Technique of the Week — Watercolour Pencils

 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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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That’s it for Technique of the Week — I hope you’ve found this enjoyable and informative!

All text and images © Karen Gillmore 2014

25 responses to “Technique of the Week — Watercolour Pencils

  1. This is a terrific article!!! I am brand new to water color pencils, wanting to use them with/on my art quilts and have been trolling the net for info. I am not a painter, so this is all new to me! Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge!!! p.s. I will pass this on to my artist friend, who does paint and never heard of these pencils and is planning an art trip!!! Joan

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    • Hi Joan, thanks! I’m glad you found it useful, and thanks for passing it on to your friend. When you say using them “on” your art quilts, do you mean actually incorporating pencil colouring on the fabric? Not sure how permanent that would be, but should be fine if they were not intended to be washed. Perhaps some sort of spray fixative, like that intended for pastels, might help their durability, though that would affect the fabric texture. If you try this, I’d love know how it comes out!

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      • Hi Karen! Nice to meet you and I loved this article! Yes, I have done so already. I am new at this technique and the other info. gleaned off the net has varied thoughts on this. Some say to just heat set it and others say to use a medium such as ” Jacquard colorless extender #100″, etc. Not being a painter, I am not familiar with these……
        I am already trying them out and also have used regular sharpies to gain the effects I want. So far it is working out quite nicely! On some of them I will definitely use a medium to be sure the colors are set, especially when I make the skies! and waters…….your tut did me a lot of good! Looking forward to following your blog as I am getting back into drawing again too! Thanks much! Joan

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  2. Thanks for the info, Joan — the sharpies sound interesting too! I gather you don’t have a blog yourself, but if you ever do, you could document your own experiments and research — Now I want to try these out on fabric myself. I didn’t know what the colourless extender was either, but I know Jacquard makes textile paints, so that makes sense. It’s probably the equivalent of acrylic medium for painters — the binder that the pigments are added to. I think Jacquard paints are acrylic-based.

    And thanks for the follow! Please keep in touch and let me know how your experiment comes out. Have fun getting back into drawing — if you ever have any questions I could try to answer them, and you might find some of my other posts helpful in one way or another. Best of luck in your art journey!

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    • I have a bunch of websites saved in my favorites that detail the tech. on fabrics…….how to forward them to you??? It is probably best to have the fabric washed first and slightly damp or wet for application….it also depends on what you are doing too. I have been adding texture to my harvested corn stalks/fields….so this was applied dry and then dabbed w/ water………so adding fine detail. Next will be very different…..creating sky and water……this will be done wet ….broad brush strokes of color tones……
      go to Amazon for the medium…..the reviews will be good guides as what is best [ that is what I will do]
      No, I don’t have a blog……..maybe I should! I sure do a lot of odd ball stuff! [ I sew professionally] and get my hands involved in a lot of art quilt ideas, techniques, process’.etc…..
      Nice chatting with you! Joan

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      • If you’d like to send them to me, you can send them through the “drop me a line” tab in the top menu – I’d love to see them, but only if it’s not a lot of trouble for you. I should do some internet sleuthing myself!

        If you ever do start a blog, be sure to let me know — sounds like you’ve got a lot of interesting projects on the go!

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      • Oh fun, thanks! I noticed you had seen my Facebook post about colouring books for adults. I’ll share these with that thread. I guess I’m going to have to jump on the colouring book bandwagon!

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  3. Thanks so much for your quick reply. I have a complete set, so I’ll pick out your recommendations. I’m trying to limit my colours for our 500 mile trek on the Camino. Can’t live without my art. Might consider the Graphitints, though, like the subdued palette, but I’ll be sure to throw in a yellow. Still tempted to haul a little watercolour set, but weight is a factor. Pencils are 6gms each.

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    • You’re welcome! And I’m envious — that’s a trip I’d love to do. Here’s a tip someone gave me to reduce even more weight: only take pencils that are worn down to about half — they’ll easily last you the trip (don’t try sawing them down, though, the vibration might affect the integrity of the core and make it break). I also bought a set of cheap pencils (can’t remember the brand) that had one colour on one end and another on the other, so you could take half as many pencils. I don’t think they were watercolour pencils, though.
      If you decide for watercolours instead, Winsor-Newton makes a lovely little travel box that is actually a good bit lighter than a box of pencils. Many art stores carry these.
      http://www.winsornewton.com/na/shop/water-colour/water-colour-sets/cotman-water-colours-sketchers-pocket-box-set-0390640

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  4. I have a WN travel set but it weights 152 gms, that equates to a lot of pencils in a baggie. My daughter said she’d loan me her smaller Cotman set. I did however, order the graphitints after our last messages. I LOVE the way the colours look. It was a moment of weakness. That’s a good suggestion re half pencils. I’m looking forward to our journey, however, I broke my ankle 3 weeks ago and will only have been out of the cast 4 weeks before we officially start. I’m optimistic, though. Looking forward to delving more deeply into your blog.

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    • Whew, you are brave! But do your physio, and take it easy, and you’ll be fine (I went camping not long after knee surgery — the trick is knowing when to stop).

      Be sure to test out the graphitints in advance — they act a bit different than other watercolour pencils: very subtle when applied dry, but deep rich colours when wet. You’ll get the hang of it!

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  6. Hi Karen….liked your tutorial very much.I am a beginner regarding painting though I have been sketching and colouring before with pencil colours and sketchpen etc. in childhood.Now I want to continue my passion but hassle free and so I found your tutorial of watercolor pencils very interesting.

    Now I have a small (and maybe silly) question that while showing shadows which colors can be used ?? Do we always have to use shades of grey and black ? Means how to be sure which color to be used in which drawing ?

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    • Hi Malini, I’m glad you enjoyed the tutorial! I’m just heading off to Saskatoon for a convention (with my watercolour pencils!), so will have to keep this short for now.

      Grey and black are not actually the best go-to colours for shadows, though they can be useful in certain situations. I generally use indigo or purple to create shadows, blending them with the colours of the object or landscape to darken and tone down the existing colour. The general rule of thumb for shadows (and rules are more like guidelines!) is to use cool colours (blue) to create shadows when the light is warm (like in sun or incandescent light) and warm colours (such as purple or warm brown) to create shadows when the light is cool (cloudy days, fluorescent lighting). I don’t always follow this exactly, as I’m not always trying to be realistic, and light and shadow is somewhat more complex than that, but it’s a place to start. Sometimes just a darker shade of the object’s colour works well for shading. Fool around with these ideas, and you will find the methods that work for you!

      Hope this was helpful; feel free to ask more questions. I probably won’t be able to get back to you for a few days, but will check when I get back.

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  8. Thank you so much for this information! Very helpful to me. I am fairly new to watercolor and still getting used to it but wanted to try watercolor pencils for their portability and ease in use with drawing. I have set of Albert Durer watercolor pencils given to me but they have like 72 colors in that kit. I mainly sketch in the go while traveling or on my farm so I can’t feasibly take that many pencils with me. Can you give me an idea of which ines I should take that are essential? Like what colors and which ines? Thank you so much for your time.

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    • Hi Paige — sorry to take so long to get back to you — I’ve been very sick for the last several weeks! Getting better now and picking up the threads again.

      Not knowing what the colours are named in your set, I can only suggest generally. I would start with couple of different reds (an orangy-red and one that leans more to magenta), a couple of different blues (a greeny one and a warmer one, like ultramarine), and a couple of different yellows (one a lemon-type yellow and one golden-yellow). Then I would fill in with some earth colours: a dark and a light brown, and a terra-cotta or burnt sienna. I use indigo and dark purple pencils a lot for shadows (I very rarely use black, but it does come in handy sometimes too). That gives you about a dozen pencils, which fits handily into a small pencil bag, with your waterbrush and a pencil sharpener.

      All the best for your travel sketching!

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      • Sorry you have felt under the weather but thank you for responding. Glad you are feeling better. Thank you for your suggestions! I was a little overwhelmed trying to pick and choose from all those colors! Can’t wait to choose my set and get started!

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        • Yes, 72 is a pretty overwhelming pile o’ pencils! My biggest set of watercolour pencils (Derwents) only has half that. I’d love to try the F-Cs sometime. Have fun, and if you have any more questions, feel free to ask — and if you’re showing off your work online anywhere, also feel free to post a link here!

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