How to Use Watercolor Pencils: A Brief Overview for Beginners
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 5 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 medium that marries both techniques — watercolor pencils. Watercolor pencils 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.

What Are Watercolor Pencils?

Watercolor pencils are a fantastic hybrid medium that combines drawing with painting. They're essentially colored pencils that contain water-soluble pigments rather than pigments that are bound with wax or oil binders. This means that after you lay down your drawing on the paper, the colored lines and areas can be activated by a paintbrush dipped in water. The result will resemble a watercolor painting.

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.

Pro Tip: The higher quality of watercolor pencil you use, 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.

  • 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!

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?

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.

How much water should I use to activate the pencil pigment?

Before you start your first painting, you should take the time to experiment with how much 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.

As you continue to practice, you’ll get a feel for how much water you’ll need on the brush to create a thin wash on the page versus a fine line detail with more saturated pigment.

How do I know if watercolor pencils are a good medium for my artistic practice?

As with any artistic medium, you really need to try it to see if it’s a good fit. Watercolor pencils are excellent for beginners because they require very few art supplies, are portable, and are non-toxic. They may also appeal to artists who prefer to sketch out or draw their composition before painting versus an artist who prefers to just begin with paint.In the end, the most important thing to do when trying different mediums is to keep an open mind while learning new techniques. Making mistakes is part of the creative process, and it usually paves the way for innovation and incredible artwork. Be sure to visit our watercolor pencil workshops on Daisie to discover more about this exciting practice.