Have a set of watercolor pencils sitting on a shelf collecting dust because you haven’t a clue how to use them?
Well I’m guessing since you’re here you’ve decided to dust them off, break open the box and figure out how to use watercolor pencils.
“So, do you just wet the pencil to use them?”, is a frequent question I receive whenever the subject of how to use watercolor pencils comes up. The short answer is no.
The longer answer is, that is one of many ways to use these wonderful and versatile art tools. Continue reading to find out all the ways.
What Are Watercolor Pencils
Watercolor pencils are made with pigment and a watersoluable gum binder that dissolves with water. When the pigment becomes wet it turns into watercolor paint that can be moved around with a brush.
The regular wax or oil based colored pencils will not work as their binder will not dissolve with water. If you would also like to read about regular colored pencil you can read about basic colored pencil techniques here .
So if your set says watercolor pencils, you’re all set. If it doesn’t say watercolor, then you will need to purchase a set that says watercolor pencils.
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Brands I like are:
Derwent Watercolor Pencil Set (my choice, check prices here), Prismacolor, Staedtler and Fantasia. TheCrayola brand is actually a good starter brand as well.
I recommend using a 140 lb. cold pressed paper. Although this medium may use less water than traditional watercolor, any less than 140 lb. will tend to make your paper buckle when water is added.
There are a number of brands of paper. My chosen brand is
Canson XL Watercolor Pad, click here to review. It is a good brand that will hold up nicely through your project. If high end is what you’re looking for, Arches is the brand you will want. Just so you are aware though, Arches is significantly more expensive but I’ve seen rated only slightly higher in a review compared to Canson.
When it comes to brushes, you get what you pay for. I would not pick the cheapest brushes in the store, the hairs tend to fall out and the ferrule (the metal part) tends to wiggle. The bristles themselves also may not be as responsive.
I choose to use synthetic brushes because I like the way the bristles spring back as you paint with them. There is nothing wrong with using sable brushes if you are already used to them. For a beginner, though, I recommend synthetic.
As for the brand, I really love synthetic Grumbacher Goldenedge Brushes. Click here for a size 8 Grumbacher brush that is perfect for starting out. The sizes you will most use would be ranging from 3-14. About 5 brushes will do and I use rounds almost exclusively. I will usually do smaller 9×12 projects so those sizes work just fine. Grumbacher is a higher end brand. A good starter, less expensive brush is Royal Langnickel.
Also, another favorite of mine is the water brush. It is a brush with a self-contained water reservoir–no need for a water container. Here is a set that has flats, rounds in different sizes to fit your needs. Check them out here.
I love them because they are so convenient when you want to just do a little painting in the park, no need to carry water around or have an extra cup while you work.
As the pencils will dull of course with use, they will require sharpening. You can certainly use a handheld or electric pencil sharpener. A brand I’ve used for years is Bostitch. Check out price here. You can read about sharpening pencils on my post How to Sharpen Colored Pencils. If your lead is wet though, do NOT use in an electric sharpener for obvious reasons!
You will want to have paper towels or reusable rags (why not save a tree?) for blotting a wet brush when necessary. Also having Q-tips are handy for soaking up too much water or lifting a little color.
And obviously you will need a cup of water as well.
Let’s Paint! – 7 different ways
1. Draw and Wet
This is where you apply color on dry with the pencil. Then dip brush in water, blot excess, then “activate” (or wet) the pigment to turn it into paint. The dry color should easily dissolve and can be brushed around. The more that is applied initially, the stronger the color. The less water used, also the stronger the color. For a paler effect, you can use more water and less dry pigment.
2. Swatches of color
On another piece of watercolor paper you can create a palette of “cake” colors. Just apply swatches of whatever color you wish to apply by wetting the swatch (just as you would with watercolor cakes) and then paint on your art surface.
You can also use this method for color mixing, too. Again, go into the cakes with a wet brush to pull paint from each color to mix then paint directly on the art surface.
3. Brush to Pencil Tip
In this technique you will take a wet brush directly to the pencil tip, brush it over the pencil tip to load brush and just paint. This technique has much more control for finer details.
You can create beautiful washes by creating puddles on a palette with small cups (a coated paper plate will also work, too).
Just put a few drops of water (or more depending on the area to be washed) into one of the cups (or onto the paper plate), to make a puddle. Then, holding your pencil with one hand (tip in the puddle), dip your brush into your main cup of water and bring the dripping wet brush to your small cup or plate and simply brush color off the end of the pencil tip into the puddle of water to tint it.
You can make the puddle as saturated with color as desired.
Then you can paint the wash on your art surface.
Tip: prepare a big enough puddle for the area you wish to cover so you don’t have to stop painting and remake more wash.
5. Wet pencil tip applying
You can dip your pencil tip to transform the dry pigment to wet then draw directly onto your art surface. This will produce a very saturated color. This is good for highly pigmented small details. You can also do brushwork on the color put down by the wet pencil tip.
6. Wet paper with clear water
Similar to traditional watercolor, you can wet the art surface first with clear water, then paint color into the wet surface using any of the other methods.
7. Wet and dry combination
The most versatile advantage of this medium is that you have the best of both worlds as this medium can totally be used like traditional colored pencils or for watercolor painting. OR, you can have a combination of wet and dry in your painting. Since watercolor pencils can be used either wet or dry, you can create wonderful effects of painting with precision pencil strokes as well.
Advantages of Watercolor pencils
In addition to the advantage of versatility, this medium is unique all unto itself. It is extremely portable (you can even use water brushes that have a receptacle for the water built into the brush!).
It is a medium that can easily be used for plein air painting, painting on an airplane, at the beach, car trips or just relaxing in your favorite easy chair at home.
It is a medium that even though is has some unpredictability like traditional watercolor, it really does allow for more control than traditional watercolors.
It is definitely much easier to work small if that’s what you enjoy.
You definitely can use these dry as well as mentioned earlier.
The needed supplies are not super expensive (depending on the brand but you can get a 24 pack of crayola colored pencils, royal langnickel brushes and Canson a paper pad to get you started for about $35-40 USD.
You can also get a Prismacolor set, Grumbacher brushes and Canson paper for under $100 if you wish to start out with higher end brands.
Also this medium is somewhat forgiving. Most of the time you can lift color that is still wet by rinsing your brush, blotting then soaking up excess color you wish to remove. Even dry areas can be lifted substantially by repeatedly applying water and lifting with a paper towel or q-tip.
Try it for fun!
This medium is not only unique and versatile but also a LOT of fun. So now that you’ve dusted off that pack of watercolor pencils and you have the info for how to use watercolor pencils, what are you waiting for?! Give watercolor pencils a try – you’ll be glad you did.
Also worth noting, many of the materials (brushes and paper) and techniques can be used with watercolor brush pens (markers). For info on brush pens, click here.
Please leave any comments of questions you have and happy painting!