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How To Fill Watercolor Pans From Tubes? | A Comprehensive Guide

Filling pans with watercolor tube paint is easy. Just choose your preferred tube paint brand, squeeze it out into some pans carefully, leave it out to dry for 2-3 days, and then you’re done! Place the pans into a portable palette box, and you have a painting kit ready to go.

How To Fill Watercolor Pans From Tubes

Watercolor paints are available in a variety of different forms: watercolor tubes, pan paints, liquid watercolors, etc. The form you buy totally depends on your preferences and needs. However, common consensus does say that watercolor pans are much easier to use than the other alternatives.

On the other hand, many artists prefer tubes over pans because of the quality but desire the convenience of watercolor pans. Well, there’s an easy solution! Turn the watercolor tubes into watercolor pans!

Watercolor Pan Sizes and Watercolor Cakes

Watercolor Pan Sizes and Watercolor Cakes
© Homesthetics - Dylla Setyadji

You will hear these terms used throughout this guide. So, let’s first understand what they mean.

‘Pan’ refers to empty plastic containers which you are going to fill with tube paint. Obviously, a pan is not always empty and can be filled with paint. This dried tub of paint is known as the watercolor ‘cake.’ After filling the pans, your dried tube paint is going to become the watercolor cake.

Watercolor pans generally come in two different sizes: full-pan and half-pan. Full pans are larger, and half-pans are, well, half the size of the full pans. Depending upon your painting styles, frequencies, and habits, you can get either the full-pans or the half-pans to fulfill your watercolor needs.

Materials Needed

Like with any scientific procedure, there are a few materials you require before you begin. Make sure you have the following materials handy:

  • Palette with tin/ plastic pans
  • Watercolor tubes
  • Watercolor paint brush
  • Sharpie marker
  • Watercolor paper
  • Toothpick or Bamboo Skewer
  • Waterproof pen
  • Paper towel

Types Of Watercolor Tubes Available

The brand of watercolor tube paint you use is going to affect the result of your pan. Obviously, each paint manufacturer uses a different formula and paint pigment to make their watercolor tube paints. Some of the ingredients used even affect the drying characteristics of the watercolor paints. 

Let’s get into the proper science. The first thing you should know about is something known as the ‘plasticizer,’ which helps to reduce cracking as the tube paint dries. Primarily glycerin is used as a plasticizer.

The next thing is the ‘humectant,’ which preserves moisture and makes the tube paint easier to dissolve. Most paint manufacturers use honey or sugar syrup as the humectant. 

Why is this important to know?

If you want your watercolor pans to be filled with softer paint, you should get watercolor tubes with more honey in the formula. You can even add honey to your tube paints if it ends up drying too hard. This does mean you’ll have to get a watertight palette box since the paint would be wetter than usual. 

However, if you prefer dry cakes, you should avoid tube paint brands that contain honey in their formulas. If your pans become too dry and difficult to activate with water, add some glycerine and let the paint become usable!

Steps For Filling Watercolor Pans From Watercolor Tubes
© Homesthetics - Dylla Setyadji

Steps For Filling Watercolor Pans From Watercolor Tubes

Now let’s talk about how exactly you can turn your watercolor tubes into pan form. 

1. Select your colors

When you fill watercolor pans yourself, you have the freedom to choose any colors you want. The number of colors depends on the number of plastic pans on your palette. Your selected colors should depend on which colors you use the most, which colors go together, and what sort of watercolor painting you wish to create. 


Swatch the colors on watercolor paper to get the look of a completed watercolor pan.

2. Remove and label the pans

Remove each empty pan individually and start labeling them. Use the sharpie marker to write the paint name, paint brand, and pigment info on the pan. Get a thin sharpie so you can write easily. 

3. Squeeze the paint out of the tube into the pan

Make sure the pans are clean and damp before you start to fill the watercolor pans. Don’t pour too much paint, though. Begin by filling the pan halfway through. Use a toothpick or skewer to stir the paint and spread it into the corners of the pans. Try smoothening the paint surface. Tap the pans on your table a few times to ensure no air bubbles develop. 


Massage or shake the watercolor tube before you squeeze the paint out to ensure all the ingredients inside are mixed together.

4. Filling the pans with the paint

Keep filling the tray pans with more paint to the top. Keep using the skewer in between to make sure the paint fills out the pans evenly. 


Leave a little bit of space at the top so that you can add a layer of water to speed up the paint activation process when you start using the palette.

5. Allowing the tube paint to dry and settle

Leave the pans to dry and settle for at least 24 to 48 hours before checking the results. The drying time will be affected by the humidity and temperature. Let the paints dry naturally; don’t try to speed up the heating process using an oven or a hairdryer. You might actually melt the plastic pans or blow the paint around!

In case your watercolor paints don’t dry even after a few days, there is something in the ingredients of your watercolors that is affecting the drying process. You might want to choose a different watercolor brand in that situation. If the paint cakes start to develop cracks and shrink, you can solve that by adding a few drops of glycerin to the cake. 

Ensure your paints have completely dried before putting them in a palette box. Your DIY watercolor pans are now ready to use!

Tips For Using Watercolor Pans

1. Mixing colors in the pan

Watercolor paints are known for their easy blending. First, pick up your first color using a wet paintbrush and transfer it to your palette. Repeat the same for the second wet paint. Mix the two colors on your palette until you are satisfied with the blend.

You can use palette paper to prevent the color from bleeding. A palette paper allows you to mix watercolors precisely.  

2. Reactivating dried paint

This is the best advantage of watercolor paints: they can be reused even after they dry. The dried paint can be turned into moist paint using water. The amount of water you add depends on the intensity of color you want. Add more water for a diluted shade and vice versa.

Keep lightly misting all the pans to keep the paint moist. 

3. Avoid muddying the colors

Keep two bowls of water to do your watercolor painting: one to assist in the painting and the other to clean your brush. Your watercolor pans will remain clean this way. Also, replace the water as soon as it gets muddy. 

4. Organizing pans in your palette

When you fill watercolor pans yourself, you get the freedom to arrange the colors in any way you want. Whether it follows the colors of the rainbow or follows the color theory, organizing your pans will help give a personal touch to your DIY watercolor pan. 

Choosing The Perfect Palette Box
© Homesthetics - Dylla Setyadji

Choosing The Perfect Palette Box

The palette box you choose to keep your watercolor pans in greatly depends on your paints and how you will use them. If you have wet pans, you obviously need to use a watertight palette box to prevent any wet paint from getting out. For dry pans, you can choose any palette box you like. 

All that’s left to think about is the size.

Ideally, the size of your palette box depends on your painting habits and style. Do you like to travel with your watercolor paints? Or do you like painting indoors? Different watercolor artists have different preferences.

1. Simple Palette Box With A Lid

Some palette boxes come with an included mixing surface. But if you are working indoors or in an art studio, you have access to your watercolor palette and obviously don’t need a separate mixing surface. This is the perfect palette box for your watercolor pans if you like a small handy kit you can carry around. Additionally, you can carry it from one place to another because of its easy portability. 

2. Folding travel palette

A folding travel palette is perfect for watercolor artists who like to paint on the go. Need a handy palette to paint while you’re sightseeing in a new city? This is the best solution! Get a travel palette with a mixing surface included, so you don’t have to carry a mixing palette around as well. 

3. Large palette box

A large palette box can incorporate large watercolor pans, meaning you will have access to a large number of colors. This is perfect for artists who like to paint indoors in their own comfort zone. Place the palette in a suitable corner of your room or art studio and have access to an array of beautiful watercolor paint. 

Benefits Of Making Your Own Watercolor Pans

Even though watercolor paint is available in many different forms, artists prefer to use watercolor pans due to their ease of use and portability. More specifically, artists have now started to make their own pans for several reasons, some of which are listed below.

1. Ease Of Use

Watercolor pans are easier to use than tube paint or liquid watercolors. You don’t have to squeeze the paint out whenever you use it. Just use some water to reactivate the dried cake, and you have fresh paint! 

2. Creating your own palette

You can always buy readymade watercolor pans from the market. But the colors included in those pans might not meet your needs. When making your own pans, you can choose the colors according to your preference. You can make a watercolor palette that is specifically suited to your needs, creating a better watercolor painting experience. 

3. Choosing your preferred tube paints

Different paint brands sell different tube watercolors. The watercolors might contain a different binder or different pigments.  But those watercolor pans might have a different texture, shades, and intensity than you want. 

This is why buying tube watercolors and creating your own watercolor pan is better. Choose some artist-quality paints that best suit your needs and DIY a watercolor pan yourself. 

4. Reduced costs

Buying good watercolor paint and creating your own watercolor pans generally costs less than buying a set of watercolor pans outright. You can buy full and half-pans from any paint brand. The bonus is that you get to choose your preferred palette box! And I know how much that means to any watercolor artist. 

5. Travel-friendly

Watercolor tubes are not really travel-friendly. You need to squeeze the paint out every time you paint. Instead, watercolor pans are extremely travel-friendly. Whether you get the full-pans or the half-pans, these sets are extremely portable. All you need is a wet brush to reactivate the dried paint, and you’ll have some fresh paint!

Fill Watercolor Pans FAQs

  • Can I mix different brands of watercolor paint tubes in the same pan?

    Yes, you can actually mix watercolor paints of different brands in the same pan. This is the advantage of making your homemade pans. An all-time favorite watercolor tube brand is Daniel Smith, but you can mix in other brands if you wish.

    Be aware that not all paints are the same. Some may have different binders, different pigments, and different textures. Even the colors might not match each other. So, fill the empty pans carefully. I do suggest using the same paint for the entire watercolor palette.

  • How do I clean my palette knife or toothpick after filling watercolor pans with tube paints?

    Cleaning a palette knife or toothpick is easy after you’re done with filling and refilling pans. Just clean the knife or toothpick with some water. Clean the knife after each color so that the colors don’t end up being mixed and muddy. You can also swatch the leftover paint onto some watercolor paper to get the color chart of your palette.

  • What palette should I use?

    Palettes are available in many different types of materials. You can buy plastic palettes, metallic palettes, ceramic palettes, etc. Plastic palettes are definitely cheaper and more easily available. But they seem flimsy and low-quality.

    On the other hand, a metallic or ceramic palette has removable pans that help with the filling process. Mixing colors on metallic and ceramic palettes is also better than plastic palettes.

  • Can I fill a palette with gouache?

    Filling a palette with gouache can have mixed results. It ultimately depends on how well the gouache rewets. Test it out by placing it on a palette and then wetting it. It tends to dry over time and can also fall out of the pan. So, keep that in mind before you start a painting session with dried gouache. Schmincke paint is a good brand of gouache paint you can try for this.

  • How do I stop the watercolor cake from falling out of the pan?

    This tends to happen with overly-dried watercolor cakes, especially if you hold the pan upside-down. One way to secure the pan in its place is to get a Blu-tack, or a White tack, tear off a tiny piece, and stick it to the back of your watercolor cake.

    You can also do the same thing with a little bit of gum Arabic. Drop a bit of gum Arabic on the pan and then put the dried cake back into the slot. It will turn out perfectly fine!

  • Can I refill my watercolor fans multiple times?

    Yes, you can. Making home-filled pans has this advantage. After all the watercolors are used, you should clean the empty pans thoroughly. Buy your preferred tube colors and repeat the procedure of filling each empty pan. This will definitely help you save money on your art supplies.

  • Conclusion On Filling Watercolor Pans From Tubes
    © Homesthetics - Dylla Setyadji

    Final Words

    Now that we have come to the end of this guide, I am sure you must have picked up valuable tips on how to fill watercolor pans from tubes. As you might have figured out, it’s not that difficult. Plus, it has several benefits! All you need are the preferred watercolor tubes and pans and a careful hand to fill them out.

    This method actually enables you to combine the advantages of watercolor pans and tubes. You get the vibrancy and shades of watercolor tubes with the portability and convenience of watercolor pans.

    This technique will definitely help you save some dollars on art materials and figure out which paints work best for you. Happy watercolor painting!