Watercolor Pans v Tubes, How To Choose The Right One For You


Often people don’t know whether to get watercolor pans or tubes if they haven’t used them before. Here we explain several things that are essential to know to help you decide which to get.

This is a difficult question to answer because it depends on you as an artist. This is something you may not yet know.  I don’t feel that either watercolor pans or tubes are better. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Except that pans are better for beginners. Below I explain the advantages and disadvantages of each and where and how they are best used. This should help you decide which is better for you as an artist.

One of the earliest questions you can ask and perhaps one that you may ask form time to time is which is better for me to use watercolor tubes or pans? The explanations below are there to help you towards deciding which you want to use.

Watercolor Pans

Watercolor pans are small cubes of cakes that often come in half or full pans.  These pans are usually either made of plastic or metal. Although you can also buy small cakes individually to replace used paints or to try out new and exciting colors.

These paints are dried and need to be wetted with water to use them. 

Although not much has changed since they were first invented. For a long time now (since the 1800s) glycerin has been added to prevent the cakes from becoming brittle.  This makes it easier to use.

The Advantages of Watercolor Pans

  • Smaller and easier to transport so making them perfect for outdoor painting.
  • Not too much color comes out in one go so easier to control amounts and less wasteful. This is perfect for beginners who sometimes have difficulty with the intensity of tubes.
  • They are often initially cheaper to buy than tubes. 
  • Will last for ages and remain usable.
  • As they are less wasteful this can make them more economical.**

The Disadvantages of Watercolor Pans

  • The colors run easily from one cake to another and often muddy the colors.
  • It can be quite hard to get the colors to run freely from the pans.
  • This difficulty with reinstigating your colors can damage the delicate watercolor brushes according to some artists.
  • Pans although cheaper to buy initially are not more economical than tubes long term.**See below under Tubes.
  • It is harder to mix colors to get the right amounts of each color in your mix.

With experience, all these disadvantages can be overcome. 

Watercolor Tubes of Paint

Watercolor tubes are small tubes of watercolor paint. These come in different sizes eg 5ml,8ml, 15ml, 21ml.

Tube paint can contain more binder than the pans do.  Tubes seem more intense when you squeeze them out and use them because you are getting more paint in one go than with pans.

The Advantages of Tubes of Watercolor Paint

  • Long term they are more economical than pans.**
  • You can turn watercolor tubes into pans.
  • They have a better color intensity than tubes. (actually many brands make tubes and the pans the same, but it is just a lot easier to get more of the color out which reduces the need for water).
  • They are much better for larges pictures and washes.
  • Don’t wear on your brushes as much as pans.
  • Does not dry out while in tubes as pans do.
  • So much easier to mix the color with.

The Disadvantages of Watercolor Tubes of Paint

  • Harder to carry around and keep organized if you like to paint on location.
  • The color can be overwhelming and easy to get wrong for beginners.
  • Higher upfront cost.
  • The color can shoot out of the tube when opened if it has been squeezed.

It shouldn’t matter at what level you are at as a painter you can use either tubes or pans. Although most beginners find pans easier if you are aware of the difficulties of tubes you can overcome them. 

**I appreciate these three statements contradict each other. This is because it depends on the artist and how they use the paint. Tubes can be more economical because of the amount of paint inside them. But people tend to put too much paint out and waste it. Others make sure they work in a way that makes maximum use of the paint. So the accuracy of the statement varies depending on the artist.

Where Do I Stand On This?

Many artists have a preference. I usually advise beginners to start with pans because I think they are better for beginners. They are easier to use and cheaper to get to start with.  

I have to confess I am firmly in the, it depends on what I am doing kind of artist. 

Pans are much better for fieldwork. You can pop them into your rucksack along with a tube of brushes, water, and a small pad and off you go. They are less likely to be lost than tubes and easier to transport. Especially if like me you hike and the tubes and get squished.

At home, it depends on what I am painting. I tend mostly towards more delicate work so pans work fine. But I haven’t got the patience to gather all the paint from pans if doing a larger wash so then will swap to tubes for easier and faster mixing.

I see no reason not to make the most of all worlds and swap and change between different types of watercolors (including pencil) where I feel it will work. 

Where Do You Stand As An Artist?

You might be thinking. I don’t know that’s why I am here. That’s fine. I hope the information above helps. But I am a big believer that clinically just citing a list of pros and cons for art while helpful isn’t the whole picture. It’s important to think about yourself and what you want as an artist.

Although you may not fully know what that is. You do know what you like and what you are like as a person. If you want to do huge pictures then it’s probably not a good idea to start with pans (although I wouldn’t advise too big a pictures until you have some techniques firmly under your belt). 

Likewise, if you are drawn to painting flowers you may prefer pans.

Sometimes it is just down to personal choice and what you get on better with. My sister hated pans even from the start. It wasn’t until she tried tubes her watercolor flower art took off. And she was painting delicate flowers. So there are no hard and fast rules.

If you are still in doubt and cannot try both go for pans and see how you get on.

Or if you are following and learning from particular artist see what they use. You don’t have to get every brush etc that they use, but they pick the type of paint that works best for them and that type of art.

Final Thoughts

Whether you choose pans or tubes there will be different qualities of paint within each depending on the price and whether they are made for students or artists quality. Winsor and Newton do a range of Cotman tubes that is cheaper but still quality. I don’t think you can go far wrong with Winsor and Newton

You should stay with one or the other and not mix them while painting until you get used to how they react.

Before deciding which one to go for think about what you want them for.  If you are painting inside most of the time you might prefer tubes with pans for any fieldwork.

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