This is a question that I am asked a lot: is it better to use tubes or pans to build your watercolour palette?
As usual, the answer is never quite straightforward and it really depends on how you use your watercolours the most.
Do you paint large or small? Do you travel a lot, especially by plane? Do you leave your paintings unfinished for ages before picking them up again? Which brand do you use? Are you likely to fall in love with a beautiful colour box that will become part of your inspiration and you won’t be able to sleep if it’s out of sight?
All of these will be a factor in your choice for a new paint box.
Size of paintings
If you like to paint miniatures and small paintings, pans are a good choice. They allow you to pick only a little paint at a time, without wasting huge amount that will wash down the sink.
If you prefer to paint large pictures, forever going back and forth from the pans to the palette in order to mix a sufficient quantity of paint will drive you mad. Squeezing larger amounts of colour on the palette and mixing in wells will work much better.
Pan boxes are much more convenient than tube boxes when travelling. Most of them include a palette in the lids, they take less room, they are less messy, more practical and less likely to let you down. Nobody wants to be stuck in the Papua New Guinea rainforest with a tube that won’t open.
If you travel by air, there is another consideration: some airlines won’t accept tube paints because they are likely to burst under pressure changes, leak all over people’s luggage or even explode. Pans are less treacherous.
However, if you have the attention span of a butterfly, your mixes might stay on your palette for months (years?) Most manufacturers have different formulations for tube/pan paints. In order to stay wet in the tube – as long as it is air tight- the tube formula contains more Gum Arabic. This means that the paint is more prone to flaking after drying. If left on the palette for too long and rewetted repeatedly, it will start to become lumpy and goodbye smooth washes. (Which is why you must never squeeze tube paints into pans and keep them for ages.) Pan paints on the other hand are formulated to dry and be rewetted many times. So if you tend to flutter from one painting to another and back again, pans are better.
There is a notable exception to this general principle: brands that only produce tube paints (such as Daniel Smith) formulate them so that they behave as pans. They can be rewetted without being exaggeratingly troublesome and can therefore be squeezed into pans.
If you require extreme tidiness to work, tubes have the advantage. Pan boxes can get pretty messy, especially if neglected. They are high maintenance and require a regular clean up. This is especially true for the light colours, such as yellows, Permanent Rose, magentas, light greens… With tubes, you can wash the palette after the painting is finished and start afresh with clean colours.
When I look at my pan paintbox and my wooden box of tubes, I know exactly which one I like best.
My beautiful French Victorian paintbox with all the pans arranged in colour rows gives me a little catch in the heart every time I look at it. In comparison, the box of tubes is sort of “Meh…” Tools of the trade rather than inspirational grace.
As you can see from the pictures, I have both. I use my paintbox all the time, at home, for courses, when travelling… But I also have the same colours in tubes. These are useful when I fancy working on a larger scale. I also keep a couple of tubes in my pan paintbox: Lemon Yellow (so that it stays clean), Sap Green and Perylene Violet (because I use them a lot). I also have a tube of Winsor & Newton Smalt Blue, which was an anniversary limited edition and was never released in a pan version.
Now you can take all of this into consideration and make your choice…
If you have other reasons in favour of one or the other, please don’t hesitate to write a comment. It will help readers to make their choice.