In April Melanie Testa wrote to tell me that she had some mad money and wanted advice on a new watercolor box and my thoughts on tubes versus factory made pans.
She was purchasing from Wet Paint (because they do mail order, just in case YOU didn't know that) and informed me that they no longer had the sort of square Schmincke box that I use. Bummer. But they have something called the Pinceaux Manet box, and when Melanie sent me a link to a photo of it I realized I had purchased one of those for a small selection of Schmincke pans to take on a trip.
The Pinceaux Manet is a good box, but smaller, i.e., can't contain as many pans, and is not as well made as my Schmincke boxes.
You can see the travel palettes I use here, including the small children's palettes I carry with me everywhere, my squarish Schmincke boxes (which are supposedly no longer available) and a Cotman box I refilled with my own tube paints; more about that below.
Once I got over the disappointment that my favorite watercolor box was no longer available, I saw that the real issue in Melanie's email was one that many folks might be struggling with and considering: Should I buy factory made pan watercolors or should I buy tube paints and fill empty pans?
Along with that question there is always some ping-ponging thoughts of which is most economical, and is it economical to buy a factory box, filled with factory pans.
Of course my mind starting playing with this issue and here you have part one of my musings…
The real questions, when considering pans vs. tubes, you need to ask are these—
With which paints do I currently paint?
If the answer is Daniel Smith or M. Graham then I say you should buy an empty box, empty pans, fill the pans from your tubes and go out into the world with the paint you already use.
Why? Because both of those brands REWET well. You can make your own pans from them and use them with great success in the field or studio.
Do I like the paints with which I currently paint?
If you like the paints you currently paint with then there is a huge advantage to not jumping ship and switching brands. Each brand of paint (tube or pan) is going to work a little differently, have a pigment palette that might not contain your favorites, and in general respond differently to you.
Let's say you like your paints and they happen to be tubes of Winsor & Newton. As much as it pains me to say this because I don't like Winsor & Newton watercolors (the artist line is what we are talking about here, though I don't care for Cotman either), it would probably be beneficial for you to simply start using their factory made pans. There will be some difference but you'll adjust and adapt quickly. The same is true for Sennelier which has pans and tubes. And ditto for Schmincke watercolors.
If you use another brand not listed in the previous paragraph, look hard at the quality of the tube paint you're using now. Is the tube paint you're using now an artist quality line? If so, then just switch to their pans. If it isn't an artist quality line, then don't simply go to their brand of pans. Think more about this. It may be time for you to switch brands.
I don't like the paints I currently work with so what do I do?
You switch. You do this by testing a tube or pan of the same color in a couple different lines to see which you like best. Or you buy a primary triad in two lines and compare them. Or you buy a primary triad in pans and in tubes and compare them. You're going to have to do a little testing since you're upgrading from crap paint and you don't really have any way to know whether you'd like pans or tube paint better because you've never really used good paint.
Am I just bored?
Boredom is never a good position from which to make a decision. A decision made from boredom is almost always guaranteed to be a bad one, and an expensive one. If your painting seems lackluster lately and you aren't getting the vibrant mixes you want, or see other people achieving, instead of going to the art supply store, sit down for a moment. Ask yourself if you're using artist quality paints. Ask yourself if you understand color theory. Ask yourself if you understand how to use watercolors. The first question will require that you look into getting new paints. The last two questions can both be solved with about $30 each outlay for a quality instruction book. Heck, I am going to save you $30. Just buy yourself a copy of Jeanne Dobie's Making Watercolor Sing. She has color theory and watercolor technique—enough of both to get you out of the doldrums.
Buying an instructional book and working with it hard for a month or so is a lot less extravagant than spending $150 or more on a new set of watercolors. You'll be spending your time but it's time spent that is actually improving your skills. If you still need new paints at the end of the month you'll have improved skills with which to enjoy them!
Have I really given my current set of paints a fair go?
Did you just see a workshop advertised by your favorite painter? Does he use a different paint brand? Did you just read a book by an artist you admire. Does she use a different paint brand?
I've said this before, but if the media and tools were all that mattered and they were what bestowed success on people, we'd all be clammoring for that ball point pen James Jean loves so much or the pen that Marty Harris uses.
Before you consider changing brands based on what you like about someone else's artwork ask yourself what your own skill level is (realistically) and what additional work you need to do. If you don't have an artist quality line of paints right now and can afford it, then by all means buy a new line someone you trust is recommending. But if the line you're using currently is artist quality paint and you're really staring your dissatisfaction in the face, stare a little longer. Consider the issues mentioned in "Am I just bored?" above. Act on that. Improve your skills using the artist quality paints you already have. Use them up. Then go experiment with another artist quality brand if you still feel the need.
PART TWO of my discussion of Pans Vs. Tubes? will post tomorrow (Wednesday, May 4, 2011). It provides additional considerations to help you decide between pans or tubes.