how to use watercolor tubes

How to use Watercolor Tubes

When I first started using watercolors I was confused about all the different types of paint, and which ones I should use. I didn’t really know the difference between tubes or pans (also called “cakes”).

Tubes contain “wet” liquid paint, so they are a little bit quicker to mix compared to pans which are like little dried cakes! Dry pans need to be moistened before you can start mixing colors. But if you use watercolor paint straight out of the tube it’s ready to mix...

Bottom line:

To use watercolor tubes, squeeze a small amount of paint from the tube and onto a mixing palette. Do this for all the colors you want to use. You’re now ready to mix colors and start painting...

At first, I wasn’t sure how to use watercolor tubes, so I began with pans. I later discovered tubes can be just as versatile. Now I use both, and I even make my own pans from tubes of paint! Each format has its advantages depending on the style of painting you want to do (small or large scale projects, indoors or outdoors, etc.)

How do you use Watercolor Paint in a Tube?

Here’s a more in-depth explanation of the process of using watercolor from tubes. You begin by squeezing a small amount of the paint from the tube and onto a mixing palette. Squeeze out all the colors that you intend to use. Add one color to each of the wells in your palette. For example, a good starting point is to use six primary colors and a few convenience colors.

​Note: In theory, it is possible to mix any color from the 3 primary colors, red, blue and yellow. Convenience mixtures are paints that contain more than one color pigment. These are colors that people use often. They give quick and easy access to a color, rather than having to mix the color each time it’s needed.

​Paint from tubes has a consistency like toothpaste. Fresh paint from the tube is at its highest concentration of pigmentation. Undiluted paint provides a strong color. The more water you add, the weaker the color value.

To organize paint in a mixing palette I like to place colors next to each other according to color harmony. So for example in the first well of the palette I’ll put yellow, then raw sienna in the next one, then burnt sienna, then red, etc. This provides a harmonious color palette and a logical starting point for working. Depending on how clean your painting technique is, I also think this helps reduce the effects of “color pollution” where paint from one well mixes accidentally with adjacent paint.

The palette provides a workable surface area for mixing your colors. I like to have lots of room for mixing paints so I use a palette with a large number of wells!

What if I squeeze out too much Paint?

Don’t worry! You can squeeze out a large amount of paint into a mixing palette if you like. A lot of watercolorists do this all the time. The paint will dry between painting sessions, but you can reconstitute the paint very easily with a little water next time you need it.

This is also a practical and cost-efficient way to use tubes. Good watercolor paint is expensive, so if you had to throw away the dried paint each time you finish working, it would be extravagant and costly! Also, when you’re working on a project and you’ve successfully mixed exactly the color you need, trying to match the same mix you used at a later date is tricky.

Life’s too short for messing around like this!

So leave the paint to dry on your palette. It’s a good idea to cover your palette to prevent dust contaminating your watercolors. I use a mixing palette with a lid and you can also find some good leak-proof, airtight palettes. These can make storage between painting sessions a little easier.

Next time you want to paint just add water to the dried paint. The paint remains water soluble. It can be handy to have a spray bottle filled with water for rewetting your paints. Spray bottles will also allow you to keep your paints moist while you’re working.

​DIY Watercolor Pans using Tubes

Some artists even use an empty box set to make their own watercolor “cakes” with tubes of paint. You can buy empty pans and boxes for this purpose. In my experience when you add water to homemade watercolor pans, the paint reactivates even more easily than with commercial ready-made pans.

A lot of artists use squeezed out tubes as dry pan paints. The rewetting properties are perfectly good between uses. The advantage of doing this is you can create a pan set of your favorite colors, unlike when you buy a pan set which is already full. I recommend you get an empty box set with a big capacity for plenty of pans. Don’t worry if it looks empty to begin with - you’ll soon fill it up when you want to try new colors.

How to make your own Watercolor Palette

It’s pretty straightforward to make your own pans. You just fill an empty pan with paint from a tube. Sometimes the paint will flood out quickly so be careful when you open the tube of paint. Make sure you start by squeezing paint into the corners of the pan. Then leave the pan to dry.

You will notice that the paint shrinks as it dries. This is normal. Tube paint has a higher liquid content than ready-made pans. This is because they have more filler and water content which evaporates as the paint dries.

Wait until your cake is dry and then use your tube to fill the pan with more paint. Because your cake has shrunk, this will also give you the chance to fill in any gaps between the cake and the side of the pan.

You can fill the pan 2 or 3 times, leaving it to dry and shrink each time, until you have a full pan of paint. It can take around 1 day for each layer of paint to dry. Cover the pan loosely to avoid dust while it’s drying, but don’t seal it in an airtight container - the pan should be exposed to air to help it dry. A clean sheet of card will do the job.

Tip! Don’t forget to label your pans with the color name and brand of the paint you’re using! This really helps later when you want to identify them or when you come to fill them again with new paint!

The result is not as beautiful as a commercially made cake, but it does the job just as well!

I recommend you use full pans (the bigger ones) rather than the half pans since the larger size makes it easier to put your brush in the pan to pick up paint.

​Need help building your palette ? Read my Guide to recommended watercolor palette colors for help choosing the best range of color paints...

What's the Life expectancy of Watercolor Tubes?

You may be wondering how long watercolor paint lasts in a tube?

If you store your tubes correctly with the caps on tight, the life expectancy of tubes is very long. I’ve heard stories of artists who stop painting for 10 or 15 years and when they decided to start painting again, the paint tubes still had a soft consistency! If you do end up with one or two dried tubes, you can simply cut the tube open lengthways, rewet the paint, and use it like a watercolor pan.

What’s the Difference between Watercolor Tubes and Pans?

As mentioned, watercolors are commonly available in tubes or pans.

Different sizes of tubes are available. The most common sizes are large tubes which contain ½ oz (15ml) of paint, and sometimes smaller tubes containing around 4 to 5ml (0.17 oz).

The small tubes can be useful for testing new colors without going to the expense of buying a full sized tube.

Pans are sold as full pans or half pans. A full pan has a capacity of about 5ml.

In terms of value for money, you should not compare a 15ml tube to a 5ml pan of watercolors. The composition of the paint is different because tubes have a higher liquid content than cakes. What is important to consider is the amount of pigment in each.

Hardened watercolor cakes are more highly concentrated in pigments. Watercolor tubes contain more moisture in the form of fillers and water.

​What's the Price of Watercolor Tubes?

When buying tubes, don’t be surprised by the differences in price from one color to another. Prices vary because of the different pigments used to obtain each color. Some natural pigments are simply rarer and difficult to obtain. The pigments themselves are therefore more expensive. Watercolor brands are simply passing on some of the cost of these expensive pigments.

You’ll often notice series numbers on watercolor paints ranging from 1 to 5. They indicate the relative price of the paint, with 1 being the least expensive and 5 is the most pricey.

Conclusion

Tubes of watercolor paint are very versatile...

  • ​You can squeeze them into a mixing palette and continue to use them day after day
  • ​You can make your own homemade pans with them
  • ​You can even use them straight from the tube!

​Yes, sometimes for details or spots of color using a color that I don’t often need, I will simply work directly from the tube, lifting a small amount of paint from the tube with a brush.

Finally, I’ve noticed that for most good quality brands of watercolors, it is easier to get hold of tubes than it is to buy pans. For me, this makes watercolor tubes a great option because of the large range of beautiful colors and their flexibility of use...

Ha​ve a great day ​!

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