Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Review: Sakura Koi Watercolor Set


The 48-color Koi set measures 8" x 5 1/2" x 1.1"

You may recall from my review of the Color Meditation Deck that the author had recommended “getting the biggest set of watercolors/gouache you can afford.” This surprised me, as it is contrary to what most watercolor instructors and books advise. Of course, author Lisa Solomon is not teaching watercolor painting; the objective is not necessarily to learn how to mix colors. The paints are just a vehicle for being in a relaxed state of mind that nurtures creativity.

You can read my review to learn why I didn’t want to create a palette with lots and lots of watercolors, but I could see that following the prompts would be more spontaneous if I did have lots and lots of watercolors. In short, I wanted the watercolor version of a large set of colored pencils!

I looked at several such sets of watercolors (many of which are intended for kids), and in a somewhat ironic and humorous turn of events, I ended up getting the Sakura Koi Pocket Field Sketch Kit of 48 colors. It’s ironic because the 18-color version was the set I started urban sketching with. Simple and compact, it served the immediate need, but it didn’t take me long to realize that the paints weren’t high quality. I quickly moved on to making my own mini palettes with high-quality tube watercolors in mint tins. (And unfortunately for my current need, I gave away the smaller Koi set.)

Ordering the set, I chuckled to myself that I had come full circle. The Koi set hadn’t met my needs at the time, but here I was buying another, much larger set of the same mediocre paints because they were exactly what I needed for a different purpose.

(If you’re thinking that 48 is a ridiculously large number of watercolors to have in a palette, take a look at this: The Koi set is also available with a whopping 96 colors! It’s hard to imagine how I resisted that one, right?)

Below are the swatches for the 48 colors. As you can see, many colors are so similar that they are redundant, and 36 or even 24 are probably sufficient for my current needs. And 96 would be outrageous! Yet it’s beautifully satisfying to see a palette of 48 watercolors (I admit, 96 would look even more dazzling, but I draw the line here). It’s as close to a box of colored pencils that I will ever have in watercolor form!

The paints aren’t as bad as I remember them being (or as bad as others told me they were). Certainly, they aren’t artist quality, but they are ideal for the “coloring book” method of urban sketching that I was doing at the time – drawing the picture and coloring it in – as opposed to “real” painting.

The paints may not be the best, but two accessories consistent in all the Koi sets make them a good value. One is the ingeniously designed, two-part waterbrush (which can be purchased separately). Although I prefer the Kuretake waterbrush for general use, the Koi brush comes apart, and a cap for the water compartment keeps the water contained. Disassembled, it’s an extremely compact waterbrush that fits perfectly in the palette box’s compartments. (The Japanese are clever about designing practical products for small living spaces in their tiny island nation.) After I gave away my first Koi set, I got a separate Koi brush that ended up being ideal for my teeny, tiny sketch kit (still a work in progress, by the way).

The ultra-compact, 2-part waterbrush fits perfectly inside the box.

The second useful accessory is the mixing tray, which has pegs that fit into holes in the paint palette. When I gave away the paints, I kept the tray and have used it at my desk ever since. It takes up little desktop space while offering plenty of mixing compartments.

The useful mixing tray sits over the paints.

Although it’s unlikely that I’d ever carry this Koi set on location, its portable, compact design appeals to me in many ways. Alas, it’s not so small that it fits inside my “downstairs studio” portfolio, so I’ve had to break my policy of bringing downstairs only those supplies that will fit into it. Even so, its slender case stands like a book next to The Color Meditation Deck and the portfolio, taking up little additional space. It’s liberating to pop it open and use it almost as spontaneously as colored pencils.

The Koi box (left) fits like a book next to the Color Meditation Deck and my "downstairs studio" portfolio.

Almost as spontaneous as colored pencils!


  1. That's a lot of colors!!! I have a small Koi watercolor set that I've never even opened. I got it as a freebie somewhere. I keep thinking I should give it to someone who needs it, but I never have it with me. lol

    1. Ha-ha!! All these colors probably seem ridiculous to a watercolor painter like you! :-)

  2. Ah Ha! You almost got me with this one! Although I have a 12 box of Sakura Koi, I have always liked the layout of the 24 palette better. I like the paints alright, but I think they are more chalky than the Daniel Smith that I have in tubes. But, I am so intrigued by the idea of 48 colors being "close to a box of colored pencils" (you know how I crave the BIG boxes!) that I went looking at the 48 palette. I decided not to invest the $$ in WC and the deck of cards...at this time. Unfortunately, Field Notes then had a one day sale... Anne HwH

    1. I was wondering what you'd think of having a watercolor set that mimicks a box of colored pencils! ;-)

  3. I’ve had the 18 set for less than a year which I use, as you put it, for colouring book purposes in my sketchbook mostly. I noticed the lower quality compared to my other paints but the set up is so convenient that I end up using it more anyway. Do you know anything about the lightfastness? I’ve used them on a few things that I’ve hung up but I’m wondering if that was a good idea.

    1. I haven't seen any lightfast tests done on them. I would not count on those paints to be lightfast... they seem very much student grade-ish to me. I recommend doing your own lightfast test, because it won't take long for fugitive colors to be revealed. Just make a swatch sheet and cover up half the swatches. Hang in a south-facing window for a month or so. Colors like red, pink and purple will fade fairly quickly if they are not lightfast.


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