Watercolor Basics: Pans vs. Tubes

When I was younger, I thought that watercolors came exclusively in pans. Later when I discovered that there were tube options.. my whole world changed! However, a part of me prefers pan paints from time to time. “So which do you prefer? Pan or tube paints?” It might sound like an easy question, but there are many factors to consider. In this post, I hope to answer that question for you so that you can decide for yourself which one to get (maybe you’ll end up getting both).

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The short answer is this: if you are a complete beginner, then buy the paint in pans, basically because it’s more affordable.

If you want to know more about the battle between pans vs. tubes, keep reading!

Tube vs. Paints

As a beginner, I bought my first set: the Winsor and Newton sketchbook pocket set of 12 colors. Before I purchased it, I did a lot of research about which brand to go with and what this post is about–whether or not to get pans vs. tubes. In the end, I did go with the pan because at the time, I wasn’t ready to invest too much money on tube paints.

WN Pan Paints

With pans, you don’t have to worry about creating your own palette of colors. They’re already carefully chosen for you. The 12-color set from Winsor and Newton has such a variety of colors that I can make almost every color imaginable! I’ve made countless paintings and have done projects/commissions with this set. And it’s lasted me almost 9 months. I did run out of the red pretty early on because I used that color very often.

The paint pans are also usually removeable. Each color comes individually wrapped with the color name. And after you unwrap, you can choose to put it in the exact place that it came in, or you can rearrange the colors to how you want it. Later, if you want to change the arrangement again, you can!

2. Affordable.

I’ve already mentioned how affordable the pans are. The 12-color set that I first bought is only ~$13 on Amazon, and like I said, it has lasted me almost 9 months (with the exception of one of the colors running low). Granted, I’m not painting large works often, but I try to paint daily about 1-2 works on letter-sized paper or smaller.

To get 12 colors in tubes, you could be spending almost $3 per tube which would be almost three times the price.

3. It (usually) comes in a ready-to-go palette.

Unless you buy a brand that doesn’t have its own palette (or mixing areas), the ease of the paint pans coming with its own palette is convenient. The palette usually has 3 (or more) areas for mixing. In my 12-color set, I use the first area for warm colors, the middle for greens, and the last area for cool colors.

Cons of Watercolor Pan

1. Tough on brushes

Once you wet the pan with water, the paint is “activated”. But it may take a little bit of coaxing to get the paint on your brush. The constant rubbing of the brush in the paint could damage the brush over a long period of time. This is why I like to spritz my paint pans from time to time to keep them hydrated so I don’t have to work my brush too harshly.

2. Hard to mix for large areas

One of the reasons why I ended up buying tube paints about six months in was because I was starting to paint works like 9″x12″ and larger. I needed a larger mixing area, and more paint to work with. With watercolor pans, you can pick up only so much paint because of the available surface area.

Pros of Watercolor Tube Paints

Watercolor Tube Winsor & Newton, Grumbacher

1. Customizable palette

Once I got comfortable with my pan paint set of watercolors, I wanted to start painting larger works, so I started looking into tube paints. While there are numerous brands out there that are very good quality, I decided to stay true to my Winsor & Newton and Grumbacher paints. At the time, I couldn’t afford all professional quality, so I opted for the student grade. But trust me, the student grades are still just as good!

If you’re curious about how I set up my palette, check out this post here. Because this is definitely a pro for tube paints. You can create your own beautiful palette with the colors you love!

Watercolor Tube Winsor & Newton, Grumbacher

2. Fresh, untainted colors

Since the paints come in tubes, you squeeze a little bit out at a time. Even when I prepared my palette pictured above, I only squeezed about a quarter (or a third) of the paint from the tube. That way, the paint in the tube remains fresh and uncontaminated. And when you need more, just simply squeeze more out!

Watercolor Tube Palette

3. Great for larger works

Another great pro for tube paints because you can squeeze as much paint out as you want and start using it right away. When the paint is in a pan, it’s hard to activate the entire paint because it’s solidified and no brush should have to endure trying to activate all of it. So if you plan on painting larger works often, consider investing in tube paints.

Cons of Watercolor Tube Paints

1. Not all colors are created equal.

I suppose this could be said about pan paints, too. But if two brands have the same name like “Payne’s Gray” or “Yellow Ochre”, they may not necessarily be the exact same color. This is because each brand has its own unique recipe for paints. And they may not always blend so well with other brands. I think in general, it will be okay. But if you’re super picky about color, try to stay within the one or two brands.

2. Space and organization.

If you’re all about being neat and space efficient, then tube paints will only add to the clutter. The more colors you have, the more space the tubes will take, and the more organization that is required.

There are still more pros and cons to both pan and tube paints. But these are just some that I’ve highlighted because they are from my personal experience.

I’d love to hear from you! What’s your opinion on pans vs. tubes?


  1. This is helpful! I went with the Sakura 24-color pan set for my first watercolors, because I’m traveling a lot and can’t bring too many supplies along. It’s a solid choice for a beginner, but I’ve actually started building up a few colors on a separate palette, because it’s SO much easier to pick up from there (and vary the water amount) than from the original pan. I look forward to the day when we’re settled enough that I can justify investing in some tubes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Elizabeth for your comment! I agree that the Sakura is a great beginner choice! Hopefully you can start investing in some tubes soon! You can just buy one at a time if that works out better. 🙂 I’ve found great prices on dickblick.com especially if you’re going to buy individual ones.


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