Author: Cathy Johnson, Excelsior Springs, Missouri, has written and illustrated 29 books, including Watercolor Pencil Magic. She's also a contributing editor for both The Artist's Magazine and Watercolor Magic. To learn more, visit http://cathyjohnson.info/
Achieve sharp details and transparent color all at once.
At a Glance
Watercolor pencils, crayons and sticks are made of concentrated watercolor pigment in an easy-to-use form.
Why Try Them?
They’re lightweight and perfect for travel, but watercolor pencils provide more than just convenience. Their compressed form allows you to control color placement. And by adding water after applying color, you can regulate how much the pigment spreads to provide the luminous color that’s characteristic of watercolors along with the control that’s not.
Dare to go dark. Don’t be shy in applying your pigments - you may need to break loose a bit to achieve the values you want. I did the above sketch in the field, copying colors exactly as I saw them. The resulting contrast between the leaves and sky was too weak so I reworked the scene later. I used darker, stronger pigments to capture the spirit of the beautiful autumn day. Once the painting dried, I added sharp details with a dry pencil.
Click on the images on this page for full size
What You’ll Need
Paper: Paper can get fairly wet when you’re using this medium, so begin with 140 lb cold-pressed watercolor paper, which won’t buckle, has enough texture to stand up to rough handling and is smooth enough to draw on. If you’re working on a painting that doesn’t have a lot of details or pencil work, you can try watercolor paper that has a heavier texture.
Brushes: Use brushes to moisten pencil lines and blend pigment. Start with a few 1 or 2" (2.5 - 5 cm) Flat Brushes and an array of round brushes. For best control, use a small sable brush with a good point that holds just a little water. If you’re blending broader areas, use larger brushes that hold more water. You also can use a bristle brush for lifting pigment off the wet paper.
Watercolor Techniques to Try
Wet-Into-Dry: This is the easiest way to use Watercolor Pencils. For best results, work in small areas and gradually build up the composition. Just apply pigment to the dry paper, then brush water over it. The more pigment you apply to the paper, the darker the color will be. The more pressure you use to scrub the wet color, the smoother the color will appear (scrubbing lifts the pigment from the paper so it blends with the water and spreads evenly).
Dry-Into-Wet: This technique allows you to control color placement more precisely while also allowing the colors to bleed for a loose effect.
Blend Colors: To create a saturated color mixture, apply colors next to each other on the surface, add water, and scrub together. The more you scrub, the more they’ll blend.
Layer it On: You can layer two pencil applications and then wet them. Or, apply a layer of color, wet the area, let dry and repeat.
Wash Color: Achieving smooth, even coverage over a large area can be frustrating and time-consuming, so I usually work small. If you need to cover a large area or achieve dense coverage, switch from regular watercolor pencils to woodless pencils, crayons, or sticks that allow you to apply pigment using the entire length of the tool.
Derwent Watercolour pencils are available in 72 colors, they’re versatile, give consistent results and have a high concentration of pigments for maximum color purity.
Lyra Rembrandt pencils and water-soluble wax crayons dissolve exceptionally well in water and have dense pigment. The pencils come in sets of 12, 24, or 36; the crayons, which cover areas smoothly, are available in sets of 12, 24, and 48.
Albrecht Durer Watercolor Pencils combine the best qualities of watercolor pencils and oil pastels. They’re more opaque but cost a little more than some other brands. You can purchase all-purpose, landscape, or portrait sets.
Aqua Monolith Aquarell pencils are brilliantly colored, woodless pencils that offer up to eight times as much pigment as an encased pencil. They’re a good choice if you use the whole side of the pencil to cover broad areas of color.
Night moves. A rough sketch with simple applications of water is all you need to create a smooth silhouette scene. Once dry, I added details with a dry pencil.
Beautiful blends. To achieve a variety of tones and colors within an area - similar to the look of an oil or acrylic brush-mixture - place dry pigments next to each other on a dry surface. Then add water and scrub together. Make sure you clean your brush whenever the colors start looking muddy. I left a section of this leaf dry so you can see how I applied the dry pigments.
The Pressure’s On. Apply pigment densely to create dark color and loosely for pale color. Scrub hard for smooth applications (top), use light pressure to let the pencil strokes show through as texture (middle), or work with the tip of the pencil to place details (bottom).