Watercolor pencils are very similar to traditional colored pencils except the "lead" of the watercolor type are made from water-soluble pigments instead of the wax or oil-based material found in regular colored pencils.
Although you can pick out and purchase single pencils in the larger art stores, they are mostly offered in sets. The better brands include Caran D’Arche, Derwent, Daler-Rowney, Prismacolor, Faber-Castell's Albrecht Durer, and Staedtler. In addition, within some brands, there are different product intensities. For instance, Derwent offers an “inktense” intense color sub-brand.
There are also different forms of pencils. You can buy watercolor pencil “sticks” which are just the pigment without the wood case, and Caran D’Arche offers a watercolor crayon in bright colors.
I use mostly Derwent pencils because that’s what I bought originally. I have a set of the Caran D’Arche
crayons, which I haven’t used as much. I think if you are just starting
out, any of these brands will be fine. If you have access to a large art
store in your area, buy one or two of each and experiment to discover your preference.
Using watercolor pencils is very similar to painting with watercolor paint, but it can be hard on watercolor paper. If you plan on really laying down a lot of color using a pencil, the watercolor paper you choose has to be tough enough to take that “scratching” treatment. You might want to try a 300-lb watercolor paper.
If you want your painting to achieve a smooth result when you paint water over the pencil marks, you may want to avoid using a really rough paper. I found a hot press paper helps with a smooth result.
Other supplies you'll
find helpful include a sturdy electric pencil sharpener, one
or two watercolor brushes and paper or cloth towels.
There are many ways to use watercolor pencils, and I discuss some of those on my how to use watercolor pencils page. In addition, here are some common questions and answers that are asked about these pencils.
Yes, the pencils can be used to draw or shade just as you would any pencil on dry paper. After an area is colored with the pencil, you can then go back with a wet paintbrush and activate and smooth the color with water.
Yes, as long as they have not been moistened and the color was applied with light to medium pressure. Some artists recommend using poster putty to erase watercolor pencil marks. I find a gray, soft kneaded eraser works the best, and a Pink Pearl eraser also works well. A black kneaded eraser was not as effective. Once I wet the pencil strokes, they went to watercolor paint mode, and could not be erased. You might be able to lift the paint out with a wet brush at that point, if the color is a non-staining type.
Yes. Many artists dip the tip of the pencil in water before applying it to the paper. It creates a stronger, deeper stroke of color. The same thing will happen if you draw on wet paper with these pencils. You can also take a wet paint brush and touch the tip of the pencil to get a similar effect.
Yes, you can blend as many colors as you like and any manner that you choose. It helps to draw the gradient or blend as a fade by pressing harder for a darker color and release the pressure as you move to the lighter area. Then when you add the water, start at the lightest area with just a barely wet brush and then work towards the more concentrated areas of dry color. In addition, you can layer color using watercolor pencils, just as you can with paint. This artist's video is a good example of how to blend watercolor pencils.
You can use an manual or electric pencil sharpener just as you would for regular pencils. Note that some watercolor pencils are larger in diameter than regular pencils so keep that in mind when you are buying a sharpener. You can also use a very sharp craft knife if you don't want to waste the pigment. Some artists use the side of the pencil to shade so that the point is automatically kept up.
I took this little cat painting I did with watercolor paint and enhanced it with watercolor pencils. The control the pencils provide makes them great for hair and fur markings. I then went over some of the areas with a wet brush to soften the fur and deepened the eye color.
You can get some great fur effects with watercolor pencils. Here's a coyote I did recently with various earth toned pencils.