Inks: Derwent Inktense Paint Pan Travel Set (review)

Some time ago I reviewed the Derwent Inktense pencils and blocks. I quite liked them but even though most of the colours were listed as lightfast, the fact a number of other artists had reported issues with fading even in supposedly permanent colours made me hesitant to pick up the Inktense pan set when it was released, even though I really wanted to try them (that, and the fact I already have enough watercolour paint boxes to sink the Titanic).

Recently, my friend who works in an art supply shop in Italy kindly sent me an Inktense Paint Pan Travel set as an early Christmas gift. (if any of my readers are in Torino, drop by Bianco & Marzano to look at their wonderful selection of art products)

Here’s the colour chart for the set:

The white plastic box is compact (though it is a bit bigger than the Winsor & Newton Cotman Pocket Sketch Box I have) and feels sturdy. It seems quite similar to the Sakura Koi watercolour sketchboxes, though my Sakura box is larger and more bulky. The lid has five little sections and doubles as a mixing palette, while the base holds the pans of colour, as well as a water brush (with space to include a pencil stub and an eraser) and a sponge for cleaning your brush. The brush doesn’t come with a lid like most waterbrushes do, which is disappointing, as I worry that it could get damaged or bent if it moves around in the box too much. However, I was happy to discover that the waterbrush itself was a good quality one; many I’ve bought over the years have had faulty valves (meaning a slight squeeze empties half the barrel of water through your bristles) or leak, so that instead of water coming through the bristles, it emerges from above the ‘ferrule’ (or whatever the plastic bit that holds the bristles is called). This brush responded well to pressure and was easy to control, allowing me to produce a thick wash or just a few drops without too much hassle. It does have a small reservoir, though, so you would need to carry a little bottle of water so you can refill it if you’re going to be painting anything bigger than postcard size, otherwise you’ll likely use up all the water in the barrel.

The colours are held in place by two plastic inserts (each holding six pans), and these inserts have a gap in the bottom, making it easy to pop out the pans as required. As for the pans themselves, they are a little bit smaller than standard watercolour half pans, so if you intend to buy this box and replace them with your Winsor & Newton or Sennelier etc half pans, you won’t be able to, unless you remove the inserts as well (and even then, you’ll have to glue them in or use double-sided tape to keep them in place). Derwent has listed individual Inktense pans for sale on their site but so far they don’t seem to be available anywhere else, even in stores that sell the set itself. The price of the set itself varies wildly according to supplier; Jacksons in the UK, where I normally buy art supplies, has it for $30AUD, but I’ve seen it for as much as $50 on other sites. This is comparable to a set of student grade watercolours of about the same size.

The set comes with a reasonably good selection of colours, though I’d have liked to see another blue instead of one of the greens (I find the inclusion of the light green kind of pointless as you can easily mix it with Teal Green and Sun Yellow). That being said, for people who paint a lot of landscapes, it’s probably a good thing that there are three greens as it would save you from having to mix them all the time and use up other colours in the process. Unfortunately there’s no white, but it’s easy enough to break off part of a white Inktense Block and stick it in at one end of the compartment where the waterbrush goes, as there’s plenty of room. Otherwise, you can mix pretty much any colour you want with this set; Mid Ultramarine looks more like Cobalt Blue, but if you mix it with a bit of Bright Blue, you can get a good match with regular Ultramarine. You can also mix a good grey with Natural Brown and Bright Blue (for a really dark grey) or Mid Ultramarine (for a softer, lighter grey). The pigment concentration in the colours is high, so much so that it almost feels like painting with artist grade watercolours.

Most of these colours are semi-opaque, though some lean more towards the opaque side (especially Mid Ultramarine and Natural Brown). They also dissolve quite quickly when you wet them, so it feels just like using a normal set of watercolour pans. The only difference is that, being ink, these colours generally won’t rewet or activate again once they’ve dried. This gives you the option of laying down heavy colour in one go or slowly building up layers of colour without having to worry about the previous one coming up and muddying the colour. The colours didn’t seem to be 100% permanent; while I was able to lay a wash over one colour without it coming up and mixing with the other colour, they did still lift a little when I scrubbed at it with the brush after it had been dried for a few minutes. It was a lot harder to lift colour once it had been dried for half an hour or so, and some colours were more stubborn than others; for example, the yellows and blues lifted noticeably, while the reds and black only budged very slightly.

One of the problems I had with the Inktense pencils and blocks was that sometimes, if I had applied colour by scribbling on the paper and then wetting it with a brush, there would be bits of pigment that I hadn’t dissolved properly the first time round, so when I put another layer over it, that pigment would get into my mixture when I didn’t want it to. This isn’t an issue with the pans, since all the pigment is essentially ‘dissolved’ before you even put it on the paper, and since you really do have to scrub at it to lift the Inktense pan paint, it mostly stays put. Also, unlike the pencils and blocks, which have a few fugitive colours, all the colours in this set are rated 8 on the Blue Wool lightfastness scale (the highest rating). I haven’t tested them myself yet, but this is promising for those who might want to display or sell work they create with them.

Here’s a small quick sketch I did from imagination with the Derwent Inktense Pan Set while I was watching TV.

For anyone who loves working with Ink but doesn’t want to lug around big tins of pencils or fragile bottles of ink, the Derwent Inktense Paint Pan Travel Set would be a wonderful addition to your field sketching supplies. The compact and sturdy box houses a good selection of strong and mostly permanent colours, along with a waterbrush, so as long as you also bring a little waterbottle for refilling your brush, you’ll have everything you need to sketch on the go.

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