How to use watercolour pencils

How to Use Watercolour Pencils: Tips for Beginners

Discover the magic of watercolour pencil, the perfect instrument for expressive drawing. Create sharp lines, delicate details and broad washes without switching mediums. Draw, shade and paint all with the same tool.

In this tutorial, get an in depth look at how to use watercolour pencils. Find the essential techniques, tips and approaches to drawing and painting. I’ll also point you in the right direction if you’re unsure of which supplies to get.

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What are watercolour pencils?

Watercolour pencils are made from pigment and a solid binder encased in wood. The solid binder is water soluble. When water is added, the binder begins to dissolve. With watercolour pencils, artists can create watercolour effects, or effects that appear like regular coloured pencil. 

What are the benefits of using watercolour pencils?

The amazing and fun thing about watercolour pencils is that artists can switch between drawing with a pencil and brushing watercolour on the paper without changing the medium they are using! This makes them incredibly versatile. 

Plus, it’s common for beginner artists to feel more used to drawing with a pencil, rather than rendering accurate details and shapes with a brush. For many people, watercolour pencils can feel easier to use to get their desired results, as they provide better control. They bridge the gap between drawing and painting, so if you’ve only ever had experience with drawing, water soluble pencils will be a brilliant introduction to the watercolour medium as a whole.

Another brilliant thing about watercolour pencils is that they are relatively mess free. With the Faber-Castell pencils (which once dry create a permanent layer) and a water brush, you can carefully control the amount of water added to the paper. These factors also make them a dream to transport and travel with. Just pack the pencils away in a pencil case, with a water brush and a sketchbook for a super lightweight travel experience.

Best watercolour pencil supplies

A main aspect of learning any medium is mastering using the supplies. Before learning how to use watercolour pencils, check out some of the supplies you can use for watercolour pencil art and find out how best to use them.

Best brands of watercolor pencils

  • Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils: These are the top end, highest quality pencil with maximum pigment load and permanence. Expect pencil marks to stand the test of time. If you’re considering selling your work, it’s important to buy pencils that have high lightfast ratings like these ones.
  • Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Pencils: Another professional quality pencil, the leads are strong yet soft and they are wonderfully vibrant. The Faber-Castell pencils come in a large range of colours in sets of up to 120.
  • Derwent watercolour pencils: These pencils are on the more affordable end of the spectrum, but the colours are still brilliantly saturated due to the high pigment load.

Watercolour paper

You can use regular watercolour supplies with watercolour pencils. If you’re using watercolour pencils to draw intricate details, hot pressed paper will be the best option. It has a smoother surface texture compared to cold pressed paper. However, if you anticipate you’ll be creating more heavy washes, get cold pressed paper. It’s more absorbent than hot pressed paper so you can be more liberal with the amount of water you apply.

If you are going to be painting with lots of heavy washes, remember to stretch your watercolour paper first to prevent it from buckling or warping. This is especially important to do if you want to sell or keep your work for any length of time.

I wouldn’t advise using canvas with watercolour pencils, as it is not absorbent enough. However, if you want to use a thicker, sturdier surface than paper, you can use Aquabord.

Brushes to use with watercolour pencils

Sable and synthetic sable work best with watercolour paints. This is due to their soft fibres and sharp points. 

Synthetic sable is slightly more springy than natural hair. For some techniques you may find yourself scrubbing the paper to blend pencil marks, so you may need a slightly sturdier and springier brush for the job. The brush I recommend for this is the Da Vinci Casaneo synthetic brush.

Regular watercolour paints

You can use regular watercolour paints with watercolour pencils. Draw over a watercolour wash. Lots of artists use watercolour paint to create background colours, then use the pencils for details.

If you want to include regular watercolour paints in your practice, Daniel Smith, Sennelier and Winsor & Newton are brands that make excellent quality paints.

How to use watercolour pencils: step by step

The type of steps you take with a drawing will depend on the effects you want to achieve. There are numerous approaches to creating a drawing with watercolour pencils. See our techniques sections for some alternative approaches and methods.

Test your colours first

how to use watercolour pencils: create swatches

Colours look different wet compared to when they’re in their dry pencil mark form. Colours that have had water added to them become more transparent, allowing the white of the paper to come through. Create swatches of colours with your pencil on a separate piece of paper and label them, so that when you come to create your drawing, you can be sure you’re choosing the right colour.

Sketch an outline

If you want to create an artwork with accurate details, it helps to have a sketch first. Sketch an outline to your drawing with a lighter colour. Dried watercolour pencil can be lifted with an eraser. Get a kneaded gum eraser for mistakes. You could also use graphite pencil for the outline sketch.

Start with light colours

Start with the lightest areas of the drawing first and gradually layer in the midtones. Watercolour pencil is translucent when wet, so the drawing will gradually increase in contrast and darkness as more layers are added. Mistakes can be difficult to correct after colour washes have been created. This is why it’s best to be gradual with the application.

Activate pencil with a wash

Draw your lighter colours in, then with a wet brush, go over the areas you’ve shaded. Press lightly and colour will run from the pencil marks. Press a little harder with the brush to blend the pencil marks into the paper.

Layer in dark colours and details

Build up the darker colours to increase contrasts and shadows. Leave the highlights light. Step back from the artwork occasionally and assess if you really need to add more—it can be easy to over work it. Draw in the sharpest details last and optionally go over it with water.

Watercolour pencil techniques

Draw on dry paper and activate with water

For this technique, all you need to do is draw and shade with the pencils, treating them as if they are regular colouring pencils. You can choose to shade with a single colour, or mix colours lightly blending them together. Brush water over the top to blend further.

Draw on wet paper

Wet the paper first with a brush and draw on with the pencil. Pencil marks will appear bright and saturated and have soft edges. It’s more difficult to smoothly blend pencils using this technique, however.

Layer and blend colours with water

Create multiple layers of colour with dry pencil, then brush on a little water. Colours should appear bright and mixed on the paper.

Layer washes

The Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer pencils dry to a permanent paint film. This means you can layer separate washes of colour without paint blending together.

Wet the pencil lead

Wet the end of the pencil lead by dipping it in water or wetting with a brush. Create brilliantly vibrant and thicker marks with pencil this way. When using this technique, bear in mind that you are making the pencil lead softer, so it will wear down much quicker. Also avoid getting the wooden casing wet, as this could cause it to break.

Create a palette 

An alternative and fun way to use watercolour pencils is to create a palette on a separate piece of paper first. Draw swatches on the paper, and press with a fair amount of pressure to release lots of pigment. Then wet a brush and dab the swatch. Using the colour this way, you can pick up the colour and paint it on the page just like regular watercolour but with more muted washes. It can give paintings a soft, delicate feel.

Add detail

Watercolour pencils come into their own when using them for detail work. Sharpen the pencils and draw on hot pressed paper for the best results.

Create texture

Use different mark making techniques to give the appearance of texture. For example, you could stipple (use a dotting action) to create shaded areas, or cross hatch. Creating varied lines and marks can add interest to a piece.

Draw over a watercolour wash

One way to start a watercolour pencil drawing is with a background wash. Paint with an even wash of watercolour paint, or pencil. Leave it to dry, then draw on top with the pencil.

Make a smooth wash 

To create the smoothest washes and perfectly blended gradients, work with dry pencil on dry paper. Use one or more colours and lightly shade with the side of your pencil. Then go over the pencil with a wet, springy brush, lightly scrubbing into the paper. The pencil marks will dissolve and blend. Any lines should become less visible.

Vary the pressure of the pencil

Alter the saturation of the pencil marks by applying more or less pressure to the paper. By applying more pressure, you are releasing more pigment to the paper. This makes colours appear more vibrant.

Finally

If you’re new to the watercolour medium, check out our watercolour painting for beginners tutorial. Get to grips with watercolour supplies and learn some basic techniques to give you a head start.

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