What are Watercolor Pencils?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Watercolor paint is a transparent paint that uses water as a solvent. It was used for wall paintings by Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. As it came to be used for books and illustrations and became a more popular medium in the 16th through 19th centuries, it was made available in little patties, each in its own metal pan. Today, professional watercolor paints are most often purchased in tubes.

Watercolor pencils deliver a more vibrant pigment.
Watercolor pencils deliver a more vibrant pigment.

Watercolors are usually applied with a brush, using a variety of techniques, such as wet-on-dry and wet-on-wet, and the so-called dry brush techniques of dry-on-dry and dry-on-wet. Other techniques, such as blotting and combining watercolors with pen and ink, lend variety to the textural appearance.

Watercolor pencils deliver watercolor pigment in a different way. They can be used dry on dry paper, but when used with water, they work best on watercolor paper, which has the necessary strength. The color intensity will result from how thickly the pencil is applied. One can use these pencils by:

  • creating a drawing on dry paper and washing over it
  • creating a drawing on dry paper and washing over only particular parts of it
  • creating a drawing on wet paper
  • dipping the pencils' tips in water before drawing on dry paper
  • drawing on top of work already created and allowed to dry
  • combining the use of watercolor pencils and crayons along with brushed on pigment
  • wetting the brush and using it to gather pigment from the sharpened end of the pencil

Watercolor pencils are created encased in wood, like regular pencils, and as woodless pencils that are simply pigment wrapped in a thin binding paper. Both kinds of pencils can be purchased individually or in standard sets. Sets often include sizes 12, 18, 24, 30, and 36, but others increase by increments of ten and include between 10 and 40 pencils.

There are also student sets of watercolor pencils, which often offer fewer colors than professional sets or collections of individual pencils. Classroom packages of 12 pencils each of 8 basic colors are also available for school use. These are likely to include red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, violet, white, brown, and black.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


I like Lyra Watercolor Pencils -- I think they have the best control, as well as the most variety of colors.

You can get some very nice shading with a little practice.


@closerfan12 -- I illustrate children's books, and often use watercolor pencils for my art. My favorites are Prismacolor watercolor pencils or Reeves watercolor pencils.

My friend prefers Derwent watercolor pencils, but I find that the saturation is not quite as nice as with the Prisma or Reeves watercolor pencils. Of course, that could just be personal preference.

I'd say ask your daughters -- maybe they can choose some good ones.


My daughters use the Crayola watercolor colored pencils all the time, and they really do love them.

They like to make the drawings with the dry pencil, and then brush over it to get the watercolor effect.

I'm thinking about getting them a nice watercolor pencil set for Christmas, but I don't really know my way around watercolor pencil brands.

Has anybody got any idea what the "best" watercolor pencils are? Or do you have a favorite that you could let me know about?


Neat! I knew they made oil pencils but I didn't know about watercolor pencils. I remember regular watercolors being very messy, or at least I was messy with them. You probably have a lot more control with a pencil.

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