How to Use Watercolor Pencils

Painting with watercolor paints can create some beautiful art that has a professional feel to it, and that gives you the flexibility to create a wide range of different effects. But while that’s true, paint is always going to be a less convenient and slightly more challenging medium as compared with colored pencils. This is what makes watercolor pencils a perfect solution: they offer all of the convenience and flexibility of pencils, but with the same beautiful end result of paints.

In this guide, you will learn how to use watercolor pencils to create some stunning works of art of your own. If you’re an experienced artist, then you’ll find watercolor pencils can be a fantastic addition to your repertoire, giving you another creative tool to lean on. If you’re relatively new to sketching and painting, then you’ll find that watercolor pencils are a forgiving and fun way to get started!

Watercolor Pencils: The Basics

Watecolored pencils look and act a lot like regular colored-pencils. The big difference is that they use water-soluble binders to hold the pigments together, instead of the usual wax or oil. That means that when you apply water to the image, it will soften and spread just like a watercolor paint. The downside of this though, is that it can make the colors slightly more difficult to blend than their wax or oil-based counterparts.

When applying water to an image drawn with watercolor pencils, the resulting effect is similar to watercolor paint – but not identical. There are some distinct properties between these two tools, and understanding those differences is important in order to get the best end result.

While watercolor pencils offer many of the same benefits as watercolor paints – giving you the opportunity to blend colors together, fade them out, and create some beautiful paints – they do have some properties that make them significantly different.

For instance, you will find when using watercolor pencils, it is better to use a few light layers of color, rather than to use lots of heavier layers as you might do with paint.

You’ll also find that watercolor pencils dry more quickly than paints. This means that they will need you to act a lot more quickly in order to create the effects that you want to achieve!

Why They’re Great

There are a lot of features of watercolor pencils that make them appealing to work with.

The first – as I alluded to in the intro – is that they give that “artistic feel” that comes from watercolor, without sacrificing practicality. You don’t need a jug of water, clean brushes, and an easel to work with these pencils (as we’ll see in a moment). You won’t need a palette, the amount of water you use will be much less, and you won’t get paint on everything! You can do this on the train, which isn’t really an option for paints… This also makes the watercolor pencil a brilliant medium for capturing views and natural scenes when out and about.

Of course, you have the option of using these pencils dry, just like any other!

Another advantage is that watercolor pencils allow you to be much more precise in the way that you add color and shape. That’s because a watercolor pencil can be sharpened, unlike a paintbrush. If you want to add a little color to an extremely thin line, then you can use a pencil in order to add that detail. This is an argument for using pencils in addition to traditional watercolors too!

But while this is true, the softer surface of the watercolor pencil means that it is also very well suited to covering a large area very quickly. In fact, you can quickly color a large amount of space with a watercolor much more easily than you can do with a wax or oil-based pencil.

You can also achieve some unique effects with watercolor pencils that you won’t be able to manage any other way. That’s because you can create the texture and pattern you want with the pencil, but then still mix the colors like paint.

Leave some portions of your image dry while making others wet, and you can create an interesting “hybrid” image! Combine with paints as mentioned, and you create more options still.

How to Use Watercolor Pencils

To get started with watercolor pencils, you will simply need to put them to paper and start drawing! As mentioned, you can use watercolor pencil just like you would any other pencil, and that means that you don’t need any special set-up before you get started!

If you want to sketch a dry image, then you will go about this just as you would do with any other set of pencils.

Activating the Colors

Otherwise, the most common way to begin activating the pencil colors (our fancy term for wetting the colors and mixing them up) is simply to grab a slightly wet brush and to start painting over what you’ve created.

While making your initial sketch, it’s a good idea to think in terms of what you want to mix and what you’re going to lighten. Place two colors next to each other for instance, and then you can take a wet brush to them and mix them slightly. Or if you want to create a faded sky with darker and lighter patches, you can cover the full area with a blue pencil, and then activate certain areas to create gradients and darker patches.

As you work over the area with your brush, you’ll find that you remove the pencil strokes and create a more paint-like appearance. However, you need to make sure not to overwork the area that you’re painting, because this will risk causing tears, frills, or frays in the paper.

Note as well that you won’t usually be able to completely remove the look of the pencil. This is not the aim, and as such, you will not be able to “trick” anyone into thinking that your image was painted with watercolors. That said, this should not be the aim of your sketching anyway! This is a separate medium with different benefits; so lean into that!

Adding Depth

You can also add depth to your image by placing more color on top of what you have already drawn, and then adding more water. The key here is to make sure that the color is completely dry before you start adding more layers on top. Otherwise, you will find that the color starts to get absorbed immediately, which will result in a messy appearance.

When coloring your image for the first time, it’s good practice to keep your colors as light and as gently applied as possible. Remember that you can always come back and add more color later on. However, it is not so easy to remove color!

Likewise, once the initial layer is dry, you will also be able to add a little more detail over the top of the color by using your sharpened pencils. For example, if you are drawing a metallic panel, then you could activate the greys and blues to create that metallic sheen, and then use a sharp pencil on top to bring out details like dents, scratches, and perhaps a few bolts and nails!

Tips for Getting the Very Most From Your Watercolors

There are a number of tips that you will learn as you go, that will help you to improve your skill working with watercolor pencils. This section will share some of the best tips, which will help you get to that level of mastery all the quicker!

Get Watercolor Paper

If you are used to working with watercolor pencils and you only intend to apply a light amount of color, then you can actually work just fine with regular paper. That said, it is always better to use watercolor paper where possible, as this is thicker and more resilient and won’t fray under the heavy application of water and paint. This lets you get more creative, and results in a better looking final image.

Go Light to Dark

When activating your pencils, you should always aim to travel from light to dark. That means you’ll add water to the areas you want to be lighter first, and then move onto the areas you want to be darker. This prevents the dark areas from spilling into the light areas and overwhelming them. Remember: you can always go darker, but the reverse is not so easy!

Another Approach

While using a paintbrush is one approach, there is actually another approach that is a little more subtle but that can result in a great effect: to use your tongue!

No, I’m not suggesting that you start licking your art! Instead, take your thumb, lick it, and then use that to smear and to rub the area where you want to activate the color.

Of course, this isn’t going to work particularly well if you have a large landscape drawing and you want to create lots of areas of gradient and fading (in the grass and sky for instance). BUT if you are making a small pencil sketch that has a light use of color, and you want to add just a little bit of a more dynamic lighting effect… then this becomes an option.

This is how you can use your watercolor pencils to amazing effect without needing anything extra – like I said, you can do it on the train!

Make a Sample Chart

A sample chart is a page that contains all your colors and different gradients achieved with them. This should also show the activated color and the regular color. This is important, seeing as colors can look very different when they’re wet and once they’ve dried. This will allow you to get a better idea of what effect your color is going to have before you start to apply it!

Less is More

As a general rule, using a little less can have an amazing effect. For instance, draw the outline of a character with a heavier dark pencil, and then add just a little color around the edges. Now activate that color with a thumb or a brush, and rub it gently into the center. If half of the image remains white, this can still create an amazing effect, that lets the user’s imagination fill in the rest.

Advanced Techniques

As you get used to working with watercolor pencils, there are a number of advanced techniques you can start to employ. For instance, you can control color intensity in a number of ways: by altering the pencil pressure or by drawing denser or looser lines. You’ll also be able to alter the amount of water you use, and of course, the darkness of the pencil to begin with!

Wet or dry lifting are techniques you can use to lighten a patch – though you shouldn’t rely on this method. Blot the area with a dry brush while it is wet and this will absorb some of the color. If it is already dry, then you can add a little more water to activate it once again.

Blending is the process of combining two colors by applying a little water to spread the lighter color into the darker one. This is a great way to create a more 3D and natural looking transition between colors, and it will become one of your go-to moves as you progress.

Another interesting option is to try scraping files off of your pencil onto the page. This will scatter a wide area with a light amount of color you can then activate. This is ideal for filling spaces such as skies and oceans, and it means there will be no visible brush strokes at all.

Closing Comments

Many people find that once they discover watercolor pencils, they tap into reserves of artistic talent they never knew they had! This is a flexible, versatile, and accessible way to begin creating amazing works of art. So give it a try!