Watercolour pencils

What are watercolour 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 coloured 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 at any time, 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 the pencil core is made wet it starts to break 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 water has been applied. So be cautious about the amount of colour 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 adding the colour to a drawing is a wise move. 

Using watercolour pencils dry

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

Used dry, you may find that watercolour pencils feel dry when applied to paper. This is down to how the pencil is made. The pencil binder in Aquarelles is slightly different 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 watercolour pencils page for in-depth information and a beginners tutorial featuring 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 colour in a companies wax type coloured pencil line. 

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

Test first!

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

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

The darker pencil colours will have a higher level of pigment in their make up. The paler colours will have more filler and less actual pigment. Generally, you will see less colour gain with the paler colours (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 colour to an almost completely fluid watercolour wash. Keep in mind that an area where the colour has been 'shaded in' will lift and spread easily with a firm watercolour 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 watercolour paper. 

On the left a shaded area has had water added and the colour 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 completely removed. 

On the right, two lines were drawn - the lower one more firmly. Water applied across the lines produces a wash but will no entirely remove the lines.

Apply your colour layers lightly!

Compare coloured 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 whils others use some traditionally opaque earth colours. If you mix too many opaque colours together you will get the infamous 'MUD; discovered by many beginner watercolourists!

Earth based colours (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 watercolour pencils will suffer more from colour shift than others. By this we mean that if you compare the colour applied to the paper dry, with that after water has been added, you may see a difference in colour TINT as well as 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 colour 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 colour becomes much more intense.

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

Often dark colours 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 colour chart for every box of Aquarelle pencils immediately you open the new box.  Take a clean sheet of watercolour 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 (as appropriate) 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 colour out as a wash, getting fainter and fainter.

This will show you any danger areas where moistened colour differs from dry colour in actual tint. It will also show you where good thin wash colours are, and note any opaque colours.  I still refer to my charts after using some watercolour 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 indicate 3 stars for best lightfastness - 1 star for the most vulnerable colours) and how the final row shows how the colour washes out.

Supracolor pencils have very little colour 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 watercolour pencils, but some care is needed if you are adding water to the paper. Watercolourists 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 watercolour paper

If you are only adding modest amounts of water and merely dampening the paper surface to soften watercolour 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 with a larger dry area, but it should return to flatness once it dries. 

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

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

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