Watercolour Pan vs tube

Watercolour paint comes in two formats, one of the most often asked questions is what the difference is between the paint in a tube vs that in a pan.

Winsor and Newton Cotman Tube and Pan

Essentially there is no difference between a tube and pan. The only difference is that the pan paint has been poured and dried. In fact you can create your own pans from tubes by simply squeezing your favorite colours into empty pans.

With a pan though, you will need to work a little harder to ‘wake the paint’. You can gently mist your pans with water from a spray to start this process – only gently as you don’t want to flood the pans as this will cause you problems when cleaning up.

How to use watercolor from a tube

Squeeze a small amount of paint onto your palette and dilute with water before painting. 

The pros:

One of the biggest advantages of watercolor from a tube is that it’s a concentrated amount of the colour, so it will apply instantly vibrant.

The cons:

Depending on the type of paint, if it dries on your palette, it may not “revive” with water in quite the same way as watercolor from a cake. This is due to different formulations depending on the manufacturer (some are better than others in this regard).

Additionally, if you ever don’t screw the top on entirely, your watercolor paint will dry in the tube, and is very difficult to remove from the tube once that happens. 

Watercolor in a pan

Watercolor paint in pans comes as rectangular or circular “cakes” that are fitted into individual pans. They are extruded under pressure, which compressed them into the cakes. They’re dry to the touch, but when you dab a wet brush in the watercolor, it is “activated.”

How to use watercolor paint in a pan:

Wet your brush and dip it on the cake to pick up the pigment.

The pros:

Since the paint is dry to the touch, it’s easy to transport, and you don’t have to worry about tubes breaking open.

The cons:

Because you need to wet your brush and dip it in the paint, it can take a while to get the paint to a good working consistency. Particularly when working in large areas or creating watercolor washes, this can be frustrating. Certain pigments are a little harder to work with than others, and will require more water to moisten and bring to a workable texture.

Can they be used together?

Yes, you can use watercolors in a pan and from a tube in the same painting. You can even mix one color from a tube and combine it with another from a pan. I’ve never had a problem with this. 

Can they be used interchangeably? 

It depends on the level of exactitude you’re going for. Since watercolor from a tube comes out more vibrant, getting the same color with paint from a pan will take more paint and less water.

So … which should I choose? 

Ultimately, that’s your decision. Pans are easier to transport, so perhaps better for painting outdoors rather than in a studio environment.

However, when working in larger areas or creating watercolor washes, the concentrated vibrancy of the paint from a tube can give you more control.

There is no easy answer to this question, personal choice seems to be a bit of a cop out – but essentially it is your choice, and the best way to find out is to try both.

With 40 colours available in Pan and Tube Winsor & Newton Cotman paints are the number 1 choice for watercolour students and artists alike. Browse the colours here

Looking for some inspiration? Watch this FREE short tutorial to paint a beautiful snowdrop with Rebecca Yoxall

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