What are the Differences between Watercolour Pans and Tubes?

What are the Differences between Watercolour Pans and Tubes?

8th July 2020 IN Blog

As an ‘art mentor’ I’m often presented with lots of questions – some of which people ask with a degree of embarrassment as they fear they should already know the answer. No question is a silly question if you don’t know the answer! So, I thought I’d address the answer to one of the most commonly asked questions that I receive. That question is ‘What are the Differences between Watercolour Pans and Tubes’?

Both watercolour pans and tubes are very similar in some ways, and yet very different in others, so allow me to explain.

Watercolour Pans

Pans vs tubes

Water colour pans (named ‘cakes’ if circular) are small hard blocks of watercolour which are formed into a block under high pressure. They come as ‘half-pans’ (the most common size) and the more expensive and larger ‘full-pan’. Both are the same type of paint, the only difference between them is the size. Personally, I use half-pans as they take up less room and last a long time despite their small size. They’re easy to use, simply wet the block with water, and use a brush to pick up the pigment.

Pans are the most convenient form of watercolour – especially for botanical painting, as they present a good range of colours and take up little room on your work surface. They’re also the best choice for painting whilst travelling. You have the ability to customise sets by swapping the colours about too.

I often use pans for my book illustrations – I just find them more convenient overall. But, always close the lid after you use them, especially if you’re a pet owner as dust and fur (or mostly commonly eraser particles) will find their way into your paint which can be VERY annoying!

TOP TIP: If you plan on creating art to display – use professional grade paints! They won’t fade over time like ‘student’ quality paint. Professional (artist grade) paints will cost more, but it is worth it if you intend on selling or displaying your work.

Watercolour Tubes

Pans vs tubes

Tubes of watercolour are available in different sizes, most often 5ml, 7ml, 8ml and 15ml but it does vary from brand to brand. Like pans, they will be available in student and artist quality. Although tubes are larger, there is not a way to accurately control the amount of paint that comes out – especially if the tube is pressurised as they often are! For this reason, tubes can be a wasteful choice if you paint smaller images.

There are some large benefits though! The two main benefits from my findings are colour consistency. What I mean by this is when you mix a colour, it it’s impossible to be 100% consistent with pans as you simply can’t mix enough for larger paintings. If I’m illustrating a book and have a character with a particular colour fur, or jacket, I need to mix enough in one go to cover the entire book. This can’t be done with pans and therefore in a situation such as this I would opt for a tube.

Another benefit is for background washes. If you want to cover a large piece of paper with a beautiful wash you will need to use tubes to create enough paint to cover the backdrop. Using pans is very annoying when needing large volumes of paint. I usually use pans, but use a tube of paint for any large areas. It doesn’t have to be the same brand, but I tend to only mix brands if they are both professional grade, and usually if they use the same binding agents (such as gum arabic). The binding agent is simply the ‘body’ of the paint that carries the pigment. If you’re unsure what’s what, simply use the same brand and grade in both tube and pan form.

With the ups, come the downs and tubes of watercolour have several negatives, although only minor. Tubes are not as portable as pans. They can be messy and there is the chance that they can ‘pop’ which is annoying. Also, as they contain more paint they will be more expensive and the binders can separate and occasionally dry up.

My advice

If you always paint small, or you just want to see if you enjoy painting, grab yourself a set of watercolour pans. Student grade are fine if not selling or displaying your art, but get the more expensive professional (artist grade) paint if you are.

If you want to paint large pictures, go for tubes! Or, if like me, I’d use a set of pans and purchase a few tubes for mixing of the colours that I need to be consistent throughout an illustration job.

TOP TIP: You can buy empty pans and then simply fill them from tubes. It’s the best of both worlds! But choose a brand that doesn’t use ‘honey’ as a binding agent if you want them to set firm. Honey is a great binder, but often remains wet or tacky, and if being moved around in a set of pans the paint can run!

There are several great brands of paint out there. Winsor and Newton is possibly the most well-known, but also consider other brands, such as Danial Smith and Schmincke.

I hope that this article helpped you decide which is right for you. Leave comments below detailing what you opted for and any other top tips for my readers.


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