How to Use Watercolor Pencils

Here are my thoughts on how to use watercolor pencils. As I discussed on the watercolor pencils page, these pencils look just like regular wax-based colored pencils with the difference being that the "lead" is actually a pigment which can be dissolved in water. 

Hence, you can create a drawing, then use a wet paint brush to go over the pencil strokes to soften and blend the color.  I like to use these pencils when I’m painting a detailed subject because they are much easier to control.

Watercolor Pencil Lead Colors are Misleading..

The most important thing I’ve learned about using watercolor pencils is that choosing a color by looking at the pencil lead doesn't work. I found out the hard way that choosing a color by eyeballing the lead can give you unexpected results and ruin a perfectly good painting. I made charts for myself that were crude but useful.  Recently, I watched one of Kirsty Partridge's videos online, and saw how she laid out her charts, which was way better, so I borrowed her idea.

So now, I can correctly identify the color result of a particular pencil on paper before I add it to my painting by consulting this pencil color chart. Here's how I made this:

  1. Using a piece of 11x15" watercolor paper, I drew a grid with 15 rows that were each 3/4" tall. I then added 8 columns.  The columns were repeated in a 2" then 1.5" section.
  2. I sorted my motley assortment of watercolor pencils into similar colors as Kirsty did, then I color ranked them by comparing colors on a separate piece of scratch paper.  Once I had the colors sorted, I started laying them into the grid.
  3. In the 2" color column, I chose a single color and laid down a swatch of color from left to right, using heavy, then medium, then light pressure.
  4. In the 1.5" column next to this color column, I wrote the name/number and brand of the color in the next column. Many of pencils are old, and are Derwent's older Rexel Cumberland brand. These pencils don't have color names, only a number.
  5. I then used a damp brush to wet the color, starting from light (right) to more intense (left). This allowed me to see accurately how the pencil color actually looked on the paper.  
  6. I now refer to that chart when choosing colors for my paintings.  Here's a picture of this chart:

I do plan on buying a complete set of Derwent watercolor pencils at some point, and I'll create a new chart of those colors too.

Tips for How to Use Watercolor Pencils

There are many ways to apply watercolor pencils to paper. You can start with a dry pencil on dry paper.  Or you can wet the paper first, then lay in your color.  The pencil will lay on a thicker, more intense stroke if the paper is wet, and the same thing will happen if you wet the tip of the pencil first. I've found that this thicker, deeper stroke will also be harder to lift out of the paper, so keep that in mind.  Other ideas for how to use watercolor pencils include:

  • Draw out a complete sketch with your choice of pencil colors.  Make sure to put in the lights and darks as you would with regular watercolor paint. Layer the pencil colors so that you get a good amount of pigment on the paper overall. Then, go back over the painting with a damp brush. 
  • Add pencil color layers over brushed areas to brighten or enrich the color. It's sort of like a drawn glazing. 
  • If you wet a paint brush and touch it to the pencil lead and stroke it onto wet paper, you'll get a subtle application of color.  Watch the amount of water you use, as it's easy to wash out the pigment.
  • Pen and ink or marker drawings can be enhanced with watercolor pencils.

The video below by Kirsty Partridge is a great, short tutorial of these techniques in action.

Details, Details

For super sharp details, sharpen the pencil to a fine point, and lay in your drawing using a light touch on dry, hot press paper.  Here's a closeup of the detail in a Carolina Wren painting I did.  I started with very sharp watercolor pencils, then used a wet brush to go over some of the area to blend and smooth the colors:

I used Fabriano 140 lb hot press paper.  I was pleased with the overall finished result (see below). Laying in the details was much easier using the pencils.

And here's a badger done all in watercolor pencil.  I kept my pencils very sharp and they did a great job on the fur markings.

Badger in watercolor pencil

I'll add more thoughts on how to use watercolor pencils as I learn more over time, so check back every so often.

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