Pans vs. Tubes? Part Two

May 4, 2011

Read the full post for details.

This is part two of a two part discussion on the choice between pan and tube watercolors. Please see yesterday's post for part one, which poses essential questions you need to ask in order to make a useful decision on this topic.

Additional Considerations Now that You've Asked the Hard Questions about Your Watercolor Paint Consumption, Usage, etc.

Something You Need to Know
Pans are economical. They look small, especially half pans, but the pans that are made at the factory last a long, long time. I can't give you any statistics on this, all I can tell you is that as a user of both factory made pans (Schmincke) and pans I make myself from my tube watercolors (Daniel Smith and M. Graham), the factory made pans last under heavy use and I get my money's worth out of them.

(Making your own pans out of tube paints leads to all sorts of other issues involving the component parts of a paint and the response of that paint to water over time, and the need to ultimately clean out a home-made pan and fill it with fresh color—that's a conversation for another day, but it does impact economy so I mention it here. It can never be a straight comparison.)

What To Consider When Deciding Between Pans and Tubes
If you like to go into the field with a pan watercolor set, but like to work in the studio/home with freshly squeezed paint from tubes—buy tube paint and fill your own pans. Just work with the one type of paint.

If you are worried about "rewetting issues" and paint falling out of your palette, and any number of horrors you can't even conceive of right now (including being chased by spies) because you haven't sketched in urban or rural situations, go with factory made pans.

Not All Pans Are Created Equal
Just as not all brands of tube paint are of equal quality (because of poor quality pigments, binders, and fabrication) so too, not all pans are equal. Some pan paint is student grade and you should just forget about it. Some pans are marketed to artists and contain artist quality pigments, but when you do your research you find more fugitive pigments in the line than others, or you find that the paints, when tested are more granulating and less finely ground (which for some will actually be a turn on). There are so many factors that you really do have to seek out information and rule out obvious bad candidates before you arrive at a useful list.

For Pan Watercolors I Recommend—
Schmincke is the brand of factory made pans that I use. In the 1990s I read an article about an illustrator who used them (he had the complete range) and thought pans would be useful and bought a small set. (I was mostly using colored pencils in the field at the time.) They worked great, I was a happy consumer for years.

Then I changed the way I was painting and was seduced by Daniel Smith Watercolors. They don't make pans. I bought a bunch of tubes and did a lot of studio painting with them and found that they rewet so well that I could fill my own pans with them. My Schmincke pans languished for quite some time.

Then about five years ago, for reasons I don't even recall, but I am pretty sure it had something to do with my constant search for an interesting orange and my love of wild turkeys, I returned to the Schmincke pan watercolor display and gazed upon it. Well one thing led to another and soon I had an empty box and 27 little pans of delight (including two orange pans I adore!). (I had to do a little bit of engineering to get 27 pans in my box. I've written about it elsewhere on the blog.)

I don't carry the Schmincke box of Schmincke pan watercolors with me much (I don't carry any of my large palettes with me much—and large for me is anything more than 4 x 4 or so). Mostly I carry the small children's palettes you've seen on the blog. Each carries 11 colors of paint (one contains watercolor and the other contains gouache). Obviously with these small palettes I've had to use tube watercolors and tube gouache to fill them, so of course I've used Daniel Smith for my watercolors (with a few M. Graham) and for gouache I've used M. Graham and Schmincke gouache in tubes.

Do I notice a difference in watercolors between Daniel Smith tubes and M. Graham tubes and Schmincke Pans. Yep.

But I pretty much work around those differences on any day when I get up and decide to favor one paint brand over the other.

What I can tell you is that all three rewet beautifully. For tube paints that's not always a given. For pans it's required. I know I don't have to look for any other paint. My needs are met. I constantly assess and look for differences as new tubes in a line come in, because manufacturers do change their processes over time. At the first drop in perceived quality in any of these brands I'll be out looking for something else, but I'm not worried that will happen because that's just life with art materials.

I'll just add that I have two friends, talented artists who both will die with their factory Sennelier pan palettes gripped in their hands. So if you are looking for another good brand of factory made pan that's a possibility.

An Ecclectic Palette—When One Brand or Approach Won't Suffice
Remember just because you now find yourself leaning towards either pans or tube paint don't overlook your affinity to certain paints within certain brands. You may choose to go with a brand that works well from tubes except for a couple problematic colors (some of the earth colors can tend to be more crumbly by nature, but across the range of colors any number of paints could, within one line, be a problem.) In that situation there's no reason why you shouldn't use your tube paints to fill your pans and augment your collection with factory made pans of those problem colors. Or maybe you have a color in your current paint line that you can't live without, and it doesn't exist in the new line. Keep buying it (tube or pan) to include on your palette. (Realize that colors in one brand may have the same name in another brand but the pigment(s) and presentation on paper will often have dramatically different results. You'll need to experiment and find the pigments, from the brands, that do the work you want them to do.)

 My large watercolor palette (front and center in my travel palettes post) 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 Winsor & Newton when I was using and then phasing Winsor &Newton out and bringing in Daniel Smith tube paints. Gradually these four factory made pans were replaced until the only ones remaining are Schmincke's Cadmium Red and Yellow Ochre factory made pans. I rarely use either because I prefer other colors now (like Daniel Smith's Nap Red.) They stay on my palette for those rare times I need them. I find the factory made pans of these colors work better than homemade pans from tube paint—they don't have the tendency to crumble in the way tube-home-made pans of those colors might—regardless of which tube paint brand I'm using.

There's no reason why you shouldn't keep the pigments you love, pan or tube, from whichever brand you love, if those paints are still working for you. Watercolors are united across brands by the use of a common binder: Gum Arabic. So while other factors in a paint may make one brand work differently from another in ways it may take you seconds (or years) to understand, you can still use them all within the same painting.

Now What Do I Do?
You ask yourself the questions given above (and in yesterday's post!). Is it time for you to step up in quality; is it time for you to learn to work with a new paint; is it time for you to test new brands or new colors, or both?

Economics is an issue for all of us. The money we don't spend on dead ended tests allows us more purchasing power for expression in media that do work for us.

But the real economy is always in time. Learning new working methods, becoming familiar with a new paint, it all takes some time. That's the choice you need to assess and weigh the pros and cons of before making a decision.

Buying a new set of watercolors is an expensive endeavor. You want that experience to be joyous. I hope these comments will help you make a happy choice.

There's another way to look at economy in this purchase. What if I buy a box filled with a set of factory pans?

For me, that's never an economical decision. The set of colors that usually come in a standard, pre-packaged palette might include only one or two pigments that I actually want to use. I wouldn't even want to test the other paints. I'd be better off buying an empty box at a higher cost and spending money buying exactly the pigments I want to use—of course this presupposes you know the colors you want to use. Testing will get you there, testing within whatever line of paint you land in. Knowing yourself also helps you assess the real economy of any situation.

Remember something else. This advice comes from someone who bought two Cotman Pan Watercolor boxes JUST TO THROW OUT THE PAINT AND USE THE BOXES! That's right. Sometimes the real economy is in getting the box that will work for you because you already have the paint that you need sitting on the table beside you.

    • Carolyn
    • May 4, 2011

    Hey, thanks, Roz, for these posts on pan paints! I will return to read both posts more thoroughly. It’s time I do more with watercolors, which I love and worked with years ago. My tubes have all long dried up so using pans would be a more realistic investment until I develop a better painting habit.

    • Leslie Schramm
    • May 4, 2011

    Just 2 oranges, , just to wind you up I like Old Holland’s Golden Barok Red. ( it’s actually PO65 Benzimidazolone Orange ) ) Great name though. Us strange Europeans can get Old Holland in 18ml tubes, not the little dinky 6ml ones, which makes for a better price. It’s a lovely deep rich Italian Terracotta pot colour, the colour you hope terracotta will be. Very thin glazes keep the richness a treat. I’ve some squirted into a pan, it sets up lovely and moist and re-wets perfectly

  1. Reply

    Resistance is futile – I’ve ordered up a basic four color palette of M. Graham gouache in the artist primaries (pthalo blue & green, quin rose, azo yellow). I already have empty half and full pans, which Kremer Pigments sells (they also sell a nice empty watercolor box). I’ve always preferred pan colors; in a dry climate, watercolor dries pretty much instantly, so why fight it?

  2. Reply

    Great posts, both.

  3. Reply

    Yep Leslie, I like to mix most of my oranges, but sometimes there are things you just can’t quite get in the orange range. Your PO65 sounds lovely.

    • Judi
    • May 5, 2011

    Don’t know if you’re still checking in on this post, Roz, but if so I’m curious as to why it is that you don’t like Windsor Newton watercolors anymore? They were the gold standard when I began painting back in the early 80s, so I’ve used them for many years, obviously. I do find myself EXTREMELY interested, more and more, in Daniel Smith, watercolors nowadays, however.

    Just this week I went through 30 years worth of tube watercolor paints and organized (squeezed out any remains) two palettes and few pill boxes of any that were still good (and yes, some very old tubes were, believe it or not!). That combined with treating myself two months ago to DS complete “Color Dots” set and playing extensively with it has made me concentrate on pigments more than ever before. This is why I wondered about the why of your feelings about WN.

    I also ordered a couple of basic colors within this past year (Fr. Ultramarine, Sap Green, etc.) in both WN and DS brands. I find the DS in many cases to actually glow compared with the same color of WN. Landscape artists may prefer the WN for this very reason, however, while a floral artist might appreciate DS’s glowing colors. WN doesn’t separate (binder/pigment) in the tube nearly as quickly as DS from what I could see, however. I’m happy with the way both rewet, although it’s probably not fair for me to judge DS on that yet.

    Again, if you have the time, I’d be interested in knowing your why on WN. I’m on the fence as to which brand to lean to in ordering from here on in. Although I see to be leaning towards DS right now.

  4. Reply

    Judi, I’ve written about W &N so many times, the short version—used them for years when they were actually good paints. Saw them change (working capabilities), but prices only went higher (selling on reputation not quality). They don’t rewet all that well. Don’t like some of the pigments they use in their paints (I did research on the pigments which you can do with online sites or with books: Michael Wilcox has one on watercolor paints and there’s another one by Hazel someone I think, but you can find them with a google search. Look up all the paints you use and see how the pigments are rated. And analyze whether or not they serve you well also in the way you like to mix).

    Daniel Smith showed up and I tried them and I’ve never looked back.

    Here’s my rule of thumb: know your materials well enough so that if they start to change you can determine if it is a bad batch, sample, etc. or a trend. And if it is a trend, start looking for something of better quality.

    Seems to me like you’ve already shown for yourself that DS are better (“actually glow”).

    I don’t know any landscape artists who prefer inferior grade paints.

    Tube separation has to do mostly with air and manufacturing issues and it’s a pretty random thing. I can’t remember the last time I had this happen with a DS paint. WN happened all the time—so our experience is different. That’s not enough for me to leave a paint though. I have good luck kneading my tubes and mixing the paint together on the palette on the rare occasion i happens.

    The real question is how do you like the way each paint handles when you work with it????

    • Liz
    • May 9, 2011

    Hi Roz,

    Enjoy your blog all the time and it is great to SEE you in action on the strathmore workshop.

    I agree with most of your comments here except that I still use some W&N colours and I found that when I was using them all day every day for 11 weeks last year on my big trip that they remained lovely and moist. Since then I add a drop of water to my palette at least once a week (normally on Friday night before a big sketching Saturday) and that seems to be working well to keep all colours moist and also helps the intensity of the colour on the page.

    But I do use Daniel Smith mainly(and less and less W&N colours) and I find that some of them to get quite hard without this regular wetting.

    Thanks to your prompt I compare pigments carefully – addicted to the Handprint site.I am not sure why but I love getting the serious facts on the various brands…and then testing with my personal usage.

    You are spot on in regard to pans lasting longer – I have been thinking about testing that out on day to see which is more economical.

    Thanks again for your great posts and blog!!!

  5. Reply

    Liz, glad you enjoy the blog and hope you’re enjoying the workshop.

    Just a heads up. If your treatment of your W&N pans is working for you don’t change it.

    But if other folks are reading these comments
    WARNING—pans are formulated slightly differently from tube watercolors. Generally they have more glycerin in them than in the tubes. Glycerin keeps the factory made pans moist and prevents cracking.

    If you are using factory-made pan watercolors it should not be necessary to put a drop of water in your pans once a week, or the night before a sketching trip.

    That practice could in fact lead to a couple problems, most notably—mold, depending on how you deal with the palette once you put the water on your pans. And since the point of adding water is to hydrate the pan the natural inclination would be to close the top and let the moisture permeate within the box’s “atmosphere.” The perfect conditions for mold.

    (I always leave my box open after a day of heavy sketching so that it can completely dry out.)

    Another possible problem with adding water as you suggest is that you are throwing off the natural mix and factory balance of components in the paint.

    The glycerin in the paint is being released by the water drops you add, the water evaporates, the glycerin settles on top of the pan, or the edges, and it isn’t available for your brush in the same way it was when it was manufactured. Ditto with the Ox Gall.

    The practice could lead to premature cracking of the pans.

    Obviously pans are meant to have water sloshed over their tops so the change is probably not going to be dramatic, but over time you are actually changing the quality and workability of your paint, when it came from the factory “good to go” for the use you intended.

    Good factory pans (like Schmincke) will rewet immediately with rich luscious color.

    With tube paints turned into pans by the artist the issue of the glycerin, ox gall, and gum arabic mix and the crumbliness of the paint, all become a more immediate concern, because the paint isn’t layered and dried in a tube in the same way. But then it is also much easier with tube paint to readjust any of these component parts.

    A case in point is the situation you mention with your Daniel Smith tube paints, rewetting them and finding that they get harder and harder. This is a natural consequence of using tube paints in this way. You’re removing more glycerin than the paint really “likes” (If I can be so silly as to anthropomorphize paint).

    You might consider adding in a slight amount of glycerin in your wash water, so that it isn’t all being removed.

    Most watercolorists who make their own pans, who’ve I’ve come across, do not fill their pans sufficiently, or work with their pans at a great enough rate for some of these issues to arise, so I have only mentioned them in passing in previous posts and typically only deal with them in detail with my students. (Who fill plans more completely and hope to get much more use out of them as well.)

    I’m glad that you enjoy the Handprint site.

    It makes perfect sense to me as to why you love getting serious facts on the various brands—when we know how our paints (which actually are one of our tools to create our vision) work, then we can be freed to create spontaneously with confidence.

    Knowledge makes creation all the more fun.

    • Liz
    • May 10, 2011

    thanks for that detailed response Roz!!!
    I do only add a small drop of water (or light spray) if I think it needs it..but I have overwetted pans and had them expand on me.The glycerin sounds like a good tip! Thanks!

    It is SOO good to know all the science behind them.

    I also found that I was ruining the tips of my brushes by drilling holes as I picked up the paint and now am trying not to do this. (amazingly Handprint addresses this as well!)

    • Michelle
    • December 17, 2011

    Have you ever had a case where the M. Graham seeped out of the pan? Sometimes it’s happened with me on a hot day.

  6. Reply

    No I have not had that happen Michelle. I used to hear on the Everyday Matters list that people would say the pans they made stayed sticky forever, but I’ve never had that happen either.

    I fill my pans before I go out, keeping on top of it so that I have at least a week if I’m making a new M. Graham pan. I fill the pan 1/4 to 1/2 full depending on the time I have before I’m going to use that pan for the first time. Then I let it sit for 3 to 5 days and dry out. Then I fill the next 1/4 or 1/2, etc. Again allowing drying time in between, until it is all topped off. And I always allow at least 2 days before taking that new pan out into the field.

    So the only thing that I have experienced, using this system is that the very top surface of the pan may remain TACKY to the touch for several days, even months, but that’s because of the honey in it.

    Of course I don’t live in a hot climate, except in the summer when it can get very hot here, but even then I don’t stay out long in the heat. And I always go into some place where there is a.c., or my car, which has a.c. And I never leave my paint palette anywhere that’s warm (e.g., the car on a hot day), it’s always with me, so it’s always staying relatively cool. All of that may also have something to do with it if you have different practices.

    See if you can’t try the drying system I described when making a new pan, before going out with new pans and see if it helps.

    Good luck.

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