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Choosing the right watercolor pencil is a matter of artistic preference and finding the right fit for the piece of art. While you will learn what you prefer in these pencils the more you try, it largely comes down to how much color you'd like to show up on the page. Ask yourself, are you looking to add fine detailing and line work? Or are you looking to add an opaque layer of color? Different types of watercolor pencils will achieve both of these tasks for you, but if you're just starting out it can feel confusing. Don't fret, we've got you covered.
Here are the best watercolor pencils on the market for all of your coloring needs.
Best Overall: Derwent Inktense Ink Blocks
Derwent's ink-based water-soluble pencils are also available as sticks or blocks. The advantage of these is that 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 our 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).
Runner-Up, Best Overall: Derwent Inktense Ink Pencils Colored Pencils
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. We'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. They are available in 72 colors, including white.
Best Crayons: LYRA Aquacolor Water-Soluble Wax Crayons
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 90 mm long and 10 mm in diameter), with labels designed to be peeled off in sections. Lyra crayons are manufactured in Germany.
Best Graphite: Derwent Graphitint Pencils
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 (like pencil lead) rather than only colored pigment, so they have an underlying darkness and earthiness to them.
Best Firm: Derwent Artbar Water Soluable Bars, Art Supplies
These water-soluble crayons were launched on February 17, 2012. Four groups of colors: bright, pale, earth, and dark. They are available as single sticks or in tins of 12, 24, 36, or 72 colors. The set of 12 contains primaries (process cyan, process magenta, process yellow, primary red, and primary blue), tertiaries (tertiary purple and tertiary green), plus raw umber, Payne's grey, black, and opaque white.
These are firmer than Lyra, but go down on paper smoothly and effortlessly. The paint created when you add water is intensely colored. We tried these Artbars on quite absorbent paper and had to scrub a bit with the brush to get a line to dissolve completely. This is nice, 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.
Best Long: Caran d'Ache Neocolor II Artists' Crayons
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. They are manufactured in Switzerland and available in 84 colors.
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.
Best Colored Pencil: Derwent Water Color Pencils
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".
Best Monochrome: Derwent Watersoluble Sketching Pencils
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.
Best Pastel: CRETACOLOR Watersoluble oil Pastels Aquastic Tin Set of 40
Cretacolor AquaStics are 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.
If you're looking to add intense color to your watercolor projects then you can't go wrong with Derwent Inktense Ink Blocks (view at Amazon). They come in pencils and blocks so you can use them to lay down blocks of color, linework, and more. If you want a pencil that's great to use across multiple surfaces like canvas or glass, try the CRETACOLOR Watersoluble oil Pastels Aquastic Tin Set of 40 (view on Amazon).
What to Look for in Watercolor Pencils
The surface you plan to paint on must work with the watercolored pencils you've chosen. It's best to use watercolor paper, as it is made for holding moisture without disintegrating. However, there are some watercolor pencils that can be used on canvas, glass, and other surfaces.
Are you doing line work or do you want to apply a vivid, thick stroke of color? It's best to have a combination of different types of watercolor pencils for various applications. Skinnier pencils are great for getting more precise lines, whereas blocks and sticks can help you lay down a larger area of color much faster. Also, consider the hardness of the pencil. The harder it is, the more you'll have to press to get a more opaque color.
If you're looking for consistency in your project, try finding a watercolor ink pencil instead of one that uses paint. For projects that take multiple sessions to finish, watercolor paint isn't the most dependable medium. The color could dry differently each time based on how diluted your paints are during each session. Alternatively, ink dries permanently which makes it a much better option to keep colors consistent across the board.