Interested in learning how to paint with watercolors? While watercolor paints are probably the first thing that you think of for making watercolor art, watercolor pencils are another popular choice. Watercolor pencils provide you with a number of benefits that are hard to achieve with a brush and a palette, and they’re quite simple to work with. 

Using them requires many of the same basic watercolor techniques that are used for watercolor paints and pens, with a couple of specific adjustments that’ll help you make the most of the medium. Here’s what to know about them, including how to use watercolor pencils to create stunning watercolor artwork.

What Are Watercolor Pencils?

butterfly pencil
Butterfly painted with watercolor pencils, by Skillshare instructor Jekaterina Kotelnikova. 

Watercolor pencils are colored pencils that are made with a water-soluble pigment. When you combine them with water, the pigment activates and spreads on your canvas for a look that is similar to what you would get if you were using watercolor paint and a brush but with finer lines.

One of the biggest benefits of painting with watercolor pencils is that you get the control of drawing with a pencil with the finished look of brushed on watercolor paint. For this reason, they’re incredibly useful for doing fine detail work, either in place of or in addition to paint. They can also be a helpful transitional tool for artists who normally draw but want to experiment with translucency and layered pigments.

Difference Between Watercolor Pencils and Paints

There are some key differences between watercolor pencils and paints, starting with how they are applied.

Watercolor paints start as either dry and hardened cakes of pigment in a pan or as pigmented liquids that you squeeze out onto a palette. In either case, they require a fair amount of water to activate and are applied to canvas using one or more specialty watercolor brushes. 

Watercolor pencils, on the other hand, are applied directly to your canvas in such a way that you are essentially drawing with paint. From there, a stiff brush and minimal water is used to activate, spread, and layer the pigment.

As for results, watercolor paints tend to be easier to wash and blend, while watercolor pencils offer cleaner lines and a more fine-tuned finish. You’ll have more control upon first application with watercolor pencils vs. paint, but less control with what happens to the pigment once water is applied.

Difference Between Watercolor Pencils and Pens

Somewhere in between watercolor pencils and paints are watercolor pens—also called watercolor markers.

Pens are similar to pencils in that you get a more controlled application and a watercolor pigment that is activated upon exposure to moisture. Alternately, they’re similar to paints in that the nib has a soft, brush-like quality, instead of the hardened tip of a watercolor pencil. Because the color is a liquid and thus more concentrated than lead, you’ll also get a more vibrant finish.

Just like working with a watercolor pencil is comparable to working with a standard colored pencil, working with watercolor markers is comparable to working with any other type of marker. Variations are available in nib shape and size, but the act of applying them to canvas is much the same.

sunflower pencil
Sunflower painted by Skillshare student Carolina Neville-O’Neill.

What is the Difference Between Watercolor Pencils and Colored Pencils?

Despite their many similarities, there are quite a few things that separate watercolor pencils from regular colored pencils. Here are some of the major ones:

  • Watercolor pencils are made with a water-soluble pigment, while colored pencils are made with a pigment that’s bound together by either wax or oil.
  • Watercolor pencils offer a softer color, while the hues that you’ll get with colored pencils are a lot more saturated and vibrant.
  • The pigment from watercolor pencils is designed to be lightened with water, while colored pencils are meant to be used dry.
  • Colored pencils are meant to be blended dry and hold up well to the task, while most watercolor pencils do need to be activated with water before you can blend them.

When it comes to using watercolor pencils on canvas, you can absolutely skip the water entirely and use them dry like you would a standard colored pencil. However, your color won’t be as rich, and you won’t get a pronounced watercolor effect. And because watercolor pencils are more difficult to use, if you’re just looking to do some basic drawing, stick to regular colored pencils and save your watercolor pencils specifically for making watercolor art.

Draw and Paint a Beautiful Butterfly

Colored Pencils: Blue Morpho Butterfly Paint-Along with Watercolor Pencils

How Do You Use Watercolor Pencils?

If you know how to paint with watercolors or draw with colored pencils, then you already have some of the skills needed for how to use watercolor pencils. There are quite a few additional watercolor pencil techniques, however, that you will want to become familiar with—particularly for blending your pencil drawings and incorporating light and darkness into your work.

From drawing watercolor portraits to still-life paintings and landscapes, here’s what you need to know to begin making beautiful art with watercolor pencils.

Gather Your Supplies

art supplies
Different supplies will allow you to try out different techniques with your watercolors.

Obviously, you will need some watercolor pencils (we’ll talk brands in the next section), but beyond that, there are a handful of additional tools that are good to have on hand. Some—like the right paper—are a necessity for painting with watercolor pencils, while others are just nice to have for mixing up your technique and testing out varied effects.

Must-Have Supplies

  • Watercolor paper: Standard paper will degrade when exposed to water, so it’s important that you use a sturdy paper specifically designed for use with watercolors.
  • Brushes: You’ll want a few brushes in various shapes and sizes (you can always expand your brush collection over time). You can use basic nylon paint brushes or you can use water brushes, which you pre-fill with water so as to eliminate the need to dip the brush head as you go.
  • Eraser: Get a kneaded eraser that’s graded for use on watercolor paper.
  • Sharpener: Use a small manual or electric sharpener that is made to work with colored pencils.

Optional Supplies

  • Small spray bottle, knives, sandpaper, and sponges for trying out different techniques
  • Graphite pencils for sketching out your design ahead of time
  • Other mediums for adding texture, dimension, and visual interest to your work, including paint, gouache, ink, charcoal, waterproof pens, or standard colored pencils

Make a Color Chart

This step is optional but can be very helpful to do before you start to use your watercolor pencils on canvas.

The more water that you add to the pigment from your pencils, the lighter the color will become. Make a chart that shows each of your pencils with various amounts of water added to them so that you can plan out in advance how you will achieve various shades throughout your work.

Sketch Your Drawing

Unless you plan to free-hand your artwork, sketch your drawing out ahead of time using a watercolor or graphite pencil. This will provide you with clear lines to work off of, even as you go back in with your pencils afterward to add color and details to the piece.

Color in Your Drawing

Go over your sketch with your watercolor pencils and fill in all of the colorful details. Keep in mind that the colors will spread once you activate them with water, so there is no need to fill in every blank space.

For areas that you intend to keep light, don’t fill them in with any color. It’s easier to spread a controlled amount of color there later with a brush than it is to go back in with an eraser and lighten up a dark color.

Activate Your Pigment

Now it’s time to add water to your artwork. Try to follow the direction of your pencil strokes as much as possible, and use a minimal amount of water at a time so as not to spread your colors too thin. Being judicious with your water use will also help prevent you from adding too much water to the page and accidentally tearing through the paper.

Go over your piece multiple times, allowing the colors to fully dry each time. You can add more water to further lighten your colors, or add on additional layers of pencil to deepen them. The harder the pressure you apply to your pencil, the darker the color you’ll get, so use a slightly heavier hand in areas where you’re looking to achieve a heavy amount of contrast.

If you want to save some time, you can deepen your colors before activating by layering on dry pigment in areas that you want to be darker. When you activate with water later on, the areas with more pigment will still remain darker than those without.

We recommend taking a course in order to learn more about watercolor pencil tips, tricks, and techniques. This introduction to watercolor pencil class is an excellent place to start.

Watercolor Pencil Brands to Try

There are many watercolor pencil brands to choose between. Some popular brands of watercolor pencils include:

  • Staedtler
  • Faber-Castell
  • Sanford Prismacolor
  • Caran d’Ache
  • Derwent

Do a bit of research and decide which brand you want to start with based on your preferences and your budget. Look into the specifics of what sets various brands apart, including pigmentation, ease of use, comfort, and whether or not they’re good for beginners.

Don’t forget to check out user reviews to find out what other artists like (and don’t like) about different brands.   

Now, what are you waiting for? Grab your pencils, and start painting.

Learn the Basics

How to Use Watercolor Pencils for Beginners

Written by:

Laura Mueller