How to Use Watercolor Pencils: A Brief Overview for Beginners
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read

A brief introduction to the basics of watercolor pencils with detailed suggestions on how to experiment and get comfortable with this drawing and painting hybrid medium.

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While you've certainly heard of colored pencils and watercolor paints, you might not be quite as familiar with the art medium that marries both techniques — watercolor pencils. Watercolor pencils come in a range of colors and are the perfect transition medium for drawing artists looking to paint as you begin your painting by drawing it! They are also great for artists who have tried watercolor painting before but became frustrated or discouraged by the lack of control over their pigment-to-water ratio. This unique medium offers great versatility and yields stunning watercolor paintings — all you need is a little practice.

Watercolor pencils are a fascinating medium that combines the qualities of colored pencils and watercolor paints. If you haven't encountered them before, they provide a seamless transition for drawing artists interested in exploring painting. With watercolor pencils, you can commence your artwork by sketching it out on a piece of paper. This versatility is particularly beneficial for experienced artists who seek more control over their pigment-to-water ratio, having possibly felt frustrated or discouraged with traditional watercolor techniques. By practicing with watercolor pencils, you'll discover a wide range of possibilities and unlock the potential to create stunning watercolor paintings using a variety of techniques. The following article will outline all the necessary steps needed to create a watercolor pencil drawing.

What Are Watercolor Pencils?

Watercolor pencils are a unique medium that allows for a variety of techniques and precise lines. Unlike regular or graphite pencils, these pencils contain water-soluble pigments, offering a range of vibrant colors. To activate the pigments, simply dip the pencil into water and apply it to watercolor paper. However, it's important to note that regular pencils won't achieve the desired effect on watercolor paper. Embrace the versatility of watercolor pencils and explore their potential with the right tools and paper.

The water color pencils contain water-soluble pigments, providing artists with a vibrant palette to work with. By dipping the pencil into water or applying water directly onto the paper, the pigments become activated, transforming the pencil marks into fluid and expressive watercolor-like strokes. The choice of watercolor paper is crucial for achieving optimal results, as it is designed to withstand the wet surface and facilitate the blending and layering of colors. This unique combination of pencil and watercolor techniques allows artists to create stunning watercolor pencil art, merging the control of a pencil with the flowing nature of watercolors. It's worth noting that only a minimal amount of water is required for activation, making it a versatile and easily manageable medium. The application of water can be adjusted to achieve different effects, from delicate washes to more pronounced color diffusion. This hybrid medium opens up a world of possibilities for artists to explore and experiment with, pushing the boundaries of traditional art techniques.

What Art Supplies Do I Need?

  • Watercolor Pencil Set: They usually come in sets ranging from 12 colors up to 120 different colors. The type of set you'll need will be based on the level of detail in your painting and also if you prefer to mix your colors by blending or not. Aquarelle pencils are a great option for watercolor artists who want to achieve vivid, vibrant hues in their artwork. Compared to other watercolor pencils, aquarelle pencils have a higher concentration of pigment, resulting in brighter colors that blend exceptionally well.

Pro Tip: The higher quality of watercolor pencil, such as aquarelle pencils, the less likely there will be a grainy appearance of the pigment on paper after applying the water wash.

  • Watercolor Paper:Ideally, you'll need a high-quality cold-press watercolor paper to hold up to the amount of water you'll use on the surface and to maintain its shape. (Note: If you use the wrong paper type, it could tear when wet or bubble when dry, ruining your painting)
  • Watercolor Brushes: The sizes you choose should be determined by both the size and scale of your work. Small brushes work better for fine details, and larger brushes are fantastic for covering larger surface areas more quickly.

Pro Tip: There are also brushes available that you can pre-fill with water, called water brushes. Their brush heads also come in many of the same shapes and sizes as traditional watercolor paintbrushes. The difference between watercolor pencils and water brushes lies in the control over water application.

  • Pencil Sharpener:Electric or manual both work great. It's just important to always keep your pencils sharp to achieve those crisp lines and easy blending.
  • Optional Tools:Paper towels for soaking up excess water. Washi or Painter's Tape to section off areas where you need a distinct line or border around your painting.

How Should I Start? Test out activating the colors!

Test out activating the colors

Many YouTube videos show you how to get familiar with your watercolor pencil set. Some of the best ones recommend that you begin by creating a color chart or grid to test out the feel, look, and final result of each hue. After labeling where each color should go on your chart, use the pencil to create a gradient by pressing harder to leave more on the left, and as you move right, lessen the pressure on the pencil. Repeat this for every color in your set on the chart. Next, take a small damped paintbrush and lightly brush over the colored area, but this time moving from right to left. This will keep your gradient intact with the darker, more intense hue on the left and the faded “wash” look on the right.

The darker and heavier you apply the pencil pigment on the paper, the deeper and richer hues you'll achieve after applying the water. The opposite is also true. The lighter you apply the pencil pigment on the paper, the softer and less saturated the color will be when you activate the pigments with water.

You can also experiment with layering two or more colors and then activate the pigments to combine with a light wash of water from your brush. Practicing in this way should improve your confidence in blending and incorporating multiple hues into your painting. It may also be handy to have this archived in your color chart for future projects.

Pro Tip: When using watercolor pencils, it's best to create at least two charts: One chart that uses each watercolor pencil with a water wash, and a second chart that experiments with overlapping two or more pencil colors with the wash. Keeping these charts handy removes the guesswork from your projects and allows you to quickly remember how to achieve an ideal hue.

What Are Some Watercolor Pencil Techniques I can try? And How Do I Draw Using Watercolor Pencils?

Draw Using Watercolor Pencils

Pencil Pressure: The more pressure you apply to the pencil, the more pigment you will leave on the paper. Try experimenting by using the same color in two separate sections: on the left, apply a great deal of pressure, and on the right side, press very lightly. Once you're done, brush the water to activate the pigments and observe the varying results.

Using Lines: The closer you draw your pencil lines together, the more saturated the hue will be, whereas looser lines drawn farther apart will appear lighter and far less saturated.

Blotting: If you've made an area too dark or heavily saturated with color, you can use a paper towel to gently blot and absorb the excess pigment. Just keep in mind that the surface must still be wet for this to work effectively. You can also do this with a sponge to yield a more textured surface.Layering: Layering different colors on top of each other can create a variety of shades and unique color blends. You can apply a light layer of one color and then add a different color on top, gradually building up the intensity and depth of the color.

Wet on dry: Wetting a dry area of the paper and then applying the watercolor pencil can create a vivid and intense color. This technique works best when you want crisp and defined lines.

Dry on wet: Applying dry watercolor pencils to a wet area can create a more subdued and blended effect. This technique is great for creating soft, watery textures.

Lifting: You can partially remove pigment from a wet or dry area by using a clean, damp brush to lift off some of the color. This technique can create highlights and add dimension to your artwork.

Salt texture: Sprinkling salt on the wet pigment can create a unique texture. The salt will absorb some of the pigment and water, creating interesting patterns and texture.

Wax resist: Applying a layer of wax, such as a white wax crayon, to the paper before adding watercolor pencil can create a resist effect, where the watercolor pigment will not adhere to the waxy area. This can create interesting textures and designs in your artwork.

Before you start your first painting, you should take the time to experiment with how much clean water you need to achieve your desired effects. If you use too much water, your colors will bleed together, and you'll lose definition in the edges or outline of the objects you are painting. If you use too little water, your pigments will not fully activate or blend on the page and may appear streaky. It's essential to remember that watercolor pencils are break resistant, so you don't want to use too much pressure when applying pigment to the paper. Instead, use light pressure and gradually build up the color and texture.

As you continue to practice, you'll develop a sense of how much water you need to use to create a range of effects. You can experiment with adding a little water at a time until you achieve your desired hue and intensity. Additionally, you can adjust the pressure, speed, and angle of your brush to vary the amount of water and pigment on the paper for different effects. With regular practice and experimentation, you'll gain the confidence and control needed to create stunning watercolor pencil artwork.

How Do I Know If Watercolor Pencils Are A Good Medium For My Artistic Practice?

Good Medium For Artistic Practice

Watercolor pencils are a unique and versatile artistic medium that can be used on both wet and dry paper. Unlike regular colored pencils, watercolor pencils have a water-soluble binder, which means that when activated with water from a wet brush, they can create a range of flowing, watery effects. Additionally, watercolor pencils are break-resistant and can be sharpened to a fine point, making them ideal for creating detailed drawings.

Many artists enjoy watercolor pencils because they're a beginner-friendly medium that requires very few art supplies to get started with. They're also portable and non-toxic, which make them a convenient option for sketching on-the-go. Watercolor pencils may especially appeal to those who prefer to sketch or draw their composition before painting, as it allows for more control and precision in the initial stages of the artwork.

As with any new artistic medium, the key to success with watercolor pencils is to keep an open mind and experiment with different techniques. Making mistakes is a natural part of the creative process, and often paves the way for new and innovative artwork.

Watercolor Pencil Ideas To Get You Started!

If you're a beginner artist new to watercolor pencils, there are several techniques and ideas that can help you get started.

One idea is to experiment with a bit of water and a dry pencil to create different levels of saturation and color intensity. A great beginner technique is to use a dry pencil to create initial pencil marks on dry paper. Then, introduce a wet brush to activate the pigment and create beautiful effects such as soft edges, gradients and more.

Another idea is to use a combination of dry and wet techniques to create finer details and texture in a painting. Simply adding a bit of water to select areas of your dry paper can help enhance details, add definition to your painting and create beautiful effects.

As a beginner artist exploring watercolor pencils, it's important to be aware of the break resistance of your chosen brand. Many watercolor pencils used by beginner artists have excellent break resistance, meaning they won't snap easily under pressure.

Finally, don't be afraid to experiment with using regular colored pencils in combination with your watercolor pencils. Incorporating different types of pencils can create unique effects and textures in your painting.

By following these step-by-step techniques and embracing the versatility of watercolor pencils, you'll gradually develop your skills and create artwork that showcases the vibrant colors, finer details, and captivating effects achievable with this fascinating medium.

Overall, the key to using watercolor pencils effectively as a beginner is to experiment with different techniques and ideas, and to have fun! As you continue to practice, you'll discover your own style and approach to creating stunning watercolor pencil artwork. If you're interested in learning more about watercolor pencils, be sure to visit Hope Christofferson's workshop on how to create an ethereal mermaid piece of art using watercolor.