Different Sizes & Types of Watercolor Pans
There are so many different ways to customize your travel watercolor palette. One of the most important (and fun!) ways to customize is through the different types and styles of watercolor pans that are available to you. Through these customization choices, and by understanding what they are, you'll be able to create a collection of colors that is not only extremely useful for depicting your favorite subjects, but also represents you as an artist or creative person.
In this post I'll go over the different types and sizes of watercolor pans, what types of travel boxes/tins they are compatible with, and offer tips on how to match the right size with the right color.
Different Sizes & Types of Watercolor Pans
Standard Plastic Full Pans and Half-Pans are made of polystyrene, a durable (and recyclable) white plastic. Our metal Quarter-Pans and Eighth Pans are made of steel and manufactures specifically for use with watercolor paints by Art Toolkit. (Beware of cheaply made knock-offs that will corrode!) Our natural Shell Pans are simply natural seashells, sorted to a narrow size margin, and hold roughly the equivalent volume of paint as our Eighth-Pans.
Where did these sizes come from? Lots of places, and then I organized them into the sizing system that we use. I collected the pans I found most useful, precisely measured the volume of each, and named them appropriately so that you would be able to use them intuitively and knowledgeably.
Our Modern Primary Colors in Full Pans, a very minimalist set!
Plastic Full Pans & Half-Pans
First Use: Watercolor pans came into use as watercolor cakes fell out of use. Watercolor cakes were the precursor to pans; they needed no container, but were very hard and needed to go through a process of "rubbing out" before they were wet and soft enough to be used. The newer moist watercolors needed a container, thus was born the watercolor pan. Early pans were made of an assortment of different materials, the most durable of which have proved to be the plastic ones we use today.
Size: I think of Full Pans as roughly equivalent to a tube of watercolor paint, but in portable form. Half-Pans are (you guessed it) half the volume of a Full Pan.
Compatibility: Standard Plastic Full Pans and Half-Pans are compatible with most travel watercolor tins, cases, and boxes on the market. Specifically, they are compatible with the metal enamel bijoux boxes which have metal inserts with brackets that pans click into. You see these boxes from companies such as Lukas and Schminke. These pans are also compatible with the range of Windsor & Newton plastic and metal palettes. All of the plastic Full Pans and Half-Pans that we sell come with a small magnet fixed to the underside, which helps hold them in place in your travel palette as you move around. This allows you to quickly move your colors into different configurations and layouts as well. You can also add them to pretty vintage tins, or to enamel bijoux boxes with the inserts removed to save both room and weight. You'll have to remove the magnets to click them into brackets or slide them into place in other types of travel palettes. To remove the magnets, simple use a pair of pliers and twist the magnet off.
A handful of Full Pans
When To Choose Full Pans: I suggest choosing Full Pans if you enjoy using large brushes, paint on a large scale, for a studio set you won't be traveling with, for your favorite colors that you do travel with, for a travel set that only contains a few colors, and for colors that you tend to go through quickly (colors with a low tinting strength like Whites, Greys, Earth Greens, and Yellows). Full Pans are also going to give you the best financial bang for your buck.
When To Choose Half-Pans: I suggest choosing Half-Pans for well-used travel sets, for those who paint with small to medium sized brushes (sizes 2-8, respectively), for sketchbooks and smaller scale paintings, and as a default size. Half-Pans do an excellent job of balancing space and quantity of paint since they are small and lightweight, but hold a decent amount of color. I would suggest, unless you're wanting to travel very light, building your palette with mostly Half-Pans.
A handful of Quarter-Pans and Eighth-Pans
Metal Quarter-Pans & Eighth-Pans
First Use: Metal pans in the form we are using are a very contemporary addition to the watercolor pan lineup. The first artist I am aware of using metal pans is Maria Coryell-Martin, the founder of Art Toolkit. She began using metal pans and developed her Pocket Palette as a result of her time spent as an artist accompanying scientific expeditions in the Arctic and Greenland. She needed a travel palette that was tiny, light, and portable. Metal pans on a different scale came into use around the turn of the nineteenth-century before plastic was as widely available and after watercolor cakes had fallen out of favor.
Size: Quarter-Pans are one fourth the volume of paint of our Full Pans, and Eighth-Pans hold one eighth the quantity of paint as our Full Pans, as you might have imagined. These pans are both a different material (metal) and a different proportion from our Full Pans and Half-Pans. They are much flatter and therefore have more surface area for their volume, which allows your brush the area it needs to maneuver while saving space and weight in your palette.
Our Field Sketch Pocket Palette in Quarter-Pans
Compatibility: Metal Quarter-Pans & Eighth-Pans are most compatible with Art Toolkit's Pocket Palette (about the size of a business card and almost as thin!) and Demi Palette (which we refer to as a Micro Palette in our Travel Palette lineup). These palettes have a white mixing area in the lid, and a thin magnet inside that the steel pans naturally stick to. These pans can be used in other palettes if you are creative. You can add in magnets to another tin or container, or can even fix them in place with sticky tack.
When To Choose: I recommend these pans to add to your existing Pocket Palettes, to replace colors you have used up from your Pocket Palettes, for the ultra-light traveler who is really wanting to save space and weight (thru-hikers, this is the watercolor system for you!), and for miniaturists or those who enjoy painting on a very small scale. More specifically for the sizes: I recommend Quarter-Pans for the ultralight traveler as the equivalent of Full Pans (for your most used colors and colors that have a weak tinting strength), and Eighth-Pans for colors that have a stronger tinting strength or that you use less of.
Natural genuine pure Lapis Lazuli in our natural Shell Pans
Natural Seashell Pans
First Use: Seashells were the very first paint holder, the true original pan. Shells with paint residue have been found at the foot of prehistoric cave paintings. There are also records of medieval monks using mussel shells to hold the colors they used to illuminate manuscripts.
Size: As mentioned above, our natural Shell Pans hold about the same amount of paint as an Eighth-Pan. Why are they a little more expensive than our Eighth-Pans? They are just more time-consuming to create! Proportionally, our Shell Pans are between our plastic pans and our metal pans in height (or thickness).
Compatibility: As a result of their dimensions, our Shell Pans will not fit into the Art Toolkit Pocket and Demi Palettes. However, like our plastic pans, we fix a magnet to the underside of each Shell Pan, so that you can easily add them to your Travel Tin of magnetized pans. If you remove the insert of your bijoux box you can fill it with Shell Pans, and if your travel tin is deep enough, you can add Shell Pans to the inside of the lid to squeeze a little more out of your space.
A Travel Palette full of Shell Pans in all different colors
When To Choose: I recommend Shell Pans for those looking to avoid plastic, for small-scale painting, for colors that you don't use much of but still prefer to carry along, for colors that tend to go a long way (colors with intense tinting strength), and for those looking to inject a little fun and fantasy into their travel palette.
Customizing Your Palette With Different Pans
One of my personal travel palettes, full of my current most-used colors.
For your Travel Tin, I would recommend a combination of Half-Pans and Full Pans, with some Shells mixed in when compatible. For your Pocket Palette, I recommend a mixture of both Quarter-Pans and Eighth-Pans. As a result, your palette will be well-suited to your subject, style, and purpose, and it will be completely unique!
A Pocket Palette containing an assortment of both Quarter-Pans and Eighth-Pans
However, if there is nothing that delights your eye more than a collection of Half-Pans arranged in lock-step standing at attention, then go with that! This is YOUR palette. So worry less about "should", enjoy trying out a few different color selections and layouts, and concentrate on what will add delight and convenience to your process.
As always, thank you for spending a little time in this colorful little corner of the internet, and wishing you happy painting!