Exploratorius Redux

Atelier Aquarell & Fotografie

Watercolor Field Kits


My first watercolor field kit
Central Maryland — April 2018
Sony RX100 V + Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 24-70/1.8-2.8

As I mentioned in my last watercolor post here, I was able to finally save up enough coin to buy a Winsor & Newton Professional Water Colour Field Box (see image above).  This photo is of my first Winsor and Newton field kit (we have three of them now, including one for Cindy to use), and it still holds a special place for me, as I dragged that little box of watercolors hither and yon all over the country.

At the time, even though I was a professional photographer at work (read all about that here), I was so poor that I couldn’t afford to own a decent camera myself — nor could I afford to have any photos be printed that I may have shot during that austere period.  For example, the cost of getting a set of 35mm prints developed depended upon a lot of variables, such as follows:

  • Number of exposures per roll of film (12, 24, or 36)
  • Type of film (print, slide, or black and white)
  • Film speed (25, 32, 50, 64, 80, 100, 125, 160, 200, 320, 400, 800, 1000, 1250, 1600, or 3200)
  • Type of developing (C-41, E-6, or a multitude of black and white developers)
  • Type of job (standard (one week), 200% rush (same day), or 300% rush (one hour))
  • Type of printing (glossy, semi-glossy, or matte)
  • How many prints of each image (one set of prints was standard, but you could order doubles or triples for more money)

So the total cost for buying and developing a single roll of color 36-exposure 35mm film could set you back between $12-to-$20 or more — which was money I simply didn’t have at that time in my life.  Here’s a fun fact; I used to shoot as much as 540 rolls of 35mm duplicating slide film per DAY where I worked (remember, I was using a giant animation stand camera that was designed for volume production), so I was very much aware of the costs involved with E-6 film processing during that period.

For me — compared to the costs of 35mm film photography, at least — watercolor painting was far more affordable.  Granted, the up front costs were — and still are — pretty steep, but once you have all the gear and consumable elements (paper, paint, and brushes) in place, you can literally go for years before having to buy replacements again.

So — even though the Winsor and Newton Professional Water Colour Field Box was quite expensive at $105 in 1988 (or $197 with inflation today) — it was still less expensive than the cost of developing 5 rolls of 35mm prints.  A bargain, in fact!

As an aside, I feel compelled to make a note of the present day costs of art materials.

My first tubes of professional watercolors

As I mentioned in this post, my first 15 ml tube of Winsor and Newton Lamp Black watercolor paint that I had purchased from Cheap Joe’s three decades ago cost just $4.99 (it still had the original 1988 price sticker on it).  Extrapolate that $4.99 price — with inflation — to present day, and the cost should be $9.35.

However, I just checked Cheap Joe’s website and the list price for a 14 ml tube of the same paint (one milliliter less now than what they used to be) is currently $19.59.  Cheap Joe’s normal discount price for that tube of Lamp Black is $11.75, but they’re currently offering the super-low pricing of $9.80 for their annual spring sale — so the current super-duper sale price (adjusted for inflation) is roughly $0.25 cents more than I paid for it three decades ago.  That super-duper pricing actually isn’t bad, especially for artist-grade paint.

However, that special pricing isn’t available every day and an extensive search of their competitors online (Amazon, Dick Blick, FineArtStore.com, WetPaintArt.com, etc.) reveals that $9.80 for a new tube of W&N Lamp Black just can’t be beat — everyone else either offers it for the same price or more right now.


What would you say if you could get the price down to around $2.00-to-$5.00 per 14 ml tube?  Well, you can!  How?  By purchasing tubes of watercolor paints in bulk lots via eBay.  Depending on the offering — auction or purchase — Winsor and Newton professional watercolor tubes are among the cheapest artist-grade paints being offered on the giant auction site.  Sure, you also get additional paints you may not want, but you can turn right around and resell those that you don’t like.  It’s a win-win all the way around.

Can the same cost savings be applied to other artist materials?  Maybe.  You have to really do your homework and perform some extensive cost analysis before pulling the trigger, but in general — at least for paints — eBay is extremely hard to beat.  What about paper?  Paper is a lot tougher to beat price-wise on eBay, simply because of the shipping costs involved with it (paper is heavy and shipping costs are non-negotiable with the USPS, FedEx, and UPS).  The best route for any artist materials being purchased on eBay is with bulk or “lot” pricing, just be mindful of what shipping will add to the total cost.

Right then… back to the subject at hand!

W&N field kit with a quarter for scale

The W&N field kit was — and still is — relatively expensive; I think with inflation that it was a lot pricier for me back in 1988 than it is for buyers today, as I can find it available for $89.63 on Amazon at present; accounting for inflation, that’s less than half the cost I paid for mine!  Considering that it should be selling for nearly $200 today, that’s an amazing price.  Of course, Winsor and Newton has moved most of their production of art materials to China now, so this kit may be included in that effort to help keep the price competitive.  Who knows?

Either way, the field kit itself is a real joy to work with, even if the paints eventually will be replaced with others.  Why is it a joy?  Because it’s a complete turn-key painting solution in a small package, just add a sheet of watercolor paper and some water, and you’re ready to go!  The W&N field kit includes the following:

  • One small and lightweight paint box that is constructed from super-tough plastic; the entire package is quite compact (not much bigger than a pack of cigarettes)
  • 12 artist-grade watercolors in replaceable half-pans:
    • Winsor Lemon — a cool transparent yellow
    • Winsor Yellow — a warm semi-transparent yellow
  • The field kit paints

    • Winsor Red — a warm transparent red
    • Permanent Alizarin Crimson — a cool transparent red
    • Winsor Blue (Green Shade) — a cool transparent blue
    • French Ultramarine — a warm transparent blue
    • Winsor Green (Yellow Shade) — a warm “convenience” green
    • Yellow Ochre — a semi-opaque yellow earth tone
    • Burnt Sienna — a transparent red-brown earth tone
    • Raw Umber — a transparent yellow-brown earth tone
    • Ivory Black — a neutral flat black
    • Titanium White — a neutral opaque white
  • One 35 ml plastic water bottle
  • Three fold-out mixing surfaces, including the one on the water bottle
  • One small natural sponge
  • One small travel paint brush
  • One plastic water cup, that is also used as storage for the sponge and as the cap for the box

That’s a big bang for the buck, and one that was state-of-the-art back in the 1980s!

However, as with nearly all products — this field kit was not perfect.  Here are some observations to share from comments I’ve heard over the years:

Half-pan of paint with a dime for scale

  • The half-pans are extremely TINY, with some people claiming they are as small as a PENNY.  Yep!  Actually, they’re even smaller, and are closer to a dime in size.  For some buyers, this is a show-stopper, as they expect more value (as in, more paint) for their money.  And if they haven’t been exposed to the high cost of artist-grade paints before, I can totally understand this rationale, as I thought the same thing myself when I first opened the package.  BUT!!!  Looks are deceiving and these paints will easily last for many months of field use.
  • They’re CHEAP ; the paints RATTLE in the field box, and FALL OUT EASILY when they are brand-new.  Yep, there’s simply no getting around that reaction, especially when paying a lot of money for something small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.  As an experienced painter, I still get irritated by this; why can’t the manufacturer come up with a way to fix the issue?  After all, when the paint rattles and falls out of the pan, it always gives the impression of terrible quality control.  The fix?  Just wet the half-pan with a couple of drops of water, place the paint back in the half-pan, and let it dry overnight.  Annnd… voilà!  Problem solved.

Half-pan with extruded paint

  • This “artist-grade” paint is JUNK; when it pops out of the half-pan, it actually looks worse than the craft-grade paints that come with Prang water color sets.  Also, some of the paints may arrive in the box already broken from being jarred or shocked during shipping.  Yep!  This is all fairly typical with extruded watercolor paint.  Unfortunately, most watercolor paint in whole-pans and half-pans looks like this, as the majority of manufacturers use a different formula for their pan paints than they do for their tube paints.  Just as with the issue of the paint falling out of the pan, a little water will actually make the dry cubes swell and fill the pans, so that’s not a real issue.  As for the dry cubes of paint that arrive broken from rough handling during shipment, so long as they haven’t been reduced to dust and/or mixed with the other colors, they are still good to use; just gather the little bits, put them in the pan, add a tiny amount of water, and let it dry overnight.  Just like above… problem solved.
  • I see other watercolor field kits that don’t have the dry blocks of paint — I want THAT!  Okay, that’s easy.  Either, A) buy pan paints from Schmincke (and a few other smaller brands) that pour their tube paints into the pans and let them dry over many months (at a much higher cost to you), or B) buy whatever tube paints you want and refill the pans as you need them.  For long-term use, I always go with option B, as it’s the easiest and most cost effective way to get the colors I want into pans for field use.

The different brushes over the decades

  • What is this — the paint brush is almost UNUSABLE!  Yep, it’s a small brush alright.  Tiny, in fact.  The above image is of three different brushes that came with three different W&N field kits, from three different periods of time.  The top brush came from the “student-grade” Cotman version of the field kit dating back to the mid-1990s; it’s made from ill-fitting aluminum, feels like cheap junk and acts like it, and has no markings whatsoever.  The middle brush was from my original field kit and dates back to 1988; it too is made from aluminum (though it has a much tighter fit and finish), feels like a quality brush and acts like it, and has W&N text stamped into the handle.  The bottom brush was from my newer “professional” field kit (not the student-grade Cotman version) and dates back to the late-1990s; it appears to be made from some sort of chrome-plated tubing (it’s a different color and shinier), and — like the middle example — feels like a quality brush and acts like one, with W&N text printed on the handle.  I do seem to recall that the brushes that came with the “professional” versions of the field kits were once claimed to be special Winsor and Newton Series 7 travel brushes.  I don’t know if that’s accurate or not, but I remember that if the claim were true, then it helped to justify the higher cost of the “professional” field kits.  Either way, if you want a bigger brush, you’ll need to bring your own, as these are only really suitable for painting fine details and not broad washes or glazes.

The points on all the different brushes

  • Also, look at the very tips of the brushes above.  The middle one I permanently damaged by leaving it in the water cup while eating a leisurely picnic lunch; by the time I pulled it out of the rinse water, the tip was forever curled.  Don’t be like me — take care of your brushes!

All three of the field kits we own

  • Here are the three W&N watercolor field kits we own; the blue one on the left and the lighter gray one in the middle are the “professional” versions (ones I use), while the darker gray one on the right is the student-grade Cotman version (we bought this one for Cindy, as the pro version didn’t seem to be available at the time).  I never understood why Winsor and Newton chose to make a Cotman version, as the field kit was a premium product when it first came out and by doing so they diluted their own product line (a huge no-no in modern-day product marketing).  Also, why use a light gray color of plastic?  As you can see from the middle field kit, the light gray color stains easily and doesn’t look presentable within a short time (the dirty area at the upper right of the middle field kit is partially melted from the use of bug repellent!); the dark blue plastic of the later “pro” version hides scuffs and stains much more successfully — even after decades of use.  However, whatever the plastic material may be that was used for all of them, it’s tough; all three of these have been banged around and seen rough handling over the years, and all three continue to perform flawlessly.

All three field kits open for use

  • Gaaah — I can’t STAND just having 12 colors available, I need MORE!  To be fair, this is a field kit, rather than a studio palette — so it does have a minimal number of paints available, simply due to the lack of space.  That said, the colors that have been selected for it (see above) are very good and have been generally the same included in the “professional” version of the kits for the past three decades, with the only change being the switch from the fugitive Alizarin Crimson to the very lightfast Permanent Alizarin Crimson (a completely different pigment that looks very similar).  With the paint selection that it ships with, you get a set of warm primary colors, a set of cool primary colors, a decent “convenience” green (greens are normally an easy mix of yellow and blue), three good earth tones, a white and a black.  The white and black colors are always going to be “hot-button” issues, as some painters swear they should never be used and others require them.  Me?  I don’t really care; if I have a specific need, I’ll use them — but otherwise I won’t waste any time on the subject.  Live and let live.
  • However, if you truly need more colors… there is way to squeeze four more in there, so you can have a total of 16.  It’s called hacking, and it’s a trick I use on almost every artist tool in my inventory, so that they do what I want them to do.  To hack each of the W&N field kits that we own, I removed all the pans of paint, lifted the central paint pan holder, and carefully used an X-ACTO blade to cut it out and smooth down the surface that it left behind.  By doing this, you can twist the middle-row of half-pans 90-degrees and increase the number in the row by two (for a total of 6), and you can add one more half-pan each to the left and right sides (bringing the total to 5 on each side).  This results in a super-tight fit that will cause the paint pans to buckle upward; however, since the fit is so tight and the excess to be removed is so slight to get a perfect fit, I hacked the half-pans as well — by sanding each of the edges of the pans just enough for the buckling to disappear.  Annnd… voilà — perfect!  The pans won’t even rattle or fall out because they’re held in place by the tight friction fit.  Oh, and I ditch the white and black paints, so I can add two other different colors of my choosing.

After the hack — 16 different colors will fit

  • Are there OTHER hacks?  Yep!  Some people ditch the water bottle and paint brush, so they can add up to five of their own brushes, a drawing pencil, a cleaning rag, and a pencil sharpener.  I haven’t done that up to this point, but may do so in the future.

Are there OTHER field kits that allow for even MORE colors?  Yep!  Below are just a small sampling of other solutions that are out there.  From the top left and going clockwise:

  • Portable Painter — This palette folds down to almost the same size as the W&N field kit, but offers larger and more mixing spaces, an additional water cup, and space for a decent paint brush or two.  With the two water cups attached to the field kit, it can either be self-standing, or it fits over a leg while seated.  The only real downside that I can see is that the number of paint colors — 12 — is fixed and cannot be easily hacked, due to how the palette is constructed.  You can buy the Portable Painter on Amazon here.
  • Schmincke — This palette is intended for 18 different colors, but can easily accommodate — without any hacks or alterations — a total of 21 different colors.  If that isn’t enough, then the removable tray in the middle can be pulled out and at least one more row of half-pans can be added, to bring the total up to at least 28 different colors.  You can buy the Schmincke “holiday” palette — with 12 half-pans of paint already included — on Amazon here.
  • Winsor and Newton — Already discussed how to upgrade from 12-to-16 half-pans in exhaustive detail; see above.  You can buy the W&N Field Box on Amazon here.
  • Schmincke — This is another palette of a slightly different rectangular size, but showing what the interior looks like with the removable tray pulled out.  You can buy a variety of different empty Schmincke watercolor palettes on Amazon here.
  • The Pocket Palette — This is currently the tiniest full-bore micro watercolor field kit on the market, and can be configured with three different size pans to hold just a few paints (with large mixing pans) all the way up to 28 different colors, like I have configured in the photo.  You can buy the The Pocket Palette direct from Expeditionary Art here.

Size comparisons of several popular field kits, with a quarter for scale

Which palette is my current favorite?  Because I need the lightest kit I can possibly muster, The Pocket Palette currently gets the nod for now; however, time will tell if it’s a good match for me.  If not, I may fall back on my old favorite, the W&N field kit — which I may hack with the tiny metal trays from The Pocket Palette just to squeeze a few more colors in there.

My current top three field kits

So that’s my take on watercolor field kits in a nutshell, though I’m certain this will continue to be a work in progress as I encounter more things to include or change over time.

2 thoughts on “Watercolor Field Kits

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