Color Spree

Color Spree
My favorite color is "all of them." What's yours?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Winsor Newton Field Box

Winsor & Newton makes a variety of 8 to 12 color pocket sets to suit any budget. There's the cute little 8 color Cotman Mini that flips open like a cell phone, there is a very inexpensive Cotman 12 color Sketch Box that's got 12 half pans and a good Sceptre pocket brush inside, there's the 14 half pan Compact set in both Cotman and Artist ranges and a beautiful metal box pocket set of 12 Artist's half pans with water bottle included. Out of all this variety of pocket sets, W&N's best for taking anywhere from Renaissance faires to camping trips is the Field Box pictured above.

I first bought a W&N Cotman Field Box in 1978 or 1979 at Flax in San Francisco. It was horribly expensive for a 12 color watercolor set and the same colors were available with a brush in that simple Sketch Kit. I bought it for the water bottle and included brush and water cup. I bought it for the case, plain and simple.

That felt like a dumb decision at the time. $40 more to get one that includes a water bottle and flips open to hold on your hand with a thumb ring? It was a gadget, not a serious artist supply, let alone a necessary one. I felt like an idiot overpaying for a gimmick as I walked out of the store.

Then I went camping with friends and the Cotman Field Box went in my pocket. I did my best to do a watercolor of the lake at the campsite, and got a good watercolor painting of one tree branch and a line vaguely resembling the horizon. I kept at it, but somehow when I would decide what to bring on trips or going to the park or going to medieval events or Renaissance faires... it was my "Renaissance Polaroid" that would wind up in my pocket.

Usually with its water bottle pre-filled and its water cup nicely washed out because I got in the habit of cleaning and refilling it immediately after every use. Sometimes it wound up with me in places I didn't expect to get an opportunity to paint, like trying to do flowers in a friend's garden. It was already in my pocket. It lived in my coat in more climates than I can count.

Eventually a windfall in the summer of 2003 convinced me that I was ready for artist grade watercolors, so I gave my trusty thirty year old Cotman Field Box to a friend and bought this one, the Artist Field Box. I would actually recommend getting the Artist version from the start, but either one is a joy to use.

It's an expensive little gimmick that will trick you into doing more plein air watercolors than you ever expected to. It fits in any pocket or bag, women artists probably keep them in their purse at all times. It's about the size of a pack of tall cigarettes, the 100's length. A little thicker. It fits in a shirt pocket.

And it has the water included, plus the brush. The little metal W&N pocket box doesn't include a brush. The whole thing folds out neatly and has three mixing areas. They do wash perfectly clean, especially if you go over them with a dampened facial tissue after they stain. The included brush is a very small one, a size 0 or 1 round, so you may get used to painting rather small.

I discovered a fondness for doing miniature portraits with it. This set shines for doing miniature portraits or ATCs. You could cut a stack of ATC blanks, put them into a fat top loader or each into a soft sleeve, rubber band the lot to your Field Box and paint on break at work. I did that more times than I can count, because this sometimes wound up in my pants pocket back when I had my typesetting job.

The gimmick actually makes sense.

Because it does include everything you need except the paper, it takes no trouble to prepare for any outing. Just shove it in your pocket or leave it in your pocket and you're good to go. The result is that over time, I got very used to my Cotman Field Box. I owned a lot of other watercolor sets, but that was the one I'd use up and need to refill more often than any other. That was because of its sheer convenience.

The little flat white plastic bottle that forms the third mixing area holds a lot more water than you'd expect. I can fill the water cup from it two or three times or more, depending on how deep I fill it. I like to leave some space to the top so that I can dump it when it's dirty and pour in clean water. The half pans are excellent quality.

Winsor & Newton's Cotman paint was so much better than anything else I used at the time that I didn't realize it was student grade. The set had an unusual palette -- lemon yellow and a warm buttery yellow, orangy red and Alizarin Crimson, Sap Green and Winsor Green, Ultramarine and Winsor (Pthalo) blue, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber and Chinese White. I got used to having white for painting on dark paper, though didn't use up the white as fast as the other colors. I got used to mixing black. That is a good lesson for a student to learn!

Much to my surprise, when I upgraded it to Artist Field Box in 2003, I found out I had to do without my favorite Sap Green but they'd added Ivory Black to the lineup! I guess professional artists do monochrome value sketches with Black and know better than to use it in mixes, but they also replaced the Burnt Umber with Raw Umber, which I didn't like as much. It took me a while to get used to the new palette.

Recently on, I met some other artists who use my favorite field box. I saw it in one of my watercolor books as the author's example of "a handy pocket box." I wasn't the only one who loved the convenience of having water, at least a small brush and a place to put the water along with the mixing areas in a 12 color half pans watercolor set.

My Artist Field Box is still in its original state. A small natural sponge gets included. This is important for doing any washes or big areas. I think most artists who use this kit get used to using the sponge where you'd want a larger mop or bigger brush, or they lose the sponge and rubber band a larger pocket brush to it.

The trick is though, that you can add two more half pans if you move the sponge from its little compartment to keeping it in the empty water cup instead. So as of this Friday, I'm actually modifying my palette. I ordered a half pan of Permanent Rose and another of Quinacridone Gold, noticing Hookers Green is just a mix of Winsor (Pthalo) Green and Quinacridone Gold -- that gets me my warm green again with a simple mix but also gives me the very useful Quinacridone Gold for all the other mixes I love it for. Everyone's favorite palette is different.

If you invest in a Winsor & Newton Field Box, it will last a lifetime. My old gray Cotman one was still in perfect shape after all those years. I replaced the little brush once and replaced the half pans many times. Later on I learned that I can just refill the half pans with tubes, which saves my getting half pans of Artist watercolor except for the first time, when they'll fit in the box.

The palettes in both sets are well chosen, but you can easily purchase half pans to swap them out if a favorite color is missing. I plan on swapping out the Ivory Black for Payne's Grey, Raw Umber for Burnt Umber and maybe drop Yellow Ochre in favor of another color, possibly swiping the spare Chromium Green out of my Lukas 1862 half pans set since it had two of that color. An extra green might be handy. I can do that, because the Winsor & Newton half pans are standard sized.

So if you have favorite half pans of another good artist grade brand like Lukas 1862 or Schminke or Sennelier, nothing's stopping you from customizing your Field Box. Every artist develops a personal palette based on favorite subjects and favorite mixes. But don't lose the little bitty sponge. If you do, cut a new one from a larger sponge and keep it handy, because that small Sceptre or Kolinsky brush will not be large enough to fill in skies or do broad masses of color.

Below is the first page of my watercolor journal, including a color chart and a self portrait I did entirely with the Winsor & Newton Artist's Field Box. It's very good for any subject I've ever run into and it's got that incredible advantage of being so self contained. In a jacket pocket or purse you can put a small Moleskine watercolor journal rubberbanded to it and have that available no matter where you go.

This watercolor set has withstood all tests of space, carelessness, laziness and hard usage. I recommend it 100% -- it's worth the initial investment to start out with the most convenient pocket set there is. That alone may trick you into painting more, just the way it did me. This is something to last for a lifetime. Just refill as needed.

Color Chart and Self Portrait
5" x 8 1/2"
Winsor & Newton Artist's Field Box watercolors
Moleskine watercolor journal


  1. I always take my Cotman on trips but like the idea of keeping it in my purse/backpack for everyday moments... It's a beautiful kit and should get used more! Thanks for the review.

  2. if you're painting indoors, where do you put the dirty water when you're folding it back up?

  3. Thanks for taking the time to share this. I like the idea of adding two extra pans and moving the sponge to the cup - neither idea occurred to me naturally, so thanks, that has enhanced my new toy already.

    I like the self portrait by the way, nicely done.

    I already had the standard 12 x half pan small box set and as you suggest, intent on swapping out some of the colours to something that is more familiar to me.

  4. I also have the old gray WN set. Long ago I found empty half pans to fill with my palette at the time. I recently acquired the black professional set (different era, different palette) but cannot find who sells empty pans to fit. I want to carry one kit in my travel kit and keep one by the TV. Looking for empty pans :) SueP

  5. I love this post. After a break of 25-years, I’m getting back into watercoloring and am looking for field box hacks.

    I, too, have the WN Artist Field Box; I also had the earlier gray one, which my spouse eyed hungrily— so I gave that one to her and replaced it with the more dignified-looking dark model long ago. And I totally agree... get the Artist version over the Cotman version, as the pigments are a big step up.

    I’ve hacked mine to carry 16 half-pans — 5 lengthwise on each side, and 6 side-by-side in the middle. I did it by cutting off the middle hinged tray, which takes up more room than it needs to and the removal of it gains you enough space to add four additional colors. I keep the sponge up in the lid, after I’ve finished using it.

    Another trick I used is to scuff up the white mixing surfaces with steel wool, just enough so that the plastic no longer allows the paint to bead up on them. It makes mixing a whole lot easier.

    Lastly, I use whatever colors I want, instead of what came with the Field Box. I have some from WN, of course, but also a few colors from Daniel Smith, Schmincke, Sennelier, Holbein, and Rembrandt. Additionally, I swap out colors depending on the quality of the day (dark and moody, or bright and sunny), the time of year (seasonal colors), and my expected destination (landscape, seascape, urban, people-watching, etc.). So I have a large number of colors to choose from and can customize the kit before rolling out the door.

    When I was younger, my kit was all kept in a pretty large waist pack; however, now I have a smaller sling pack that can be slung over my shoulder or worn about the waist, and it also contains other items as my EDC (Everyday Carry) — such as a tiny Leuchtturm journal, a painting journal, additional watercolor tools, a tiny point-n-shoot film camera, a super tiny digital camera that connects to my cell phone, and a number of other odd bits-and-pieces.

    I’d be interested in hearing of any other improvements you’ve made to yours over the years.