How to Use Watercolor Pencils: A Comprehensive Guide for Artists

Exploring the art of watercolor pencils? These unique tools seamlessly blend the precision of colored pencils with the fluid beauty of watercolors. Offering artists the versatility to shift between intricate detailing and sweeping washes, watercolor pencils have carved a niche in the world of art.

In this guide, you’ll delve deep into their potential, learning how they can elevate your artwork and creative expressions. Join us as we navigate the captivating realm of watercolor pencils and their myriad possibilities.

Overview of Watercolor Pencils

Watercolor pencils are a versatile medium that combines the ease of using colored pencils with the fluidity and translucency of watercolors. They are essentially colored pencils that can be activated with water to create beautiful watercolor effects. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced artist, watercolor pencils offer a unique and enjoyable painting experience.

What are Watercolor Pencils?

Watercolor pencils are colored pencils that have a water-soluble pigment core. Just like regular colored pencils, they come in a wide range of colors. However, the real magic happens when you add water. When water is applied to the colored areas, the pigments dissolve and spread, giving you the ability to create soft washes and blend colors seamlessly. Watercolor pencils can be used on various surfaces, including watercolor paper, mixed media paper, and even canvas.

Advantages of Using Watercolor Pencils

  1. Control and Flexibility: Watercolor pencils allow you to have complete control over your artwork. You can use them dry for precise details and crisp lines, or activate them with water for more fluid and expressive strokes.
  2. Portability: Unlike traditional watercolors, watercolor pencils are portable and convenient. You can carry them with you wherever you go and use them without the need for additional equipment like water cups and brushes.
  3. Layering and Blending: With watercolor pencils, you can create multiple layers of colors, building up the intensity and complexity of your artwork. The pigments blend effortlessly, allowing you to achieve smooth gradients and transitions.
  4. Mistake-Friendly: One of the advantages of using watercolor pencils is their forgiving nature. If you make a mistake, you can easily lift the color or make corrections by adding more water or using an eraser. This makes them excellent for experimentation and exploration.

Different Brands and Varieties of Watercolor Pencils

There are various brands and ranges of watercolor pencils available in the market. Some popular brands include Faber-Castell, Derwent, Prismacolor, and Caran d’Ache. Each brand offers its own unique qualities and characteristics, such as the consistency of the pigment, lightfastness, and color range. It’s important to consider your personal preferences and artistic needs when selecting watercolor pencils.

Getting Started

Before you dive into creating stunning watercolor pencil art, there are a few essential considerations and preparations to ensure a successful experience.

Choosing the Right Paper

The choice of paper is crucial when it comes to working with watercolor pencils. It’s best to use a heavyweight watercolor paper specifically designed for wet media. The thickness and texture of the paper will affect how the pigments blend and react with water. Look for papers labeled as “hot-pressed” or “cold-pressed,” which offer different textures and tooth.

Selecting the Right Watercolor Pencils

When selecting watercolor pencils, consider factors such as pigment quality, color range, and lightfastness. Higher-quality pencils tend to have a higher concentration of pigments, resulting in vibrant and lightfast colors. It’s also helpful to choose a set with a wide range of colors to provide more versatility and options in your artwork.

Essential Tools and Materials

In addition to watercolor pencils and watercolor paper, there are a few essential tools and materials that will enhance your watercolor pencil experience. These include brushes of various sizes, a water container or spray bottle, a palette or mixing surface, a clean cloth or paper towel, and an eraser. These tools will help you achieve different effects and techniques as you explore the possibilities of watercolor pencils.

Basic Techniques

Once you have gathered your supplies and prepared your workspace, it’s time to start exploring the basic techniques of working with watercolor pencils.

Layering and Blending Colors

One of the fundamental techniques with watercolor pencils is layering and blending colors. Start by applying light, gentle layers of color and gradually build up the intensity. The more layers you add, the richer and more vibrant the colors will become. To blend colors, use a wet brush or a damp cloth to soften the edges and create smooth transitions between different shades.

Creating Transparent Washes

Watercolor pencils allow you to create beautiful transparent washes by dissolving the pigments with water. To achieve a transparent wash, apply a light layer of color using a light touch. Then, wet your brush and gently spread the color, allowing it to flow and blend. This technique creates a delicate, translucent effect that is characteristic of watercolor paintings.

Experimenting with Wet-on-Dry and Wet-on-Wet Techniques

Watercolor pencils offer the flexibility to experiment with different techniques. The wet-on-dry technique involves applying water to dry colored pencil marks. This technique allows for more control and precise details. On the other hand, the wet-on-wet technique involves wetting your paper with water before applying the watercolor pencils. This creates a more fluid and spontaneous effect as the colors interact with the wet surface.

Color Mixing

Understanding color theory is essential when working with watercolor pencils. By blending different colors, you can create an endless array of hues, tones, and shades.

Understanding Color Theory

Color theory refers to the study of how colors interact and relate to each other. It involves understanding the color wheel, primary colors, secondary colors, complementary colors, and color harmonies. By having a basic understanding of color theory, you can create harmonious and visually appealing artwork.

Blending Primary Colors to Create Secondary Colors

Using the primary colors – red, blue, and yellow – you can mix and blend them to create a wide range of secondary colors. For example, mixing blue and yellow will result in green, red and blue create purple, and red and yellow produce orange. By experimenting with different combinations and ratios, you can achieve unique and vibrant color blends.

Creating Tints and Shades

In addition to blending colors, watercolor pencils allow you to create tints and shades. A tint is a color mixed with white, creating a lighter and softer version of the original color. On the other hand, a shade is a color mixed with black, resulting in a deeper and darker variation. Tints and shades add depth and dimension to your artwork, allowing you to create highlights and shadows.

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Creating Different Textures

Watercolor pencils offer various techniques to create different textures and visual effects in your artwork.

Using Different Pressure and Strokes

Varying the pressure and stroke of your watercolor pencils can create different textures and mark-making in your artwork. Applying more pressure will result in bolder and more saturated colors, while lighter pressure creates softer and more delicate strokes. Experiment with different pressures and strokes to add texture and interest to your artwork.

Exploring Cross-Hatching and Stippling

Cross-hatching and stippling are two common techniques used in watercolor pencil art to create texture and depth. Cross-hatching involves creating intersecting lines, while stippling involves creating small dots or dashes. These techniques can add realism, dimension, and complexity to your artwork, whether you’re portraying the texture of fur, foliage, or other detailed elements.

Adding Texture with Salt or Alcohol

Another unique way to add texture to your watercolor pencil artwork is by using salt or alcohol. Sprinkling salt on wet paint creates interesting and unpredictable patterns as the salt absorbs the water. Alcohol can be used to create textures and effects by dropping or diluting the watercolor pencils with alcohol. These techniques provide an experimental element to your artwork and can yield fascinating results.

Working with Water

Water is a key element when using watercolor pencils, and understanding how to control water intensity is essential for achieving the desired effects.

Wetting the Pencil Tips

To activate your watercolor pencils, you can wet the tips of the pencils with water. This will loosen the pigment and allow it to transfer onto the paper more easily. By dipping your pencil tip in water or using a wet brush to pick up the pigment, you can create a watercolor-like effect directly on your artwork.

Using Brushes and Water Sprays

Brushes play a crucial role in working with watercolor pencils. Different brush sizes and shapes offer different application techniques and textural effects. Use brushes to apply water to the paper or to blend and spread the pigments already on the paper. Water sprays can also be used to mist the paper, creating interesting droplet patterns or softening the colors.

Controlling Water Intensity

Controlling the intensity of water is vital in achieving the desired effect in your watercolor pencil artwork. More water dilutes the pigments and creates a lighter wash, while less water results in a more saturated and intense color. Experiment with the amount of water you use, keeping in mind the different effects it produces on the paper.

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Special Techniques

While the basic techniques offer a solid foundation, there are additional special techniques that can take your watercolor pencil artwork to the next level.

Emphasizing Highlights with Masking Fluid

Masking fluid is a liquid substance that creates a temporary barrier on the paper. By applying it to areas you want to keep white or preserve, you can protect those areas while you work on the rest of your artwork. Once the masking fluid dries, you can freely apply watercolor pencils over it. Once you’re done, gently remove the masking fluid to reveal the untouched highlights.

Lifting Colors with Erasers

Watercolor pencils can be lifted or removed from the paper using various erasing techniques. A clean eraser can lighten or completely remove pigment, allowing you to correct mistakes or create highlights. Experiment with different types of erasers and techniques to lift colors selectively and add depth to your artwork.

Creating Drybrush Effects

The drybrush technique involves using a relatively dry brush or a minimal amount of water to create texture and highlights on dry paper. By dragging a lightly damp brush over the paper, you can create broken strokes, texture, and details. Drybrush techniques are perfect for adding fine texture to surfaces like wood, fabric, or hair.

Adding Details

Once you have practiced and mastered the basic and special techniques, it’s time to focus on adding details and refining your artwork.

Using Finer Tips and Sharpening Techniques

Watercolor pencils often come with different tip sizes, including finer tips suitable for adding intricate details. Use these finer tips to refine your artwork, create fine lines, or add intricate patterns. It’s important to keep your pencils sharp for maximum precision. Invest in a good quality sharpener or use a craft knife to maintain a sharp point.

Applying Dry Pencil over Dry/Wet Background

Another way to add details and enhance your artwork is by applying dry watercolor pencils over already dried or wet backgrounds. This allows you to create contrast, depth, and texture. By using dry pencils, you can achieve sharper lines and more precise details, further refining your artwork.

Utilizing White Gel Pens or Pastel Pencils

White gel pens or pastel pencils can be used to add highlights, intricate details, or special effects to your watercolor pencil artwork. They provide an opaque white pigment that stands out against the translucent watercolor layers, allowing you to add bright highlights or create fine details.

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Fixing and Preserving the Artwork

Once your watercolor pencil artwork is complete, you’ll want to ensure it is fixed and preserved to maintain its quality and longevity.

Applying Fixative Spray

Applying a fixative spray over your finished watercolor pencil artwork is essential to protect the colors from smudging and to prevent fading. Fixative sprays create a thin, transparent layer that seals the pigments and safeguards your artwork. Follow the instructions on the fixative spray to ensure proper application.

Matting, Mounting, and Framing Options

To display your watercolor pencil artwork, consider matting, mounting, or framing it. Matting adds a border around your artwork, while mounting involves adhering it to a rigid surface. Framing provides an elegant and protective display option, allowing you to showcase your artwork while keeping it safe from external elements.

Caring for Watercolor Pencil Art

Proper care and handling are crucial to preserving the quality and longevity of your watercolor pencil artwork. Avoid touching the painted areas directly as the oils from your skin can affect the pigments. Keep your artwork away from direct sunlight and extreme humidity or moisture to prevent fading or warping. Store your artwork in acid-free sleeves or portfolios to protect it from dust, dirt, and environmental pollutants.

Reviving and Correcting Mistakes

Even experienced artists make mistakes, but don’t worry! Watercolor pencils offer various techniques to revive or correct errors in your artwork.

Removing Excessive Pigment with Water

If you find that you have applied too much pigment or the colors are too intense, you can use water to dilute and remove excess pigment. Wet a clean brush or cloth and gently blot the areas with excessive color. The water will reactivate the pigments, allowing you to lift some of the color and create a more subtle effect.

Lifting Color with a Clean Brush or Cotton Swab

For more precise removal of colors, you can use a clean, damp brush or cotton swab to lift the pigments from the paper. This technique is useful for creating highlights, correcting small mistakes, or refining details. Simply gently rub the brush or cotton swab over the area you want to correct, being careful not to damage the paper.

Layering and Burnishing Techniques to Correct Errors

If you have a larger mistake or need to cover up an area, you can use the layering and burnishing techniques to correct errors. Apply multiple layers of watercolor pencil on top of the mistake, gradually building up the layers and blending them with water. You can also use a colorless blender pencil or burnishing tool to smooth and blend the layers, camouflaging the error and creating a cohesive look.


With these techniques and a bit of practice, you’ll be able to create stunning watercolor pencil artwork full of texture, vibrancy, and depth. So grab your watercolor pencils, let your creativity flow, and embark on an artistic journey that combines the best of colored pencils and watercolors. Happy creating!


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