Building Back My Paint Box

I’ve recently misplaced my beloved watercolour paint box and after searching for it for more than two weeks, I gave up and decided to build a new paint box, with the hopes that the old one will show up one day. Good quality watercolour paint boxes and artist grade watercolours aren’t cheap, which is why I put this off for a while, but they do last for a very long time if you invest a little bit in them.

This post won’t be so much about my palette choices but rather more about the physical properties of the box that I use and the paints within it. If you have had a taste of watercolours and decided that you enjoy the medium and would like to create a long lasting field paint set, this post is for you.

For years I used the excellent Windsor Newton Cotman Watercolour Field Box. The box comes with a set of Cotman student grade watercolours that I gifted away (they aren’t worth your time. If there’s something worth investing in when it comes to watercolours it’s the paints. The order is paints -> paper -> brushes), a handy little built in water bottle and water cup, a sponge, and a foldable brush that is mediocre but usuable in a pinch (you’ll probably lose it shortly after buying the box, but that’s ok). The box officially holds 12 half pans, but in reality you can squeeze 14 half pans in with no effort. If you are getting into Urban Sketching this is an excellent set to have, a nifty little workhorse that will last you easily for a few years. For a very compact size you get a surprisingly large set of mixing areas, and while I’d only use the included water bottle as a backup because it holds very little water, it’s good to have around.

The pros of this kit are many: it’s small, light, well designed, cheap, easy to use, and holds a lot for such a small, pocketable package. The cons are why after three Field Boxes I finally switched over to my current setup: the boxes deteriorate and fall apart after 2-3 years of use at most, they are difficult to clean, and it’s difficult to switch out paints if you’re experimenting with your palette.

The build quality in particular has taken a hit in recent years, to the point where I cannibalise old Field Boxes for parts for the new ones. However, even the old boxes didn’t last for more than 3-4 years, because the plastic would deteriorate and the attached mixing flats would drop off, leaving you with very few mixing space in the end.

Enter my current setup, one that I’ve been using for a few years now: the Schmincke 12 half pan metal paint box, filled with 24 half pans.

The box after being freshly filled.

There are many pocket sized enamelled paint boxes, but after trying several generic ones, I found that Schmincke’s box is worth the extra money. Generic boxes didn’t have such a good mixing area configuration, and they tended to rust off on me. The Schmincke box can take a hell of a beating without the enamel flaking off, and when working with watercolours, as soon as there’s a chip in the enamel, rust will take hold of your box.

The box comes with an insert meant to allow for two rows of six half pans and a compact, foldable brush in the middle. I take that insert out and toss it. That leaves me the whole box for a whopping 24 half pans, or a mix of half pans and full pans. Here I my usual setup, which is about 60% Schmincke and 40% Daniel Smith watercolours. Some of them are paint filled half pans that I purchased, and most of them are half pans that I filled with paint myself. Buying tubes and filling your own pans is cheaper in the long run, particularly for paints that you use often.

Filling your own half pans with paint is very easy, and also exposes interesting properties of the paints that you use. For instance, Van Dyke Brown takes ages to cure, while all my yellow paints cure super fast. I’ll also note that Daniel Smith watercolours loose A LOT of volume after drying up, shrinking at times to almost 50% of their original volume. It always takes 2-3 passes to fill a Daniel Smith half-pan, and with Schmincke one pass is enough. So you can see the ugly crack in my Hansa Yellow Medium, where the paint shrunk to half its size and I filled the other half of the pan again.

On the other hand, Schmincke’s half pan packaging is infuriating. The pans come wrapped in wax paper which often sticks to the paint as you unwrap it (imagine peeling off a sticker and having bits of sticker left behind). You can see this on the Lemon Yellow on the bottom left and on the Cobalt Blue Deep on the second to last row, on the right. After much of a struggle I got the residue off the Cobalt Blue, but I left it to scrape off later from the Lemon Yellow. It is a hassle to remove these bits of leftover paper, and they ruin the paint.

Closeup on the paints in the set.

As there’s a bit of a gap left that allows the pans to travel freely in the box, I cut a bit of foam and put it in the box, creating a friction fit for all the pans. Removing a pan and switching it over is a breeze this way – you can always lift out the foam and then easily remove the paint pan.

Foam at work

The box has two large mixing areas, one divided into three large wells which I use to mix often use colours or paint for large areas. The second area is divided into six small wells (you can see this all in the first photo of the set) which are good for small mixes. As it’s enamelled metal it’s very easy to clean, and the set is much more robust than the W&N Field Box.

If you like to experiment with your palette (I always have 2-3 paints that I switch out every 3-4 months), and you are looking for an ultra durable compact field set, I highly recommend investing in the Schmincke 12 half-pan box and filling it with whichever paints you choose. Pre-made watercolour sets are always terrible (they include at least 1-2 colours that you will never ever use), and building a set that fits your needs is a crucial step in making your watercolour painting more streamlined and enjoyable.

What watercolour box do you use? Let me know in the comments, as I love hearing from other sketchers about their tool choices.

5 thoughts on “Building Back My Paint Box

  1. miatagrrl

    This is timely… I’m thinking about putting together a new watercolor box for urban sketching. I’ve been away from watercolors for a long time (because I’ve been really happy with colored pencils), but just lately a class I took inspired me to think about wc again. I was given one of these Schmincke boxes a long time ago, already filled with the previous owner’s barely used paints. It would be easy enough to get some empty half pans and fill them with my own colors. I’m not sure I could stand to daily-carry a metal box, though. Seems like plastic would be much lighter (though I see your point about durability). Thank you for the nice pics and giving me something to consider.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. writingatlarge

      I used a plastic box for years because I was worried about the weight, but really my sketchbooks are usually the heaviest part of my kit, and the Schmincke case weighs nothing (especially with the metal insert taken out). I’d give it a try if I were you, especially as you’ll likely want to switch paints in an out while you’re building out your palette.


  2. Pingback: My Current Palette – Writing at Large

  3. DrPenfection

    I have two different kits I use, depending upon where I am going. I have the Schminke 36 pan set which I absolutely love. I use that frequently when I am by myself. But many times, I paint with my mom. She has worsening Alzheimers. She is an artist and has always preferred oil and acrylic. But with her condition now, watercolors are much easier for her. Last year I purchased a couple of Sakura Koi 12 pan watercolor boxes. They were inexpensive and the paints are pretty good. I gave one to my mom and I have one. I also bought each of us a watercolor journal and a set of travel paint brushes (the ones with lids), and a small little carrying case for the kit. She loves it, and when we are together, we take our kits and sit outside and sketch and paint.

    Liked by 1 person

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