Watercolours: Sennelier Luxury Walnut Wood Box Half-Pan Set (review)

Before I get started, I should probably admit that this is as much of a show-and-tell/brag post as it is a review.

Back in 2016, I reviewed the Sennelier Landscape Watercolour set of 14 half pans, which I had bought in 2012. This was a clearance item that Dick Blick (a US retailer) was getting rid of because it contained the old formula of Sennelier Extra-Fine watercolours, which had been discontinued earlier that year. While I thought they were reasonable, I didn’t think there was anything special about them (I felt the pigment load wasn’t quite as high as in my other artist grade watercolours), and at the time I couldn’t justify spending the money on buying the reformulated ones to see if they were any better.

Side note: if you find Sennelier half pans out in the wild and can’t work out if they’re the new or old formula, look at the front of the packaging. The old formula wrappers are white in the bottom half and coloured to match the paint it contains in the top half, while the new ones have the whole wrapper in the corresponding paint colour. I never saw any of the older tubes so I can’t compare them to the new ones but I’d imagine a similar colour/labelling scheme applies to those.

Ever since I started painting seriously with watercolours (nearly 10 years ago), I always wanted one of those beautiful wooden box sets, but never felt that I was a good enough artist to justify spending the money on one. I’d often see them online while buying individual colours that I need to replace pans or tubes I’ve used up, but every time I was tempted to get one, I told myself to just keep using the little tin set or loose tubes I already had. Early this year I saw a wooden box set online with a RRP of $200, but the retailer’s price was $150. I made a bargain with myself that if I ever sold or traded $150 worth of watercolour paintings, then I could have one. Over the last few months, I finally sold or traded enough paintings to push me over that $150 bracket (also the box went on sale for an even lower price of $135). So I treated myself to this lovely Sennelier 24 half pan wood box set of watercolours. Of all the wooden box sets, I felt that this one had the best layout and was the best value for money in terms of what was included. Anyway, now that my precious new watercolour box has arrived, let’s spend some time admiring it…

The wood is walnut, and the box is very well made, with the brand name embossed in gold on the lid and matching hinges and clasp (my old man, who is a skilled woodworker himself, turned his nose up at the hinges, saying they were flimsy; they seem adequate for the box though).

When you open the box, there’s a sheet of printed watercolour card in the lid, where you can make colour swatches for all the colours in the box if you like.

In the bottom of the box, there are two rows of watercolour half pans. Some metal watercolour boxes I’ve seen that are designed to fit 24 half pans will actually fit 26 if you push all the pans down far enough, but this box just fits 24 snugly. Though if you remove the brushes from the third row, you could put another 12 half pans in there, bringing the total to 36 (I’d rather use it for brushes though as 24 colours is more than enough). The pans stay firmly in place when they’re wrapped, but once you open them, they are a bit loose, so if you tip the box upside down, they’ll move around. I solved this by putting a line of double-sided tape along the bottom of the box and then pressing the pans onto it.

The type of brushes you get apparently varies slightly between boxes. I’ve seen some pictures and videos other people have posted after they got the same box, and a few of them had Sennelier-branded brushes. The two brushes I got were Raphael; a size 2 squirrel mop, and a size 4 red sable round. I have never used any brushes from this brand before (correction: I already had a 3/0 sized Raphael squirrel mop, but hadn’t reviewed it yet), so I was eager to try them out. I was impressed with the quality and performance of both brushes. The size 2 mop (which is the same size as my Jackson’s size 8 squirrel mop) holds plenty of water but also maintains a point, and I notice that once it’s dry, it retains its point a little better than the Jackson’s, which kind of fluffs out a bit (this doesn’t affect its performance when loaded with paint, but it was still interesting to note). The red sable was also very nice, holding a point for the smallest lines (the sample painting I did in this post was done almost entirely with the two brushes included in the box; I only switched to the small Isabey sables for some of the final details). Unlike a lot of Kolinsky sable brushes (which tend to fluff out when they dry), the red sable also remained more or less in its original shape. Even if you don’t want to buy this paint box, it’s worth checking out the Raphael brushes.

There’s also a porcelain palette 19.5cm long and just under 8cm wide, with six slanted mixing wells. This is also not held securely within its compartment, so you’ll need to be careful if you move the box around a lot. You could glue it in but I’d rather not do this in case I need to take it out to give it a good clean.

Here’s the colour chart for the colours in my box set, plus an additional 12 colours I bought (some of which will be used to replace colours in the original 24 colour lineup).

As I mentioned above and in my 2016 review, I wasn’t overly impressed with the pigment load in the old formula Sennelier colours. When I made my colour chart for this wooden box set, I was pleased to see that the reformulated colours do appear to be stronger and more concentrated, while still retaining their transparency. I also found I didn’t need to spend as much time scrubbing at them to activate them when I first start using them, which basically means they’re now competitive with my other artist grade watercolours. Though the older formula contained honey, the new formula apparently contains even more honey, which is probably why they’re much easier to rewet now. I have not tried the tubes, but from what I am seeing on various art forums, there are some issues with the consistency across colours, with some being extremely runny, and others separating badly within the tube. This can happen across any brand, though, so I’d suggest if you prefer to buy tubes, just get one or two Sennelier tubes to try before committing to a full set.

The new range has also been expanded from 80 to 98 colours, and there are still a good number of single-pigment mixtures. There are some odd multi-pigment mixtures, though, including some that should (based on their name) be single-pigment mixes. For example, Viridian Green is made from viridian and phthalo green pigments, while French Ultramarine is made from ultramarine and a blue violet pigment. Alizarin Crimson is a mixture of three pigments (with the real Alizarin Crimson being named Alizarin Crimson Lake in their range). These colours really should include Hue in the name, if they’re not actually made from (or at least not solely made from) the pigment they supposedly represent.

Though most of the colours in the range appear to be lightfast, there are still a few fugitive colours, such as the Alizarin Crimson Lake I mentioned above, and the bright and beautiful Opera. Unfortunately a number of fugitive colours are included in the deluxe box, which is a pet peeve of mine; art supply manufacturers are aware of the fact that many artists prefer to use lightfast materials, yet they still include known fugitive colours in their sets, when they could just as easily include a similar but more permanent colour in their place. I also felt there were a few odd multi-pigment colours taking up slots that could have been better used by single-pigment colours (eg. Cinereous Blue, a mix of phthalo blue and white, could have just been a Cerulean Blue, while some of the convenience greens could have been replaced with a larger selection of earthy browns). Much of this is subjective, though, and I have simply replaced some of these colours with new half pans more to my liking.

Here’s a painting I did with my set of reformulated Sennelier watercolours based on a photo by Sei Nakatugawa (for a demonstration of this painting, click here).

As I said above, I’m not sure about the tubes, but I can definitely recommend the reformulated Sennelier watercolour pans and half pans. They are competitive with other artist grade brands in terms of quality and they’re often among the cheaper brands, depending on where you buy. I also think this deluxe wooden box set is quite good value for money, at least at the $150 price point it seems to be at Jackson’s in the UK most of the time. The quality of the Raphael brushes included makes this an especially good deal. If you want to treat yourself or a special watercolourist in your life to something nice, one of these Sennelier boxes would be an excellent choice.

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This entry was posted in Accessories, Boxes and Palettes, Brushes, Materials, Reviews, Watercolour and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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