How to Use Watercolor Pencils: A Series of Step by Step Guides

How to Use Watercolor Pencils

Most people learn to write their first words and draw their first shapes using a pencil. That’s why I think it’s pretty safe to say that pencils are the most famous media there is. Although when it comes to art, pencils come in many types and purposes. Pencils have varying tones of graphite and charcoal pencils. They also have tons of colors from colored and watercolor pencils. And pencils also get precision for technical and detailed illustrations from the thin leads of a mechanical pencil.

Today, we’re going to find out how to use watercolor pencils properly. This type of pencil is easily mistaken for standard colored pencils. Unlike colored pencils, watercolor pencils are much softer, more vibrant, and it’s water-soluble. Without water, you can put down thicker layers and produce more vibrant shades with the more delicate tips, and it’s far from the experience of using colored pencils. Brush a bit of water with your illustration, and the watercolor pencils pop out and show broader capabilities and possibilities. But, it won’t be as straightforward as you might think. So here are tons of tips to help you ensure the best results on your first try. Are you ready?

What you will need for this tutorial

Watercolor pencils

This will be the star of this tutorial. You can use any watercolor pencil you like.

Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Watercolor Pencils Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Watercolor Pencils
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But you can also check our top pick of the best watercolor pencils if you want to get something really decent.


This will be used to apply water and activate the watercolor pigments. You can use your brush of choice, but to get the best results, use brushes dedicated to the watercolor application. Water brushes are also recommended for portable use.

Spray Bottle

A spray bottle will be handy on dry to wet techniques, and it can also be handy for cleaning afterward.

Paper towel or Rag

It’s essential to keep one of these around. Not only can you use these to clean your brushes, but you can also use these to remove excess water from your brush.

Your surface of choice

  • Canvas – You can get the canvas in either boarded or stretched. But, canvas doesn’t work well with watercolor, even if it’s pre gessoed. So it’s okay whatever type of canvas you get, as long as you prepare the canvas with the absorbent ground. More to that later.
Phoenix Blank Cotton Stretched Canvas Watercolor Artist Painting Phoenix Blank Cotton Stretched Canvas Watercolor Artist Painting
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  • Paper – I think the paper would be the best surface to use with watercolor. It’s porous, smooth, and sometimes produces a nice texture. But, you should only use paper over 300gsm in weight to help fight off cracking, buckling, and dissolving. We recommend checking out our best watercolor paper buyer’s guide to get the best paper from brands like Arches and Windsor & Newton.
Arches Watercolor Paper Block, 300 lb Arches Watercolor Paper Block, 300 lb
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  • Coloring Books – Most coloring books can’t handle wet media, so when getting a coloring book to experiment with watercolors, make sure to get the books made out of heavy paper.
  • Rocks – These are pretty straightforward. You can use rocks you have in your backyard or buy smooth stones made explicitly for arts and crafts from Amazon or your local art stores.

Gesso (optional)

This will prevent water from penetrating if you’re using a water-sensitive surface like canvas and paper. If you don’t have gesso, you can also use white acrylic paint.

Liquitex Professional Gesso Surface Prep Medium Liquitex Professional Gesso Surface Prep Medium
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Absorbent ground (optional)

This is the foundation of any proper watercolor artwork. This enables a surface to absorb the watercolor evenly, which prevents dripping and uneven drying. The absorbent ground is optional but should always be used on unconventional surfaces.

Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground, Transparent Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground, Transparent
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  • Textured Finish
  • Require no special prep before brushing
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Paint roller (optional)

This can be useful for applying gesso and absorbent grounds more efficiently.

How to use Watercolor Pencils

We’ll get to the fun part first, which is learning different tips and techniques when using watercolor pencils. Let’s get started.

Shade and draw then activate with water

  1. This is the most intuitive of all watercolor techniques. You’ll need to shade the parts you want to be colored first. After that, you need to dip your brush in water, then apply that brush to the shaded area to activate the pigment. This technique is also useful for making gradients.
  2. This last method will need you to finish your artwork or illustration first while dry. When you’re done, you can spray your work with a light coat of water, and you’ll see that your work will appear more vibrant, and the lines will be softer, thus creating a unique finish.

You can also use a water brush. This is essentially a synthetic brush that has a water reservoir. You can use these to apply water to your work conveniently.

Dry to wet

  1. This technique will cause the dry watercolor pigments to activate upon contact with the paper. To do this, spray your surface with water. And then draw. You should notice that the lines will be thicker and more vibrant, and handling the pencil will be much smoother.
  2. Another way to do this technique is to dip the watercolor pencil and then use the wet tip to draw. Doing so will get the same effect as the first method.

Straight from the tip

If you’re going somewhere and you can’t bring your watercolor tubes, then this might be a solution for you. For this technique, you need to dip your pencil’s tip in water to activate the pigment. Then grab your brush and brush the end to grab some pigment and then draw on your surface. Now, you can do watercolor paintings on the go.

You can shade your pigments on a blank piece of paper, or shave off the tip onto a palette to make your work style similar to working on watercolors and paints. Doing this might make some artist’s work more efficient and more color accurate.


If you’ve experienced painting with acrylic, oil, or watercolor, you might be familiar with a technique where you flick the brush to create tiny blotches of paint, which might be an easy way to draw particles like stars, leaves, sand, and more. You can also do that with watercolor pencils. All you need to do is dip your watercolor pencil tip and flick it with your brush tip.

You can shade your pigments on a blank piece of paper, or shave off the tip onto a palette to make your work style similar to working on watercolors and paints. Doing this might make some artist’s work more efficient and more color accurate.

Different Surfaces to use with Watercolor Pencils

You can use watercolor pencils on tons of surfaces but, different surfaces might need different preparations. And I think it’s a bit unfair if we only discuss how to use watercolor pencils on one surface. So, here’s how to prepare different surfaces for watercolor pencils.

How to Use Watercolor Pencils on Canvas

Canvas is a very popular surface to work with any wet medium. And you can use watercolor pencils on canvas without any preparation and not have any issues. But, watercolors need to be absorbed well for them to work at their full potential. Here are the steps to ensure the best quality on using watercolor pencils on canvas.

Step 1

If your canvas is not gessoed, go ahead and gesso your canvas. You can also use white acrylic paint as an alternative. These will prevent the watercolor from soaking the canvas too much, which might cause halos, buckling, swelling, and flaking if not prepared properly. Use a roller or a broad brush for applying gesso.

Step 2

The canvas must absorb the watercolor pigments to ensure a proper bond. You can put a layer of the absorbent ground over the gessoed canvas since even gessoed canvas takes a bit of time to absorb water. Doing this step will prevent dripping while you’re painting and help you get a smoother and even finish. Also, use a roller or a broad brush for applying the absorbent ground.

Step 3

Go ahead and make your first sketches.

Step 4

Don’t overwater your watercolor pencil strokes to prevent any dripping. Keep a paper towel or a rag near you to help you remove excess water.

Step 5

Once you’re done, let your artwork dry and admire your work. You can also protect your artwork by framing it behind glass. You should never use chemicals like fixative sprays since those will tend to smear and smudge your work even after drying correctly.

How to Use Watercolor Pencils on Paper

Watercolor pencils will work on most paper… As long as you don’t apply too much water to it. Once you use water on a paper not suited for wet mediums, your artwork might end up buckled and cracking. The worst thing is the chance of getting a massive hole on your paper. To prevent that, here are some steps you should follow.

Step 1

Before using watercolor pencils with paper, you should always ensure that your paper weighs at least 300gsm so it can handle wet media without taking damage. We recommend paper specifically made for watercolors from brands like Arches and Windsor & Newton

Step 2

This step is optional, but you can also gesso your paper and put absorbent ground to be sure.

Step 3

We recommend taping your paper onto your desk or surface with masking tape to help fight buckling and generally make things much cleaner.

Step 4

Start drawing, and make sure not to get your paper too wet. The best way to do this is to give the paper enough time to dry before going in with another application. Keep a rag beside you at all times as well.

Step 5

Once you’re done, refrain from using chemicals to protect your work. We recommend putting the paper behind glass or behind a layer of parchment paper if you’re storing it.

When using watercolor pencils, you should start painting the lightest tones first, then building up dark colors with layering.

How to Use Watercolor Pencils in Coloring Books

I know you might be thinking, “wait, coloring books are made of paper, right?” And you would be right. But the thing is, coloring books are made from printer paper, and let me tell you that printer paper will hinder your art quality since printer paper doesn’t have any tooth, is not even adequate in terms of weight. And most of them are very acidic, which will destroy your piece after quite some time. But I guess it’s a bit hard to resist coloring books sometimes.

Here’s what you can do to use watercolor pencils properly on coloring books:

Step 1

Before coloring the page you want, you should put something behind the page you’re painting, perhaps a piece of cardboard, wood, or thick paper. This will prevent the watercolor from bleeding and marking the next page.

Step 2

Next up, we recommend having a scratch piece of paper lying around for coloring books. This will help you estimate how much water your brush holds since you should keep moisture to a minimum.

Step 3

Go on and color your page, and never forget to control your water.

Step 4

Once you’re done, slip in a sheet of parchment paper above your work to protect it.

How to Use Watercolor Pencils on Rocks

As I talked about earlier, like acrylics, watercolors can paint on most surfaces as long as you have prepared the surface thoroughly. Rock painting recommends the use of acrylic paints since those will adhere better and last longer.

The preparations you have to make depends on how smooth and porous your rock is. You can draw on rough and gritty stones without preparing the rock, but you can’t activate the pigments with water since that will wash the pigments away and leave you with an unpainted rock.

To make sure that your work on rocks will stay, here are some steps you have to follow:

Step 1

Pick a smooth rock and wash it thoroughly to remove dirt and debris.

Step 2

Make sure that your rock is dry to prevent ruining your work later on.

Step 3

At this point, you can technically start working on the rock, but watercolors won’t adhere properly with just the bare surface. You can do two things to help make things better:

  • To help the rock absorb the watercolor better, you can put a thin coat of furniture chalk paint. This paint is a bit absorbent, so that should make an excellent base for your work.
  • You can also put a layer of white acrylic paint first, then after drying, apply a thin amount of absorbent ground.

Step 4

Once your prepared surface is completely dry, go ahead and work on your art.

Step 5

If you’re finished, let your work dry for a couple of days, then you can spray a thin coat of fixative spray to protect your work. Once you’ve done this, you can put your rock art anywhere.


There you have it, everyone! Did you enjoy the tips and tricks? Make sure to use them on your next work, or if you’re a beginner, make sure to take it slowly and understand each step. For all of you I hope you apply the tips I gave for the surface preparations, I know it’s a bit tedious and boring to do, but I assure you, those preparations will make or break your artworks. As for the techniques, let me tell you that those aren’t all the techniques there are. Because maybe you can create and discover a technique yourself. Either way, use those techniques and make them yours.

If you’re a beginner or a student looking to learn how to use watercolor pencils, make sure to check our links above for the best materials you can get. That’s all for me today. If you liked this tutorial, share it with your friends, and if you have further questions or reactions, you can leave a comment below. Until then, work hard with your work and enjoy it!

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