8 Techniques to Make Colored Pencils Look Like Watercolor

Experimental Drawing Techniques
Experimental Drawing Techniques
8 Techniques to Make Colored Pencils Look Like Watercolor
8 Techniques to Make Colored Pencils Look Like Watercolor

Did you know that there are techniques to make colored pencils look like watercolor? Whether you prefer traditional colored pencils or watercolor pencils, you can transcend the boundary between drawing and painting if you understand how to do it. 

If you work with colored pencils, and you lay down color with enough intensity to completely cover the paper, then many artists would agree that this is considered a painting. If you use watercolor paint combined with colored pencils, then this is a type of mixed media painting. 

Many people who haven’t spent enough time working with colored pencils don’t understand just how versatile of a medium that they are. In the hands of a skilled artist, it is possible to make colored pencils look like watercolor.

How Do Watercolor Pencils Compare To Paint?

Watercolor pencils contain a particular type of pigment that lays down on paper in a very similar manner to traditional colored pencils, with the chief difference being that the pigment is water-soluble. 

In the hands of an expert, with sufficient water added to the mix, paintings produced using watercolor pencils are virtually identical to paintings produced with watercolor paint.

If anything, watercolor pencils are capable of producing more vibrant colors than traditional paint since they allow an artist to lay down a lot of color on the paper.

Why Use Watercolor Pencils?

With so many different kinds of watercolor paints available, why not merely paint instead of using watercolor pencils? What advantages do watercolor pencils offer that make them an appealing option? 

  • One of the main reasons that people choose to use watercolor pencils is their comfort level with them. Just about every artist starts out learning how to draw first; then, some choose to move onto painting later. With watercolor pencils, you can paint while using a pencil, which for many people is much more comfortable than using a paintbrush. 
  • Another main reason that people love watercolor pencils is the high degree of control that they grant you. Watercolor is often considered to be one of the simplest types of paint to learn, but its free-flowing nature can be very challenging to control. Watercolor is also very unforgiving. If you make a mistake in a picture, it’s challenging to cover that mistake up. With watercolor pencils, you can more precisely control where your paint goes on your paper. You simply draw where you want to color, then add a lot or a little water to it.
  • Watercolor pencils can be used to produce incredibly vibrant colors. One of the few knocks on watercolor paint is that it can be too wishy-washy. It often lacks the vibrant colors you’ll find in oil or acrylic painting. But, with watercolor pencils, artists can draw and place a lot of pigment on their paper, giving them very vibrant paintings.
  • Watercolor, pencils are very convenient. You don’t have to set up your paints on a palette in advance, you start drawing, then add water to turn the pigment into the paint. If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of a cup of water and brush, you can substitute a water brush that has a built-in reservoir of water in it.
  • You don’t waste paint with watercolor pencils. While you can reactivate watercolor paint by adding water to it, many artists end up throwing away unused paint that is leftover on their palette. With watercolor pencils, there is no paint to throw out.
  • Watercolor pencils make painting faster. You don’t have to mix your colors on a palette, and you mix them on your paper. You also don’t have to spend time setting your supplies up, you just sit down and get to work. This makes cleanup faster and easier, as well.

How Do You Color With Watercolor Pencils?

One of the great things about watercolor pencils is that they are so versatile. But, if you want to use them without adding water, will that work too? It will. You can use watercolor pencils in the same way that you would use traditional colored pencils. You can even use watercolor pencils to put down a layer of watercolor, wait for it to dry, then add further rendering on top of the initial layer of paint. 

When using watercolor pencils dry, you have to decide if you want to create a drawing or a painting. Yes, you can create a painting with watercolor pencils without adding water. It all depends on the amount of pigment you put down on the paper. If you want to create a drawing, you use bolder strokes, don’t blend the pencils together as much, and leave some of the white of the paper showing. If you want to create a colored pencil painting, then you add more pigment, completely cover up the paper and leave none of it showing, and blend the pencils together.

Draw First Then Apply Water

The most common way that watercolor pencils are used is to draw your image first, then add water afterward. You can start your painting by sketching out your image lightly with graphite, or you can use watercolor pencils to sketch in the image. One of the most common mistakes that people make when working with watercolor pencils is only creating a single layer of color. You can lay down a layer of color, add water to create a wash, then after it dries, you can add more color on top of it. When using this method, make sure that you remember that the first layer of paint can be reactivated if you add a lot of water to it. This can be desirable if you are trying to mix the colors, but it can be a hindrance if you are trying to keep the layers of color separate.

Is there a way to keep the layers of color from blending? You could try workable fixative, which helps to set the first layer of paint so you can add more layers on top. Another option is to use Inktense pencils or blocks for your initial layers of paint. Inktense pencils are very similar to watercolor pencils. But, with Inktense pencils, when you add water to them, the pigment turns into ink instead of watercolor paint. When it dries, it becomes permanent and waterproof, making it an ideal option for underpainting.

Whether you decide to try Inktense pencils or decide to stick to watercolor pencils, the best way to create a painting is to start with general colors applied in light washes. Then, as the painting progresses, you can begin to add more color, and with it, more details. For the final layer of your painting, you could even use watercolor pencils without water, giving you the ability to create a highly detailed final painting.

Dipping Pencils In Water

Do you want to feel more like you are painting instead of drawing when you use watercolor pencils? Then you should try dipping the pencils in water before you draw. 

This will turn the tip of the pencil into the paint. Giving you an effect much more like a painting than a drawing. Don’t worry, adding water to the tip of the pencil won’t damage it, and it won’t cause the pigment to bleed out or dry up. 

Once the water dries, the pencil will return to the same condition it was in before you added water to it.

One of the more popular ways to use this approach is to use it to add the final details to a painting. Using a watercolor pencil that is dipped in water will give you the ability to create sharper details than are usually possible with a paintbrush. 

Dipping a watercolor pencil in water before drawing with it will also give you more intense and vibrant colors. The best thing about this approach is that you can later add water to the painting to reactivate the marks you make, giving you the ability to create exciting blending effects.

Drawing On Wet Paper

If you would like to try something a little different with watercolor pencils, you could try drawing on wet paper. When you apply watercolor pencil to wet paper, you get a very interesting effect. The pigment immediately turns to paint and begins to spread. When drawing on wet paper, it’s best to plan for more of an impressionistic or even an abstract look. You can achieve some amazing effects using this technique, but the one thing you probably won’t be able to do is to create a detailed image since the paint will tend to bleed.

But, if you have the patience to do so, you can get much more control when drawing onto wet paper. The way you do this is by using a paintbrush to add water only to areas that you want to add color to. 

For example, if you were painting a flower’s pedals, you would first add water to the petals, and only the petals. Then you would draw into the wet areas of the painting, and the pigment would only flow around the areas of the paper that are wet.

The one issue you will run into when painting on wet paper is paper buckling. Fortunately, with a little prep ahead of time, this is a problem that is easily overcome. If you want to keep your paper from buckling when you paint it, you’ll need to stretch it first. Here’s how you do that:

Start by choosing the right kind of paper. When drawing with watercolor pencils, you have many options, but not many of them are as good as a quality sheet of watercolor paper. If you are planning to stretch your paper, then you’ll need to use watercolor paper. 

Take your sheet of watercolor paper and submerge it entirely in cold water. After a minute or two, remove it from the water carefully, moving the paper around to cause the excess water to drip off. Then gently place it on a flat surface. Next, use a sponge to smooth the paper out. Use gum tape and secure the edges of the paper firmly to the flat surface you placed it on. Leave the paper alone for several hours while keeping it flat and away from any heat source that would cause it to dry unevenly. Remove the tape. Then you are ready to paint!

Wet Pencil Onto Wet Paper

An exciting variation of drawing on wet paper is to use a watercolor pencil that you dip into the water to draw on wet paper. If you are hoping to have any semblance of control when painting, then you will be disappointed when trying this technique. 

Now, this is not meant to keep you from using this painting method; it’s simple, fair warning that trying to paint any detail using this approach will end in failure. When should you use this approach? You could use it to create an abstract painting, or you could use it to lay down the initial washes of color. Then, after the paper has dried, you could proceed more traditionally.

How To Add Detail To A Colored Pencil Drawing

Many people that paint have difficulty adding details. Paint behaves much differently than dry media does, making it a unique challenge to master. There are many master painters out there, and it may be something you are capable of achieving, as well. But, if you are looking for an approach that mirrors drawing because you are more comfortable with it, then colored pencils are a great option.

A significant reason that colored pencils are so popular is that they give you the ability to quickly and easily add a high level of detail when you are drawing. How you choose to add that detail will depend on what type of colored pencils you are using, and what you want the final piece to look. The one thing you want to avoid is using heavy black lines on top of your color to add detail. This will look artificial and will ruin your drawing.

Have you heard of complementary colors? Of course, you have. Every artist has heard about complementary colors. Complementary colors are colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel. When placed next to each other in a drawing or painting, they create a visually dynamic image.

Did you also know that you can produce an underpainting in complementary colors? For example, let’s say you are drawing a red rose. Instead of using black to create shadows, which will make your drawing look flat, you could render the rose in different shades of green. Watercolor works great here, or watercolor pencils. Then, when the underpainting has dried, you add the reds and other related tones on top. After your color has been layered, you can then go back and use complementary colors to add details.

Smudging A Color Pencil Drawing

Smudging a color pencil drawing gives you the ability to blend it and create an effect that looks more like paint than a drawing. If you are using watercolor pencils, adding a bit of water will liquefy the pigment, giving you the ability to blend it smoothly. But what if you are using traditional colored pencils?

You can use a blending stump, or even your finger to blend a colored pencil drawing. It takes a fair amount of pressure, and it won’t blend perfectly, but you will be able to get some degree of smudging. 

What if you want to blend it further? In that case, you could add a little turpentine to the mix. Turpentine causes traditional colored pencils to dissolve and behave much like watercolor pencils. One of the most desirable aspects of this approach is the fact that the colored pencil will be waterproof when dry. That makes this approach ideal for underpainting.

Adding Color Pencil Over Watercolor

Colored pencil and watercolor are two mediums that seem to have been created to be used together. Why use color pencils over watercolor? Why not is a better question? Many artists that love colored pencils hate having any of the white of the paper showing. This can be overcome by applying the pigment to the paper using a heavy hand. But this is a very time-consuming process. Not to mention the fact that it can leave you with a sore hand and wrist.

If you lay down a wash of watercolor and allow it to dry, then draw on top of it, you can easily cover up the white of the paper. You can also use an underpainting of watercolor to tone the paper and help to establish the mood of your drawing.

Drawing On Watercolor Paper

Do you prefer a smooth surface when drawing? Then hot press watercolor paper is your best option. If you prefer a little tooth on your paper, then cold press watercolor paper is a better option. Why draw on watercolor paper? For one thing, it works very well for most types of dry mediums. 

Maybe you’ll start a pencil drawing then decide it needs some color. If you draw on watercolor paper, then you’ll be able to add some watercolor to your drawing without worrying about the paper being destroyed. Whether or not you want to use watercolor, pastel, pencil, charcoal, or colored pencils, a good quality cold press watercolor paper is a great option.

Did you know that there are techniques to make colored pencils look like watercolor? Whether you prefer traditional colored pencils or watercolor pencils, you can transcend the boundary between drawing and painting if you understand how to do it. 

If you work with colored pencils, and you lay down color with enough intensity to completely cover the paper, then many artists would agree that this is considered a painting. If you use watercolor paint combined with colored pencils, then this is a type of mixed media painting. 

Many people who haven’t spent enough time working with colored pencils don’t understand just how versatile of a medium that they are. In the hands of a skilled artist, it is possible to make colored pencils look like watercolor.


Ian Walsh is the creator and author of improvedrawing.com and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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