Watercolor pencil vs paint – what’s the difference?
Recently, one of my students asked me what the differences are between watercolor pencil and watercolor paint. I think this is something many of us wonder about. Are they the same thing? Or is one better than the other?
Both watercolor pencil and watercolor paint are great mediums to work with. Both offer a range of opportunities to achieve different effects in an art work and are incredibly satisfying to use.
That being said, watercolor pencil vs paint offer quite different experiences for the artist. You use them in different ways, and although they both are water soluble; the finished effect can be quite different.
When using watercolor paint, the artist has less control over the flow of the water and pigment and so often a higher level of skill is necessary.
Many established and academic artists will say that watercolor is the most difficult painting medium to use.
You need to master how you control the bleed of your paint on the paper. ‘Bleed’ is a term used to describe how the paint pigment flows and moves through the water on the surface.
However, that is not to say that watercolor pencil is any less specialized or less ‘professional’ than watercolor paint, but one does seem to have more control of the color in a watercolor pencil artwork.
Ok, so let’s compare the two mediums.
Watercolor Pencil vs Paint
Watercolor pencils are a form of colored pencil where the core of the pencil contains a water-soluble binder. This means that if the colored core meets water it will color the water – very much like watercolor paint.
Watercolor paint comes in several forms used with a paintbrush. It can come in the form of a tube, with a toothpaste-like consistency, or in a dry block form (often found in a tray).
What are watercolor pencils good for?
Watercolor pencils are a good medium to use when you want to draw detailed art. You can easily control the pencil and, with a sharp tip, you can draw very fine lines and patterns.
This is not the case with watercolor paint. It is more difficult to get fine lines and details. Watercolor paint is more suited to larger, ‘floating’ areas of color.
Watercolor pencils can be used to create texture. By drawing with the side of your pencil, or using repetitive line, you can create a textured effect that you can’t get with watercolor paint.
Watercolor paint is known for its ability to bleed into other colors and create soft washes.
Watercolor pencil still allows you to create a wash like effect. Just like watercolor paint, you can add water to your watercolor pencil marks and allow it to bleed.
Watercolor pencils are really good for artists who enjoy working with a pencil. Watercolor pencil often allows you to have more direct control over your color choices, proportions, and patterns.
Watercolor paint would be better suited to an artist who wants to use a brush and paint, and who doesn’t want a texture or pencil mark evidence on the page. Watercolor is known for its luminescence and the way the color sits on the surface of the paper.
Can you paint with watercolor pencils?
Yes, you can paint with watercolor pencils. There are various ways to go about this.
The easiest way to start painting with watercolor pencils is by drawing the subject matter, coloring it with the watercolor pencils, and the applying water on the surface of the pigment and blending the color.
You can also paint with watercolor pencils by dipping them into water and drawing or painting with them. You don’t hold them in the same way as a paintbrush (in the traditional sense).
We call this method ‘wet-on-dry’ painting. Essentially you are putting a wet pencil onto a dry paper surface. This same term is used when you apply watercolor paint to a dry surface.
‘Wet-on-wet’ is a term we use to describe painting with watercolor. It’s a method whereby you paint water on the paper surface and then pick-up pigment on your brush and bleed it into the watered surface.
Can watercolor pencils be used without water?
Yes. Watercolor pencils are very much like colored pencils. Usually, watercolor pencils are not as bright or intense as colored pencils.
Watercolor pencils often don’t blend as easily as standard colored pencils. This is because their purpose differs – they are made to be used with water to create blends of color.
That being said, I recommend Derwent Inktense pencils, as watercolor pencils that can be used as both watercolor and standard colored pencils. They blend beautifully with water and without, and their colors remain vibrant. They also have less of a waxy surface than standard colored pencils.
Can you sharpen watercolor pencils?
I am sure we all know that frustrating feeling when sharpening a pencil and the core keeps breaking off. Watercolor pencils often have a very soft core and if you knock or drop them that core may be easily broken.
The best way to sharpen any pencil-like medium is by using a craft knife to shave off the sides of the pencil. This is a technique that takes a bit of time to get used to, but ultimately helps you get the most use out of your pencils. Your pencil core is better supported and does not break as easily. Have a look at this helpful video on how to sharpen your pencil with a craft knife.
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Which watercolor pencils are the best?
There are a huge amount of watercolor pencil brands on the market. I have listed just tried to simplify things and added a few of my recommendations for beginners and more advanced pencil watercolorists.
These pencils are really good to start with. They have a very smooth finish on the paper and blend well. This set also comes with a brush so you can start testing out the watercolor effect immediately.
These are also a good starter set of watercolor pencils. There is a good range of bright colors and with the pencils having a triangular grip they are really easy to hold and control. Staedtler is known for its durable pencil core – these don’t break easily.
The core of these watercolor pencils are made up of pure white clay mixed with pigment. This makes them really smooth on paper and the colors are incredibly vibrant. They tend to be a bit crumbly when a lot of pressure is applied, but when water is applied to the pencil mark, they dissolve well.
These are fantastic luxury quality watercolor pencils to use. They are considered professional pencils and are more on the pricey side. They blend superbly and the core is quite strong so they won’t break easily.
Derwent is known for its vibrant colors and high-quality pencils. These are really lovely to work with especially when you want to layer your colors.
These are my favorite watercolor pencil to use for art journaling and other art projects. They have a different feel to the Derwent Watercolor Pencils in that they are chunkier to hold. They also have deeper colors, a harder, waxier lay down, and they are permanent when used on fabric. This means they offer the artist a huge range of possibilities when working on different surfaces.
These pencils are just fabulous to work with. They are incredibly smooth on the paper and blend perfectly. They are really one of the top-quality watercolor pencils out there. If you want to splash out, this is what you should go for!
What paper do you use for watercolor pencils?
You want to use paper that is thick enough to hold the water when you mix your watercolor pencils with water. I would recommend using a students’ quality watercolor paper to start with if you are a beginner. Something like Strathmore Paper 300 Series would work well.
If you are more advanced, you want to look out for an Artists’ quality watercolor paper to work on. The Arteza 9×12″ Expert Watercolor Pad is a good pad of watercolor paper to use. It is 140lb/300gsm, cold-pressed, acid-free paper, which is ideal for professional watercolor techniques.
Can you use watercolor pencils on canvas?
It’s generally not recommended to work on canvas with watercolor pencils or watercolor paint as it is just not absorbent enough. The watercolor pigment doesn’t ‘hold’ on the surface of the canvas. Acrylic paint or oil paint is better suited to canvas painting.
If you are desperate to do a watercolor pencil drawing (or watercolor painting) on a canvas there are ways around it.
You can use an acrylic primer or gesso to cover the surface of the canvas before you use your watercolor pencils. You can use a watercolor ground like, QoR Watercolor Grounds, to cover the surface of the canvas.
How can I protect my watercolour pencil drawing or watercolor painting without glass?
Your watercolor pencil drawing may get damaged over time and so it’s a good idea to find ways to protect it long term. If framing the watercolor paper behind glass is not an option for you, you can use aerosol Archival Varnish. Two coats of this is usually enough to seal and adhere the pigments to the paper.
Watercolor pencils offer more control for detail, pattern, and texture. They certainly help to create an interesting surface as often it can be quite attractive to have an art piece with both watercolor and pencil marks on the surface.
Watercolor paint in itself is a beautiful, flowing, medium which you can use to create light and color- filled artworks.
Watercolor pencils vs paint – which is better?
Even though there is an overlap in the watercolor effect created by these two mediums, they are actually quite different. You need to determine what kind of effect you are looking for before you make a decision about which medium suits you best. The best way to go about this is by experimenting. I recommend spending time exploring both these mediums before you decide what suits you best.
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