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Water-soluble pencils are versatile cross-over between drawing and painting as the moment you introduce water, the color disperses and you've got paint. I find them particularly useful for sketching, for planning a composition on a canvas, and for traveling. (Though this by no means is the end... of their versatility!)
There are numerous brands available, so which are the best? Here are my personal favorites from the brands of water-soluble pencil and crayons I've tried, in order of preference.
Derwent's ink-based watersoluble pencils are also available as sticks or blocks. The advantage of you never need stop to sharpen a pencil, and by using a block on its side you can lay down a large area of color quickly.
These have become my favorite for the intense color and because once the ink is dry, you can't rework it (and thus can't muddy colors as easily).
As the name suggests, these water-soluble pencils produce ink rather than watercolor paint. The colors produced are strong, transparent, and permanent -- once dried the ink doesn't lift up again. I've increasingly grown to like these for the intensity of color and for being non-soluble when dry.
Inktense pencil can be worked over with a dry or wet medium. Available in 72 colors, including white.
• Fabric Painting Demo Using Inktense Pencils
These are short, water soluble wax crayons, available either in tin sets or individually at some art supply stores in 48 colors. They're about half the length of a 'normal' pencil (about 90mm long and 10 mm in diameter), with labels designed to be peeled off in sections. Lyra are manufactured in Germany.
I like these because they're soft and glide smoothly across a surface, so it's easy to get a lot of color down. The colors are intense and easily convert into paint when you add water. The only downside is that it's hard to draw a fine line with them, rather pick up some color with a brush instead.
Don't leave them lying in the sun or dash of a car or they will melt!
What makes these water-soluble pencils different is not how they work -- which is the same as all the others -- but what's in them. It's colored graphite ("pencil lead") rather than only colored pigment, so they've an underlying darkness and earthiness to them.
• Example: Dry indigo over watercolorContinue to 5 of 10 below.
These water-soluble crayons were launched on 17th February 2012. Four groups of colors: bright, pale, earth, and dark. Available as single sticks, as well as in tins of 12, 24, 36, or 72 colors. The set of 12 contains primaries (process cyan, process maganeta, process yellow, primary red and primary blue), tertiaries (tertiary purple and tertiary green), plus raw umber, Payne's grey, black, and opaque white.
My initial thoughts on having tried them is that they're firmer than Lyra, but go down on paper smoothly and effortlessly. The paint created when you add water is intensely colored. I tried Artbars on quite absorbent paper, and had to scrub a bit with the brush to get a line to dissolve completely. I like this, as it means you can combine line and wash in a painting. The crayons are triangular, rather than round, which means it's easy to get a thin line without stopping to sharpen a point.
These water soluble wax crayons are similar to Lyra's, but a bit harder. Size wise they're narrower and longer -- about 105mm long and 6mm in diameter. (I haven't yet melted a Lyra and Caran d'Ache to to compare if you're getting the same quantity of crayon overall.) Manufactured in Switzerland.
Again the paper label is designed to be torn off in sections and you shouldn't leave them lying around in a hot spot or they'll melt. Available in 84 colors.
Woodless pencils, just the 'lead' covered with a wrapper, which means they never need sharpening. They're of medium hardness, so it's fairly easy to get a fine line and to put down a good quantity of color or only a little if you don't press hard.
I often use these for sketching a composition on a canvas, using a color I know will be in my initial blocking in. When I start painting, I "dissolve" the sketch into the paint.
I bought my first set of Derwent watercolor pencils about 15 years ago but never used them much as I found them too hard to get much color down easily. Most of the problem was more a question of my not working in colored pencil often enough, and forgetting I mustn't expect them to put down color like a crayon than a problem with them. Their hardness is good for getting fine lines, and for saturated color apply several layers or pick up color with a brush directly from the pencil.
In January 2011 I got a new set (shown in the photo). The pencils are softer and smoother, going onto the paper more easily, but will still give a very fine point for detail. When I use them I can't help but hear a little advertising jingle going "new and improved".Continue to 9 of 10 below.
Did you know you can also get water soluble versions of graphite pencils? If you use them dry, they work and look just like ordinary pencils. But put a wet brush to the pencil line, and it turns into transparent grey paint. Fabulous for working in monochrome, and for tonal studies. Water-soluble graphite is available as pencils and as woodless graphite sticks, in various degrees of pencil hardness.
• Art Techniques: Water Soluble Graphite
Cretacolor AquaStics is a brand I haven't tried yet but want to. The manufacturer calls them water-soluble oil pastels and they are appropriate for a number of different drawing techniques. They can be used on a number of different surfaces from canvas to glass.
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