Pans vs. Tubes? Part One

May 3, 2011

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.

    • Jenny K
    • May 3, 2011

    Thanks for another informative post!

    I have some W&N artist grade tubes, just because that was the best brand available locally. I was planning to fill empty pans with them for a portable set, but would I be likely to run into frustrating problems trying to re-wet them?

    While I’m asking questions – if I decided to convert to Daniel Smith (now available here in the UK at ), would it be OK to replace a colour at a time as I used up the W&N tubes, or would that not be a good idea?

    • Leslie Schramm
    • May 3, 2011

    I happily use both, I;ve a palette of half pans some filled from tubes, some bought in pans. probably 8 or 9 brands; in the colours I like for painting landscapes, and yep the Daniel Smith and Micheal Graham colours rewet really well; (Even MG’s Viridian, which in so many other brands turns to rock; it’s good with cool blue for a granitey colour) Last time I fancied something different I got the Shirley Trevena book on Vibrant watercolours, and happily stuck with my usual colours, just painting differently. It took me a very long time to realise, that once you’ve bought expensive paint, it’s yours. It doesn’t cost anything extra to use it; you don’t get money back on the empties and if you keep it in the tube, it’s a pretty unexciting ornament. Doesn’t stop me buying more colours though; my excuse is it’s easier with flower paintings, but I don;t paint that many flowers; so I think it’s I just like colours. West coast of Scotland is naturally damp, so never had a problem with pans drying out much, though some cheap tubes do crack in pans. Only real problem with a tube with is a stuck top, usally steeping that in water overnight does the trick. Just enjoy the painting, and try something different every so often to get you out of the comfort zone

  1. Reply

    Jenny I can’t give you a definitive answer on your W&N question because it’s been so long since I left their line. You’re going to try it out. Get a watercolor palette with empty half pans, or simply order a couple 1/2 pans. Fill them. I recommend filling 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 letting each 1/3 dry completely (sometimes over several days) before you add the next level. Then let the whole thing dry out for another week or so just for overkill and test it.

    If they don’t rewet to your liking you know you have to start ramping up your substitution.

    Replacing Daniel Smith into your palette one color at a time is no problem.

    My replacement happened more quickly because I wanted to test certain colors in each line against each other to make sure I wanted to make the shift.

    At the time I was using Payne’s Gray on my palette and I kept W&N PG for a long time because it has a lovely tone. (I no longer have Payne’s Gray on my palette.)

    Every brand will have colors with the same names, and even sometimes contain the same pigments yet you’ll see subtle but meaningful or not so subtle differences between them.

    Look at my post on Burnt Sienna and choosing a Palette

    The image is very dramatic in showing the differences.

    Use the colors that work for you and complete your vision.

  2. Reply

    Leslie, thanks for bringing up mixed palettes— I touch on that briefly in the second portion of this post (tomorrow). My large watercolor palette (front and center in the image at the link to my travel palettes) has 4 pans glued into the waterwell area, center right of the palette. They used to all be Schmincke pans of colors that really didn’t rewet well in W&N when I was phasing W&N out. Gradually they were replaced and the only ones I keep there now are Schmincke’s Cad Red and Yellow Ochre pans, but I don’t use either very often at all just because I prefer other colors now. They still make great choices for those colors because as factory made pans they don’t have the tendency to crumble in the way tube-home-made pans of those colors might.

    You’re right. There’s no return! We have to use the stuff up (or pass it on to someone with different tastes and preferences).

    • Jenny K
    • May 3, 2011

    Thanks, Roz and Leslie, for such informative comments!

    Roz: Yes, I’ll try out the W&N in half pans – I already have some empty ones. Knowing a good procedure for setting them up helps – thanks! I don’t have a standard to compare them against, though, unless I order one colour of Daniel Smith.

    I have the DS paintable samples sheet to help us if we want to ‘convert’ (DH is learning watercolours too). I also have Handprint bookmarked for comparing pigments and colour names between brands.

    Leslie: I like the part about actually using the paints.

    • Roz
    • May 4, 2011

    Jenny, I would add one thing about my love for Daniel Smith Watercolors—I don’t care much for most of their primatek colors, the mineral colors or whatever they call them (no catalog handy). The ones I have tried in that branch of their brand do not rewet well. There is a serpentine green/purple that does well, but that’s about it for me. I’m not drawn to such colors most of the time so it’s no great loss to me since there are so many fantastic colors in the main line. But since you have a test card I wanted to point that out. Roz

    • Jenny K
    • May 4, 2011

    Ah, thanks for that warning! Re-wetting would be a major reason for changing gradually to their paints from W&N, so that is very useful to know.

  3. Reply

    Roz. I don’t think I will stop asking questions. Great post. Now on to #2.

  4. Reply

    Melly, you’re funny. But look at all the tangents your email sent me on! I hope you’re enjoying your new paints!

  5. Reply

    I want to make a correction. The M. in M. Graham Paint Company does not mean Micheal. No Michael Graham in this company. M Graham watercolor was founded By Art Graham and his wife Dianna Graham. Just saying. 😉

  6. Reply

    I am looking for a nice travel palette and am unsure which to buy. I was hoping for some recommendations. I don’t want a plastic one and I do want one that I can add my own tube paints to. I love the look of the Schmincke case, especially since the anniversary set is on sale at Dick Blick, but wondered if this only takes the pre-made factory pans if I want to refill? I really would rather use the tube paints I already have. Thanks so much!

  7. Reply

    Renee, you didn’t mention size.
    If you go to this post
    you’ll see the palettes I use.

    All can be purchased at Wet Paint in St. Paul (I’m sure you can get them other places, but I don’t have other sources and I know they carry them.)

    All can allow you to add your own tube paints. It’s a matter of size of pan (is it too small for the way you work?) and size of palette (is it too heavy for you to hold while standing and painting for instance).

    I love the Schmincke palettes. The squarish ones in the image were until recently no longer available. Just Wednesday a shipment of these came in to Wet Paint (I was there buying paper). They have some Schmincke paints in them and are not available empty, but you can switch out the pans, and you can also order EMPTY pans and use them in such a can. So that’s an option.

    I don’t know about the set at Dick Blick—which can it is and what paints it might contain. If you’d like to write back with a link to a photo of that set I can comment on it.

  8. Reply

    Renee, I don’t know why Leslie thought M. Graham was run by someone named “Michael” but perhaps she was thinking of Michael Wilcox. Thanks for writing in.

    I probably should have noted a correction when I wrote back to her but my mind was on the other aspects.

    I’ve met Art. He’s an interesting and knowledgable guy. Even if he won’t see the light about PB60 Gouache!

  9. Reply

    I found a lot of difference in Burnt Sienna in watercolor brands, too, Roz! I stuck with W & N because it was so much more vibrant and alive!

    (I seldom have a problem with that brand re-wetting, if I do remember to spray them with water before using them, by the way.)

  10. Reply

    I’m with you on the Primatek colors, Roz! I tried the mineral paints in three different brands, actually…too hard, not for me.

    But then, I don’t much like the color-du-jour thing anyway–I think I’m immune to blitz marketing!

  11. Reply

    Kate, I think the Burnt Siennas very so much from brand to brand that if you find one you like you should stick with it. But I really don’t like W & N watercolors. I think they are too expensive for what you get, but there was a long time when I used them. I just became a total convert to Daniel Smith in the 90s.

    I like the DS Burnt Sienna and also for a slightly different set of mixes I have the DS Burnt Orange in my studio palette.

    Well I’ve probably covered all that in the above and it’s late.

  12. Reply

    I’ve just never found one that caught my interest, except the Genuine Serpentine. All the others look so wimpy when they wash on.

    I’m glad you are immune to blitz marketing. I think people who understand color theory can get the effects they want from a limited palette and paint “cartwheels” around other folks and you are out there doing cartwheels with your brush!

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