There are so many choices you need to make when buying watercolors. First, there are different brands: Winsor & Newton, Van Gogh, Daniel Smith, Talens, Schmincke, to name just a few famous ones. Then, there are different formats: tubes and pans, sold separately or in sets. On top of that, there are professional and student-grade watercolors. The variety is truly overwhelming. This blog post will explain the difference between watercolor pans and tubes, highlighting the pros and cons of each format.
WATERCOLORS IN PANS
Pans come in different sizes: half pans, large pans, and sometimes extra-large pans. They can be sold separately or in sets.
The paint in pans is completely dry. You should spray it with water before you start painting.
WATERCOLOR IN PANS: PROS
Watercolor pans often come in sets, which allows beginners to buy colors that work well together.
If one of the colors runs out, you can buy a pan of that color separately.
They are ready to use: just open the box and start painting.
WATERCOLOR IN PANS: CONS
Difficult to pick up paint with a large brush.
Inconvenient for painting large surfaces.
Sets usually contain some colors that you will never use (black and white are particularly useless and a waste of money).
The colors can get dirty if you are not careful.
WATERCOLORS IN TUBES
Tubes also come in different sizes. For example, Winsor & Newton watercolors come in 5, 14, and 37 ml tubes (14ml seems to be the golden medium). You can find them in sets, too, but it is more common to buy watercolor tubes separately.
WATERCOLOR IN TUBES: PROS
A wide range of colors
A smooth, creamy texture, no pre-wetting necessary
The paint does not get dirty. If you mixed in a different color by accident, just squeeze out some fresh paint.
Better value for money.
WATERCOLOR IN TUBES: CONS
You need a palette to be able to work with them.
They are more expensive to start with (but more economical in the long run)
Require special care: make sure you tie the cap tightly to prevent drying inside the tube.
FILLING EMPTY PANS WITH WATERCOLORS FROM TUBES
I always buy watercolor paints in tubes, and have found a couple of solutions that work great for me.
Mijello Palette is my all-time favorite. In fact, I have one for watercolors, and one for gouache. It has18 empty pans and a large mixing area. It is portable and compact, has a rubber ring around the lid, which makes it airtight and leak-proof.
*Some link in this post are affiliate links, which means I get a small commission when you buy something.
You can squeeze your favorite colors into its 18 wells. The airtight lid will prevent the paint from drying completely. Your watercolors will preserve their creamy texture, so you won't have to moisten your paints before you start sketching. It is perfect both for home and location sketching. It is an important part of my urban sketching kit.
Filling the palette with paints has a little secret. Read this blog post to learn how to fill the pans correctly (the post is about gouache but the technique is the same for watercolors).
Here are a couple of other empty boxes/palettes for watercolors in tubes. Empty pans can be bought separately, although it is probably less convenient to have separate pans without a box to keep them in.
Another great way to use paint from tubes is to supplement your watercolor set. This Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor Landscape Pocket Set includes eight colors plus four empty pans. The eight colors in this set are enough for most of your sketches, both landscapes, greenery and urban scenes. You can fill the empty pans with your favorite colors, thus completing your pocket-sized travel palette.
I have another pocket-sized box, Winsor & Newton Professional Water Colour Field Box. It originally came with twelve pre-filled half pans, but I now fill it with watercolors from tubes. This is the best portable box, as it also includes a water container, a sponge, and a foldable brush. Fits into even the smallest bag! Buy on Jackson's Art | Amazon
DOT CARDS -- YOUR KEY TO CHOOSING THE RIGHT COLORS
Each major brand offers a really extensive range of colors. Dot color charts are a great way to get to know different colors in the range. They are essentially tiny samples of paint. By applying a wet brush to the paint inside the dot, you can see what the color looks like. The dot cards also contain all the necessary information about each paint's characteristics. If you are not sure how to interpret different symbols on your paints, read this guide.Here are the dot card by Winsor & Newton, Daniel Smith, and Schminke.
MY PERSONAL PREFERENCE
I love them all! I think pans vs. tubes is not really a debate. The two formats complement each other nicely. I find tube paints to be a more economical solution, even though they are usually a bigger investment initially. At the same time, I believe that sets of pans are absolutely great for beginning artists.
However, there are two watercolors that are absolutely useless: black and white. And different shades of green which can't really be used for greenery (see my post on mixing greens). I actually have a special box for pans of colors I never use.
I have discovered the perfect solution for myself: paint tubes plus a Mijello palette. This gives me the convenience of having paints in pans in a box and the creamier texture of paint, and also the flexibility to fill the palette with the colors that work well for me.