Art Supply Review: Winsor and Newton Cotman Compact Set Watercolors
Now, this was probably my very first set of watercolors ever. Yeah, I was really lucky and my parents spoiled me by splurging on student grade watercolor paints instead of Crayolas. I don’t even know how long I’ve had these paints, but it feels like forever.
Since Winsor and Newton is such a famous company, I think it’s fair to say that their Cotman line of paints is where many new watercolor artists begin. So, I thought it would be a good idea to start my series of reviews with this set.
Bear with me though, because it’s old and it looks like it!
This is a pocket-sized plastic box full of paint. It’s about 13 cm wide by 11 cm long, by 2 1/2 cm high when closed. When fully opened, it’s around 26 cm long, which is a lot of mixing space!
The plastic housing has a thumb hole, which makes it easy to hold when painting en plain air (that’s French for outside) or urban sketching. It has two palettes, one of which is detachable.
The Cotman Compact Set also has a little dish that you can use for holding water or painting mediums. The little distance on either side of the pallet or in the middle, where your thumb goes.
Oh, and it also comes with a totally cute Series 3 Cotman watercolor brush in size number 5! I’ve lost mine, so you’ll just have to imagine it.
The Cotman Compact Set comes with 14 halfpans:
- Lemon Yellow Hue  (PY 175)
- Cadmium Yellow Hue (PY 97, PY 65)
- Cadmium Red Hue (PR 149, PR 255)
- Cadmium Red Pale Hue (PY 65, PR 265)
- Alizarin Crimson Hue (PR 206)
- Purple Lake  (PV 19)
- Ultramarine (PB 29)
- Cerulean Blue Hue (PB 15)
- Viridian Hue (PG 7)
- Sap Green (PY 139, PT 36, PR 101)
- Yellow Ocher (PY 42)
- Burnt Sienna (PR 101)
- Burnt Umber (PBr 7, PY 42)
- Chinese White (PW 5)
Let’s Talk about Student Grade Versus Artist Grade Watercolor
Cotman is Winsor and Newton’s student grade line of paints. But what does that mean exactly?
Less Pigment, More Binder
Student grade paints generally have less pigment and more binder and artist grade paints. That means that the colors are often less intense or saturated than the exact same pigment in an artist great paint.
In addition to using more binder, student grade paints can also use lower quality binders, which make the painting process a bit more frustrating.
This can also make student grade pigments more chalky and dull. If you have pan or cake watercolor sets, like the Cotman Compact Set, student grade paints may be harder to re-wet and take more scrubbing to get pigment.
But They Are Cheaper, Yay!
Artist quality watercolors are pretty pricey. I have paid over $10 for a single tube of paint! That’s half the price of this entire 14 pan set!
Because they are cheaper, student quality watercolors might be easier for watercolorists On a budget to start with. However, some artists recommend only using artist grade paints, and simply buying fewer of them in order to spend less money.
The Cotman Line
Let’s look at the Cotman line itself. There are 40 colors in all, which you can see in a color chart here. Winsor and Newton also provides a detailed list of all the paints with their properties here. I’ll be looking at each of those aspects below.
Fewer Single Pigment Paints
The majority of the paints in the Cotman line are not single pigment paints. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s much easier to mix bright, clear colors when you are using single pigment paints.
When too many pigments mixed together, the colors tend to be dull and brown. Using single pigment paints means that when you are mixing a red and yellow paint, you know that you are only mixing two paints. If you are using paints with multiple pigments, you could be mixing together three, four, or even eight pigments without even knowing it!
That’s a surefire way to get into trouble while mixing your colors.
Of course, if you don’t mix colors too much, then this shouldn’t be a problem.
Out of the 40 colors, 19 of them are single pigment paints. In the Cotman Compact Set, eight of the 14 pigments are single pigment paints.
All but one of the paints in the Cotman line are considered Series 1 paints. What does that mean?
Manufacturers often label their pigment Series 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. Series 1 paints are the cheapest, and Series 5 paints are the most expensive.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are worse pigments, just cheaper. For example, most earth colors (burnt umber, yellow ocher, you know, the brown ones) are really cheap because they are literally made out of dirt.
One positive aspect of this is that student grade paints, and these Cotman paints, are often less toxic than artist grade paints. Pigments like cadmium are more expensive and are not often used in student grade paints.
I personally don’t paint with toxic pigments, so I have to be careful when selecting my artist grade paints.
Only 18 out of the 40 Cotman colors are considered to have the highest lightfastness rating as assigned by ASTM international.
What does that mean?
Lightfastness is how likely the paint or pigment is to fade when exposed to sunlight. Most student grade paints have lower lightfastness then artist grade paint. That means if you hung a painting you made with paints that are not lightfast, it would probably fade over time and lose its vibrancy.
If you are just painting in a sketchbook, lightfastness probably doesn’t matter very much. That if you ever plan on selling your art or displaying it, you should probably pay attention to the lightfastness of your pigment.
And finally, a note on the packaging. The packaging for Windsor and Newton’s Cotman line is exactly the same as it is for the artist line. So be careful, because it’s really easy to get them mixed up!
Testing it out
So, how does this thing actually work out when you’re using it?
The palette is made out of plastic, which has its good and bad points. It’s great because it’s light and durable. Also, plastic doesn’t rust.
It’s not so great because, especially in the beginning, plastic is not a really good material for mixing on. The paint kind of blobs together and makes it difficult to see what you’re doing properly.
The pans are basically normal half-size pans. The only problem here is that they come out really easily because they are loose in the palette.
Don’t be surprised if you open up your pallet and the pants are all over the place.
This palette is a very good size for traveling. It could be a little bit smaller, but the size allows you to have a ton of mixing area.
The Cotman set is comfortable to hold in your hand and it also lays on the table very easily.
Basically, the format is great!
The color selection of the Cotman set is really good. You get a warm and cool of each color, which is basically what you need to mix a ton of colors properly. It also includes purple, which can be difficult for beginner watercolor painters to mix.
The one thing is that I’m not sure why there is a white included in the set. I can only guess that they are including it to cover up mistakes or something like that.
Here are my swatches of all of the paints that I actually had from the set. Before painting, I added a drop of water to each pan and let it sit for five minutes.
As you can see the colors are pretty bright and vibrant. I didn’t really have to scrub to get the pigment out, and the paint is not streaky at all.
The Sap Green is kind of weird though, because I’m used to it being a more dark, natural color instead of this light green that we get in the Cotman Compact Set.
The Burnt Umber it is also a bit problematic. It’s very gritty and leaves big chunks of paint in your swatch. No good.
The colors mix very easily. Here I mixed green, purple and orange. The colors are mixed were bright, vibrant, and clean.
No problems here!
Versus Artist Paints
To show you the difference between the Cotman colors and some artist grade paints, I used my own palette and picked colors I thought would be close to those in the Cotman set.
Can you see the difference?
By now, it’s probably pretty obvious to you that the artist grade watercolors are much brighter and more vivid than the Cotman watercolors.
However, that’s not saying that the Cotman colors are bad. You would just need a lot more of the same pigment to achieve the intensity you can get with artist grade watercolors.
This is just a super quick wet in wet sketch of some tomatoes to see how the paints interact with one another.
As you can see the Cotman colors mixed together very well. The gradation between colors is very soft and nice. They were also very easy to control.
Below is the same thing done with artist colors. The colors blended much more evenly, and were more active, but the effect is still very similar. Some people might not be able to tell the difference.
Pros and Cons
|Inexpensive||Lower grade paint|
|Less Toxic||Less lightfast|
|Portable, great for sketching||Fewer single pigment paints|
|Good color selection||-|
|Easy to get nearly anywhere||-|
Who is it for?
I would recommend this Cotman Compact Set to the beginning watercolor painter or artist on a budget.
Of course it’s better to get artist grade paints if you can afford it, but if you can’t this is a great pace to start. Some people might say that it’s better just to get three to six tubes or pans of artist quality watercolor. The price difference is not that huge then.
However, I think that it can be kind of frustrating for the beginning watercolorist to deal with such a limited palette. It’s a really great way to build up your mixing skills, but it might be frustrating to beginners who are not very good at mixing colors just yet.
This would probably also be a good set for crafters or anybody doing simple watercolor and projects that doesn’t require a lot of mixing or layering.
I would also recommend a set over the artist grade set for children because the artist grade set definitely includes toxic watercolors. Not exactly what you want when paint can end up on little fingers and faces.
Here are a couple of alternatives that I have seen around in a similar price and quality range.
Sakura Koi Watercolors 24 pan set, $19.50 (Review) I used these paints when I was a teenager and I loved them! Having said that, I wouldn’t use them now because there is no pigment information or lightfastness information available. If you are just sketching and you’re not worried about your pigment fading, this is wonderful bang for your buck.
Zig Kuretake Gansai Tambi 24 pans set, $19.53 (Review) The thing about these is that they are gorgeous! Brilliant colors. Superbright. The whole shebang. But they are not watercolors, at least not in the European sense. Gansai are traditional Japanese water-based paints that use hide glue as the binder. That’s not a bad thing, but it means that these paints behave differently than Western-style watercolors and might be confusing when you are just learning how to paint. They are also more opaque than Western-style watercolors.
Crayola Watercolors, 8 pan set, $1.48 (Review) Just don’t do it. Please. I know that price is really tempting, but it’s not worth it. And not just the Crayola brand, all the ones that are like this. Please just stay away. (To be fair, you can make beautiful things with these pains, but it is just so much extra work that it’s better just to pay to avoid the frustration if you can afford it at all.)
St. Petersburg / White Knights / Yarka, $57.84 (Review) First of all, I have to let you know that I’ve never actually tried these paints. The manufacturer describes these as artist grade paint, but some people consider them student grade. The problem is that apparently some of the colors are not as lightfast as they claim. However I have seen these the sets used by many professional watercolor artists, and they look gorgeous. They are a bit more expensive than the Cotman Compact Set, but cheaper than the Artist Grade Compact Set. So a nice middle ground.
The Last Word
- Price: ★★★☆☆
- Quality: ★★★☆☆
- Overall: ★★★☆☆
They are pretty okay! Not the top-of-the-line, but definitely not the bottom. This is a solid choice for any beginning painter or painter on a budget.
When a paint name includes the word “Hue,” that means that the manufacturer is not using the pigment that is normally associated with this name, but a substitute that is generally cheaper and of lower quality. ↩
Those strange numbers and letters that you see in the parentheses are the pigment codes. If there is one, the paint is made out of one pigment. If there are more than one, the paint is made out of many pigments.
These pigment codes are important because different manufacturers give their paints different names even when they are using the exact same materials to make their paint, and that can be really confusing!
If you want to learn more about watercolor pigments, head to handprint.com. ↩
When a paint name includes the word “Lake,” it means that it is a paint made with dye or that are very transparent. ↩
I used much less pigment for this drawing. ↩