Using Watersoluble Colored Pencils for Quick Backgrounds

September 12, 2009


Above: my last morning sketch from the Sketch Out—made just before our first group meeting. Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer Watercolor Pencils used dry and wet on a 9 x 7 inch card of Fabriano Artistico 300 lb. HP Watercolor paper. Notes written with a Staedtler Pigment Liner 0.3.

One great advantage of watersoluble colored pencils over wax-based colored pencils is the way you can use the first to create watercolor washes throughout your drawing. You can dissolve the lines of your sketch and blend colors together as you would with watercolor paint. Or you can leave your lines only partially dissolved for additional texture to your sketch/painting. Or you can simply leave them dry, as originally applied, with the same sort of visual effect you would get using wax-based pencils.

If you have a large area to cover and no time you can also lay in a background of blended color much more quickly with these pencils than with wax-based ones.

In this post I have three examples all made on the Sketch Out trip to this year’s State Fair. For each sketch I simply drew the animal I was observing. Then I scribbled in a background of colored lines, typically using two or three analogous colors in a random order across the background (placing darker colors where I wanted more contrast, but no more thought than that to the placement).

Tip: while scribbling keep in mind not to push hard into the paper and depress the tooth of the paper if you want the most even of washes. Too heavy a hand might show in your resultant wash. Also not all brands of watersoluble pencils will completely dissolve. Keep the characteristics of your brand in mind when deciding how much scribbling you’re actually going to scribble. My scribbles were even, slanted strokes, feathering out at the end, because that happens to be about as loose as I go when working with pencils. Also I tend to scribble no closer than about 1/16 or 1/8 inch to the lines I’m not going to dissolve. I know I can drag dissolved color up to or away from that line with my waterbrush.

After I scribbled in background color I used my Niji waterbrush to dissolve the color and move it where I wanted it.

090901ERoosterYellow Left: This chicken is surrounded by a lovely wash of color, courtesy of these pencils. I especially enjoy the way the water pushed the pigment out of the way and created a lovely crinkled hard edge above the chicken’s back.

Watersoluble colored pencils can be used in a variety of ways. Some people touch the lead with their paint brush and apply the pigment to the paper that way (just as they would pick up paint from a palette). Other folks dip the pencils into water and write with them while their tips are wet. Additionally you can write with a dry pencil onto a previously washed, and still wet surface. With each application a different type of line emerges. Experiment to find which works for you.

090901GBantam Left: Bantam sketch where visible pencil strokes were too distracting so I painted over them with gouache. (And yes, these guys are weirdly proportioned!)

Despite working with these pencils for years I found in my haste at the State Fair I tried to add more color too soon on the Bantam background. The paper was still too wet. As I rubbed the dull blue pencil across the surface I could tell I had probably damaged the paper (even though the tip was dull and not sharp). This was indeed the case. When I went back in to smooth out the added color the lines remained visible.

090901GBantamCLOSECR Right: A detail from the Bantam sketch showing the head with the gouache paint over the undissolved pencil lines below the chin. Look down by the breast and you can see the ends of the flat lines still visible.

Never fear: since this wasn’t what I was looking for I simply waited until the paper was dry and then painted over the area in gouache. (Note even the gouache layer isn’t perfectly flat.) I could of course have left the lines showing, but because they fell directly below the bird’s beak I found them too distracting, even for a sketch.

Keep paper drying conditions and times, as well as paper durability, in mind when you are using these pencils.

As with any art medium if you want the best results and ease of use you need to buy a quality tool. If you haven’t tried watersoluble colored pencils yet I recommend you start with Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer Watercolor Pencils. They deliver a rich line, wet or dry, and are pigment rich. I also find that the leads of this brand don’t chip and break like several of the others do.

Final Thoughts:
I enjoy the rough and splotchy quality these washes add to my cards. Executed while I was standing in crowded barns these washes delivered added texture with speed. If you crave more control in your background washes know that it is possible to lay even, graduated, and smoothly blended washes with these pencils if that's your goal. You will want to be more deliberate in your application of dry color to your surface (more controlled in your pencil strokes); and then be more controlled in your wet brushstrokes as well. I'd rather paint with paint if I'm going to go after such washes. For me the benefit of the watersoluble colored pencil lies in its ability to deliver color to a large area quickly when sketching.

    • Donna
    • September 12, 2009

    Nice sketches Roz. You may have answered my question in your very last sentence here, but I have always wondered why anyone who regularly uses watercolor when sketching would use watersoluble colored pencils. I just don’t get it. I can’t see it being anymore convenient as you still have to have a water source. And I don’t think your pigment is as strong as watercolor. I bought some Prismacolor watersoluable pencils and I believe that I used them once and thought…………huh? If I am totally missing something here, please let me know. Now, just for the record, I do enjoy using Neocolor II, but they put down a lot of pigment really fast and can add some wonderful texture.

    • Donna
    • September 12, 2009

    Wow, and you told me all of that with your cold! Bravo! I think I get it now, your explanations and examples were right on the money for me, and hopefully, your other readers. Perhaps I will give them another shot at some point, when I feel like buying some Faber-Castell ones. In the meantime, I know that I have not been the only one who wondered what the reasoning was behind using the pencils. Hope you feel better soon, but know this……your left brain is still functioning brilliantly.

    • Roz
    • September 12, 2009

    Donna, I love it when people ask questions! I just noticed though, that my answer was about as long as the original post!

    I might have to write a post about that!

    I’m glad my left brain is still functioning,but sadly my right brain is struggling. I’m getting very little sketching done while I’m sick, and that’s making me sicker! GRRRR.

    For every artist some medium is going to call just slightly louder than the others. I spent years and years working with colored pencils so when watersoluble ones came out it seemed logical for me to try them, to see what else they could bring to the party. And I’m always one for making mixed media paintings so whatever works seems a good approach.

    I would encourage people to stick with watercolor paints for the most part because of another issue, I didn’t get to—the pigment issue. F-Cs are good, many brands aren’t. And some are really fugitive. If you get a good brand of watercolor paints you’re don’t have to deal with that issue right out of the gate, and you can easily select single-pigment paints from the larger ranges, not something that is as easy in pencils. (Single pigment paints make it easier to handle color mixing and blending for most people.) Though things are changing a bit now with some of the new pencils coming out…

    But if you try something and you don’t like it, there’s no point in continuing on with it, just jettison it—even if everyone else using it.

    Life is too short. Unless you like the fun of seeing what you can do with it.

    Sadly I am often too curious for my own good in focus!

  1. Reply

    Thank you for this post, in depth and detailed as yours always are!
    I have been using watercolor pencils a lot lately because i relocated to Europe and they were part of the small bag of goodies I brought with me, knowing I would not receive my shipment of household goods for a few months.
    The ones I brought were several of the F. C. ones you mention and love how vibrant their colors are when wetted. Recently I bought a few more, thinking they were the same thing since they were also F. C., but I discovered they are not. They are Faber-Castell watercolor pencils, but not the Albrecht Durer line, and there is a difference. The black one is very nice, but the other colors are not at all as vibrant.

  2. Reply

    Anna Maria, most manufacturers have several lines, typically an artist’s quality and then a student/scholar/illustrator line using one of those words in their ad copy. Those lines tend not to have the same quality, whether it’s watersoluble colored pencils, or watercolors, or paper, or whatever.

    Sorry you had to find out the hard way. But I’m glad you enjoyed the F.C. Albrecht Dürer line that you got on my recommendation. I enjoy using them a lot.

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