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

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?

Watercolors in tubes versus in pans: what's the difference?

Watercolors in tubes versus in pans: what’s the difference?

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 versus a pan

Watercolor in a tube 

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

Tubes of watercolor

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.”

Watercolor in a pan

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.

Tube versus pan

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.

Tube versus pan

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? 

Watercolor from a tube

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? 

Both have advantages

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


Christina in FL

Brilliant (pun intended) information about watercolor paints.
If the tube paint dries in the palette, isn’t it still usable when wetted? I recall someone using tube paints this way, just refilling the palette with tube paint when each became low.


I’ve definitely reused dried tube paint from my palette before, Christina. But according to Jessie above, I guess that only works for certain brands. Some won’t appear as bright anymore once re-wetted. I’ve used Winsor Newton Cotman watercolor tubes and had great results after drying. 🙂

Jessie Oleson Moore

Hi Christina! Thanks for your comment. Basically, that is a question that will differ depending on the paint manufacturer. In general, yes, once tube paints will come back to life when wetted again. However, because the makeup of the tube paint may differ, it may have a slightly lighter or just different consistency when re-wetted. On the other hand, it might be as good as new. This depends on the color and how the manufacturer in question formats the paint in a tube. It differs depending on the brand!

Steve Greenfield

As an occasional watercolor artist, I would just add water to remoisten my palette which were mostly inexpensive tubes. I used the same colors for more than 15 years! Now that I’m painting every day, I threw them all out and started with fresh Artist grade tubes. I always assumed tubes were better and would remoisten like the cakes? BTW, I use a pipette to add a few drops of water on my colors about 5 minutes before starting.

Gabrial Pahor

well i use pans but i use the tubes to refill the half pans i use and sometines squees the watercolor from the tubes to the pans so i teccanally use both lol


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