Technique: Watercolor Pencils: Bridging the Gap Between Painting and Drawing

8 Feb 2008

0705kutc1_600x460_2Water-soluble colored pencils offer the perfect solution for artists who want to create watercolor effects without the hassle of watercolor paints.


by Stephanie Kaplan

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Plumeria
2006, watercolor pencil, 8 x 10.

Watercolorist Kristy Ann Kutch owned a set of watercolor pencils for eight years before she tried them out. “Some people act like watercolor pencils are contraband” she explains. “Watercolor pencils provide a nice bridge between the drawing artist and the painting artist,” Kutch continues, "but people have to understand how to use this versatile medium that produces layers of intense color."

Unlike traditional colored pencils, watercolor pencils contain a binder that makes the pencils water-soluble. “The pencils are designed to perform like watercolors—to dissolve and produce beautiful transparent effects,” explains Bill Nicholson, director of sales and marketing, for the arts and graphics division of Faber-Castell. He continues, “When the watercolor pencils dry on watercolor paper, the pigments bond with the paper—then a new layer of transparent color can be added on top.” Like traditional colored pencils, watercolor pencils are manufactured in two forms: pencils encased in wood and woodless pencil rods. “Purchasing high-quality watercolor pencils is also essential,” Nicholson advises, “because some pencils contain little or no pigment and are not lightfast.” Unlike traditional colored pencils, high-quality watercolor pencils will yield very saturated, smooth colors when they come into contact with water or alcohol.

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Shoreline Treasures
2005, watercolor pencil, 8 x 10.

Kutch describes three techniques for using watercolor colored pencils in her book Drawing and Painting With Colored Pencils: Basic Techniques for Mastering Traditional and Watersoluble Colored Pencils (Watson-Guptill, New York, New York). The wet-into-wet technique—in which the artist loads a wet brush with pigment from the tip of a watercolor pencil — produces a traditional watercolor look (see the demonstration of Farmers’ Market Peonies). It is best to use a rigger brush for this technique because of its fine-pointed tip, “which can be wet and dabbed on the pencil tip as if it were a cake or a pot of watercolor paint,” the artist explains. Another common technique is pencil-point-into-wet, where the artist dips the watercolor pencil in water and then draws on a wet area of the paper, producing a diffused line of intense pigment with soft edges. Grating—using an emery board to grate shavings of watercolor pencil onto the paper—works best on a small area right after it is dampened, and creates a speckled effect that can be seen in the center stamen of Poppy Unfurled. In addition to the techniques mentioned in her book, Kutch explains, “The technique I use the most is drawing the color onto the dry paper and then wetting the pigment with a brush—allowing it to dissolve and flow as a beautiful, fluid wash. However, for interesting effects that look natural and not artificially dotted onto the paper,” the artist continues, “I am still amazed at the potential of grating watercolor pencils!”

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Marco Island Hibiscus
2004, watercolor pencil, 9½ x 7.“
I occasionally use making fluid
to preserve a light area while
I go into neighboring areas with
a darker wash-type effect,”
Kutch says. Notice the stalk
in the center and how it is lighter,”
the artist continues,  “except for
the shadow color, which I added
later—I applied masking fluid first
to keep that stalk light.” She
also advises, “Masking fluid
should not be kept on paper too long,
or it will bond with the paper itself.
Some people even say it should
not be left on the paper for
more than 24 hours. I've
had it on my paper for a week
without ill effects, but it
may also depend on which
brand an artist uses. Although
there is a little gummy, plastic-
like device called a pick-up that can
be used for peeling away the dried
masking fluid when the surrounding
areas have been washed with color
and dried, I simply peel the
fluid away with my little finger—
crumb by rubbery crumb. The
pick-up device mars and tears my paper.”
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Poppy Unfurled
2005, watercolor pencil, 7½ x 7.

Although watercolor pencils can be blended with water or alcohol, Kutch most often uses a brush dampened with water. When using solvent, however, she only uses a Prismacolor alcohol-based, clear blender pen because its finer tip offers steady control without having to use a watercolor brush. “The fine point of the pen is perfect for dissolving the pigment,” the artist explains. Kutch warns that, “artists should skip around to keep the petals distinct—this will ensure a nice dry barrier around each petal and prevent bleeding” when using water and a damp brush to blend the colored pencils.

Because Kutch draws mostly flowers, she uses a size 6, round brush with a good snap—the brush comes to a fine, controlled point when it is wet. If she needs a larger brush, the artist prefers a size 12, round brush, and uses a rigger brush or a dragon-tongue brush—also sold as a Lizard Lick brush by Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff—for very fine details—these tiny brushes create delicate, fine lines. The artist uses mostly vibrant watercolor pencil colors, avoids using gray or black, and tends to mix her own shades of brown as needed. Kutch explains that she uses hot-pressed watercolor paper for most of her flowers, but also enjoys drawing on Ampersand’s Claybord Textured because “once it gets washed with water, the pigments dissolve and produce beautiful, intense colors” such as in Emmalie’s Rose. The nubs on the textured board also add texture to compositions without using the grating technique, and the board doesn’t buckle like watercolor paper might.

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Emmalie’s Rose
2003, watercolor pencil on
textured board, 5 x 7.

This watercolor pencil convert sees several advantages pencils have over traditional watercolors. The pencils are portable, offer more control than watercolors, and produce color exactly where one wants it. “Watercolor pencils are also more economical than watercolor paints and can be a good option for someone who has struggled with watercolors, but wants to create the same effect,” she explains. Nicholson also adds, “if the artist uses a good watercolor pencil, it shouldn’t take a lot of effort to change the colored pencil drawing into a watercolor.” But, according to Kutch, the best reason to pick up a watercolor colored pencil is—“it’s fun!”

Stephanie Kaplan is the online editor of American Artist.


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Comments

Kelly A Laher wrote
on 21 May 2007 2:35 PM
I have been using watercolor pencils now for 3 months,and I am hooked! they are a blast to use.
Jim F. wrote
on 26 May 2007 12:28 PM
I have used watercolor pencils with traditional watercolor paints to create some portraits of my kids and a friend's kids. They offer greater control over finer details without making the final product look cartoonish.
M L wrote
on 8 Jun 2008 6:50 PM
I make a to-go kit with watercolor pencils, a travel size spray bottle of water, q-tips, sponge and brush eye makeup applicators, folding travel brush, small pieces of watercolor paper (a sheet torn into 16 pieces.) This is great to use when taking children out as thery can "work" along with you. Water color pencils are wonderful for children. they are easy and fun to use and no mess except some occasionl spilled water.One 5yr old grandchild used them to make her own color wheel. I drew it with a compass and ruler and she filled it in - creating secondary and tertiary colors from primaries. Of course, it is necessary to make sure that the colors you give children are safe for them.