Watercolor pencils: How to use them

Watercolor pencils: How to use them

Is it possible to achieve watercolor-like paintings using colored pencils? It is indeed possible. To achieve this you need to work with watercolor pencils. These tools have gained a lot of popularity among artists and hobbyists, as they perfectly combine drawing and painting techniques, resulting in quite attractive and colorful illustrations.

The question is: how to use watercolor pencils? Let us tell you that it is a very simple process, no matter if you are a beginner in the art of painting. It's just a matter of learning a few simple techniques to "activate" the colors and experiment with their textures. The rest is up to your creativity.

In this article we will explain in detail what watercolor pencils are, what their advantages are and how they differ from the common colored pencils we have always used. In addition, we offer you a complete tutorial so that you can use them with ease on paper and other surfaces, regardless of your level of experience.

What are watercolor pencils?

Watercolor pencils look pretty much the same as the classic colored pencils we've all used at one time or another, but the big difference is that they use water-soluble binders so that their color pigments spread across the paper. This gives your drawing a very similar appearance to watercolor paints.

Ordinary pencils contain waxy, oil-based binders to hold all their components together. However high quality they are, they will only allow you to draw dry. Watercolor pencils, on the other hand, allow you to create both wet and dry works, following a wide variety of tricks and techniques.

Although some consider watercolor pencils to be a step down from real watercolors, many experts recognise that they are a very powerful tool for creating textures and adding details that are difficult to obtain with other materials.

Advantages of drawing with watercolor pencils.

Watercolor pencils have certain aspects that make them unique and make them a very convenient alternative for your drawing and painting work. These are the most relevant ones:

  • As we already mentioned, they work as a hybrid thanks to their functions of both drawing and painting.
  • They are very flexible tools. You can start by making dry strokes and then mix colors with a little water to achieve 100% original illustrations.
  • Watercolor pencils are significantly more practical than real watercolors. They can be carried in any case and do not create any mess.
  • Naturally, you can combine them with graphite pencils, pens, brushes and other drawing materials.
  • You can sharpen them and add fine details to your drawing, something you could hardly achieve with a watercolor brush.
  • You can soften color strokes while the paint is still wet, something impossible to achieve with regular colored pencils.
  • They are very easy to obtain. They are sold in any physical shop and also online.
  • Although they come in all price ranges, you can get inexpensive watercolor pencils of very good quality.

Watercolor pencils vs. colored pencils.

Even if the only considerable difference between colored pencils and watercolor pencils is the type of binder, this can be very obviously reflected in the drawing surface. To give you an idea, watercolor pencils allow you to cover a larger area of paper than regular pencils in much less time.

If you are a fan of mixing colors, regular pencils are not entirely efficient, as the strokes overlap one another due to their wax base. Watercolor pencils, on the other hand, allow you to add several layers through the burnishing technique if you mix the paint with a little water using a brush.

The water-soluble binder in watercolor pencils manages to "activate" the colors. However, if at any time you need to lower the volume of the paint, just take a clean brush and soak up some of the color. You can only do this procedure as long as the paint has not dried completely.

Can a beginner use watercolor pencils?

One of the main concerns that arise when using watercolor pencils is the lack of experience. If this is your case, you should know that these materials have been specially created to bring the magical world of painting to as many people as possible, even if they have never touched a real watercolor in their life.

For that reason, we can assure that any beginner can use watercolor pencils and make very good drawings, as they improve their skills and learn new techniques.

The most recommended way to start using watercolor pencils is through dry drawing. After making your first strokes, you can moisten a brush with water and begin to distribute the paint on the paper. It doesn't matter if you don't have a specific drawing in mind, this process can help you become familiar with the pencils. Kindly read on for more detailed instructions!

Tutorial: How to paint with watercolor pencils?

Now that you know a little more about watercolor pencils from a theoretical point of view, we propose you to move on to practice. As you will see below, you can use various types of surface to draw and paint on, but we suggest you start with classic white watercolor paper. It doesn't need to be very heavy, as you will be making brief sketches. Let's get started!

First sketches.

Take a pencil and make small strokes on the paper to check its level of opacity and pigmentation. You don't need to have the highest quality pencils to start with, any model will do for your first tests.

Start your sketch by painting very lightly and then a little more intensely. Remember that to add more color, it is not necessary to paint harder, as you could damage the paper. The right thing to do is to make more strokes on the same spot.

We could say that you have already "broken the ice" with your watercolor pencils. Now we will go over some drawing techniques including water and brushes.

Techniques for coloring with watercolor pencils.

Here are several alternatives for activating the colors of your watercolor pencils. You can try each of the following techniques using the same paper, which will allow you to compare the tones obtained.

1. Wet on dry:

Take any color from your box of watercolor pencils and make a soft stroke on the paper. Then wet a thin brush over a glass of water and run it over the stroke you have just made, stretching it out to the sides. If you want to obtain a more intense color, you should deposit a larger amount of pigment, for which you should draw with the pencil for a little longer.

2. Dry on wet:

Now you will try the same process, but in reverse. Start by wetting a small area of the paper with the wet brush. Then paint over it with the dry pencil. With this technique, you will get brighter colors, but you will need to hurry a bit to prevent the paper from drying out.  

3. Wet on wet:

In this case you will use a larger amount of water, as you need to moisten both the pencil and the surface before painting. This is a technique aimed at obtaining bolder results, with well-spread lines and a lot of texture.

4. Without a brush:

This technique consists of wetting the pencil directly on the water and making a light stroke on the paper, without using the brush. You can compare the result obtained with the first three steps. You will notice that the lines are thicker and more vibrant. Don't forget to dry the pencils by gently wiping them with a paper towel.

5. Gradient:

Take a dry pencil and draw a line from thicker to thinner directly on the paper. Now apply the wet brush and you will notice that the colors will gradually fade.

6. Gradient with two colors:

Just like the previous step, make a small stroke from strongest to weakest. Now take a pencil of another color and make a similar stroke under the previous one. Then apply the brushstroke from the bottom to the top to get a gradient that combines both colors.

7. Scrape:

Take a pencil sharpener or blade to make small scratches on the tip of the pencil, making sure that these fall on the paper. Now apply the wet brush and you will get a very attractive effect, ideal for creating textures. You can also make a mixed scrape using several colors.

8. Color tablet:

You can also use the pencil like a watercolor tablet. You just need to pass the wet brush over the tip of the pencil and paint. This technique is recommended if you want to make more colorful and pigmented strokes.

Drawing lines with watercolor pencils.

There is no better technique than constant trial and error, that's no secret. In the case of watercolor pencils, constant practice with lines, shapes and patterns will help you perfect your line. Start with simple shapes and work your way up in complexity.

Vary the pressure on the pencil slightly to deposit more color on the surface. Remember that if the intensity of the lines is too light, you run the risk that they will dissolve completely at the end of the drawing, while if you put too much color on the line, you may end up dulling the final piece.

Mixing colors.

Color blending is a fundamental aspect of painting with watercolor pencils, as it will allow you to create very attractive textured works, unless you are doing a monochromatic drawing. There are several ways of blending smoothly and gradually, but the simplest way is to use watercolor pencils as if they were traditional colored pencils.

At this point, you can get creative by imagining different textures and putting them on paper. Draw a simple dry sketch and then make the color activation to paint it, following one of the techniques we reviewed in the previous point. You don't need to color the whole space with the pencils, as you will use the brush for that.

Carefully run the dampened brush over the pencil line. Leave the paper to dry for a few minutes and apply a second coat using a new color. Try to choose contrasting shades, always mixing them with water beforehand. We advise you to go from light to dark colors and not to mix more than four colors at the same time, as this could result in a cloudy shade.

If you are not happy with your first mixes, don't worry. In fact, almost all artists start out using only a pencil and take a long time to add color. It's just a matter of keeping practising.

How to use water properly?

Water is a key element in regulating how visible the pencil lines will be. You can use a larger amount of water if you want to reduce the strokes, in order to achieve a drawing similar to what you would get with real watercolor. But you should always be careful, otherwise you could damage the paper, however thick it is.

It is usual to use a brush to moisten the drawing surface. But you can take some liberties, especially if you are painting on a large surface. In such cases, you can apply water with a spray bottle on the drawing to blur the colors and make them more watercolor-like.

Ideas for drawing with watercolor pencils.

Now that you know the basics of watercolor pencil art, you can let your artistic side flow and start making your own drawings. But where to start? Nature-related themes can be a good place to start, from classic plant drawings to large, colorful landscapes.

Illustrating botanical figures such as flowers may sound a bit typical, but it will be useful to try out different techniques within the same composition and compare the results. Besides, it is a cheerful and optimistic theme that will surely make you have a good time.

It is also a good idea to recreate some simple, everyday objects such as vases, glasses, notebooks, tools, pens, clothes or whatever you have at hand. You can use an image as a model and play with colors to achieve interesting lighting effects.

On what surfaces can you use watercolor pencils?

If you thought you could only use paper to paint with your watercolor pencils, this section will surprise you. Here are some of the surfaces you can paint on:

On wood.

Wood is characterised by being a very good support for colored pencils of all kinds, including watercolor pencils. Wooden surfaces are dense and have the advantage of being able to stand the test of time. Before using wooden boards for your paintings, you will probably need to add a base color first.

On rocks.

If you manage to get a relatively flat rock from a river or garden, you can paint with your watercolor pencils on it. Better still if its surface is slightly porous, as it will not be slippery for the paint. To keep your drawing or inscription from peeling off, you can apply a spray sealant.

On canvas.

We've all heard of oil on canvas, but how about watercolor on canvas? It's also possible and perfectly replicable with watercolor pencils. However, you will need a special type of canvas with absorbent properties. Their advantage over paper is that they are larger and require no frame.

On fabric.

Watercolor pencils and fabric go wonderfully well together. In fact, this material helps the paint to have a much better and more intense color fixation. In addition, it is possible to use certain thinners so that the illustrations on fabric remain permanent and do not fade when washed.

On paper.

It is no secret that paper is the most used surface for drawing and painting with watercolor pencils. However, it must have special characteristics so that it can absorb water. Heavyweight watercolor paper is the most common in these cases.

Useful tips when using watercolor pencils.

We want you to get the most out of your watercolor pencils. That's why we have prepared some tips that will surely be of great use to you.

  • Watercolor pencils have slightly more delicate color strips than regular pencils. For this reason, we advise you to keep them together with a plastic eraser and inside their case.
  • It is preferable to sharpen these pencils with a small blade rather than a sharpener, as the latter can damage the colored strips.
  • There are no specific rules when painting with watercolor pencils. The type of use will depend on the work you want to do.
  • If you have trouble combining colors, you can start with monochromatic drawings. You can also use complementary tones, i.e. those that are opposite in the color palette (red and green, purple and yellow, blue and orange, etc.).
  • Experiment and don't stop experimenting. Our tutorial is a clear demonstration of how versatile these pencils are. That means you can apply a wide range of techniques depending on the image you want to represent.

Watercolor pencils vs. watercolor paints.

It is inevitable to compare watercolor pencils with regular watercolors. In fact, the subject is a matter of debate on internet forums, as not everyone has the same point of view on the subject.

Without going into details, it is more than obvious that watercolors are a luxury that not everyone can afford, as they are considerably more expensive and are a speciality that takes some time to learn. On the contrary, watercolor pencils are a much more accessible option for trying out this type of painting. And as we have already seen, it has the potential to produce really impressive works.

Besides that, "normal" watercolors have virtually no margin for error. If you get a brushstroke wrong, it is virtually impossible to go back and correct it. Watercolor pencils, on the other hand, allow more control over the stroke, although it takes more time to work on large surfaces.

Sure, we cannot deny that watercolors are capable of producing incredible effects and first class finishes. It is not for nothing that it is one of the most recognised painting techniques in the world. But not everyone is necessarily looking to create works of art, and they will certainly have no problem using a material that compensates for its limitations with greater practicality and ease of use.

What other materials do you need to paint with watercolor pencils?

There are some basic implements you need to have on hand in order to use your watercolor pencils properly. Let's go over the most important ones.

Watercolor paper.

We have already seen that it is not the only valid surface for painting with watercolor pencils, but as a matter of logic, watercolor paper is the ideal space for you to make your first sketches. They come in various types and thicknesses, but the most common is cold-pressed, as it has a special texture that makes it easier for it to hold water without deforming.


The brush is like the main assistant of your watercolor pencils, as it is in charge of carrying the right amount of water to activate the colors. In principle, it is better to have a thin brush, as it will help to give more precision to your strokes on the paper. Thicker brushes are recommended for abstract style works.

Other materials.

Of course, you can add a number of extra materials to enrich your painting experience. For example, a simple brush will help you to mix the colors better, while a spray bottle will be useful for distributing water more quickly in large spaces. Some people use graphite pencils or ballpoint pens to sketch their initial sketches, while others use masking fluid to keep certain areas white.

FAQ about watercolor pencils.

Can watercolor pencils be used without water?

You can certainly use watercolor pencils for dry painting and get great results. However, if you choose this type of pencil, it is best to use them to their full potential by adding water to the equation. Otherwise, you can simply work with traditional colored pencils.

Can watercolor pencils be dipped in water?

Yes, dipping watercolor pencils directly into water is one of the main techniques when painting, as it gives a bolder result in terms of color. However, you should carefully dry the tip of the pencil with a paper towel or hair dryer when you have finished your work.    

Is it possible to paint with watercolor pencils on the skin?

Painting with watercolor pencils on the skin is not recommended. Although they do not contain toxic substances, it is not excluded that they may cause allergic reactions in some people.

Is watercolor paper needed for watercolor pencils?

This is the first option. But in any case, you should make sure that you use a paper thick enough to withstand the water you will use during painting. Of course, normal paper will deform in an instant when it comes into contact with water, so you will need special sheets.

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