How To Use Watercolor Pencils: Must-Try Tips & Techniques

Watercolor pencils and watercolor brushes beside a finished watercolor painting

Watercolor pencils are a fantastic medium for artists because they provide the best of both worlds. You can get the vibrant colors of watercolors and have the control and precision of using pencils. 

This article will discuss how to use watercolor pencils to achieve consistent results in your artwork.

Start by taping your paper on a stable surface to stretch it well. Draw your design using watercolor pencils. Wet a portion of a watercolor brush and apply it to the drawing to activate the paint. Blend the colors evenly, then let dry before adding the next layer.

What You'll Need

Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Make your rough sketch.

Use a pencil to sketch out the outline of your drawing. Let dry before coloring again or applying another layer of paint on top.

Work in sections by dipping a brush into water and painting lightly over an area where you want to apply more colors.

2. Add the base colors to your sketch using watercolor pencils.

You may also color with watercolor pencils all over, making sure that you color within your desired area. Leave the areas where you want the color to be lighter bare of color.

3. Activate the watercolor pencil with a wet brush.

Dip a watercolor brush with water. Wipe off the excess water at the side of the water cup you use.

Activate the watercolor pencil with the wet tip of the brush. If you're working with a larger area, you may use a bigger mop brush. Blend the color well, spreading the paint over the lighter areas.

Let the first dry before adding more layers. It may take 30 minutes before the whole area is dry, mainly depending on the painting's size.

4. Add more layers.

Add more layers once the watercolor paper is dry to touch. The next layer will add intensity to the first layer or add a new color. Repeat this step until you get your desired result.

5. Add the details.

To add the details, you may dip the watercolor pencil into the water, then draw directly to the painting. Use a detailing brush to do this.

Another technique is to make a palette of colors on a piece of thick cardstock or palette paper. Pick some color with a slightly wet detailing brush and add the needed details.

Dry the watercolor pencil drawing before framing it.

Tips in Using Watercolor Pencils

1. Make a sample color swatch

Watercolor pencil sample swatch

Watercolor pencil sample swatch - Image by Barbara Din Art

It is best to make a sample color swatch that shows how you use watercolor pencils, especially if your set is new. 

If your set has 48 pencil colors, make 48 rectangles on a sheet of high-quality watercolor paper. A good size is 1/2 inch x 1 inch. 

Fill the rectangles with a monochromatic gradient, so you'll see what the colors look like, depending on their intensity.

2. Controlling color intensity

A painting showing different blue in various color intensities

You can control the color intensity by controlling the pressure you apply your watercolor pencil on paper. You may observe the same effect on ordinary pencils or colored pencils where you get darker colors with more pressure.

Another way is to vary the density of your coloring. Drawing close to many lines creates a more vivid color than drawing widely spaced ones. This result is apparent after you activate the pigments of the watercolor pencils.

For a professional look, dip your watercolor pencil into water. To do this technique, sharpened your watercolor pencil to a point. Dip only the colored core into the water to avoid damaging the wooden casing on your watercolor pencils.

When adding colors, reduce the visible pencil lines so you won't have issues blending your colors.

3. Mixing colors

A painting showing how colors are mixed

Different watercolor pencil techniques of adding colors also result in other effects.

The first one is basic, and the result is a distinct separation of the layers. For this technique, the artist applies the watercolor pencils, activates them with water, then lets them dry before adding the following layers.

The second technique is applying all the colors before activating them with water. The result is more blended, without a distinct separation of the layers. This technique is best if you're making a new color, though.

4. Creating new colors

a palette of tints, tones, and shades of red

With the proper technique, you can create tints, tones, and shades with the watercolor pencils you have. It's interesting how you can make different colors with just a minor tweak of color combination.

Understanding how you can do magic with the fundamental colors helps you make more dramatic effects to your watercolor pencil art.

To create tints, add a small amount of white to your colors. For example, pink is a tint of red. When mixing your tints, start with the white and gradually add your hues until you get the right intensity and shade.

Tones are darker than tints because you add gray to the pure color. Be careful when adding gray to your colors since it dulls the colors, and you cannot improve the effects of gray. Gradually add the gray to the pure color to get the tone you want.

Meanwhile, shades are the darkest since you add black to the color. Like in adding gray, take caution when adding black to avoid darkening your hues. Add the black gradually so you don't overwhelm the lighter colors.

5. Adding water

Adding water to watercolor pencil drawing

Adding water to watercolor pencil drawing - Image by Sunshine Arts

Adding water activates the pigments of the watercolor pencil. You can add water to your watercolor pencil artwork using a paintbrush or a spritzer.

To blend your watercolor pencil with a brush, artists usually use a flat brush appropriate for the size you are working on.

Another method is to spritz water with a water bottle on the watercolor painting. This technique is less aggressive than the watercolor brush, and the result is softer and focuses on a portion rather than on the whole painting.

6. Layering

Creating layers with watercolor pencils using a wet brush

Creating layers with watercolor pencils using a wet brush - Image by Makoccino

Layering achieves two results - darkening the colors or adding a different color to blend them and produce a new color.

When applying watercolor pencil on dry paper, slowly build up the color by adding layers until you get the right intensity.

To create new colors, as in the example above, the artist activated the watercolor pencil with a bit of water then applied it to the paper using a wet brush. Combining blue and reddish-pink created a purplish color on the sky.

7. Creating a speckled effect

Adding a speckled effect using diluted watercolor pencil

Adding a speckled effect using diluted watercolor pencil - Image by Sunshine Arts

Start by wetting the paper, then scrape color from a watercolor pencil with a knife or sandpaper to create a speckled effect to mimic snowflakes, stars at night, or dots of water.

A dry brush over the slightly wet painting makes streaky textures across different surfaces (such as snowy landscapes).

Another way to add a speckled effect is to dilute some watercolor pencil with water and apply it by picking some pigment with a brush and sprinkling the paint over the painting.

8. Lifting or erasing watercolor pencils

Lifting or erasing watercolor pencils using a wet watercolor brush

The best way to fix a color that's too dark is to lift or "erase" some color by blotting it with a dry brush or paper towel while still wet. This technique absorbs excess paint and light features on your watercolor painting.

What if the painting is already dry? You can wet the area with a paintbrush or spritzer, let it rest for a while before dabbing a piece of paper towel over the painting.

9. Creating gradients

a rainbow gradient using watercolor pencils

You should know how to control the color intensity to create gradients, especially when applying a monochromatic gradient. Add the colors, starting with a more intense color until you get to the faintest color possible.

Start with the faintest color to activate this color scheme, moving to the more intense color until you see the desired result.

Two-toned gradients are more tricky to work since you want to blend some colors while leaving the other ends of the color distinct. You can do this by coloring directly on paper, the two colors slightly apart to allow for blending.

If you're working with yellow and blue, start with yellow since it is the lighter color. Slowly blend the colors as you go, only touching some blue while working more on the yellow side.

You can also create a two-toned gradient by lifting some watercolor pencil pigments from a piece of paper with a slightly wet paintbrush. Always start with the lighter color before moving with the darker one.

How to Apply Watercolor Pencils

Watercolor pencils can be used in many ways and can be used as artistic devices or in painting. Test out pencils and their pigments on a separate piece of paper to ensure you achieve the desired effect. 

Here are a few ways you can try to apply watercolor pencil on paper.

Dry on wet

Dry on wet technique means adding dry pencil strokes on pre-moistened paper to see how the color reacts. You'll notice that they may appear brighter and lighter while your line loses its clarity due to water absorbed by the paper.

What You'll Need:

Directions: 

  1. Tape the paper on a flat surface to prevent curling when the paper dries.
  2. Moisten the paper with a slightly wet mop brush until all the paper is wet (not dripping wet, just moist).
  3. Draw your design on moist paper. The watercolor pencil will change its intensity once it presses on the moist paper.
  4. Apply your colors while the paper is still moist, as it will have a different effect if you wet it again to add more colors. Wetting the paper again will reactivate the pigments and result in a blotchy effect.

Wet on Dry

A stylized bunny painted with watercolor pencils using the wet on dry technique

A stylized bunny painted with watercolor pencils using the wet on dry technique - Image by Faber Castell Indonesia

Dipping the colored core of the watercolor pencil in water and then making marks with it creates a gradient effect. This technique may be more difficult for beginners to achieve but provides them with an alternative way of using their pencils when trying new techniques.

What You'll Need:

Directions: 

  1. Start with a dry watercolor paper mounted on an easel or top of a flat table.
  2. Sharpen your watercolor pencils to a point, then dip the tip of the colored core into the water.
  3. Draw the wet watercolor pencil on dry watercolor paper.
  4. Control the intensity of the color by changing the pressure you put on the watercolor pencil.
  5. Dip the watercolor pencil into the water when it feels dry.

Dry on Dry

A painting made with dry on dry watercolor pencil technique

A painting made with dry on dry watercolor pencil technique - Image by SAA Art Products

You can draw on dry watercolor paper with a dry watercolor pencil. It will produce a nice clear line, but it will not have the washed-out look of a watercolor painting.

You may add more saturated color to your coloring by pressing harder and applying it like traditional colored pencils.

What You'll Need:

Directions: 

  1. Use your watercolor pencil to draw on dry paper.
  2. Layer colors to increase the intensity of a particular color. Don't intensify one area in one go to avoid overwhelming the painting while adjusting the colors as you work on your painting. 
  3. Build more colors by adding more layers.

Dry on Dry Then Brushed With a Wet Brush

A watercolor pencil made using dry on dry then brushed with a wet brush

A watercolor pencil made using dry on dry then brushed with a wet brush - Image by Paint Academy

When working with watercolor pencils, the easiest is dry on dry technique, then brush over with a wet brush. Beginners mostly use it.

What You'll Need:

Directions: 

  1. Apply the watercolor pencil to your drawing just as you would a traditional colored pencil.
  2. Swipe a slightly wet brush over it to achieve an ombre effect by pushing some pigment with the brush.

Wet on Wet

A stylized ladybug painted using wet on wet technique

A stylized ladybug painted using wet on wet technique - Image by Faber-Castell Malaysia

When you want to create an impression of depth and dimension, use the wet on wet technique (wet brush on wet paper).

What You'll Need:

Directions: 

  1. Moisten the paper with a mop paintbrush or spritzer.
  2. Apply your watercolor pencil to a palette paper.
  3. Pick up the pigment using a watercolor brush, then apply it to the moistened paper.

Using The Watercolor Pencil As Paint

Using a watercolor pencil as paint

Using a watercolor pencil as paint - Image by Lindsay Weirich

Instead of using traditional watercolor paints, you can use watercolor pencils as paint. By adjusting the amount of pigment you get, you can also change the lightness or darkness of a painting's saturation. As a result, the lines are clearer.

What You'll Need:

Directions: 

  1. Rub your wet watercolor brush on the watercolor pencil until you get the right amount of pigment on your brush.
  2. Apply the paint to the watercolor paper using the brush.
  3. You may allow the watercolor to dry before adding more layers, or you can add more color and let the colors dry together.
  4. Wait until the watercolor paper is dry before adding fine details.

Conclusion

We've looked through the many benefits of using watercolor pencils in this article. Also, we provided you with some insider ideas on how to use them effectively and efficiently so that your artwork comes out looking great. 

Now it's up to you to put these methods to the test and observe how they improve your art works. Please share your results and how this tutorial helped you in improving your work.

5 comments

  • Thank you for the article. I am immensely grateful.
    Am trying to make cards and want to use dry on dry. My question is, does the pigment ever really dry? Will it smudge and be ruined when handled or mailed? Any way to have it dry so it wont smudge?
    Thank you for any help.

    Carrie
  • This was very interesting. I bought a set of watercolor pencils on clearance & haven’t used them yet. I also bought some watercolor paper. I didn’t know how to use them except to wet the paper & pencil the color on. Then maybe spread it with a paint brush. My intent was to use them to create ombre color backgrounds for card making. Thanks for the tutorial here.

    Edith Shaw
  • Hi Luz, you can check out our article on the best watercolor pencils https://glytterati.com/blogs/articles/best-watercolor-pencils

    Glytterati
  • Gracias por la informacion muy clara . Puedes sugerir alguna marca delapices de acuarela?

    Luz estella bernal
  • I am a beginner and found the instructions so very helpful and encouraging. Thank you very much

    Farida Islam

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