When you first buy tubes of watercolor, you might wonder… how am I supposed to use these? It’s pretty simple to use watercolor pans, but watercolor tubes aren’t as straightforward.
There are two main ways to use watercolor paint tubes. You can use the wet paint fresh from the tube, or you can let it dry and use it the same way you use pre-dried watercolor. Both methods will require mixing the paint with a little water (usually on a palette) to reach the preferred consistency before painting.
Let me explain this in more detail so you know exactly how to use watercolor paint tubes in simple steps!
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Watercolor tubes vs. watercolor pans
When you buy watercolor paint, you have to decide between purchasing paint in tubes or in pans. So what are the differences?
Watercolor paint tubes come in various sizes and contain wet paint that is usually the consistency of toothpaste. Watercolor right out of a tube is already moist and very saturated, and you can squeeze out whatever amount you need.
Watercolor pans come in different shapes and sizes and contain a solid, dried cake of watercolor paint. Before using watercolor pans, you have to apply water to the dry paint to hydrate or “activate” it. You can use a wet brush, spray bottle, or pipette/dropper to do this. After they’ve been wet for a few minutes, the paint cakes will soften and be easier to use.
Which is better, watercolor tubes or pans?
Watercolor tubes are more economical. They usually contain more paint than a watercolor pan does, and are great for working on large paintings when you need a lot of paint.
You can use tubes to refill pans or make your own watercolor pans, and you have the flexibility of choosing specific colors and customizing a watercolor palette.
Watercolor pans are convenient because they usually come in a set of already-chosen colors, they’re ready to use, there’s no pigment/binder separation (which can happen with tubes), and they’re portable.
It can take a while of rubbing your paintbrush over the paint to pick up enough for a concentrated color, but once you do you’ll get the same saturation you would with tubes.
Watercolor tubes and pans are usually filled with the same paint, so there shouldn’t be any difference in quality.
It’s ultimately up to you to decide whether watercolor tubes or pans work best for you, or maybe you want to use both! I like using tubes to make my own watercolor pans, but you might prefer the ease of using an already-prepared set of colors so you can just start painting.
It’s easy to use watercolor pans: just add water and start painting. But watercolor tubes aren’t quite as straightforward, so keep reading to learn how to use this form of watercolor.
How to paint with tube watercolors
There are a couple different ways to use watercolor tubes. Most artists have a preferred way of using them, so it’s a good idea to try both methods to find out which one you prefer.
Use watercolor straight from the tube
What’s great about using fresh watercolor right from the tube is that it’s already at its highest saturation. All you have to do is dilute it with water so it’s fluid enough to paint with.
Here’s how to use fresh watercolors from tubes in simple steps.
- To use watercolor straight from the tube, squeeze out a small amount onto a palette. Use a clean, wet brush to pick up some paint and mix it with water.
- Keep each color separate from the others to keep them clean. If you’re using a palette with wells, you can put the pure paint inside the wells to separate them from the mixing area.
- Mix the paint with enough water to reach the consistency you need. You can either mix the whole amount of paint with water if you need to paint a large area, or just pick up a portion with your brush.
- If there’s any leftover paint on your palette when you’ve finished, just leave it to dry. You can easily use it again later by rehydrating it with a wet brush.
- If you need a very thick consistency of paint, you can use watercolor directly from the tube without using a mixing surface. Gently squeeze a paint tube so a small amount comes out and use a moist paintbrush to pick some up. This will give you a pasty, thick paint.
One downside to using watercolor right from the tube is that it’s easy to waste the wet paint, since it will glob up on your brush. Be careful not to pick up too much paint if you don’t need a lot.
If you want to keep your tube watercolors wet on your palette, try using an air-tight palette. Here’s an example of an airtight palette box on Amazon. This can keep the paint moist for longer, but don’t leave it for too long, or else the paint could get moldy.
Squeeze watercolor tubes onto a palette and let dry
The second way to use tube watercolors is to squeeze them out onto a palette (or into individual pans) and allow them to dry. You can create your own watercolor pans this way.
Here’s how to set up a palette with watercolor paint tubes.
- Choose an empty paint palette, whether it’s plastic, metal, or porcelain. It’s best to use one that has wells to put paint in and has separate areas for color mixing. Here’s a plastic folding palette that I like to use. Or you could fill individual watercolor pans like these full-size pans on Amazon and use a separate mixing surface.
- Before you start filling the wells, think about placement. How are you going to arrange the colors? I keep warm colors on one half of my palette and cool colors on the other, to avoid muddy color mixes, and I also group similar colors together.
- Squeeze paint from the tubes into the wells. I usually fill mine 3/4 full, but some artists like to just put a dollop in. Just don’t fill them so full that they almost spill over the top. You can always refill them later.
- If you want to smooth out paint in the wells, you can use clean toothpicks to do that. At the same time you can mix in any separated binder (more on that in a bit).
- When you’re finished, leave the paint to dry. There’s no need to cover it, just let it air-dry. It may take a few days for the paint to dry completely, but it depends on how full the wells are. The more paint there is, the longer it takes.
- To use your dried watercolor paints, use a spray bottle to get them wet and start painting! Moistening the paints before you start softens the paint, making it easier to pick up with your brush. When you’re finished, let the palette dry and cover it to keep out dust.
- You may want to paint a swatch of each color in order on paper and label them so you know what each well is filled with. Some artists keep paint swatches inside their palette so they can reference them often.
Similarly, you can also fill (or refill) individual watercolor pans this way. Squeeze out paint, use a toothpick to mix/spread if necessary, and let it dry. You may want to fill in layers to avoid the paint cracking, and label the pans with each color name.
First a dry “skin” will form over the paints, and over time it will harden all the way through. To avoid using the wet watercolor, let it dry at least overnight before using it, but you can certainly use the paint at any time if you need to.
Why are my watercolors separated inside the tube?
Sometimes when you open a watercolor paint tube, yellowish liquid comes out instead of the paint mixture you were expecting. This is gum arabic, the paint binder used to make watercolors, which has separated from the pigment.
It’s normal for watercolors to occasionally separate inside the tube. The separation happens when a dense pigment gradually settles to the bottom of the tube, leaving separated paint binder at the top. Some colors may be more prone to this than others, but it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with the paint.
Here are a few ways you can remedy separated tube watercolors:
- Try massaging the watercolor paint tube to work the binder back in.
- Use a clean toothpick to mix the paint after you’ve squeezed it out.
- Mix the paint directly inside the tube with a toothpick or paperclip.
- Try leaving the tube upside down for a couple days and see if that helps.
The amount of separated paint binder is usually minimal, and it will likely be okay to just discard the excess binder if you prefer.
How to store watercolor paint tubes
Before recapping a watercolor tube, make sure the threads around the neck and the cap are clean. Wipe off any paint or residue to prevent the cap from sticking when you open it again. This also ensures the seal is secure so the paint won’t dry out.
(I often don’t clean the threads on my paint tubes and as a result, some of them are very hard to unscrew. It really is best to wipe them clean from the start!)
Screw the lids on firmly and store the watercolor paint tubes in a cool, dry place. It doesn’t really matter whether you store the tubes upright or horizontally. (Paint binder can separate from pigment no matter how the tubes are stored.)
There are many different ways to store and organize paint tubes, such as in drawers, boxes, plastic containers, organizers, or on a rack. It’s up to you how you want to store them. I keep mine in a plastic ziplock bag – nothing fancy.
If you discover a stuck cap on an old paint tube, run it under hot water for a little while or wrap a rubber band around the lid to increase your grip so you can unscrew it.
How long do watercolor tubes last?
While no one can say exactly, watercolor tubes can last anywhere from 5-15 years. Some artists say they’ve used tubes older than that, even up to 25 years. It depends, too, on the brand and quality of the watercolor paint. Some say cheaper watercolor dries out faster.
There aren’t expiration dates on watercolor paint tubes, but try to use them up within a few years if you can. Over time the wet paint inside tubes will begin to dry out, so it’s best to use them up while they’re moist and easy to use.
Dried pan watercolors will last a long time, much longer than tubes, so if you used your tube watercolors to make your own pans, don’t worry about them.
If you ever find that your watercolors are moldy, throw them out. Otherwise, watercolor paint doesn’t expire and dried out paint in a tube is really the only concern.
Can I restore dried watercolor tubes?
Yes, you can! When a watercolor tube dries out, it essentially becomes like a dried watercolor pan, just inside the tube. Dry watercolor paint can be reconstituted with just water.
Here are some things you can try to soften dried watercolor tubes:
- Open the tube and soak it in water.
- Add some drops of water, gum arabic, and/or glycerin.
If you can’t rehydrate a hardened tube of watercolor, you can still use it by cutting open the tube with an exacto knife. Just be very careful while doing this. You might want to consider wearing gloves to avoid staining your hands, too.
Once you’ve cut open the tube, remove the dried or sticky watercolor and put it in a small container or a palette well. If the paint is in several pieces, soak them in water until it softens enough for you to stir and combine them. Add a drop of gum arabic or glycerin if needed. You can reconstitute any dried watercolor this way.
Here’s a full article I wrote about what to do with old watercolor paint that goes into more detail.
However you choose to use watercolor paint tubes, I hope this article has answered your questions and that you’re feeling ready to start painting!