Watercolor pencils

What are watercolor pencils? They are sticks of water soluble pigment, normally placed inside a wooden casing, which can be used wet or dry to create artwork. Once you understand how they work, you may consider them one of the most useful pencils available!

There are several ways to moisten the pencil pigment both before and after applying it to the paper. The point of the pencil can also be sharpened differently to achieve varying results. 

Please do not wet the pencil tip, because the pigment core is designed to dissolve. If you add water, that is what it will do.

There are teachers and books that suggest you should - or could - take water to the point and use it on the paper for greater intensity of colour. They also say that you can take the colour of the pencil point with a wet brush and paint with it. 

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should! If you make the pencil core wet, it breaks down and lose its normal strength, you then cannot use it in its dry form without sharpening away the damp portion which is wasteful. Good for the manufacturer, but bad for your wallet.

Some pigments used in water soluble pencils are totally permanent once they have dried. Most will become intensified after you add water. So be cautious about the amount of pigment you apply to the paper if you plan to wet your work later. Creating swatches on a scrap piece of paper and wetting them before using them in a drawing is a wise move. I explain this process further on the page about drawing clouds.

Using watercolour pencils dry

Used ‘dry’ there is little difference between Watercolor pencils and Dry Point (Oil or Wax) Colored Pencils. The pigments are identical, and the levels of lightfastness compare with those of traditional watercolors.

Used dry, you may find that watercolor pencils feel dry when applied to paper. This is down to how the pencil is made. The pencil binder in Aquarelles differs slightly from wax pencils as it needs to dissolve with water rather than thinners, and this can lead to different handling (even within different brands from the same manufacturer).

Using watercolour pencils wet

The main benefits of these pencils is their versatility and the ability to use them ‘wet’ in one of several ways which we will elaborate on further down the page or you can check out the how to use watercolor pencils page for in-depth information.

Next why not try an exercise in using watercolor pencils for beginners. Here you will create a picture of a pair of pears. 

Moving on from there, you can try a full aquarelle background tutorial while painting a Scottish hillside scene. 

Lightfastness

The aquarelles sometimes show a lower lightfastness grade compared to the same pigment in a company's wax type colored pencil line. 

This is because the finished moistened color will usually sit in a thinner layer on the paper than dry pigment in a wax carrier, so Aquarelles are more susceptible to fading in strong light.

Test first!

We mentioned this at the top of the page, but once you moisten dry watercolor pencil pigment, you will see an immediate gain in intensity. There will also be a sharp increase in contrast. If you are inexperienced with this medium, this could surprise you. 

We suggest the need to practice first on plain watercolor paper so that you can see the effect of adding water to each aquarelle in your collection. 

The darker pencils will have a higher level of pigment in their make up. The paler colors will have more filler and less actual pigment. You will see less color gain with the paler pencils (particularly light yellows and pastel colours) but major gains in the intensity of the stronger and darker shades such as reds, oranges, blues and greens. 

Brands vary, but the better ones will convert the color to an almost completely fluid watercolor wash. Keep in mind that an area where the color has been 'shaded in' will lift and spread easily with a firm watercolor brush. A drawn line may remain after wetting the pigment and not blend out entirely. 

The sample shows the effect of adding water to Staedtler Karat 125-2 Red, on hot pressed paper. 

On the left, a shaded area has had water added and the color has intensified. But also, where the brush has been used to drag a wash down from the dry shaded area, the original shading has been obliterated. 

On the right, I drew two lines - the lower one more firmly. Water applied across the lines produces a wash but will not entirely remove the lines.

Apply your layers lightly!

Compare colored pencils from different brands

You may wish to compare different brands to see which suit your method of working best. 

Some brands have virtually all transparent pigments while others use some traditionally opaque earth colors. If you mix too many opaque colors together, you will get the infamous 'MUD; discovered by many beginner watercolourists!

Earth based pigments (Sienna, Umber and Ochre) will not dissolve completely and mixtures of colours may well separate out into granular washes. Some manufacturers will produce their dark reds and browns from chemically derived pigments. These hues will most likely be transparent. 

Colour shift

Some brands of watercolor pencils will suffer more from color shift than others. By this we mean that if you compare the color applied to the paper dry, with that after water has been added, you may see a difference in tint and intensity. 

Here we have Staedtler Karat no 125 - 73 Burnt Sienna. When dry it is quite a dark rich orange brown. In the wet state, it becomes a rich orange. If you were relying on the color to stay as the dry shade, you might have a shock!

Compare this with the Staedtler 125- 38 Sea Green. The tint here remains exactly the same though the color becomes much more intense.

The shift we are talking about is not huge, and in some brands and some colors it is greater than others. It is sufficient, though, to be needing care and pre-knowledge of how the pencils behave.

Often dark pigments are the ones most likely to change and the lower priced brands are also the most likely to suffer.

For this reason, I always suggest preparing a color chart for every box of Aquarelle pencils immediately you open the fresh box. Take a clean sheet of watercolor paper (cold pressed is fine) and prepare a series of small blocks of colour in rows - a trio of each colour side by side with a name and reference number in biro.  

  • Leave the first block of each set ‘dry’.  
  • Moisten the second block of each set with a drop of clean water
  • take a clean wet brush to the third block and ‘pull’ the color out as a wash, getting fainter and fainter.

This will show you any danger areas where moistened color differs from dry in actual tint. It will also show you where good thin wash colors are, and note any opaque colors.  I still refer to my charts after using some water soluble pencils for years.

BELOW is a scan of the chart for Caran d’Ache Supracolor Aquarelles. You will see how the colours have been laid out, how I have added the lightfast rating (the stars show 3 stars for best lightfastness - 1 star for the most vulnerable) and how the last row shows how the color washes out.

Supracolor pencils have very little shift between the original dry pigment and the same pigment after wetting.

Preparing your surface

Paper is a superb surface to use with pencils, and an excellent one for watercolor pencils, but some care is necessary if you are adding water to the paper. Watercolorists will know all about how paper stretches when it is wet and then contracts as it dries. If you add a lot of water to the paper, it will curl and distort if it is not pre-stretched and firmly held down. For this reason, I spend some time on the site discussing stretching watercolor paper

If you are only adding modest amounts of water and merely dampening the paper surface to soften water soluble pencil pigment or add a light (just damp) underpainting wash to small areas, you may not need to pre-stretch, particularly if the paper is fairly strong. Water will still make the paper bulge where the expanded area is trapped within a larger dry area, but it should return to flatness once it dries. 

I always use a 300gsm weight (140lb) hot pressed watercolor paper, which will not easily distort.

Don't be put off ... just be aware and consider all the options first. 

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