How to Use Watercolor Tubes

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If you’re new to painting with watercolors, you’re probably curious about how to use watercolor tubes. Learn 3 different ways of using tube paints, plus easy tips to get started.

You might also like this post on basic watercolor techniques.

opera pink watercolor tube and half pan

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Is There a Difference Between Tubes and Pans?

When painting with watercolor paint, I don’t really notice a huge difference between most brands. Some brands even use the exact same formulas!

pink tube of paint and pan of paint

Since watercolor paint reconstitutes with water, you can use it fresh out of a tube or dried in a pan. Watercolor paint lasts a long time!

However, there are some paints that just work better fresh. And some paint colors can be harder to get a vibrant color from the pan. This typically occurs with specialty colors though.

Tubes can be a bit more cost-efficient because you get more for the money. And some brands don’t offer pans or only offer tubes, so you might be limited in that.

It’s also easier to mix larger amounts of paint from a tube than a pan.

watercolor tube paints in many colors

Curious about all the information on a tube of paint? Learn more here!

How to Use Watercolor Tubes

There are a few different ways to use watercolor tubes in your watercolor painting. The technique you choose will depend on your own personal preference.

Fresh from the Tube

Simply squeeze out a bit of watercolor paint from the tube onto a mixing palette.

squeezing tube of paint onto mixing palette

It’s best to use a white mixing palette so that you can see your colors clearly. But it doesn’t have to be an official palette. Some of my favorite “mixing palettes” are white dishes. (Just don’t use them for food anymore!)

Leave a bit of space between each color as you go. I typically place lighter colors on one side to avoid getting them muddy when mixing.

Add a little water and use a wet brush to start painting.

painting with fresh watercolor paint from tube

You can use the colors as they are or mix them to create your own unique colors.

When you’re finished, you can clean the mixing palette or let it dry and use it another day. Make sure that you cover the surface to avoid dust from getting on the paint. (Or pet hair, my personal nemesis.)

If you clean your palette in between uses, make sure that you use a small amount of paint to avoid wasting paint.

reactivating dried blue paint with water

Poured in a Mixing Palette

Another way to use watercolor tube paints is by using a mixing palette. There are many sizes available.

Mixing palettes usually consist of wells to store the paint and areas for mixing colors.

watercolor mixing palettes

Squeeze a little paint into each well and add water as you paint.

The paint will dry out after about a day, but it can be reactivated with water. I normally use an eyedropper, but a small spray bottle works as well.

Be sure to cover your palette in between use to avoid dust (or dog hair!) from getting in your paint. Some mixing palettes have covers, but you can also use plastic wrap.

There are also wet palettes available. These palettes come with a sponge-type layer that you wet, then a sheet of palette paper goes over it. They have airtight lids to keep the paint from drying out in between use.

I bought one to use with gouache, but I still haven’t used it.

Dried in a Palette Tin

Using a palette tin is my preferred method for using tube paint because it’s so convenient. It’s also a cheaper way to fill a palette than buying premade half-pans (or full pans) of paint.

Palette tins come in a few sizes and can store both half and full pans of watercolor paint. They have lids that also function as mixing areas. You can buy empty pans to add colors to your palette.

It’s also a great way to create your own special color palette mixes.

palette tin of watercolor paint

I have a full tutorial for creating your own palette using by filling watercolor pans.

It’s pretty easy. Pick your colors, label the color name on the pans, squeeze paint into pans and let them dry.

When you’re ready to paint, simply add water to the pan and mix it with a brush.

A Combination of Both

You can also combine both methods, which I often do, especially when I buy new paint.

I have several palettes of paint dried and ready to go, but I also have other small ceramic palettes that have drops of paint colors on them to use.

watercolor palettes

Tips for Using Watercolor Tubes

  • Sometimes the paint separates a bit in the tube. If you go to squeeze out fresh paint and notice this, use a toothpick to mix the binder back into the paint before squeezing paint out.toothpick in pink watercolor tube
  • Some paints are overfilled and pour out when opening them. Daniel Smith paints are notorious for this. I typically squeeze the excess into a small mixing palette to use for later.
  • If the paint isn’t new and this happens, you can squeeze it at the bottom to make the paint go back into the tube.
  • If the lids become hard to open, run the tube under warm water to loosen it.
  • Use tube wringers to squeeze every last drop of paint from the tube.
  • Sometimes your dried paint gets muddy. I usually clean mine with a wet paint brush. You can also run water over the surface, but I don’t like the thought of wasting paint.
  • If your paint dries in the tube, it’s still usable. Cut the tube open and reactivate the paint with water.
  • I recently started swatching every single color I own in a sketchbook and I highly recommend doing this. It’s so easy to see at a glance which colors you own. But it’s also easy to see which colors you don’t have very many of. If you’re trying to build your collection, this is very helpful. sketchbook with watercolor swatches

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watercolor tubes

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One Comment

  1. I’m fairly new to watercolor and this is one of the best articles I have read. Thanks for a very informative article. I won’t be wasting paint now and have a great resource in your article.

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