Helpful Things to Know about Watercolor Pencil Art

Watercolors are a favorite teaching medium inside schools around the country. Basic sets are inexpensive and will last a long time. If you were like most children back in grade school, whenever you used watercolors you ended up with a smeared brown mess of every color running together. Thankfully, after a little finesse and practice, you may have learned just how incredible watercolors can be. It's a true art form that, much like other kinds of paint, requires both patience and an understanding of how it works to use it effectively. Watercolor pencils work in a similar fashion to watercolor paints and can be a fantastic addition to the tools you use to create your art. Here is everything you need to know about watercolor pencil art.

What Are Watercolor Pencils?

Watercolor pencils are part colored pencils and part water activated pencils. The main difference between a colored pencil and a watercolored pencil is the kind of pigment used inside of the circular wooden casing. With a regular colored pencil, the pigment is made up of an oil-based wax. This oil-based wax does not react to water, so even if water is combined with regular colored pencils, nothing will happen. On the flip side, a watercolor pencil uses a water-based binder within its pigment. When the water-based solution comes in contact with water, it will begin to break down, similar to the dry color inside of a watercolor paint tray.

Outside of the difference in pigment, a watercolor pencil and a regular colored pencil will function the same and may look exactly the same, as well. Similar colors can be used (or purchased), so if you have a favorite color in regular pencil, you won't have a problem finding it in watercolor (especially if you have a favorite brand).


Helpful Things to Know about Watercolor Pencil Art

One of the best ways to discover more about watercolor pencil art is to test it out and experiment on your own. You should use the tips and suggestions here and then make it your own. Discover how much water works for you and whether you like to dip the pencil in water or if you like adding water to the pencil pigment after it's on paper. There's plenty to experiment with and discover when it comes to watercolor pencil art, so feel to have fun with the medium.

You Get What You Pay For

Art supplies are one of the few areas where you really do get what you pay for. You can find cheap products and you can find products that cost more. Typically with watercolor pencils you'll want to invest in a quality product. Cheaper watercolor pencils may break apart easier, or the internal pigment may become separated from the wood around it. These also do not hold a point as well as the more expensive options.

As you work through different kinds of watercolor pencils, you'll find a brand that works best for you. Every artist has a particular brand or product they like better than others. The best way to test out different brands is to buy smaller packs. You can find watercolor pencil packs of four or eight (or at some stores you can purchase individual pencil colors).

By shopping around you'll find what works best for you. When buying watercolors and testing the colors out you want to look for which brands can maintain the best point and how different brands react to water. Some may take more water to break down, others may seep into the water more easily.

Sharpening Your Watercolor Pencil

Don't put your watercolor pencil into a pencil sharpener. Don't even use it in a portable sharpener. Instead, use an art utility knife to sharpen your point. The blade will allow you to cut a better point than you can achieve with a regular sharpener. You also can cut away more of the wood if you want a longer point.


The paper you use for watercolor pencils and regular pencils will be different. With regular colored pencils you can use just about any kind paper. However, with watercolor pencils you'll want to invest in a different kind of paper. Watercolor paper is a great option, but it also has more texture. Some artists love the texture, while others would rather have something smooth. It all depends in how much water you like to use. The texture helps not only absorb the water but prevents it from dispersing to other areas of the page, giving you more control.

Much like the brands of watercolor pencils, you'll want to experiment with different kinds of paper to find what works best for you. Many arts and craft stores will sell individual sheets. Consider purchasing individual sheets of paper to experiment with to see what you like the best.

Paper Towels

Whenever you are working with watercolor pencil art, you should keep paper towels on hand. If some color bleeds into an area of the paper you don't want it to be in, just take the paper towel and dab it away. You don't want to press too hard; otherwise you might push the pigment into the paper. As long as you move quickly, you should absorb the water before it is absorbed into the paper.

If the pigment is absorbed into the paper you can always take a damp brush with clean water and brush over the color you want to remove. Once wet, use the paper towel to lift up the color.


With watercolor pencil art, activation occurs when the pigment comes in contact with the water. There are a handful of ways you can activate the pencil's pigments. Each will provide you with a different visual result. One of the best ways to really get a handle on these kinds of activation methods is to use one of your sheets of paper and to just try each out.

The first way is to lightly shade in an area you want colored with the watercolor pencil first and then dip a paint brush in water and brush over the colored pencil. This will give you a clean, smooth application. The darker you press and the more pigment you leave from the pencil the darker the painted image will appear.

Another form of activation for watercolor pencil art is known as the layered and activated method. This is where you apply two different colors of pigment prior to bringing in water. Using this form of watercolor is excellent when you want to blend two colors together. You might apply more of one color at the bottom of an area and then fade up, while you apply more of a second color at the top of the top and then fade down. You can then use a brush dipped in water and blend the two colors together. It is important to wipe off the brush prior to going from the top to the bottom of the two colors, otherwise you may end up picking up the top pigment and displacing it into the second color.

A third form of activation for your watercolor pencil art is when you draw over a wet surface. This will give you a bolder, stronger color than if you applied the water over the applied pigment. To do this, take a brush with clean water and apply it to the area you want to add color to. With the water down you'll now draw over the area. Some pigment will bleed into the water. You may want to draw over a small amount and then switch back to the paint brush, or you may want to just color over the entire area.

The final way to activate your paint is to dip the tip of a watercolor pencil into water and then apply it to the paper. When using this form of application for watercolor pencil art, you will start off with more of a watercolor beginning and then it will blend out to look like colored pencil.

Paint the Background First

If you've ever watched Bob Ross, outside of feeling relaxed and discovering the magic of happy little trees, you'll notice he paints the background first. While he isn't using water colors, he is using a wet on wet paint application method. This provides a thicker paint appearance, but it does share some similarities to that of watercolor. You will want to replicate this and paint the background first, after you have drawn out the outline of the object you're creating using a light outline with a drawing pencil.


Watercolor pencil art is a fantastic way create new works of art and to explore a different take on the medium. It is also a fantastic bridge between using watercolor paint and colored pencils. If you've been struggling with watercolor paint, watercolor pencils will force you to slow down and can help you learn about using the water-based pigment. Plus, you can add the smooth texture of watercolor to that of colored pencil, all without changing mediums. You may also take your watercolor pencils and combine it with regular watercolor for fine details. So whether you're curious or want to try something new, watercolor pencil art offers a great opportunity.

October 29, 2019 — Halie Heindel