How to Use Watercolor Paint in Tubes

How to Use Watercolor Paint in Tubes – A Guide to Watercolor in Tubes

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When most people think of watercolors, they probably think of those cute little trays that come with disks of dried watercolor paint. You know, those that come with a little paintbrush that we so often buy as gifts for our children and grandchildren. These are known as watercolor pans, but they are not the only vessel for watercolor paints. This brings us to the topic of this article – how to use watercolor paint in tubes. Using tube watercolors might seem easy enough, but there are some things that you must keep in mind so that you can get the most out of your painting experience. We will include some advantages and some disadvantages of using watercolor in tubes, and we will also talk about how to prepare, distribute, and mix the watercolor paint in tubes. 



Watercolor Paints Explained

It is all very well to know which brands of watercolors are the best, or maybe even whether or not you might prefer a tube of watercolor paint or a pan. But what exactly are watercolor paints? Surely it is all the same regardless of it being in a tube or a pan? Let us first go through how watercolors are made so that we can get a better understanding of the type of paint we are talking about.

Using Tube WatercolorsFirstly, the binding agent in watercolor paint is known as arabic gum. This is a type of sap that you get from two types of acacia trees that are typically found in Sudan. The two acacia trees are known as the Seyel and the Senegal Acacia trees. This sap, or binder, is then mixed with some glycerine (but only a small amount) and of course, the pigment.

The glycerine is added to allow the paint to dry with a glossy finish, as well as give the paint a little more flexibility. This mixture is then squeezed into tubes, sealed, capped, and packaged for sale. Alternatively, it is packed into the disks we spoke of earlier, dried, and sold in pans.

Before we were buying watercolor paint in tubes or pans that were made with the above mixture, artists would grind their collection of pigments and mix that with some resin from trees.

This type of paint mixing occurred around the 1400s. When the 1700s came about, artists started making “slabs” of dried watercolor paint, which is most likely where the watercolor pans of today were inspired from.


Tubes vs. Paint Pans

Before we can learn how to use watercolor paint in tubes, we must first learn the difference between a tube and a watercolor pan. This comparison will show you the benefits of using each because there is no right or wrong way.

Each version is beneficial for its respective applications, and the environment you are painting in. 


Tubes for Watercolor Paint

There is not much difference in the mixture of the watercolor paints between the tubes or the pans. After all, the paint is made the same way. But when the pans are dried out to make those disks, the tubes just get the liquid paint squeezed directly in and sealed so that they stay wet. The only thing that is done differently is that there is a smidge more glycerine in the mixture for watercolor in tubes than with the watercolor that goes into pans.

This might mean that using tube watercolors is going to result in a slightly glossier painting than if you used watercolor paints in pans.

Using Tube Watercolors ExplainedIn case you were wondering, the tubes for watercolors look very similar to a tube of toothpaste. You know, the ones that the kittens from The Aristocats would jump on to splatter paint onto their canvas? These tubes are great because you are not limited to buying one size of the paint. You have a selection of 5 ml, 15 ml, and even 20 ml of watercolor paint to choose from.

If you have a large artwork that you are itching to paint with watercolors, your best option is watercolor in tubes. This is because tube watercolors have extra glycerine which helps to keep the vibrancy of the pigment in the watercolor paint.

This means that you will be able to cover a larger space without having to oversaturate the paper with layer upon layer of watercolor just to get the bright colors that we all love so dearly. 

Watercolor in TubesAnother benefit worth appreciating is that your paintbrush bristles will be saved when using the liquid paint in tubes. This is because they do not have to be rubbed against a dry disk just to activate the paint. Ultimately, this will keep your brushes in good nick for a longer time.

The only downside worth mentioning is that watercolor in tubes has some maintenance involved. You will need to clean the tip that paint comes out from so that you do not struggle to open it the next time you want to work with them. 


  • The color of the watercolor paint in tubes is much brighter and more vibrant because the pigment is highly concentrated
  • You only need to add a little bit of water and can apply the watercolors directly from the tube
  • Tubes are ideal for the larger artworks because you will have rich colors without needing to paint layer upon layer


  • The paint might dry out if you do not seal the cap properly after you have used it
  • Maintenance is necessary in terms of cleaning the tube’s tip so that the paint does not dry inside the cap, making it hard to open
  • It is hard to determine the amount of watercolor paint needed at first so you might waste some paint


Using Watercolor Paint in Pans

We have touched base with a pan of watercolor paints already, but going a little further in detail will not hurt anyone, so here goes. The watercolor paints that you buy in pans are perfect for the artist on the move. They are easy to transport because they can easily slip into most bags, alongside your watercolor paper pad. This is thanks to the slim design of the pan.

The disks that the different colored paints are poured into to dry can be round, rectangular, or pretty much any shape of the manufacturer’s choosing.

Watercolor paint pans typically come with a lid that is attached by a hinge or two, and this can close over the top of the paint to protect the watercolor disks. This makes it easy to pack up when you have finished painting, because all you need to do is close the lid, and the paints will dry out as is.

Watercolor Paint Tubes and Paint BrushThere are many different watercolor pans to choose from, so you are not limited to buying these large pans with every color on the color wheel, some of which you might not ever use. You could choose a palette that is equipped with the primary and secondary colors, or you could just go for a full set like we spoke about, but that might be harder to transport.

There are even specialized pans like a pastel set of watercolors, or you could even get one in all the warm colors. Of course, one is also available in all of the cool colors, if that is what you would prefer. Now for the question of activating the paint in the pan that is still all hard and dry.

The best way is to simply drop a small amount of water onto the disk of paint and then let that soak in.

Watercolor Paint TubesThe paint will moisten up, and it will be easier to work with than simply rubbing a wet paintbrush over the dry disk, which might ruin the bristles of your brush. Make sure that you clean your paintbrush thoroughly before you change to another color. This will keep your colors pure and uncontaminated by the pigments from other colors.

A bonus you might appreciate when comparing watercolor paint pans with paint tubes is that the pans are far more affordable. This has a lot to do with the fact that there is less glycerin, and the pigments are not as vibrant as you can expect with the tubes.


  • The paint is not wasted nearly as much because you are using it directly from the painted disk
  • You do not need as many tools and materials to create a painting
  • If the paint dries, you can simply reactivate it by adding some water
  • A watercolor pan has a longer shelf-life
  • Watercolor pans can easily be transported


  • Not suitable for larger areas, as it does not keep consistent color
  • Brushes can be damaged due to the continual rubbing to lift the paint off the pan
  • If the lid is left uncovered, it can attract dust that can stain your painting
  • Dust can also collect directly on the paint disks if you do not close the lid properly



How to Use Watercolor Paint in Tubes

Learning how to use watercolor paint in tubes is not too tricky, but there are some important things to keep in mind. It is always a good idea to get clued up on the ins and outs of any task or activity. That way, you will learn much faster than just winging it.

Example of Watercolor in Tubes


Watercolor Paint Materials

The first thing to do is work out what kind of artwork you wish to make with watercolor paints. That will help you to determine which paints will be the best to use. There are different grades of watercolor paint as well, and each offers a certain quality.

The student-grade watercolors are the best for beginners to try out.

Watercolor in Tubes and PansThe academic watercolors are the best for refining your watercolor painting skills. Then finally, the art-grade watercolors are the best when you have mastered the art. Make sure that you read the packaging before you buy any watercolor set. A professional artist might get upset if they accidentally buy student-grade watercolor paints.


Preparing the Mixing Surface

The most ideal surface for mixing your watercolor paints would be a material that is not absorbent at all. This rules out the need for any cardboard or even wooden mixing surfaces. You might be able to use a wooden palette for mixing your paints, but it will need to be treated with a topcoat that prevents it from absorbing the water of the watercolor paints.

How to Use Watercolor Paint in Tubes Easily

If you have ever picked up an old watercolor pan from school, you might have noticed how there were swirls of color on the inside of the lid that closed over the watercolor pint disks. This is because the lid is an ideal surface for mixing the watercolors, as you can either wipe it away or just wait for it to dry again.


Opening Your Paint Tubes

Learning how to use watercolor paint in tubes comes with a bit of tedious information. You will be surprised how many people are too eager when opening their paint tubes. Always be cautious when you unscrew the cap of the watercolor tube because you do not want any paint to escape from it and spill out. This might ruin your painting, or it might mess on the floor beneath you.

Using Tube Watercolors EasilyIf you neglected your maintenance the last time you worked with your paints, then you might get annoyed with how difficult the unscrewing of the cap will be. Make sure that you clean the tip of the tube as soon as you are finished. This way, the paint will not dry and you will not struggle to open it.

When a tube is difficult to open, you might squeeze the tube a little too hard and when you finally manage to prise the cap off, the paint inside might squeeze out unexpectedly, causing more mess.


Filling Your Palette with Watercolor Paint

Getting the paint from the tube to the palette is the next big step. Squeeze a small amount of paint onto the surface of your mixing bowl, making sure that it is only a small dot of paint. The surface you are mixing the paint on should be flat and non-absorbent.

Good examples of the most ideal mixing surface would be a plate or a butcher’s tray.

Example of Using Watercolor in TubesIf you are using a watercolor pan, make sure that the brush you are using to mix the paints is clean before you go to another color. This way you will not ruin the purity of each color by mixing in other pigments accidentally. You can activate the colors by adding just a small amount of water to the surface of the dried watercolor paint disk. Leave the water there for a few moments, and you will see the paint start to soak up the water.


Mixing Area Preparation

Get out a surface that you are sure is not absorbent at all. Imagine using a wooden mixing surface that is not treated to stop it from absorbing liquids, and it just sucks up the paint before you even get to work with it.

To prepare your non-absorbent surface, you must drop just a little bit of water onto the surface, and this is where you will mix your watercolor paints.

Colorful Watercolor in TubesIf you are using a wooden surface, you can always paint a top coat onto the surface to take away its absorbent qualities. The ideal surface would be made of glass or metal. Make sure that you have a cup of water handy so that you can clean your brushes in between adding each color.


How to Mix Your Watercolor Paints

The first step in mixing your watercolor paints is to pour a small amount of water directly onto the surface of the empty tray, plate, or whatever surface you are using to mix the colors. You can then activate the paint as we mentioned in the above section.

Making Pans from Watercolor in TubesLoad the paintbrush with some paint by touching the activated watercolor paint tube and then touching it to the water. The color will immediately disperse in the water that is already there. Repeat the process with the other colors you are mixing in, and be amazed by the colors that you create.

Stick to mixing no more than two colors as a beginner. Adding too many colors to the mix means that you might end up with a muddy mess of colors.

Make sure that you have properly cleaned the brush you used to get the first color. This will keep your other colors clean and pure. If the brush has even just the smallest amount of paint on it still, it will, unfortunately, contaminate the next color you use with the foreign pigments.


How to Store and Maintain Your Watercolor Paint Tubes

When you have finished with your painting, or just finished using one color, you must make sure you wipe the excess paint from the tip of the tube and clean it properly with a cloth. If you neglect this step, the paint will dry around the tip whilst the cap is on and the next time you try to open it, you will struggle. Maintenance is not the most fun aspect, but it is unavoidable in this life.

This is a highly important thing to do to ensure the longevity of your paint.

Mixing Watercolor Paint TubesIf you did (by chance) forget to clean the tube the last time you were busy with your paints, then you can always use some mineral spirits to help you open the tube. Keep the paints in one big container, or paint box so that they are not scattered all over the place. This box should be kept out of sunlight, and in a cool place so that the paints remain in good condition.



How to Make Your Own Watercolor Pan

To make your watercolor pan, you will need to gather up the following items. Make sure that you have a palette box that is empty, and that it has a half or a full pan included. You can use a watercolor tube of paint or a pan that comes separately. The next thing to choose is the theme of the color palette that you want to create. Do you want a warmer color? Or the cooler colors? You could make things interesting by making a set of pastel colors.

Using Watercolor Paint TubesThe best thing you could do for your watercolor pan is to make sure you have added the correct labels to each color. If you accidentally label the color wrong, then anyone who might borrow your pan might struggle with their artwork. You could even go so far as to add in the HEX codes for each color for extra insurance that you are using the right color. A HEX code is there to make sure that other people understand which color you are referencing.

To make your pan, all you need to do is pour the paint from the tube into the round or rectangular slot that is empty. Make sure you only fill it halfway, and that you leave it to dry in a place with good ventilation.

Use a toothpick to stir the paint so that there are no bubbles of air present, which allows the paint to dry solid. Once that first layer has dried, you can fill the slot up with more paint and then leave it to dry again in the same place.



Now that you have finished reading this article, you will have all the knowledge you need to make an informed opinion on both watercolor paints in tubes and pans. Deciding which you prefer should be an easier comparison, and we hope you are soon able to put this knowledge to the test!



Frequently Asked Questions


When Starting a Watercolor Painting, How Many Watercolors Are Needed?

The primary colors are what create every other color when you are mixing paint. This means that the only essential colors are the primary ones because you can work from those to create an intricate painting with many different colors.


Can Pan and Tube Watercolors Be Used Simultaneously?

You have the choice to use either a watercolor pan or a set of watercolor tubes. The greatest thing is that they are both watercolors so you can use both if you want. Stick with the tubes for the larger areas of your painting or the parts that you want to pop with color, and save the pans for the smaller areas.


Which Is Better for Mixing Watercolor Paint: A Tube or a Pan?

Watercolor paint tubes are best if you are mixing a lot of paint so that you can paint a large section of your painting. This is because you can add more liquid watercolor paint than you can with the dried watercolor pan. A bonus is that the tube produces a much more vibrant pigment so it will go further whilst shining brighter.


Do Watercolor Paints Last Long?

The matter of how long your watercolor paints last is determined by how well you maintain them. This is more prevalent for the watercolors that come in tubes than for the pans. This is because the tubes run the risk of drying out inside the tubes, thus rendering them useless. The pans are already dry, so it does not matter if they dry out. A watercolor paint set in a pan will potentially last up to ten years.


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