigment).

Pigments can vary widely in terms of color, transparency, and lightfastness (resistance to fading when exposed to light).

As a result, artists often choose pigments based on their specific needs and desired effects.


2. Binders

Binders are the second essential component of watercolor paints, responsible for holding the pigments together and allowing them to adhere to the painting surface.

The most common binder used in watercolor is gum arabic, a natural substance derived from the hardened sap of acacia trees.

Gum arabic is favored for its ability to create a transparent and water-soluble paint film that allows the pigments to shine through.

When mixed with water, gum arabic dissolves easily, enabling the artist to achieve smooth, flowing washes of color.

Moreover, gum arabic helps maintain the stability of the paint, preventing the pigments from separating or clumping together.

3. Additives

Additives, while not always present in watercolor paints, can be used to modify the paint’s properties and improve its performance.

Some additives are included to enhance the flow of the paint, allowing it to spread more smoothly on the paper.

These additives, known as wetting agents or surfactants, can also help the pigments to disperse evenly, resulting in a more uniform application of color.

Another type of additive, called humectants, helps to keep the paint moist and workable, preventing it from drying out too quickly.

This is particularly useful when working with watercolors in pans or half-pans, as it allows the paint to remain usable for longer periods.

Other additives, such as preservatives, may be added to prevent the growth of mold or bacteria, ensuring the longevity and quality of the paint.

Differences In Composition and Applications of Various Types of Watercolors

The world of watercolors is vast and diverse, with various types and formats catering to different artistic needs and preferences.

Each type of watercolor has its unique properties and applications, offering a wide range of creative possibilities.

I’ve written a whole article on What Is So Unique About Watercolors?. Do check it out!

a. Traditional or pan watercolors: These are the most common format, typically found in small, dry cakes housed in plastic or metal palettes. They have a high pigment concentration and are activated with water. Their portability and ease of use make them popular among artists of all levels.

b. Tube watercolors: They come in soft, moist form, and have a buttery consistency. They contain a higher amount of binder and are often favored by professional artists for their intense colors and easy mixing. Tube watercolors are great for creating large washes and can be easily re-wet if they dry on the palette.

c. Liquid watercolors: These are highly concentrated, fluid pigments that come in small bottles. They offer brilliant, transparent colors and can be easily diluted with water. Their fluid nature makes them perfect for calligraphy, illustration, and loose, expressive washes.

I recently wrote an article on whether liquid watercolors are good or not. You’ll dive deep into the world of liquid watercolors!

d. Watercolor pencils: They combine the precision of colored pencils with the versatility of watercolors. The water-soluble pigments are encased in a wooden barrel, and can be used dry or activated with water to create beautiful washes. They are ideal for detailed work and mixed media projects.

Watercolor pencils

e. Watercolor markers: They have a water-based ink that can be blended and diluted with water, just like traditional watercolors. They offer the convenience of a marker and are perfect for quick sketches, urban sketching, and illustration.

f. Watercolor sheets: These are innovative, pre-saturated sheets of watercolor pigment that can be used by adding water. They are lightweight, portable, and perfect for artists on-the-go.

g. Watercolor sticks: These are solid sticks of pigment that can be used both wet and dry. They offer the same high-quality pigments as traditional watercolors, with the added benefit of a more tactile, expressive application.

h. Gouache: Gouache is an opaque watercolor medium, containing more pigment and a higher amount of binder. This results in a more matte, flat finish compared to the transparent, luminous quality of traditional watercolors. Gouache is popular for illustration and design work.

i. Inktense pencils: These have a unique, ink-like formula that becomes permanent when dry. They offer vibrant, intense colors that can be used on various surfaces, including fabric, making them versatile and popular among mixed media artists.

j. Water-soluble crayons: They have a soft, creamy texture and can be blended or diluted with water for a watercolor effect. They are perfect for expressive, mixed media work and can be used on a variety of surfaces.

k. Water-soluble oil pastels: They offer the buttery feel of traditional oil pastels with the added benefit of water solubility. They can be blended with water for a smooth, painterly effect and are ideal for artists looking to combine the richness of oil pastels with the versatility of watercolors.

l. Metallic watercolors: They contain special pigments that create a shimmering, reflective effect. They can be used to add a touch of sparkle to watercolor paintings and are popular for embellishing calligraphy, hand lettering, and illustration.

The Manufacturing Process of Watercolor Paints

The manufacturing process of watercolor paints involves a series of meticulous steps to ensure the production of high-quality, consistent, and vibrant colors.

This process can be divided into three main stages: pigment preparation, mixing and milling, and forming and packaging.

1. Pigment preparation

Pigment preparation is the first step in creating watercolor paints. Pigments are carefully selected based on their color, transparency, and lightfastness properties.

Natural pigments, derived from minerals or organic materials, are often ground into a fine powder. Synthetic pigments, created in laboratories, are also available in various hues and qualities.

Once the pigments are chosen, they must be processed to remove any impurities or unwanted substances.

This may involve washing, drying, and additional grinding to ensure a consistent, high-quality pigment powder.

2. Mixing and milling

The next stage in the manufacturing process is mixing and milling.

The finely ground pigments are combined with binders, typically gum arabic, which help the pigments adhere to the painting surface and maintain their structure.

Additives, such as wetting agents, humectants, or preservatives, may also be incorporated to enhance the paint’s performance and stability. The ingredients are mixed together to form a thick paste.

Once the ingredients are combined, the mixture is milled to disperse the pigments evenly and create a smooth, homogeneous paint.

Milling can be performed using traditional stone mills or modern steel roller mills.

During this process, the pigment particles are broken down further, ensuring even distribution and improving the paint’s overall consistency.

The milling process may be repeated several times to achieve the desired level of dispersion and smoothness.

Mixing and milling
Picture Credit: PearFleur on YouTube.com

3. Forming and packaging

The final stage in the production of watercolor paints is forming and packaging. The paint’s format—whether it be pan, tube, liquid, or another form—determines the specific procedures involved.

For pan watercolors, the milled paint is poured into individual pans or half-pans and allowed to air dry for several weeks. The drying process may be accelerated by using a low-temperature oven.

Once dry, the pans are inspected for quality, labeled, and packaged into sets or sold individually.

For tube watercolors, the milled paint is mixed with a small amount of humectant to maintain its moisture content.

The paint is then filled into collapsible metal or plastic tubes using specialized machinery. The tubes are sealed, labeled, and packaged for sale.

Liquid watercolors are bottled directly after milling, with the consistency adjusted as needed. The bottles are then sealed, labeled, and packaged.

Other formats, such as watercolor pencils, markers, or sticks, involve unique forming and packaging methods specific to their design.

The manufacturing process of watercolor paints requires careful attention to detail and stringent quality control measures to ensure a consistent, high-quality product.

From pigment preparation to forming and packaging, each step contributes to the creation of vibrant, expressive watercolors that enable artists to bring their visions to life.

Pigments Used in Watercolor

Watercolor paints owe their vibrant hues and diverse color palettes to the pigments used in their production. These pigments can be divided into two main categories: natural and synthetic.

Understanding the origins, properties, and performance of these pigments can help artists make informed decisions when selecting their watercolor paints.

Natural pigments have been used in artistic mediums for centuries, originating from various sources such as minerals, rocks, and plants.

These pigments often boast unique characteristics, making them highly sought after by artists. Some common natural pigments include:

  • Ultramarine blue: which is derived from the semi-precious mineral lapis lazuli. This pigment produces a rich, deep blue color that has been prized by artists since ancient times.
  • Burnt sienna: sourced from natural iron oxide, is a warm, reddish-brown pigment popular for its versatility in creating earthy tones and shadows.
  • Raw umber: also derived from iron oxide, is a dark brown pigment with a subtle green undertone, commonly used for landscape paintings and deepening other colors.

While natural pigments have their appeal, many modern watercolor paints utilize synthetic pigments.

Developed in laboratories, synthetic pigments offer a broader range of colors, improved consistency, and often better lightfastness.

These pigments are designed to mimic the properties of natural pigments or create entirely new hues. Examples of synthetic pigments include:

  • Quinacridone: a family of organic pigments known for their bright, transparent colors and excellent lightfastness. They are available in a range of shades, from magenta to gold.
  • Phthalocyanine: a group of synthetic pigments that produce intense, transparent blues and greens. These pigments are valued for their high tinting strength and lightfastness.
  • Hansa yellow: a synthetic organic pigment that offers a range of lightfast, semi-transparent yellows, from lemon to deep gold.

Lightfastness and permanence are crucial factors to consider when choosing pigments for watercolor painting. Lightfastness refers to a pigment’s ability to resist fading or discoloration when exposed to light.

Permanence, on the other hand, describes a pigment’s overall durability, including its resistance to fading, darkening, or other alterations over time.

Artists often prioritize pigments with high lightfastness and permanence ratings to ensure the longevity and vibrancy of their artwork.

Many watercolor manufacturers use rating systems, such as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) scale or the Blue Wool scale, to communicate the lightfastness and permanence of their pigments.

These ratings help artists make informed choices when selecting paints that will best suit their needs and preferences.

Blue Wool Scale Test
Picture Credit: Kindra on YouTube.com


We delved into the composition of watercolor paints, exploring the roles of pigments, binders, and additives.

We also discussed the various types of watercolors, including traditional, tube, and unique formats, highlighting their unique properties and applications.

Furthermore, we examined the manufacturing process, the importance of pigment selection, and the significance of lightfastness and permanence.

The world of watercolor painting is vast and diverse, offering endless creative possibilities.

We encourage you to experiment with different types of watercolors and pigments, expanding your artistic horizons and discovering new ways to express yourself through this captivating medium.

Mehak Verma

I love creating both traditional and digital watercolour art. Why? As a kid, transitioning from sketch pens to paint brushes and water soluble colours was a big deal. Hope you find what you're looking for on my website.

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