What's Better: Watercolors in a Tube or in a Pan?

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If you browse an art supply store either in person or online, you'll notice that watercolor paint is available in two primary forms — watercolor tubes or pans. It begs the question: What's the difference, exactly? Is one better than the other?

Photos via CakeSpy

Watercolor in a tube versus in a pan: What's the difference? 

Here, we'll explore the difference between these two varieties of the same medium, including the benefits of each so that you can decide which one might be the better choice for your painting.

Watercolor in a tube 

Watercolor sometimes comes in small tubes, like teeny tiny toothpaste containers.

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 color, so it will apply instantly vibrant.

Some say that the opaque tubes protect the watercolor pigment from potentially damaging sunlight. Personally, I have not noticed a discernible difference in this regard.

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.

They also last for quite some time. Personally, I received a set of high-quality watercolors in a pan when I was 12 years old, and I still had some of the colors more than 10 years later. 

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.

Additionally, if you leave your palette uncovered, dust can get on the cakes and cause little flecks in your artwork. It's more annoyance than anything, but worth considering if you're not a neatnik.

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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.

In the above photo, the same color was applied to paper with a tiny amount of water. As you can see, the watercolor from the tube is distinctly more vibrant.

In the below photo, I used more water to dilute the tube watercolor and less water to dilute the pan watercolor. By playing with the water ratio, I was able to attain the same general tone.

So while yes, you can attain the same effects with both types of paint, you will have to vary the amount of water used for application. 

Once watercolor from a tube dries, can I use it like watercolor from a pan? 

Say you've squeezed a bit too much watercolor from a tube onto your palette. Once it dries, can you then use it in the same manner that you'd use watercolor in the pan? 

Turns out, this varies depending on the manufacturer. Often, once watercolor from a tube dries, it can be re-wetted and used exactly like watercolor from a pan. However, some manufacturers employ different additives to make watercolor in tubes flow; once it dries, it loses some of its vibrancy. In these cases, the watercolor won't work quite the same. This blog post provides some interesting insight on different manufacturers' formulas.

So, which one should I buy? 

Ultimately, that's your decision. Personally, I love the low-maintenance and easy travel aspect of watercolor in a pan to create my paintings, which are generally quite small (8" by 10" or smaller).

However, when working in larger areas or creating watercolor washes, I find that having the concentration that comes with a tube is very helpful.

So I personally employ a combo: I have a pan set for my "main" watercolor palette because I love the convenience. And for colors I use frequently or in large areas, I use tubes. 

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Expert Kateri Ewing walks you through all the watercolor basics, including choosing supplies, color mixing, paint application and so much more.Get the Class


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What's Better: Watercolors in a Tube or in a Pan?