Painting & drawing blog


Watercolour tubes and pans

‘Pans or tubes’ is the first decision you have to make when starting out with painting in 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, and what are the possible reasons for doing so?

More often than not beginners will go for 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 and also of where you want to do it. In fact there is in fact a third way when painting in watercolour that perhaps the majority of 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, since good quality paint isn’t cheap. 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 pans

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

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 preferable 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 in it (greens, blues, etc)

You can also buy pans singly in an individual plastic trays which you can fit into your old tin to refill it. If you don’t have an old tin you could buy an empty one from an art store, purchase your colours singly and fill the tin up with them. This would work out more expensive than buying a set, but you could customise your palette to exactly what you wanted. Some of these empty tins come with the capacity to accommodate a mixture of half pans and whole pans, which might be handy if like most people, you use a lot of certain colours and less of others.

Watercolour paint pan refills


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 water applied with your 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 again because you simply blot any excess liquid with kitchen paper and shut the lid, and don’t have to deal with a palette full of leftover liquid paint.

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 having wet your pan, any of the liquid paint sitting on top of it that you don’t use can just dry again in the pan tin. If you’ve mixed washes of paint on the lid of your tin (most paint tins come with little grooves in the lid for this purpose) or on a separate palette, you just wipe them off and little paint gets wasted.

They will last indefinitely

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


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. Some companies provide their full colour range in pans and tubes, but others (including Daniel Smith, Golden Qor, Da Vinci) may have considerably fewer colours available as pre-made pans. At the bottom of this article there’s a link to a post where I’ve summarized the numbers of colours available for different sizes of tubes in many of the post popular paint ranges, and whether or full and/or half pans are available in each case.

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

Probably most significant difference between pans and tubes in terms of your painting technique is that you can more easily get a rich, saturated wash from tubed paint. With a pan it takes a lot more effort with your brush and water to work up a large amount of really intense colour. If you work on a fairly large scale or 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 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 on them fairly quickly. One way to minimise this problem is to use a really cheap synthetic acrylic brush (a ‘student’ grade brush will be fine) to initially re-wet and soften your pan when you start work, switching to your more expensive brush once the paint is wet enough to load your brush with the colour.

Another common practice is to give your paints a spritz with a small atomizing 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 their quality: for example in terms of how high the pigment load is and which substances (often called ‘wetting agents’ or ‘flow agents’) have been added.

They 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 them closed when you finish work, and as they dry. Keep the room you are working in well dusted and vacuumed.


Watercolour tubes

Tubes of watercolour paint come in a variety of different sizes depending on the manufacturer, from tiny 5ml tubes up to larger tubes of 37ml. 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 and is simpler to manufacture. This makes tube paint cheaper than pans (since paint ranges vary wildly in quality and price I’m talking here about a direct comparison within the same range: for example with the Winsor & Newton ‘Professional Watercolour’ range a full pan which has a 5ml capacity always costs more than a 5ml liquid tube of 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 is unfair because the pigment in a pan is so concentrated and if you were to refill an empty full pan with a 5ml tube and wait for it to dry, you would end up with a lot less than a full pan of paint once the water in the tube had evaporated. I find that you generally need one and a half 5ml tubes to fill a full pan to the top.

However you prefer to paint with tubes rather than pans, then there’s definitely a cost advantage to buying a larger tube. Typically, a 14ml tube costs just under half that of a 5ml tube, so you are getting just under a third extra for your money. Larger tubes are even better value.


It’s usually cheaper

Buying the larger sizes of tube paint is definitely the most cost effective way to purchase expensive watercolour paint. Even buying a 5ml or 8ml tube is probably a bit cheaper than buying a pan.

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 either a very saturated or a large wash. With a tube a tiny bit of paint goes a very long way, gives you a strong colour and is easy to dilute to make as large an amount of paint as you want.

Your brushes will probably last longer

You’ll only use your brushes to gently mix the liquid tube paint with water, which is much less hard on them than scrubbing pigment from a pan of paint.

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 series of tins, that you’ll likely spend a lot of time searching for the one you want. If working from tubes, you can put out blobs of only the colours you’re likely to use for your painting, creating a custom palette tailored to your subject matter.

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

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


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 dilute and mix them on.

It’s potentially more wasteful

I find it very, very difficult not to put more paint out of a tube than I actually need when it’s as concentrated as watercolour tube paint. I still have to make a constant, conscious effort not to do this! Inevitably it’s going to be much easier to waste paint from a tube that’s so easy to squeeze out, rather than wetting a pan and lifting the colour off on your brush. It’s also inconvenient to find that you have left over little blobs of paint after you’ve finished your work. There’s not a lot you can do with them unless you use exactly the same colours each time you paint, in which case you could keep them on your palette to re-wet them next time as if they were dried pan paint.

You can easily dry out your tube by accident

Tube paints which will very quickly dry out if you don’t get the lid on properly. I find this all too easy to do especially if some paint or oozing gum arabic binder which has separated from the pigment is clogging the lid up. If the seal on your paint isn’t tight, a tiny little 5ml tube will dry out fast and be 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 and tight.

Your paint can dry out on your palette to 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 from 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.


This is an easy question to answer: yes, 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 tubes as from your pans. Many artists work with a basic pan tin but carry a few extra tubes with them. The paints will look just the same on the paper because they usually (but not always – more on this below!) 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. If you have an old paint tin you can wash out the tiny plastic trays that contained your paint ready to refill them with other colours, or you can buy a new tin and some empty plastic trays and fill those up. Fill half of the tray, leave it to dry in a warm spot and then fill the rest. It should take a day or two for each half to dry but may be 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? If you prefer working with pans over liquid tube paint – maybe because you work outside – but you still want to retain some of the advantages to buying your paint in liquid form then this method gives you the best of both worlds.


Saving money

This is one of the main reasons artists will fill their own pans. If you’re a professional artist getting through a lot of paint, then there’s no doubt that buying larger (at least 15ml) tubes of watercolour and filling your pans with these will be the most economical way to work.

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 as full pans than as half pans. Creating your own pans means you can take advantage of the full range of colours.

You can mix and keep your own custom colours

If there’s a shade you very regularly create by mixing more than one colour together because you can’t find a ready-made colour that’s exactly what you want, you can make a large batch of your mixture and make yourself a pan with it to use whenever you like.

You can more easily re-wet your pans

When you put tube paint into a pan and leave it will dry it will harden, but 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, helping you to get a stronger coloured wash from it.

You can make angled pans to lift off paint more easily

By placing your refilled pan on a slight angle you can create a ‘slope’ to your paint, as in this photo. 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 created within the plastic pan for working up a good wash.

Making watercolour pans


As a minimum, watercolour paint always 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 – making them creamier and easier to wet, flow and blend and to stop the pigments from clumping together. 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 if Winsor & Newton who make two very popular 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. Therefore they note, tube paint dried into a pan by evaporation will re-wet and flow less effectively, because the various wetting agents will have evaporated out of the paint and their benefits lost.

A number of people take the view that here Winsor & Newton are cynically 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 naturally. Perhaps it 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 when a blob of colour or a mix of colours dries out on the palette – it’s unavoidable unless you make large mixes and waste a lot of paint. However if you do find that your home made pans either made with W&N paint or any other brand are difficult to re-wet then a solution would be to add just a drop of glycerine per half pan, when filling it up. You can buy this somewhere like Hobbycraft in its 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 have contain less pigment, a higher ratio of gum arabic binder, and will be bulked out with ‘extenders’ such as dextrin to reduce the price of the paint. They will therefore be harder to re-wet than more expensive paints which have higher pigment loads and include quality additives aimed at improving paint flow. This is 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 your paint will dry out too much and crack. Adding a drop of glycerine may help, but I’d 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. If paints tubes from ranges at the cheaper end of the market may make unsuccessful home-made pans because they dry out too much, some premium 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). Honey is the most effective of all humectants and never fully dries out, and some ranges add honey to their paint formulation to improve flow and vibrancy. It makes re-wetting easier when the paint is in pan form because it will always be semi-soft and with tube paint it keeps it moist on the palette for longer.

M Graham paints. Photo credit:

The disadvantage to paint with a lot of honey in it is that they can be difficult to handle in pan form especially if you live in a really hot and humid climate – your paints may stay sticky after they’ve been wetted and may not really dry in their tin after a painting session. M Graham watercolour paints are lovely and easy to work with because they never get rock hard, but the company advise that if you work in very thick layers their paints 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.

Therefore trying to make pans from M Graham paint can be tricky precisely because it is designed never to fully dry out. Other ranges that use honey as a moisturizing agent include Sennelier’s ‘L’Aquarelle’ paints,  Jackson’s ‘Professional Watercolours’, Blockx ‘Artists’ Watercolour ‘paints and St Petersburg ‘White Nights Watercolours’. Most other artists’ grade paints should have no problems although some people report that one of two Daniel Smith colours don’t fare as well with re-wetting due to the mineral pigments used and may benefit from a drop of glycerine to soften them.

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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