Does Watercolor Paint Expire? How Long Does It Last?

Like me, you may have wondered at some point how long your watercolor paints are going to last. Do they ever expire or get too old to use?

Watercolor paint does not expire, but it can get more difficult to use over time. Watercolor pans typically last much longer than tubes, since tubes dry out eventually, but even dry tube paint can be rehydrated and used. How long watercolor lasts will vary, depending on several factors like the paint quality and how it is stored.

There’s much more to say about this topic, so let me share what I’ve learned!

watercolor paint palette

How long do watercolor tubes last?

Watercolor paint tubes are filled with wet paint, so they will dry out eventually. No one can say for sure how long a watercolor tube will last before it dries out, since it depends on the brand, paint quality, and how they are stored. Watercolor tubes are more likely to dry out if they’re almost empty.

Over time, the paint binder (usually gum arabic) and the pigment can separate inside the tube, but this happens even when the paint is new.

You can reincorporate the separated binder by massaging the tube or stirring the paint with a toothpick inside the tube or on a mixing surface.

It’s also possible for watercolor tubes to develop a bad smell. This could be caused by paint materials getting old, bacteria growing inside the tube, or even a buildup of gas.

Most manufacturers say the shelf life of watercolor tubes is 5 years. Some artists have said they’ve used tube watercolors that are up to 25 years old. Although it varies, watercolor paint tubes will likely stay moist for at least 5-10 years.

Some say that cheaper watercolors dry out faster. The higher quality the watercolor, the more likely it is to last a long time. That said, I have some Reeves watercolor tubes (an inexpensive brand) that are still useable after nearly 20 years.

For the best results, try to use watercolor paint tubes within several years of buying them. This shouldn’t be a problem if you paint regularly, but if you don’t touch paint tubes for years, you may find that they’ve dried out while sitting unused.

Even when a watercolor tube dries out, you can cut it open and use the dry paint like you would watercolor pans. Any dry watercolor can be rehydrated!

How long do watercolor pans last?

Watercolor pans can last for an unlimited amount of time if they are cared for properly. Since the paint in watercolor pans is already dry, the important thing is to keep them completely dry when you’re not using them to prevent mold.

Dry watercolor paint can deteriorate in other ways, too, such as paint cracking, shrinking, and coming away from the edges of pans. While these things are annoying, it doesn’t affect the quality of the paint, and you should still be able to use it.

A bigger problem is watercolor pans developing mildew or mold. This is usually a result of covering paints while they’re still wet, or storing them in a humid environment. Some artists recommend avoiding watercolor made with honey, since honey attracts moisture.

Watercolor paint pans should last you a very long time, even if you make them yourself with tube watercolors (I wrote an article about how to do that here). Just make sure to let them dry completely before covering them.

Again, if you use your paints regularly, most of these things shouldn’t be an issue!

If your watercolor pans are cracking and breaking into pieces, you could try “gluing” the paint pieces in place with gum arabic.

You could also try reconstituting the paint with water and adding gum arabic. The next section goes into detail about how to do this.

Watercolor paint sometimes cracks or shrinks in pans.

How do you use old watercolors?

If you have old, dry watercolors, they are likely still useable. Old watercolor pans can definitely still be used simply by rehydrating the paint with water as usual.

Using dried watercolor tubes is a little more involved. If the paint inside the tube is still slightly moist, you can try soaking the open tube in water or adding a drop of gum arabic or glycerin, but it probably makes more sense to just remove it from the tube.

Here are the steps for removing dried watercolor from a tube:

  1. Gather some supplies. You’ll need an exacto knife, a pliers, a palette knife or a similar tool, and a protected surface you can work on, like a cutting mat. Have some paper towels handy and wear gloves if you don’t want to stain your hands.
  2. Use an exacto knife to cut across the ends and down the length of the tube so you can peel it open with the pliers and lay it flat. Be very careful when doing this; it’s easy to cut yourself.
  3. Remove the dried watercolor pieces and transfer them to a plastic container or palette well. If the paint is still moist and sticky, use the palette knife to scrape it off.
  4. Once you’ve removed as much paint as possible, you can either try using it as is, or reconstitute it so you can combine the pieces and make it easier to paint with.

Reconstituting the paint is a good idea, since it’s usually in lots of small pieces when you remove it from a tube.

Here’s how to reconstitute dry watercolor paint:

  1. Soak the paint in some water for a while, stirring it occasionally. This will soften the paint.
  2. If you think it needs to be smoother, add a drop of gum arabic or glycerin.
  3. Once the paint has reached a good consistency, you can paint with it wet or leave it to dry.
  4. Test the watercolor by painting a swatch to see how it performs.

When left to dry, the paint will harden again and you should be able to use it as a watercolor pan.

The whole process is a bit messy and takes some effort, but it can also be fun to restore old watercolors! Watch this YouTube video if you want to see what the process looks like.

Reconstituting paint pieces from a dried out watercolor tube, using water to soften.

When should I throw away watercolor paint?

Although you can usually still use old watercolor paint, there are some instances when it’s best to throw it away and buy a fresh set.

Here are some signs that watercolor paint has gone bad:

  • Watercolor paint has a bad smell
  • Watercolor develops mold
  • The paint won’t work like it used to, no matter what you try

If your watercolor paint ever develops mold or a bad smell, you should just throw it away. Mold can contaminate more of your art supplies, and it wouldn’t be fun to paint with bad-smelling watercolor.

You may also want to throw out any watercolor paints that just aren’t working well anymore. It’s better to throw it away than to make yourself frustrated.

How should I store watercolors?

Storing watercolor tubes is pretty simple. Here’s how:

  1. Make sure the threads around the neck of the tubes and the caps are clean to prevent sticking.
  2. Screw the lids on tightly to keep the paint from drying out.
  3. Store the tubes in a cool, dry place. The position of the tubes – horizontal or vertical – doesn’t really matter.

I keep my paint tubes in a large ziplock bag, but you can get creative with how you store them!

Here’s how to store watercolor paint pans:

  1. Let the paint pans dry completely before covering them. (This is the best way to prevent mold.)
  2. Once they are totally dry, cover the pans and store them in a cool, dry place.

If you live in a humid environment, you may have to make more efforts to ensure your pan watercolors are staying dry.

To prolong the useful life of your watercolor paints, the right storage is important. If you’re concerned about your watercolors going bad, you can always check to make sure they still look normal. It would be even better to use the paints up before they develop any problems.

With a little effort, you can extend the life of your watercolor paints beyond what you may have first thought!

4 Comments

  1. I’ve never tried watercolors. Saw some at the dollar store. Is that a good way to try it out even though the paints would be cheap. I’m wondering if the cost affects the quality of the paints.

    1. Dollar store watercolors probably won’t be great. The cheap sets are chalky and won’t give you saturated colors, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try them out and play with them if you want to! The first watercolors I used were cheap Reeves pans.

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