Painting & drawing blog

WATERCOLOUR PANS VS TUBES

Watercolour tubes and pans

Whether to buy pans or tubes of paint is the first decision you’ll have to make when starting out with watercolour. Should you stick with those familiar compressed little pans of paint that you probably encountered in childhood, or should you branch out to watercolour paint in tubes? What are the possible reasons for doing so?

More often than not beginners will choose to stick with pans, leading to a common perception that pans are for beginners and tube paint is for professionals. However this is not necessarily the case at all – it really depends on what kind of painting you want to do. There is also a third way when painting in watercolour that many professional watercolourists employ: that of re-filling their old paint tins with liquid paint and allowing it to dry, thereby creating their own pans.

There are lots of practical differences between these methods and also some economic considerations. I’ll take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of all three ways of painting: using ready-made pans, painting with liquid watercolour straight from the tube, and filling your own tin with tube paint to make your own pans. There are no paid links in this article, just my own recommendations.

WATERCOLOUR IN PANS

Watercolour pans

These little compressed squares of paint usually come in two sizes. Full pan size is a little rectangle of around 2.9 x 1.9 cm (1.18 x 9.75 inches) and has a capacity of around 5ml. Half pan size is about 1.9 x 1.6cm (0.75 by 0.63 inches) and has a capacity of about 2ml. The measurements can vary a millimetre or two between ranges. When it comes to buying a set of paints pre-assembled for you in a tin, half pan sets are the most common. A few manufacturers make quarter pans for miniature ‘sketcher’ sets but these are really very tiny, whilst the Belgian company Blockx also offer a ‘giant’ pan size.

Cost-wise, full pans are a far more economical way to buy compressed watercolour paint as you will usually pay only an extra 20% or so more for full pans than for half pans. However if you are using a very wide range of colours (typical for botanical artists, for example) then the larger pan size may not be ideal as you’d need a very big paint tin to keep them in, although you could of course keep a number of tins each with a pans of a different hue (greens, blues, etc)

Watercolour paint pan refills

You can also buy pans of paint singly and fit them into your old tin to refill it. If you don’t have an old tin you can buy an empty one from an art store which is designed to be filled up with your choice of pan colours. This would work out more expensive than buying a pre-filled tin, but the advantage would be that you could customise your palette to exactly what you wanted. Some empty tins sold by art shops are designed to accommodate both half pans and whole pans, which might be handy if you use a lot of certain colours and less of others.

WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF WATERCOLOUR PANS?

They are portable

Being lightweight and portable, pans are great for painting outdoors (or ‘en plein air’) because you simply need to moisten the pan with a wet brush and you’re ready to work – there is no need to transport many tiny tubes with you and spend time putting little blobs of paint out onto a mixing tray or tin. Once you’ve finished pans are easy to transport back home because you simply blot any excess liquid with kitchen paper and shut the lid.

They are simple

Many professional artists who work indoors also simply prefer working from pans. In some ways it’s more straightforward and involves less wastage because even if your pan has become very wetted, it will just dry out again and can be re-wetted during your next session. In contrast if you’ve got a palette full of squeezed-out paint from tubed, you have to decide whether to keep and re-use it. 

They will last indefinitely

As long as you protect your paint tin from excessive dry heat (which may cause them to dry too much, becoming very hard and difficult to re-wet) or from great extremes of heat or cold (which might cause them to expand, contract and eventually crack) then paint in pans will pretty much last forever. I recently came across a box of my student watercolour paints that were over twenty years old and they re-wetted perfectly as if they were new. In fact even if your pans did crack a bit, the paint would still be perfectly usable with a bit of effort to re-wet them. 

AND THE DISADVANTAGES:

You may have a more limited choice of colours

Some ‘artists’ quality watercolour paint brands (M Graham watercolours or Shinhan PWC Extra Fine watercolours for example) don’t make pans at all, only tubes. A few companies provide their entire colour range in pans and tubes, but others (including Daniel Smith, Golden Qor and Da Vinci watercolour paints) offer considerably fewer colours in pan form compared to their tube paint. At the bottom of this article there’s a link to a post where I’ve compared the numbers of colours available in different forms in the most popular paint ranges.

It’s harder to work up an intensely coloured or very large wash

Probably most significant difference between pans and tubes is that you can more easily get a rich, saturated wash from tubed paint. With a pan it takes a lot more effort to work up a large amount of really intense colour with your brush. If you work on a fairly large scale or want to cover quite a large area of paper with one particular colour or with a colour mix, then using tube paint will be easier.

You may get through brushes a lot quicker

Soft watercolour brushes are very delicate, particularly traditional animal hair brushes made from sable hairs. The effort of scrubbing at a pan with them to pick up the colour will take its toll, and you may find them dropping hairs and loosing their point. One way to avoid this problem is to use a really cheap synthetic acrylic brush (a ‘student’ grade brush would be ideal) to initially re-wet and soften your pans, switching to your more expensive brushes once the paint is wet enough to paint with.

Another common practice is to give your paints a spritz with a small atomising spray before you start to work – you can find these in the watercolour section of an art store. Some ranges will be softer and easier to re-wet than others depending on how high the pigment load is and which ‘wetting agents’ or ‘flow agents’ have been added. Some cheap student grade paints can be quite hard to soften.

Pans will pick up dust

If the room you are working in is dusty, your pans can re-dry with dust in them after your painting session. Make sure always to leave the tin closed when you finish your work. Keep the room you are working in well dusted and vacuumed.

WATERCOLOUR IN TUBES

Watercolour tubes

Tubes of watercolour paint come in a variety of different sizes from tiny 5ml tubes up to large tubes of 37ml. Different manufacturers will offer them in different sizes and whilst some will offer a choice several sizes, others will only offer one.

Whereas watercolour paint that is made into pans is extruded under the equivalent of several tons of pressure to compress it into those concentrated little cakes, liquid tube paint contains lots of water. It is still extremely concentrated, but not quite as much as compressed pan paint. It’s also easier to manufacture. This all serves to make tube paint a bit cheaper – for example within Winsor & Newton’s ‘Professional Watercolour’ range a full pan size which has a 5ml paint capacity costs more than a 5ml tube of liquid paint in the same colour.

Whilst a comparison of the cost of 5ml tubes vs full pans will always return a verdict in favour of tubes, in truth this comparison may be unfair because the pigment in a pan is so concentrated. If you were to refill an empty full pan with paint from a 5ml tube and wait for it to dry, the paint would shrink down a great deal as the water in the paint evaporated. I find that you actually need one and a half to two 5ml tubes to fill a full pan to the top.

However there’s definitely a cost advantage to buying paint in tubes if you choose a larger size. A 14ml tube typically costs only twice as much as a 5ml tube, so you are getting just under a third extra for your money. Larger tubes are even better value.

WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF LIQUID TUBE PAINT?

It’s usually cheaper

Buying tube paint in the larger sizes is definitely the most cost effective way to purchase watercolour paint. However even buying a 5ml or 8ml tube gets you more paint per millilitre than pan paint.

It’s easy and quick to get a large and/or saturated wash of colour

As we’ve discussed above, it takes quite a bit of effort to lift enough paint from a pan to create a large or strongly saturated wash. A tiny bit of tube paint goes a very long way, gives you a strong colour and is easy to dilute to as large an amount as you want. Your brushes will also benefit, because scrubbing at pans to re-wet them is quite hard on them.

You won’t spend so long searching for the colour you want

This can be a problem with pans if you have a very varied subject matter or you use a lot of different colours within one painting: you’ll need such a big tin for all your colours, or a series of tins, that you’ll likely spend a lot of time searching for the one colour you want. If working from tubes instead you can put only the colours you’re likely to use for your painting, creating a custom palette tailored to your subject matter.

Some people find tube paint easier to control

I also paint in oils and so using watercolour paint in tubes rather than pans comes more naturally to me. I personally find it easier to control tube paint and make mixes with it, although many watercolourists feel exactly the same way about pans!

AND THE DISADVANTAGES:

It’s less convenient for painting outside

As discussed above, there’s no doubt that a tin of pan colours is more convenient for painting out of doors than carting around little tubes and a palette to mix them on. When you finish you’ll have to deal with a palette full of leftover paint which is difficult to transport back to studio if you want to keep and re-use it.

It’s potentially more wasteful

I find it very difficult not to put more paint out of a tube than I actually need because it’s so concentrated. I still have to make a constant, conscious effort not to do this! It can be difficult just to squeeze out a tiny amount and Inevitably that can be wasteful compared to pan paint, where any colour you’ve worked up but not used can just dry again in the tin. 

You can easily dry out your tube by accident

Tube paints will very quickly dry out if you don’t put the lid back on properly. I find this all too easy to do especially if the paint oozes a bit, or some of the gum arabic binder has separated from the pigment and is clogging the lid up. If the seal isn’t tight, a tiny little 5ml tube will dry out fast and become completely unusable. Take good care to avoid this by wiping the thread part of the tube clean with a rag at the end of a painting session and checking that the lid is on straight.

Your paint can dry out on your palette too quickly

In order to prevent this some artists working with tube paint will put it out onto a dampened paper towel in order to keep it wet for longer, or spray it with water with a small atomising spray to keep it moist. Note that you don’t want to keep a puddle of wet paint for too many days, as it may start to grow mildew.

CAN YOU MIX PANS AND TUBES?

This is an easy question to answer: you absolutely can. I’ve never come across any reason why mixing the two would be problematic. You may just need a little practice at obtaining a similar strength of colour from your pans as from your tubes. Many artists working out of doors will take a tin of pans but will also carry a few extra tubes with them. The paints will look just the same when applied because they usually contain the same ingredients whichever form you buy them in.

THE THIRD WAY: Making your own pans from tube paint

Making your own watercolour pans

This is a popular practice amongst professional watercolourists so you can easily buy empty sets of plastic pan trays to fill up with tube paint. Fill half of the tray, leave it to dry in a warm spot and then fill it up to the top. It should take a day or two for each half to dry but may take more in hot weather.

Why would you want to refill pans with tube paint rather than just buying individual pan colours which are readily available? Well many people prefer working with pans over liquid tube paint – maybe because they work outside – but still want the advantages of buying paint in liquid form such as saving money, customising their palettes, and having the widest range of colours available to them. Making your own pans gives you the best of both worlds.

SOME REASONS FOR MAKING YOUR OWN PANS:

It’s cheaper

This is one of the main reasons that artists will fill their own pans. If you’re a professional artist getting through a lot of paint, buying larger (14ml +) tubes of watercolour and filling up pans will certainly be more economical.

You can use any colour within a range

As mentioned above, you’ll find that many companies only sell their full range of colours in tube form, and some may not sell pans at all. If they do, they likely sell a smaller number of colours in full pan form than as half pans. Creating your own pans means you can take advantage of the full range of colours whatever size of pan you prefer.

You can mix and keep your own custom colours

If there’s a shade you regularly create by mixing colours together because you can’t find a ready-made colour that’s exactly what you want, you can make a large batch of this mixture and fill a pan with it to have ready whenever you want.

You can more easily re-wet your pans

When you put tube paint into a pan and leave it will dry it won’t go as hard as pre-prepared pans of paint because it hasn’t been subject to the same process of compression. Because a home-made pan is less compressed it will usually re-liquify more easily so you can get stronger coloured washes with less effort.

You can make angled pans to lift off paint more easily

By placing your refilled pan on a slight angle as it dries you can create a ‘slope’ to your paint, as in this photo below. This will help you to lift off the colour with your brush without creating a well in the middle of your pan. You can also use the space left within the plastic pan for working up a good wash.

Making watercolour pans

Q. DOES TUBE PAINT MAKE GOOD PAN PAINT?

Is the content of tube paint exactly the same as pan paint? As a minimum, watercolour paint consists of at least one pigment bound with water in a binder of gum arabic. However watercolour paints may also have other ingredients added to increase their viscosity and to make them creamier and easier to wet, flow and blend. The most common of these additives is glycerine, but ox gall, honey and preservatives may also be included. Some manufacturers including Daniel Smith or Schminke say that the formulation of ingredients used to make their paints is identical whether it’s sold in compressed pan or tube form. Other ranges generally do not state whether their paint formulation is the same for both pans and tubes.

One exception is Winsor & Newton who make two very popular watercolour brands: the student/beginner range ‘Cotman’ and the artists’ grade ‘Professional Water Colour’. Winsor & Newton have stated that their tube paint should NOT be used to refill pans by allowing it to dry because the proportions of additives in each formulation are different. They say that tube paint dried into a pan by evaporation will re-wet and flow less effectively because various wetting agents will have evaporated out of the paint and their benefits lost.

Some people take the view that Winsor & Newton are just trying to put you off saving money by creating your own pans, an impression created in part I think by the fact that many artists (including myself) report almost no discernible difference in their pan paint and tube paint that has dried out and been re-wetted. Perhaps this isn’t the optimal way to use them, but one could point out that even artists who work with wet tube paint often end up re-hydrating it with water if they’ve put too much out, or if it dries before they need it. It’s really unavoidable unless you waste a lot of paint.

If you do find that your home made pans made with Winsor & Newton paint or with any other brand are difficult to re-wet, a solution would be to add just a drop of glycerine per half pan when filling it up. You can buy liquid glycerine somewhere like Hobbycraft within the cake making section: be sure to get non-animal derived glycerine that won’t yellow your paint.

Avoid using ‘student grade’ paint to make your own pans

Cheap watercolour ranges are much less concentrated than professional grade paints, in that they will contain a lower volume of pigment, a higher ratio of gum arabic binder, and ‘extenders’ such as dextrin to fill up the tube and reduce the price of the paint. This will make them harder to re-wet compared to more expensive paints which have higher pigment loads and include quality additives aimed at improving paint flow.

This can be a problem even with pre-prepared pans of student grade paint, but the effect will be even more marked if you’re making your own pans as you may find that the paint will dry out too much and crack. Adding a drop of glycerine may help, but I’d generally advise buying artist grade paints if you want to fill your own paint pans.

The problem of ‘sticky’ paints

This is the one last issue to make you aware of if you’re considering making your own paint pans. Whilst cheap paint may make unsuccessful home-made pans because it dries out too much, some premium quality paints may cause difficulties in the other direction due to their use of honey as a humectant (a substance added to keep the paint moist).

The honey improves flow and vibrancy, but because it never fully dries out any pans made from it will always stay semi-soft. Paint with a lot of honey in it can therefore be difficult to handle especially if you live in a hot climate because your paints may remain sticky in their tin after a painting session.

M Graham paints. Photo credit: Jacksonsart.com

For example M Graham watercolour paints are lovely and are easy to work with because they have a lot of honey added to them and never get rock hard. However the company advises that if you work in thick layers the paint may never set fully, and that if you live somewhere hot you will need to transport their watercolour pans flat rather than on their side or upside down. Other ranges that use honey as a moisturising agent include Sennelier’s ‘L’Aquarelle’ paints,  Jackson’s ‘Professional Watercolours’, Blockx ‘Artists’ Watercolour ‘paints and St Petersburg ‘White Nights Watercolours’.

This comparison of watercolour paint ranges lists those paints that include honey and gives you a full breakdown of which tube and pan sizes are available for the most popular ranges available in the UK.

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