Partial review of Prang watercolor 16-pan set, for Jill

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking, and have decided that it is at least OK to post preparatory sketches, here.  I know that Jill had been asking about getting set up with watercolors, though I think that has happened already, to a large extent.

When asked, though, I immediately thought of the Prang semi-moist pan paints as the only pans I’ve used worth noting.  They’re inexpensive (kind of stupid inexpensive), considered scholastic grade, non-toxic (to the best of my knowledge), but high enough quality that I think some professionals use them just to play around with (as I don’t know any data on permanence or lightfastness).

I haven’t tried mixing them, yet — and I know for a fact that their red is dull, in comparison to the rest of the colors (and even in comparison to Cotman pan reds).  I’m not sure how much Photoshop is altering these, either:  all of these photos were taken with poor lighting which was compensated for with Auto Levels.  I do still have the paintings, though.  If you’d rather see an unaltered image, I can try for that.

However, I thought I might post something that I sketched out at the UC Berkeley Arboretum, last semester.

arboretum sketches 003 cc auto levels thumb
No, I don’t remember the exact location of this sketch.

This was done with the set of Prangs I got from Michael’s, because I was that desperate.  😉  Michael’s is actually more expensive than Blick for many art supplies, most of the time (unless you have a coupon, and even then, Blick is often cheaper).  This was made with the Oval 16-color set.

You can see that I didn’t mix colors, here, except where the colors changed as I worked wet-into-wet.  I was kind of irritated at myself afterwards for working so quickly that my colors ran, but now I look at this and go, “Huh.  That’s interesting.”

I was using three tools, here:  one was a graphite pencil which didn’t make an underdrawing strong enough for me to know what was going on under the color.  (I am not greatly fond of this — I was going quick, loose, and messy [I was trying to break out of being detailed and tight], so a lot of what I was trying to get across with the drawings were obliterated, in a number of the sketches I made that day.)

The second tool I was using was, of course, the Prangs.  I’m pretty sure that the above drawing was made with these, and not with the Cotman set I brought on one or another of these trips.  The key is that red-violet:  it’s not a color in the Cotman Pocket (12-pan) set, and I wouldn’t be led to mix that on my own for this composition.  I highly doubt that I was using two different sets of pans at the same time.

As a note, I find it much, much easier now to use a large flat palette with empty, slanted wells which can be filled and refilled, and large mixing areas.  If you would like, I can show you the palette I’m using for Watercolor class (I have all three oranges I’ve tried in there, now).  I don’t have a metal palette for watercolors yet, though I have thought of taking that Cotman Pocket set and dumping out all the colors (they’re loose in the pans), then refilling the pans with my own professional-grade paints.  (The Cotmans — student-grade Winsor & Newton paints — are just…not as much of a joy to use as the professional-grade Winsor & Newton paints.  The latter are stronger and more intense.  The only drawback is toxicity.  I’m sure I’ll branch out further to other brands, eventually.)

arboretum sketches 013 cc levels thumb
A thumbnail made with Neocolor II crayons.

I had been using a Neocolor II 10-crayon set at a different time, but was not entirely fond of the granular effect I was getting (see right):  the Neocolors take a bit of scrubbing to fully liquefy, when they’re applied thickly and over rough watercolor paper.  The Prangs are much smoother and more luminous, even though they’re less convenient.

An image of the full-page (well, nearly-full-page) painting I made of the same view, with the Prangs, is below; I believe that this might have been the second trip I had taken out there.

Larger version of the above thumbnail, made in Prang watercolors.

Because of that fact, I’m pretty sure that the graphite here is at least one Cretacolor Monolith Woodless Graphite stick  (they come in different hardnesses between HB and 9B) — and probably a softer lead than HB; not a wood-cased pencil.  The only drawback to these, besides the fact that they can break if you drop them and need to be protected in transport (I have a set in a metal tin which works well), is the rather frequent tiny hard bit that gets embedded into the lead, and can scratch or indent your page.  (I just live with it, though; they’re still much bolder and more expressive than regular graphite pencils; and as I’m aiming to use liquid media, the indentation isn’t as big a deal as it would be with, say, colored pencils.)  I remember what I used in the last image was probably a Monolith, as I had noted that I could actually see what was represented even after painting — and even after photographing! — and had attributed the fact to that.

The third tool I used with both the Neocolors and the Prangs (I had to go here twice, each semester I took this course) was a waterbrush.  This is a brush which can be pre-loaded with water, which then dispenses when the handle is squeezed.  Although this leads to a frequent need to wipe the tip off on something (like a rag or paper towel or sponge — I have the bad habit of just wiping it off on the white space of my paper), it does make things a lot more convenient when sketching in the field.  A tiny cup (like a sake cup:  so that you don’t have a chance of contaminating the water you may be drinking) and bottle of water, is handy to reload this, too.

From what I can see, it seems like the type of waterbrush one uses depends on what store is stocking what, in which area.  A lot of people I follow on WordPress use Pentel waterbrushes.  The one I used was a Niji waterbrush, which at least looks like what is in use by students in the seventh photo in this post at  (I haven’t asked, though:  they may just look the same.)  I’m pretty sure I was using a Medium (or Large) nib.

It’s fairly clean; I haven’t had a problem with water leaking out of it, yet, and it can be stored in an organizer pocket meant for a pen or pencil.  If it’s upright, that’s added insurance against it leaking, unless it’s overfilled and gets squashed.  I just wish they would have put a real clip on the cap so that it won’t fly out of a pocket.  It also kind of takes forever for those last droplets of water to evaporate from the inside of the handle; maybe not an issue if you’re using it a lot.

The waterbrush eliminates the need to carry around a pot of water with your paints.  It’s extremely useful that way, and can probably eliminate the problem of dumping out chemical-laden water into delicate ecosystems.  Even if it’s not toxic to us, it may be toxic to something else.  The botanical garden I went to has either newts, and/or salamanders (I can’t tell from the way they look, what they are; I never took a macrobiology course)…hearsay is that newts don’t live well with environmental toxins.

Ah, now.  Now that I’ve written all of that, I feel a bit better!  I should note that I’m not getting any compensation from any of the companies I’ve mentioned, so this isn’t meant to be an advertisement for them (although I guess I would consider it a review).  I just think the Prangs are great to start out with — when I was a kid, I used up a bunch of these paints.  They’re nice for adults, too, especially for quick sketching, with two caveats:

First, I’m not sure how they would work with heavy color mixing (as I know that different pigments have different mixing properties, and I don’t know what pigments [or dyes] are in these).  The second caveat is that I don’t know how resistant to fading or shifting any of these colors are, as — again, I don’t know what pigments (or dyes) are in these.  I know that they’re meant for use by schoolchildren (who are old enough not to eat them), but have a smoothness, luminescence, ease of wetting, and — generally (not counting Red) — intensity of pigment which, compared with the apparently super-low price point, is satisfying enough for me to recommend them.


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Haru ("Codey") is a third-year Master's student in Library and Information Science, hoping to find a way to fuse their desire to make the world a better place and to finance their art.

5 thoughts on “Partial review of Prang watercolor 16-pan set, for Jill”

  1. Hi! The waterbrush is a Kuretake brand which I like over the Sakura brand and plus it has different sizes to choose from. I also bought another set of 3 Caran d’Ache waterbrush while in Taipei last year. Love using both of these waterbrushes. I am tempted to try the Pentel but have been hesitant since I’ve been happy with the ones I have in hand.

    1. Hello!

      Thank you for your review of the other waterbrushes! I have only used the Niji so far — these also come in different sizes and shapes (round and flat), but it is nice to have options!

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