How to use watercolor pencils

When it comes to art supplies, few mediums offer the versatility as learning how to use watercolor pencils. They are easy to manipulate, wet or dry; you can use them to create bold, colorful images; and you can bring a lot of depth and texture to your work with just a few pencils. They are perfect for adding a quick pop of color to a painting or drawing.

Today's watercolor pencil is a far cry from the humble crayon-like pencils of yesteryear. These high-quality colored pencils offer superb water solubility. They allow water to penetrate into the paper and create a rich and vibrant effect!

Colored pencils have been in existence since the 1800s. However, those we use today are far superior to their original predecessors. These modern versions are made of pigments and clays combined with wax and binders, encased in wood. They are created in an assortment of vibrant hues and shades that will satisfy any artist's palette and needs.

Watercolor pencils are non-toxic and non-messy. They are convenient as they do not require additives, solvents or water-soluble mediums to get the desired effect.

Below are some of my favourite suggestions for using these pencils in your art!  Click here for a simple exercise where you can learn how to use them by painting a pair of pears. 

How to use watercolor pencils dry

These pencils can be blended, and layered just like dry pencils, consequently producing many effects on various surfaces such as paper, canvas and wood.

However, the possibilities are as varied as the assortment of colors available.

Some manufacturers offer the artist an identical range of hues in both the watercolor range and the company's wax or oil based pencils; however, the binding is different, so the water soluble pencils may not move as smoothly on the paper as the others. However, you will still be able to see the same levels of transparency.

My favourite brands are Faber Castell -  the Polychromos and Albrecht Durer pencils share the same color range - and Caran d'Ache, where the same is true of the Pablo and Supracolor pencils. 

For the budget-conscious beginner, opting for watercolor pencils would be a great way to try out the medium. It will allow you to experiment with different blendable combinations without investing a lot of money at the outset.

You can lift the pigment from the surface when it is in is the original dry state using an eraser. A piece of low-tack tape or a blob of WhiteTac will also lift a layer of pigment and reduce the strength when wet. WhiteTac is stickier and softer than BlueTac, so it is worth investing in if you see some. If you can't find it locally, you can order it from Amazon (affiliate link).

How to use watercolor pencils with a brush

Creating watercolor effects using water soluble colored pencils can be as simple as drawing with them on paper then wetting the pigment with a damp brush.

However, the imaginative artist will find new ways to use this product to produce breathtaking, vibrant results! 

Some artists will mix colors by wetting the tip of the pencil with the brush and pushing the pigment around on the palette with water; others will dip the brush directly onto the water then apply the pigment to the paper surface. (Peter does not recommend this latter process!)

Water damages the integrity of the pencil core and wetting this will also end up being wasteful. This is because if you apply pressure after wetting it, the pencil is likely to snap and will need to be sharpened more often.

Often the first thing you will notice when you add water is a marked increase in color strength. Therefore, it is a wise move to test out your pencils on scrap paper first. Applying a light layer alongside a heavy layer will allow you to see how the pigments react to water.

Keep your brush moist rather than wet, wiping off any surplus water before applying it to your paper. Using the correct watercolour brush is important, so we added a page to help you pick the right one for the task. 

You will discover that as you become more experienced, there are so many different ways to create stunning effects when learning how to use watercolour pencils!

But let's start with the basics.

Just as with wax pencils, pressure is important.

Using a light hand when applying layers of pigment to your paper will allow you to dissolve the colours fully and smoothly. If, on the other hand, you press hard you could find the lines difficult to blend out as the pigment will have worked its way into the surface of the paper. Even using lots of water may not completely eliminate the harsh lines.

If, when you add water, you find that you have laid down too much pigment to begin with, you can soak up some of the excess by gently blotting with kitchen paper or a natural sponge.

Depending on the quality of your pencils you may find that you need to scrub a little with your brush to loosen the pigment. This is why we don't recommend you use your best sable brushes!

Ignoring for the moment, Derwent Inktense, the pigment from other wate soluble pencils can be rewet and moved around or lifted from the paper surface. If you add further layers to dried passages of your painting, the existing color can lift, so take care.

Some colours stain more than others, and you will need to ensure you remove the surplus as quickly as possible if you make a mistake.  In the sample below, I removed an area with tissue to create a soft fluffy cloud effect on the blue sky background.

Derwent Inktense are different

Inktense pencils contain a water soluble ink rather than watercolour pigment, and once water has been added to this and it has dried, it is permanent. This can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on the art you are trying to produce.

The color obtained from Inktense cannot be called subtle! The samples below show how intense the yellow becomes after the addition of water. 

How to use watercolour pencils with a pad of tissue

Instead of using a brush to activate pencil already on the paper you can try the following technique. This is ideal if you want a softer, more subtle effect. 

Staedtler Karat pencil applied dry then worked gently with a pad of tissue paper

Using the side of the pencil softly add a layer of pigment to your drawing. Then lightly moisten a tissue or kitchen paper and gently dab it onto the dry pigment. Some of the colour will be removed, leaving a wash of dappled colour behind.  

The texture that this method creates can be used to affect in skies, rough walls, distant trees or greenery, in fact, anything where you don't want a smooth even coverage. 

This is a useful way to learn how to use watercolor pencils on non-traditional papers. Less water is required and therefore lighter weight papers are less likely to warp. 

If you have a fine mist spray bottle you can introduce a small amount of water to the dry pigment in this manner, followed by dabbing with the kitchen paper. Some pigment will dissolve, while other areas will remain dry. This can produce a convincing texture for gravel on a path. 

How to use watercolor pencils by shaving the pigment

Using a palette

After first sharpening your pencil to a long point, you can take a craft knife or scalpel and scrape the exposed pigment into a dish. Be careful not to get any wood shavings in the dish. Then add water to the shavings to make a flat wash of colour, similar to pan watercolor paints.

Why not just use the paint? 

Have you ever mixed different paints to get just the right hue and then found you didn't mix enough to complete the sky or other area of your painting? Not a problem if you pick a single colored pencil in your desired hue! 

In this example, I shaved the brown pencil into a palette well, added water and painted it onto the paper. As it was drying, I drew in the plank lines and some wood grain texture with the pencil tip. After it had completely dried, I sprinkled green shavings onto the painting and used a damp brush to push them into the surface, giving an aged effect to the wood.

Creating floral textures

For the distant purple flowers in this next example, I shaved the pencil tip onto the paper and used a slightly damp filbert brush to press the pigment into the surface. 

This produces a random effect, ideal for distant elements such as flower beds or trees. Further color can be glazed over the top, once dry, to add interest. 

This was only a sample, but if I wanted to keep the shavings in one place I would cover the rest of the drawing with protective sheets and only remove it once the work had dried. 

Creating rock textures

The photographs above show how to use watercolor pencils to create rocks. 

I started with dry paper and grey/brown shavings. I used the damp filbert brush to squash them into the paper, rotating the brush, so I didn't get a repeating pattern of strokes. I then added green shavings to add a suggestion of moss forming on the rocks, and repeated the damp brush technique. 

To complete the effect, I used a dry pencil tip to emphasize the area that seemed darker, forming a shadow on the underside of the rock. I also used a light grey pencil tip to fill in blank areas in the top section of the rock. 

Using a makeup applicator

Another alternative to a brush is a sponge makeup applicator. Here I wet the paper first, then dropped the shavings onto the wet surface. I then moved them around to blend them softly, but randomly, into the painting. This is fun as you never know what sort of texture you are going to end up with.

Beware cheaper brands of watercolour pencils

Interestingly when I experimented with shaving color from a cheaper brand of pencil direct onto wet paper, the different colours that made up the core separated. This gave a very pretty mottled multicoloured effect. This was a Sapphire Blue Arteza pencil!

How to use watercolour pencils using a paper palette

Pencil pigment can be laid down onto sanded paper, or rough watercolour paper, where it can then act as a palette. 

Peter uses a 400 grit Hermes paper which is light gray. You could use any suitable fine grit paper found in the DIY superstore which is light in value and waterproof, Rub dry pigment from your pencil points (this will keep your pencils sharp at the same time) and then apply a damp brush to the block of colour. You can even mix two or more colors on this palette before adding the pigment to your painting. 

Watercolour pencil sketch of Welsh farm 5.5 ins square
Hermes P400 grit paper used as a palette for pencil pigment

How to use watercolor pencils when travelling ultra light

If you enjoy painting en plein air, instead of taking a tin of paints or a selection of pencils, prepare a palette as above with the colours you may need. This will act as your paintbox. Add a surface to paint on and a small brush into a lidded tin, along with a graphite pencil if needed. After emptying your tin on location, fill it with a little water and start painting. 

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