Have you ever found an old set of watercolor paints that you had forgotten about? It’s like finding hidden treasure, but the question is–are they still good?
Does watercolor paint expire? According to manufacturers, tubes of watercolor will last for 5 years. Pan watercolors should be good for at least 10 years. This varies depending upon the storage conditions. Moldy watercolors are usually discarded. It may be possible to salvage tubes that are dry or separating.
Small tubes of watercolor paint can go a long way. So even if you paint regularly, some of your less used colors may be a couple of years old. This is fairly common and they’re probably still good to use.
But what about really old watercolor tubes and pans?
I recently found some tubes of watercolors that are almost 10 years old and they’re still good. That’s twice as long as what these manufacturers claim, so these numbers are rough estimates.
In fact, most manufacturers I found online don’t make any claims about how long watercolor paint will last. The only information I found was from Schminke and Old Holland.
Schminke says their tube watercolors will last 5 years. They also state that the shelf life of pan watercolors is nearly unlimited.
Old Holland mentions that their pan watercolor will still be good after 10 years. They even imply they will last so long you can pass them on to your kids.
So, since there’s no exact expiration date for watercolor paints, how do you know if they’re still good?
Good question! The rest of the post explains this in detail.
This post contains affiliate links to Amazon and Blick Art Materials. This means that if you click on a link (photo or text link) that leads to these sites and make a purchase, I earn a commission at no cost to you.
Table of Contents
Do Watercolor Pans Expire?
Pan watercolors rarely expire or go bad because they’re stored in a dry state which means not too much can go wrong with them. As long as you allow them to dry out before you close the lid, they should last for many years.
In case you’re wondering, pan watercolors are small plastic pans that contain dry watercolor paint. You can moisten the paint with a wet brush, or mist the colors with a small spray bottle.
Daniel Smith Watercolor Half Pans and Sets
Pan watercolors are very convenient which makes them great for painting outdoors. The inside of the lid doubles as a palette. You don’t have to waste time squeezing out paints or worry about transporting a palette of wet paint when you’re done.
Another benefit of watercolor pans is they can’t separate, that only happens to tubes of fresh paint.
Again, if you have really old watercolor pans and the paint smells musty or doesn’t dissolve properly, you’re probably better off replacing them.
Do Tubes of Watercolor Paints Expire?
Since pan watercolor paints can last a very long time, most of this article addresses the issues you may have with tube watercolor paints.
Even if you have problems with your tubes of watercolors, you may be able to salvage them as I explain below.
Below are the most common problems that you may have with your old tubes of watercolor paint.
Are Dry Tubes of Watercolor Paint Still Good to Use?
Art supply stores will consider dry tubes of watercolor as expired. However, you can carefully slice the tube open and transfer the dry paint to a well of a watercolor palette. If the paint performs normally, you can use it like a pan of watercolor.
The number one way that tubes of watercolor paint goes bad is that it dries in the tube.
All tubes of watercolor paint will eventually dry out. This is true even if you never open them. The moisture escapes from the tube somehow, and the paint becomes hard as a rock.
However, as a frugal artist, you may be able to salvage your dry tubes of watercolor paint.
This is something you can’t do with oils or acrylics. Once they dry in the tube, they’re no longer usable.
How to Salvage Dry Tubes of Watercolor Paint
Obviously, you won’t ever be able to squeeze out the dry paint like you would with a fresh tube. The only solution is to slice into the metal tube and try to peel it away.
I don’t recommend doing this because it’s too easy to cut yourself either on the tube or with the blade.
But, if you decide to try and save them anyway, you will need something sharp to cut the tube open. It may help to use a pair of needle nose pliers to peel the tube material away instead of using your fingers.
It’s also a good idea to wear gloves because watercolor paint is highly concentrated and can stain your hands.
Once you successfully remove the dry paint from the tube you can store it in a well of a watercolor palette. Then you can use it in the same way you use pan watercolors by adding water to it to soften it.
You can activate the dry paint by adding a few drops of water from your brush, or mist it with water from a small spray bottle. Use your brush to scrub the paint a little to pick up some of the color.
Try the paint out on a piece of scrap paper and see how well it works.
Sometimes you can improve how well it dissolves and flows by adding a drop of glycerin to the pan of old watercolor. A drop or two of gum Arabic may help too.
If it works like regular watercolor, then you should be able to use it. If it doesn’t dissolve very well then you should replace it with a fresh tube.
Watercolor is difficult enough without having to deal with subpar paint.
How Do You Prevent Watercolor Paint From Drying in the Tube?
Make sure the threads on the tubes are clean so you can tighten the cap properly. Protect the paint from extreme temperatures, and purchase smaller tubes that you can use up within a few years.
Watercolor paints dry as the water evaporates. So if you’re not going to be using your paints for a while, you want to make sure you tighten the caps properly.
Some artists swear by storing their paints in airtight jars which may help the moisture from escaping from the tubes. However, you have to take your local climate into consideration.
For instance, I wouldn’t store tubes of watercolor in an airtight jar in a humid location because it may encourage mold growth. On the other hand, it may help to preserve your paints if you live in an arid location.
I keep my watercolor paints on my desk when I’m using them. When not in use, I keep them in a box without a lid. But I usually use them up before they have a chance to go bad.
Buy Smaller Tubes
Another way to make sure your paints don’t dry out too soon is to buy tubes of watercolor in smaller sizes.
The idea is to use them up before they have a chance to dry up on you.
Watercolor paint is highly pigmented so a small tube will go a long way. In my post about why watercolor paints are so expensive, I compare how much surface area you can cover with an equal amount of acrylic and watercolor paint.
The same size blob of watercolor paint can cover a much larger area than the acrylic paint.
So, don’t be fooled by the small tubes of watercolor paint, they will last for many paintings. You don’t need to buy extra large tubes unless you frequently paint on a large scale.
Is Moldy Watercolor Paint Bad?
If your watercolor paint has mold in it or it smells bad, then it’s best to replace it. This is especially true if you’re allergic to mold.
It can be very discouraging to find mold growing in your watercolor palette. Watercolor paint is expensive so it can be disheartening to throw it away.
So can you salvage moldy watercolor paint? There seems to be two schools of thought on this.
The first approach is to discard the moldy paint and start over with fresh paint. Occasionally, you may only have trouble with one color in your palette and so you can try replacing only the moldy color.
The second approach is to scrape off the moldy portion of the paint and to use the remaining paint. Some artists try to use alcohol or other disinfectants to kill any remaining mold in the leftover paint.
A concern that I have about the second approach is that if the paint still has mold spores in it, then you would be transferring the mold spores to your paper and the painting may develop mold.
The best long term solution is to do your best to prevent mold growth in the first place.
How to Prevent Mold From Growing in Your Watercolor Palette
Mold growth in watercolor paints is discouraging and expensive. It also takes time away from an otherwise enjoyable hobby. Below are some tips for preventing mold from growing in your paints so you can spend more time painting.
Don’t Cover Your Wet Paints
It seems as though most of the mold growth problems happen with fresh watercolor paint that’s squeezed out into palettes with covers.
Some artists prefer using fresh watercolor paint from a tube and they use an airtight palette to keep the paint wet for days or even weeks.
The problem is the wet paint increases the humidity levels within the covered palette and that encourages mold growth.
The only sure way to avoid mold is to only squeeze out the colors you think you need for one painting session. The paint won’t have a chance to become moldy because you’ll use it up immediately.
Of course, this approach may take some getting used to. It’s also not very convenient for working outdoors or traveling.
For convenience when traveling, I recommend using premade watercolor pans as I mention later in the article.
Don’t Use Watercolor Paints That Contain Honey
Honey is a natural humectant, which is a substance that absorbs moisture from the air. Some brands of watercolor paint contain honey which helps the paint to stay moist in the palette.
For most artists, the honey may be a benefit because it helps it to stay moist.
However, it may be a problem in humid climates because the paint may stay wet long enough to encourage mold growth.
If you have mold problems then try out a few tubes of watercolor that don’t contain honey and see if that helps.
Use Premade Pans of Watercolor Instead of Making Your Own
It’s common practice to make your own watercolor pans by squeezing out your favorite brand of watercolor paint into a plastic pan or watercolor palette.
This practice works most of the time, but if you’re consistently encountering mold problems then you may want to try buying premade pans of watercolor paint.
Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor Half Pans and Sets
from: Blick Art Materials
Pans that you buy from the art supply store are often different from the ones you can make yourself.
I have a kit of Cotman pan watercolors for sketching in my pocket sketchbook. The pans are rock hard compared to the pans I made by squeezing tube watercolor into the wells of a palette.
The Cotman watercolors are the student watercolor paints from Winsor & Newton. They’re affordable and convenient. More importantly, they’re lightfast so they won’t fade.
They work well for making quick sketches in my pocket sketchbook. When I’m done with them I just wipe off the mixing area and try to soak up any excess water in the wells.
If you’re painting outdoors you can let the palette sit in the sun with the cover open to help dry out the paints. Allowing the paints to dry in the shade will also help the paints to dry somewhat before you close the lid.
Be careful not to add too much water to the pans as you’re painting so they don’t become too wet.
Pentel Aquash Water Brush
from: Blick Art Materials
I often use a water brush for painting on location for convenience. I seem to get less water into the pans when I use them. Try them out and maybe they’ll help you to keep your pans drier too.
Store Your Palette in a Low Humidity Environment
It’s a good idea to allow it dry with the lid open. This helps to reduce the possibility of mold growing in your palette,
At home, it’s best to store the palette in a low humidity environment. If there’s a part of your house that’s air conditioned, these areas usually have the lowest humidity levels.
A dehumidifier will also reduce the humidity levels of a single room, which may be more affordable than air conditioning an entire house.
If none of these options are possible, at least try to store the palette in a location that has some air circulation and sunlight. Avoid storing your watercolor palette in dark and damp locations.
One idea that I haven’t been able to test out is to store your paints in an airtight container with those desiccant packets that absorb moisture.
I’m not sure how effective it is but it may be something to experiment with to see if it helps.
Why Does My Watercolor Paint Smell Bad?
Most of the brands of watercolor paint that I’ve tried have little or no smell at all. It’s possible that bacteria or mold is growing inside of the tube or some of the ingredients in the paint have gone bad. If it’s mold that’s causing the smell then you should discard the paint.
If the paint has taken on a bad smell, it could also be that some of the ingredients have gone bad.
It’s possible for mold or bacteria to grow in an old tube of paint. In my experience, I have this happen more so with old tubes of acrylics than watercolor paint. However, it is possible for it to happen with watercolor paints too.
In either case, I suggest discarding the foul smelling paint with a fresh tube.
Even if you’re not allergic to mold, painting with stinky paints is going to be an unpleasant experience.
As for pan watercolors, as long as you allow them to dry out before closing the lid, they are unlikely to grow mold or smell bad.
Can You Use Watercolor Paint That Has Separated?
If you have older tubes of watercolor paint you may notice that when you squeeze out some of the paint, there’s some clear fluid that comes out first.
What’s happening is the paint is separating into the components it’s made from. The clear fluid is mostly the binder, which in most cases in gum Arabic.
As long as the paint doesn’t smell bad, it’s probably still good to use it.
Most of the time you can still use watercolor paint that has separated. The best way to handle this is to squeeze out all of the paint onto a palette and then mix it together with a palette knife.
This will incorporate the binder throughout the entire volume of paint. If you just discard it then you’re removing some of the ingredients from the paint.
You can let it dry out in a watercolor pan and then use it like pan watercolors. The paint won’t separate once it dries.
Pan watercolors are great if you need a paint that doesn’t require a lot of care. You don’t have to worry about tubes drying out, or having the paint separate. They can last a very long time as long as you store them properly.
Obviously, pan watercolors are best if you don’t paint regularly.
Tube watercolors are easier to dilute with water and pick up with a brush because they’re already in a gooey state. But the downside is they’re more likely to go moldy, separate, or dry out in a tube.
The good news is you can avoid most of these problems by painting more frequently!