Note: I’ll be published this post on my Patreon site in answer to some question. I think it is useful here as well because I do get a lot of questions on this aspect of my practice and many posts on RWU relating to it are now in the non-public archive. I hope this will help you think about how you approach paint and take it into the world to paint.
In over 40 years of teaching watercolor painting I’ve fielded a ton of questions on how to manage watercolor paint. A recent video on my Patreon Site mentioned my method for filling empty palette pans with fresh paint. Questions there made me realize that not everyone has been in class with me before Patreon, or read the appropriate blog posts on RozWoundUp (now probably in the archive because they are from so long ago).
So this post is to explain to you what I do with watercolor paints and why and I’m posting it on both my Patreon Site and RozWoundUp because I hope it will reach a lot of people and be useful. (If you want to see the video in which this topic came up, and see the other color chats we’ve been having, please use the link to subscribe to the Patreon site.
Fresh Tube Paint
I work with fresh tube paint pretty much only in the studio. This is because fresh paint really needs a water source and real brushes to be useful. (You’ll waste all the water in your Niji water brush just trying to rinse it of fresh paint.) I like to travel about light so carrying anything more than a water brush is usually not what I do.
I do have a little “table” that is still in the prototype phase. I made it for the Minnesota State Fair. It has areas to hold water cups and real brushes. It’s very compact. But typically that’s the only time I’ll use fresh paint out and about.
The only other time I’ll use fresh paint out and about is if I’m requested to work on site and they are accommodating my need for water and potential paint/water spills etc.
Watercolor Pans—Factory Made
Ninety percent of the time I watercolor on the go with Schmincke Watercolor Pans made at their factory.
These are the ONLY factory pan that I use. I’ve tried others and don’t like their rewetting capabilities. (Even though I use Daniel Smith Tube Paints I do not use, and do not like the quality of their pans. And I really hate the palette box they released them in—a waste.)
Schmincke factory watercolor pans rewet so well that a lot of the time when you see me working opaquely with watercolor paint it is these pans I’m using. I am simply wetting the pans and letting them sit until the water dissolves the top layer of paint into a slurry that is great for the type of opaque passages I enjoy doing.
Note:One of my Patreon students was confused about the Schmincke Watercolors—thinking I used it in pans because their tube color wouldn’t work as well in homemade pans. I want to be clear that you can use your Schmincke tubes to make homemade pans and they will rewet great. I don’t make pans with Schmincke tube watercolors because Schmincke came into my life when I was looking for a factory made pan watercolor for a host of reasons, and it’s the best factory made pan watercolor I’ve found. So I didn’t already have a lot of Schmincke tubes around. And when I can’t get a pan of a certain pigment I will buy a Schmincke Watercolor tube and make a homemade pan. But I have a lot of other tube paint around from Daniel Smith, M. Graham, and Grumbacher Finest—so I don’t need to duplicate all that by buying tubes of Schmincke.
If you don’t already have a brand of watercolor that you love do the following—make a list of the PIGMENT numbers on each of your tubes. Which are your favorites. If you love your French Ultramarine Blue and it’s made with only PB29 in the brand you have, go to the store and purchase FUB in another brand IF it is made with PB29 and compare the two side by side in swatches to see which formulation you like (because even if they state they are using the same pigment number the way they prepare their paint will make them turn out with differences). You get to decide, about all your paint which pigments you prefer and which paint brand has the flow and workability that you enjoy using. When it comes time to restock a particular pigment, if it’s in your art budget you can buy a paint from another line and test it against the last remaining bit from another brand AND also test it with all the other colors in your palette so that you can if you like the mixes you’re used to with the new paint.
None of this has to be done as a major undertaking. Just test a few colors at a time. And think about things like workability, flow, pigment strength; then let the paint dry for a week in your palette or on a testing palette, and see how it rewets.
You want to be using paints that allow you to fully express yourself in color, on the page. And these are all the types of choices you need to make.
Watercolor Pans—You Fill Empty Pans with Tube Paint
Because for a long time the only paints I used were Grumbacher’s Finest, Daniel Smith, and M. Graham, I didn’t use pan watercolors at all.
Yet I needed paints to go out into the field.
Well, I didn’t really need paint to go out into the field for all that long because before 1998 I couldn’t get a water brush like the Niji or the Pentel.
That meant that I would have to carry a water container and tubes etc. into the field, and have a lot of brushes! Since the whole idea of working in a journal while I was out and about was SPEED I didn’t carry watercolor before 1998 most of the time. Instead I carried a few color pencils, not even watercolor pencils, because remember I didn’t have a water brush!
Instead I only worked in watercolor in the studio or when I was planning a plein air day and taking a lot of gear into the field.
But in 1998 I got my first Niji Water Brush from a friend who was visiting Japan. And by the end of that year they were more readily available in the US so I quickly started thinking about taking watercolors into the field.
It made sense to me, since I had an investment in tube paint of three brands that all rewet well (fast, and saturated color on the brush) that I needed first to look at how to use them in “homemade” pans.
I tried a number of things and found the following method of filling pans works best for me:
1. Fill a pan 1/3 full. Set aside for 2 or more days until solidly dry (not just crusted on top—crust will usually form in half a day.)
2. When layer one is completely dry add another 1/3 layer. The Pan will now be 2/3 full. Repeat the drying process.
3. Finally fill the top 1/3 of the pan and set it aside to dry before taking it into the field.
It is important that you fill from edge to edge at each layer, with no air pockets. The edge to edge is important because of adhesion. It’s something Dick explained to me, but like so many of his science talks I was easily distracted by something bright and sparkly, and well yeah, pity him for having to put up with me, but he does claim I’m adorable!
NOTE ON WATERCOLOR PANS
Not all factory pans are the same. Winsor and Newton are differently sized from most other pans I’ve used so you can’t put other pans easily in W&N palettes you may be converting. You have to empty the W&N pans and proceed from there.
I’ve found that the empty pan and half-pans sold by Wet Paint, and under the Schmincke name at various vendors have all fit in the metal pan palettes I’ve purchased. This is probably closer to a universal pan size. I know that they fit in the Whiskey Painter’s Palette, and that and generic pan palettes I have all seem to take them. Be aware of this when buying your pans.
Why Fill 1/3 At A Time?
I have found that if you fill a pan from bottom to top in one go and then go paint with the moist paint in the pan you’ll quickly move your brush to the bottom of the pan and develop a well down there. Sometimes we’re in areas where there might be particles in the air or things in the water—”stuff” can get down there and it’s a great breeding ground for contamination. (Cleaning a contaminated palette is involved and usually not successful, so I avoid anything that might lead to that end.)
Next, if you fill the entire pan at one time and let it dry even for 5 days, the evaporation of moisture from the paint at the bottom of the pan, after this one insertion of paint, takes longer to evaporate than the 1/3 layers. With a whole pan fill you develop a crust on the top of your pan, usually within 8 hours. That crust slows evaporation of the remaining underlaying paint—acrylic artists will understand this, it’s why Stay-wet palettes and the old tracing-paper-over-paper-towel illustrator’s tricks work well even though you have a crust on the top of your paint.
When you paint with a pan that was filled all at once you break through this crust as you paint. Your brush pushes right down to the base of the pan into the un-dried paint.
Therefore, in a fill-the-whole-pan-all-at-once approach it is possible to lock sufficient moisture in the bottom of the pan to cause mold growth.
Most people who have a complained to me about mold growth on their palettes have had some situation like this developing.
If you are starting your pan filling with a previously used pan or pans that are straight from a factory where they might have acquired something that will contaminate the paint—or simply through handling—contamination is more likely. (Recall what I wrote at the top of this section about avoiding anything that can lead to a contaminated palette?!)
By filling your pan in layers, 1/3 at a time as I suggest, you allow each level of the paint fill to fully dry so you don’t trap moisture in the paint at the base of the pan.
Additionally fully drying each 1/3 layer prevents you from simply cracking through a top crust of paint and digging down into the softer paint below, leaving a well were contaminants can gather.
Why I Use The Tube Brands I Use to Make Pans (when I’m not using Schmincke Factory Pans)
The first reason for my brand choice for tube paint is historical. I was using Daniel Smith, Grumbacher’s Finest, and M. Graham. (I actually started using M. Graham because I was teaching color theory at Como Conservatory’s botanical illustration program and I wanted a paint that would rewet well, but students balked at the cost of Daniel Smith paints after shipping was factored in. Once Wet Paint [my favorite local art supply store] started carrying Daniel Smith paints I returned my focus to them. I prefer their workability and they are less problematic to make into home-filled pans. The component parts of M. Graham watercolor retard the drying and have led to all sorts of horror stories from my students who work in the field. I haven’t had problems with M. Graham in the field, but I prefer Daniel Smith so that’s the end of the discussion for me.)
Each of these brands that rewet well. By that I mean you can let them dry on your palette or in a pan and come back to them later and just touch them with a wet brush and full, saturated color will fill your brush.
Many of my students have difficulty getting saturated watercolors because they use too much water—but also because they use inferior paints, even artist quality paints which don’t rewet well. I always recommend these three brands.
If you use different brands from my recommended 3 then your results with making your own pans will differ—specifically in the rewetting ease—which is critical for pans if you’re out and about painting. (Note: You can use Schmincke tubes to make pans, but since they make such excellent pans I just buy the factory pans. I had so much tube paint when I tested Schmincke pans that it didn’t seem worthwhile to buy more tubes. But their tube colors rewet really well too.)
I would do drying tests and then try to rewet the paint. If you don’t get vibrant color from paint that has been dried and rewet you need to find a different brand of paint, or always use fresh paint.
My filling guidelines will give you a starting point to work from and find something that works. Some brands it may be possible to fill a pan all at once and not have ill-effects. I can’t say it’s never going to happen, and I believe you’re asking for trouble if you don’t follow the steps I’ve outlined, but I’m not the paint police. I’m just trying to share what has worked for over 20 years of travel palette use. People want different things from their paints—but it seems to me we all need watercolor paints that rewet quickly and with full saturation.
Gouache Pans and Fresh Gouache in the Field
Yes I use gouache when going out and about with my journal in public.
It always seemed safest to me, because I’m a bit of a klutz, to use the same DRIED home-made pan routine. I have a gouache palette made with SCHMINCKE HORADAM GOUACHE in exactly the way I’ve described above.
People complain at me when I say this because their dried gouache cracks. My palette for the most part doesn’t crack (some earth colors cracked, but I don’t use those any more.)
Most important, unlike other gouache brands which dry out and crack, Schmincke gouache REWETS easily. So I can open my palette, spritz the pans with water, do my sketch at the zoo or at the Fair, and by the time I’ve finished sketching the paints are ready to go on—full strength if I want, opaquely, or translucently if that’s desired. And because Schmincke gouache doesn’t have opacifiers or fillers in their gouache the paint looks good either way I want to use it.
But I think I’m not alone among artists who love gouache because it allows us to slather paint on in a more “oil” paint fashion. And to do that you really need fresh paint.
So, as mentioned above, I’ve worked on a small platform that allows me to take fresh paint and a water source comfortably into the field.
On days when I want fresh gouache to work with in the field I will fill a clean palette that has a plastic or rubber gusset around it with fresh paint in the morning, and then just take off.
I’m always careful to carry the palette upright which can be a pain, and the first time you forget will probably be the last time you forget.
I also have a water bottle and regular brushes. This is the type of set up I used when I was painting in gouache before the close of the OLD Bell Museum. It’s more cumbersome and you have to know that you’ll have some place to set out all your gear. I was also working on 9 x 12 inch illustration boards. I put my stuff out on the floor in front of the displays I was painting. I was ultra-careful to not have spills or drop my palette (so it was essential that I be seated which isn’t my typical way to work in public). I never felt comfortable on my routine visits to the Bell to paint this way as there were too many kids around to cause mishaps. But as the Bell wound to a close at its old location there were fewer visitors in general, far fewer school groups when I would go over, so this worked. I would never try this at the new Bell! Space seems very tight to me. My small hand held palette and a journal and water brush are all I can juggle there.
When I go to the Minnesota State Fair and use fresh gouache I do it a little differently—again a space issue. I use a Whiskey Painter’s Pan Palette. I fill each pan with fresh Schmincke Gouache when I leave home in the morning. I take about a 1 inch square of paper towel and fold it in quarters and wet it. I place this on top of the pans before I close the lid. This small bit of moisture helps keep all the pans fresh and helps them not crust over.
When I’m ready to sketch I simply open the palette and spritz the tops of the pans. Then I paint as I normally would with fresh gouache, using real brushes and a water container. (But in the field I only have one water container I change frequently, whereas in the studio I use two water containers, one always having clean water in it.)
When I’m through painting a subject I rewet that little pillow of paper towel and replace it in the palette, close the lid, and walk on to a new subject. I am also careful to not invert this small palette of fresh paint.
Gouache At Home
Since we’re on the topic of keeping gouache fresh I’ll just mention as I’ve written in other posts, that at home I will create a fresh gouache palette on white china plates.
(For protracted jobs where I’ll use the same colors for a long period of days I’ll use a Stay-wet palette or tracing paper over a wet paper towel on my palette—in the latter the paint goes onto of the tracing paper which lets moisture from the paper towel wick up, like the Stay-wet).
I will also continue using fresh gouache pan palettes until they are “empty” because I don’t want them to get moldy.
All these plates and palettes get used daily and put into large Zip Lock bags with a small folded square of wet paper toweling if the paint isn’t already on a moist bed as described above.
I find that I can keep paint in this fashion for about 3 weeks, after which can start to turn into a science project.
You want to catch things before that happens so I recommend you really paint your heart out and use all the paint in 7 to 10 days and clean your palettes.
If you miss the window and see mold EVERYTHING must come out and that means all the remaining paint. All your containers and brushes must be cleaned. (If things are disposable it’s simpler to just dispose of them. I’ll leave you to decide what to clean with because none of the options are good for you, your supplies/tools, or the environment. Best to stay ahead of things.)
Don’t skimp on the cleaning process. Mold isn’t always visible to the eye and if you don’t clean carefully you’re just transferring it to your paper. There, if conditions ever prove right, it can show up again on your art. Throwing away a little bit of paint is far preferable to setting up mold on your work or in your tools.
A Word About Gouache Brands
I have spent literally my entire life since 8 years of age trying brands of gouache. I am a frustrated oil painter. I want to push paint around. My students have all heard the story of how I used so much watercolor paint, tube after tube, in thick luscious strokes when I was in school in Australia, that my school art supply store privileges were canceled! My parents suggested to the Art mistress that I learn a different medium, like graphite or—you guessed it pen and ink, thank goodness for the dip pen!
This background makes me very picky about gouache. And picky about what I want in gouache.
Since I do my gallery paintings with gouache the pigments in the paint must be artist quality.
Since I don’t like weird color mixing interactions and flaking I want gouache that doesn’t have opacifiers in it. It also has to dry without cracking, and rewet well.
Because of these likes and dislikes I can tell you that Schmincke Horadam Gouache is the only brand of gouache I use with any regularity.
I do have some Holbein gouache but I have to tell you it dries and cracks literally in front of your eyes. They claim they only put pigments in their paints, but I think, like their watercolor paper they don’t use ox gall—something is different about the movement and handling of the paint. And then they mix white into so many of their paints. (We can do that for ourselves!) For all these reasons the Holbein I have around is typically for backgrounds when I’m journaling. I find it’s less expensive to use it for that than the Schmincke. Both have a great surface for writing on in ink, but there is something about the Holbein that has me keeping about 5 tubes in bright pastels around. These are colors you couldn’t really mix.
My use of Montana Acrylic markers to do backgrounds has limited my use of Holbein gouache, but there are still some tubes around.
Looking for a good, but less expensive gouache led me to try DaVinci Gouache one year for my International Fake Journal Month Journal.
I had some surprises using it for that project—basically in the same way I would use any gouache. I cannot recommend Da Vinci gouache and you can read why in this post on my International Fake Journal Blog.
Finding What Works For You
All of the above comes from a lifetime of working with these materials; a desire to work out and about in public, but move quickly, safely, and tidily through that public. I also have a certain way I want my work to look, and a way I like to use paint.
My approach might not work for you, but I hope if you’ve reached this point in the post what you’ll come away with is the essential points of necessity that you will have to find approaches and work arounds for if you’re going to paint in the world.
Set things up so that they work for you and allow you to work in a way that allows you to get paint on paper in a richly satisfying way for you and the audience you are aiming for.