The Ins and Outs of Watercolour Pencils

Watercolour pencils are a unique consolidation of more than one art medium, and they provide an accessible cross-over between drawing with traditional coloured pencils and watercolour paint, all wrapped into a single handy pencil form. This fantastic medium provides the best of both worlds and is a great way to explore your creativity and make some beautiful art. If you are not already familiar with this particular medium, watercolour pencils look just like regular pencils, and could very well be mistaken for them. Unlike traditional coloured pencils however, watercolour pencil pigments are water soluble which means when you add water, more pigment is released which will create much more vibrant and intense colour.

With watercolour pencils you are able to create similar effects to traditional watercolour paints however it is important to remember that these are two very different mediums. Just because you know how to use pencils, you will not automatically be a great painter and visa versa. Having said that, these two mediums do work very well together, particularly if you use traditional watercolours to create elegant washes and background colour and then focus on using your pencils to add detail. What is unique about watercolour pencils is that they are a water-based medium that is encased in pencil form so you can utilise a sharp point for all of your intricate line work, that you couldn’t manage as easily, or at all, with a paintbrush. Thus, they will enable you to take your watercolour paintings to the next level.

Though, of course not everyone is in the position to purchase or try out both paints and pencils. But don’t fret! If you still want the watercolour art experience but only want to invest in one medium, it is likely a good choice for you to delve into the wonders of watercolour pencils. And we are here to help with some insights into this fantastic art supply.

The Ins and Outs of Watercolour Pencils
The Ins and Outs of Watercolour Pencils

What do you need to get started?

Getting started with a new medium can be daunting, not just because you are trying something new, but also with the vast expanse of supplies that are currently available on the market it can be difficult to know what you actually need to buy. Obviously, as you progress and develop your skills with this medium you may find yourself wanting a wider range of materials, however if you are a complete beginner looking to get just the basics you shouldn’t need more than a set of 12-15 watercolour pencils, a sharpener, watercolour paper and a paint brush. Derwent offer a fantastic little set of 12 pencil colours, which is not as expansive as some other sets available however it is certainly enough to get you started and can be great if you don’t have a big budget for new supplies. Plus, even with just a small set you can still create a wide range of colours, as just like most watercolour pencils, you are able to blend and mix the pigments so you can also make a wider range of colours with a limited palette.  

When you are choosing your paper, you will want to look for something a little thicker and heavier than your standard sketchbook paper. Ordinary sketching paper does have the tendency to warp when water is applied to it, so a sturdy paper is required when working with a medium like watercolour pencils (or any other medium where water is a vital element of your artwork). When it comes to watercolour paper there are two main types for you to consider, namely hot pressed watercolour paper and cold pressed paper. The important difference between these two types of papers, refers to the finish or the texture of the surface. A hot pressed paper will offer a smoother surface whilst a cold press paper will have a slightly bumpy and uneven texture.

Finally when you are choosing a suitable paint brush to use along side your pencils, there are plenty of options to look at. Paint brushes come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and styles and you may find that you want a small collection of types to use for different techniques and applications. Brushes come made with synthetic hair, natural hair or a blend of both. They come round, flat, big, small and even in the style of a water-brush (these are designed to hold water inside the handle so you don’t even have to dip your brush in water!). Bear in mind that when it comes to your brush, it is worth investing in better quality as a good quality paint brush can last you a life time. With inexpensive brushes you do run the risk of them not lasting as long, being too hard or too soft or not dense enough to hold enough water for your water-based mediums. That is not to say that if you buy the most expensive brush on the market you are assured masterful results in your artwork, we would just say that purchasing the highest quality brush that you can afford will be worth the investment.

Non-essential materials you might want to look into...

As you explore the wonders of watercolour pencil art and begin to improve your skills, you may find yourself wanting a few materials to help you achieve some additional stunning effects. An important tool that you may want to invest in early on is a good graphite pencil. Before beginning any project it is always a good plan to create a rough sketch of your project so that you can visualise your composition effectively. Brands like Faber-Castell and Staedtler offer fantastic little sets of pencils that will cover a range of lead types, providing a nice selection of luscious dark colour, ideal for all of your sketching needs.

Materials as simple and accessible as a cotton swab can be invaluable in your watercolour pencil art. Watercolour pencils feature a softer lead than ordinary coloured pencils, so you when you are using them dry you can blend the colour easily on the page. A cotton swab can be a great and inexpensive little tool to achieve smooth blends in your artwork. Plus it will keep your fingers clean and fresh, which will make it far less likely for any accidental smudges.

Masking fluid is another material that can be worth investing in. It is a very convenient material that will help you block out areas of your artwork, that you want to remain light or devoid of colour. This is a great material to use if you are looking to add darker colours after you have already laid down lighter colours. Darker hues will obviously over power, and most of the time completely cover, lighter tones as watercolour mediums will reactivate on the page when water is added so light colours tend to blend and disappear under a layer of darker pigments. Masking fluid is the perfect answer to this problem and is extremely straight forward to use. You can easily paint it over any section of your page that you wish to keep crisp and covered, allow it to dry and then when you are ready, it can be rubbed off with an eraser or your finger. Easy peasy! 

The Ins and Outs of Watercolour Pencils
The Ins and Outs of Watercolour Pencils

How can you use your watercolour pencils?

Watercolour pencils are an extremely versatile medium and can be used in a multitude of different ways to achieve a variety of techniques, really there is no right or wrong answer to the way in which you use them. Having said that, there are a few watercolour pencil techniques and tips that can be very useful to know, particularly if you are a beginner looking to get started. So without further ado, here are a few techniques to try with your watercolour pencils.

Take colour directly from the pencil

This technique will give you the most similar feel to traditional watercolour paints if you are looking to simulate the paint medium. To do this you can use a wet brush to collect pigment from your pencils and paint on paper using the collected colour pigment. This technique will result in a light colour application and is a great way of creating soft, whimsical washes.

Colour first, add water later

The great thing about this technique is that you can get your pencils into a sharp point before you add any colour. This will give you fantastic control of colour placement and you can also layer multiple colours without the pigments blending prematurely. Once you are happy with your colour distribution you can then add water with a wet brush. A flat brush is great for this as it will hold lots of water and are ideal for blending and painting in large areas. With the added water you will be able to mix colours together and create seamless blends directly on the page.

Using wet paper

If you are already familiar with the watercolour medium you may already have heard of terms like wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry and dry-on-wet. If not, this simply refers to the state of your medium and your surface, for example dry-on-wet is dry pencils used on wet paper. All you need to do to achieve this technique is brush a small amount of water over your paper until your paper is lightly saturated. You can then apply your pencils to the page and watch as your pigments become brighter and more intense. This technique will create a similar effect as dipping your pencils in water however the effects will last longer as it will take more time for your paper to dry. Once you are happy with your designs, just be sure to leave it in a safe place whilst your paper dries!

Wet pencils and wet paper

Using both a wet pencil and a wet surface will cause pigments to run a lot more freely on the page. The pencil lines on your paper will appear less precise and colours will run and blend into each other. This is a great way of achieving watercolour painting results and you can create lots of texture and vibrant colour.

Draw without any water at all

The great thing about watercolour pencils is that you can still use them as stand alone coloured pencils and they perform brilliantly. The pencil tips can be sharpened into a fine point just like any pencil medium, which is perfect for adding fine details in your drawings. With this technique you can play with pencil marks and pencil strokes to create more 2D texture in your work. When you are using your pencils dry, will also find that the pigments are buildable, which means you can start off with a light pressure for a softer colour application and then add layers to build to colours with more depth and vibrancy.

Why choose watercolour pencils?

So, if you are looking for reasons to justify purchasing a set of watercolour pencils, then look no further. This medium is a much less expensive option in comparison to paints and they can still achieve some fantastic results in your artwork. They are more portable than their paint counterpart, great for taking with you on the go, which means you can get inspired whenever and wherever you are. Plus, you can even use them alongside other mediums in creative explorations of multimedia projects. Ultimately, this medium is such a great way to get started on your creative journey or to add to your ever-growing supply collection, and they are something that can be used by beginners and experts alike.

What are you waiting for? If you haven’t already, take the plunge and give watercolour pencils a go!