I’ve been blogging for 7 whole days now and feel the need of a rest. I’ve been teaching today, and that has led to an inspiration — I proclaim Saturday to be Technique of the Week Day! Each week I’ll post from the huge collection of teaching handouts that I have written over the years once a week, on Saturdays, as a regular feature, as long as they last. So, without further ado, here’s my “Introduction to Watercolour Pencils”, with some paintings that I have done using this technique.
Introduction to Watercolour Pencils
Watercolour pencils, also called aquarelle pencils or water-soluble pencils, are essentially sticks of watercolour pigment encased in wood like a pencil. The formulation of the binder (the “glue” that sticks the pigment together) allows ready re-wetting as well as dry use, so they can be used as either coloured pencils or as watercolour. Their strength as a medium lies in their ability to combine the two effects.
Watercolour pencils have been around for quite a while, but until recently, the colour selection was very limited. Now that they are available in an increasingly large range of colours, watercolour artists have started looking at them as a portable, clean alternative to watercolours for field work (they are great for travel and painting en plein air!), and coloured pencil artists are able to add the element of direct-from-the-pencil washes to their repertoire without resorting to the toxic solvents needed to do this with regular coloured pencils.
In addition to standard watercolour pencils, there are other types of water-soluble drawing mediums, ranging from water-soluble graphite pencils to woodless water-soluble pencils and even crayons. Some are softer than others, and the best kind to choose is whatever makes you feel most comfortable in your drawing. You can test out the different kinds by buying one pencil from each brand from open stock and comparing how they work in an actual drawing.
The best kind of paper for watercolour pencils is also a matter of personal preference and the techniques of the individual artist. Because it is a wet medium, a good quality watercolour paper is preferred if you are going to work very wet, since it will not buckle so much. The drawback to watercolour paper is that is often has a pronounced texture (except for hot-pressed paper) which can get in the way if you are trying to achieve a smooth drawing or a lot of detail. The paper I recommend for my workshops is Rising Stonehenge, a heavy-duty drawing and printmaking paper, which handles a certain amount of water well. If you intend to work very wet, a board and masking tape are helpful to allow the paper to dry smoothly. You can also press it under weights (a couple of heavy books will do it) between two clean sheets of paper after it is almost dry. Experiment with different papers to find the ones you like best for your style.
Ways of working in watercolour pencils:
Dry pencils on dry paper: you can just leave the drawing dry, or wet lightly to keep the texture; or use more water to increase the watercolour effect.
Wet pencil on dry paper: you can wet the tip of the pencil by dipping in water, or with your brush, to create a bold wet stroke, which lightens as the water runs out. Try not to get too much of the wood pencil wet, as it will swell and can cause problems with sharpening it. If you like this technique, you may want to try woodless aquarelles or crayons to avoid the wet-wood problem and get more paint on the brush at one time.
Dry pencil on wet paper: wet the paper in one area or all over, and draw bold, broad lines with your pencils. There will be some bleed, depending on how wet the paper is; this can create some lovely effects but is a little harder to control – just go with the flow! Be gentle if you use very sharp pencils when the paper is wet if you don’t want to create indented lines.
Wet pencil on wet paper: will make even bolder lines than dry on wet, with a bit more bleed.
Dry over wet wash; you can lay down the general colours of your painting with wet techniques, then finish up the details with dry pencil.
Layering effects: you can layer more pencil washes over previous washes either wet or dry. Waiting until the previous wash is dry will allow more of a glazing effect and reduce the risk of muddying the colours. The washes do not seem to “move” (rewet) as much as with watercolours, so you are not as likely to lose previous edges and details by a glaze wash.
Shavings for speckled effects: wet the paper in the area desired (essentially you are painting your shapes with water). Then sand your pencil tip with sandpaper and tilt the dust onto your wet areas. After it is dry you can blow the non-wetted dust away. If you want a larger texture, shave the pencil tip with a mat knife. This is great for depicting textures that you would do with a spatter in regular watercolour, such as sand and rocks.
Make a palette: scribble colours heavily on a scrap piece of paper, then use this as you would a traditional watercolour palette to pick up colours and transfer them to your drawing with a brush. You can also pick up colour directly from the pencil with a brush if you like.
The colours in watercolour pencils, when activated with water, become more intense and sometimes even show a colour shift. Until you are familiar with your colours, test them before adding water. Make a chart of your colours, both wet and dry, and keep it with your pencils for reference.
If you need to lighten a colour, you can either lay it down very lightly, or you can underlay it with white prior to activating it with water. To make the colour more intense, lay down a heavier layer. To make it darker or to make a colour you don’t have in your collection, combine two or more colours right on the paper or on a separate palette sheet.
Be sure to keep the pencil tips clean if you are mixing colours — wipe them with your brush, or a bit of damp paper towel or rag. It can be very annoying to think you are about to lay down a nice clean yellow, and find a streak of red from your last few strokes on top of a red area!
If you are traveling light, try a waterbrush — a brush with a hollow, soft plastic handle that contains water. Gravity pulls out enough water for most uses, and if you need more, you just give it a little squeeze. To clean it you squeeze it and wipe it on a rag or paper towel. This is great for travel — a small sketchbook, a dozen coloured pencils, and a waterbrush, and you are ready to travel! I also like to carry some non-watersoluble pens such as the Pigma Microns, to make sharp, strong outlines and punch up the contrast.
Don’t forget that you can use watercolour pencils dry just as you would regular coloured pencils, layering colours and creating textures. Remember not to get your drawing wet by accident— it’s not a good medium for working in the rain!
If you want smooth effects with your pencils, colour gently and evenly with either a circular motion or in one direction. This is a good preparation coat for a smooth wash when you add the water. If you want texture, you can borrow the type of marks that are used in pen and ink or graphite drawings: crosshatching, linear strokes, and stippling (dots). If you are sparing with the water, you will retain the effects of these strokes when you wet them. You can also mix colours by layering these strokes in different colours; when you wet them the colours will blend physically, or if you choose to leave them dry, they will blend optically, like an Impressionist painting.
You can also combine watercolour pencils with other coloured pencils or watercolour, or even experiment with other mediums and techniques, such as collage, acrylics, gold leaf, stamping and printmaking, and more. Keep in mind that if you are using a wet technique, it will cause your coloured pencils to wet as well. If you use acrylic medium as the wetting agent for your pencils, they will dry permanent and insoluble, and you can do it on canvas or canvas board. If you combine watercolour pencils with regular coloured pencils, remember which ones you are using where — you don’t want to lay down non-water-soluble pencils by mistake when you want to create a wash! Special textured effects in a wet wash can be created in much the same way as in watercolour dropping in some salt or alcohol or dabbing with a sponge or other textured material, though results may vary from what you are used to in watercolour.
That’s it for Technique of the Week — I hope you’ve found this enjoyable and informative!
All text and images © Karen Gillmore 2014