A few weeks ago I received an exciting package from Maria at Art Toolkit: the new Explore Palette!

The palette contains 6 Van Gogh® by Royal Talens watercolors: Transparent Yellow Medium, Permanent Red Light, Phthalo Blue, Yellow Ochre, Quinacridone Rose, and Payne’s Grey, 2 large mixing pans, plus 6 extra pans to fill with colors of your choice.

I had never used Van Gogh watercolors before and I have to say that I’m impressed! These are the best student-grade paints I’ve ever used.

I did some research on Van Gogh watercolors since I didn’t know much about them. From the company website:

Van Gogh water colours are a student and artist level range of paints featuring brilliant, transparent, and intense colours with high tinting strength. Most colours are rated with the highest degree of lightfastness +++ (100+ years under museum conditions) with a few colours rated just one step below at ++ (25-100 years under museum conditions). Thanks to the purity and uniform viscosity, these water colours are easy to work with and easy to mix. Proudly produced in Holland with stringent quality control for a consistent experience with every purchase.

Note: I noticed some fading on swatches that I’ve had sitting on my desk for a week — it’s been hot as the blazes here in Texas and my desk gets full afternoon sun, so not exactly “museum conditions”! I don’t see any fading on the paintings that I did in my sketchbook though. I’ll do some more testing on this and report back.

Getting to Know Van Gogh

Here’s an Instagram reel that I put together for Art Toolkit of how I put the palette through its paces:

Here’s more on that thumbnail sketch — it goes by super fast in the first video!

Van Gogh vs Cotman

I have a set of Cotman watercolors, Winsor and Newton’s student grade line, that I purchased many years ago when I was first getting into painting. I dug it out of the drawer and did some comparisons and I have to say that Van Gogh is the winner here, hands down.

  • Van Gogh rewets so much easier than Cotman — we’re talking lots easier! I really have to scrub with my brush to get Cotmans to reactivate, even after misting them with water. Not so with Van Gogh.
  • Van Gogh seems to have a higher pigment load — it might be related to the rewetting problem?
  • The 6 VG colors in the Explore palette are all great mixers — all but the Payne’s Grey are transparent and can give you glowing washes of color, while the Payne’s Grey is so nice to have.
  • They come in at a great price point, so you can feel free to explore color without wasting paint. (Not that I think exploring color is ever a waste of time or money, but I know some people who feel that way!)
  • If you’re a teacher like me, this would be a great palette for workshops.

I wish I would have known about Van Gogh watercolors when I was just getting started!

Van Gogh vs Daniel Smith

Guess which of these cloudscapes was painted with Daniel Smith and which was painted with Van Gogh…

Cloudscapes on Arches cold press paper.

If you said Daniel Smith was the top, you’d be right!

They’re so hard to tell apart — I almost didn’t believe it.

I used the 6 colors in the Explore Palette for the VG cloudscape, and I tried to pick similar ones for DS, so I used phthalo blue green shade, quinacridone rose, organic vermillion, Hansa yellow medium and indigo here.

I have to say that VG quin rose is weaker than DS’s, and overall the VG paints are less pigmented than DS, overall but they’re really good! They handle very similarly, so if you learn to paint with VG you can easily transition to pro grade paints in the future.


If you already have pro-level paints such as Daniel Smith, Winsor & Newton, Schminke etc then you don’t really need these unless you want to have an extra palette to play with — or have kids/grandkids/friends/family that you’re trying to entice into painting along with you! :)

Coupon Code

If you decide to pick up an Explore Palette, use code LISAFAN10 for 10% off your purchase! The code also applies to an ArtToolkit, other palettes, or mixing pans. I’ll receive a small commission at no charge to you — thank you!

Full disclosure: I’m a Brand Ambassador for Art Toolkit and was gifted this palette but the views here are all my own.

Happy painting and let me know if you have any questions!


Bob Cochran · June 24, 2022 at 6:16 pm

Oh, this is a quite interesting post, Lisa. One of the things that has really helped build my interest in watercolors is a now-retired professor of architecture who loves painting. She is a very close friend. She bought basic a set of Cotman paints back in the 1990s, and I think only uses that set. She presented me with a lovely 16 X 20 painting shortly after the pandemic started. It now hangs in my office…under ArtGlass, smile. She also presented me with a smaller painting, using Cotman paints but I believe on Arches paper, as a birthday gift and that, together with some hand-made birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas cards, now hangs in the dining room. A third painting that is about A5 size needs to be framed. I use ArtGlass for such gifts. The Cotman paints appear to be so fragile that I feel I have got to use ArtGlass to protect the paintings. And yes, All are kept from direct sunlight. My friend permitted me to try her Cotman paints for a short time but I did not like them. I want much higher-quality colors. I prefer to pump my money into Daniel Smith and better. Oh, and perhaps you can do a post showing how to frame watercolors made on a variety of papers? I have this feeling that you are enjoying some outdoor adventures. I look forward to perhaps seeing a future post about those, too!

    Lisa Spangler · June 27, 2022 at 7:46 pm

    Hi Bob! Art Glass is a great idea! I haven’t framed any of my own artwork. For other artwork I have taken it to a pro! :)

Mary · June 26, 2022 at 1:23 pm

Not sure if this is a stupid question (and in spite of the old adage “there are no stupid questions”, after 34 years of library employment, there ARE stupid questions!) – – could the difficulty rewetting the WN Cotman be due to their age?

    Bob Cochran · June 27, 2022 at 7:20 pm

    Hi Mary! Here on the East Coast of the USA, humidity is everywhere. Especially in the District of Columbia and Maryland areas. I used a friend’s Cotman paints and they didn’t seem especially hard to wet, even though the friend first bought that set in 1997. I didn’t like the paints because the colors were uniformly weak. But they were easy enough to wet…but I’m inexperienced, I admit.

      Mary · June 27, 2022 at 8:22 pm

      Hi, Bob, I’m in OH, so have the humidity as well.

    Lisa Spangler · June 27, 2022 at 7:44 pm

    Hi Mary, I don’t think this a stupid question at all! My Cotmans have been hard to rewet from the get-go. I did some google searches and others have had the same problem, it’s not just me. Liz Steel is one. Although it may have to do with living in a drier climate! :)

Teresa · September 28, 2022 at 4:36 pm

Hi! Love this review – I started with Van Gogh paints and they kindled my love for watercolors. I was wondering your thoughts on the pocket palette vs the folio palette for painting on the go? I mostly paint at home, but have been getting more into nature sketching on location and would love to hear your take. Thanks! And I always look forward to your blog posts.

    Lisa Spangler · October 2, 2022 at 2:45 pm

    Hi Teresa! yay for getting back to watercolors! I keep the pocket palette in my day pack and that’s what I use on the go! When I go backpacking I might take a demi or a pocket palette. Sometimes I do bring my folio if I’m going on a short hike and I know I’m going to be using big brushes! Hope that helps!

      Teresa · October 2, 2022 at 6:12 pm

      Thanks for the input. I really appreciate it. Looking forward to giving one of them a try!

    Bob Cochran · October 2, 2022 at 3:47 pm

    Hi Teresa, Congratulations on getting back into watercolors. My suggestion is to start small — take the least amount of stuff possible. The pocket or demi palettes are both good starters. I have the pocket palette. I think about the weight of what must be carried on my back and I try to cut it down to the essentials only. Of course one can load up a child’s wagon with things and tow that if fairly flat, even ground is expected. Most of the time though everything has to be hand carried in some way. Cutting grams of weight helps the art experience. :-)

      Teresa · October 2, 2022 at 6:16 pm

      Thanks for the advice. I’ve taken several palettes out, they just aren’t overly travel friendly. We love hiking though, so I’d love to combine both hobbies. Can’t wait to get all set up. Thanks again.

Mary · October 2, 2022 at 9:22 pm

There’s another thing to consider regarding pocket vs folio. Finances. If a person is limited in their funds, or wants to keep a narrow footprint in purchasing, perhaps a folio is the way to go – just keep the paints to the minimum, knowing you can swap them out or add colors. The weight in this regard is minimal compared to other items.

    Teresa · October 3, 2022 at 9:14 am

    Another great perspective for sure! Thanks for all the ideas and thoughts!!

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