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AQUARELLES - Watercolour Pencils

A summary of different techniques The first part of this page was originally written as a handout for demonstrations at National art material shows such as ‘Art Materials Live’ at the Birmingham NEC and it has been revised several times since 2006 when it was first used.  In 2013 a complete revision of the basic techniques was carried out, recognising the many developments made in watercolour pencils over the past 7 years - and the changes in usage as artists have found better ways of explaining what they do.   The section here originally listed ‘8 ways of using’, but I have now amended that. There are so many more techniques explained in books and videos, and this is merely a sample of some of them. When using your watercolour pencils, there are a number of approaches We will take some of them in turn 1.... The pencils can be used totally dry - in exactly the same ways as the non soluble wax type of pencils. The pigments in watercolour pencils are usually identical to the parallel brands of wax type pencils from the same manufacturer. For instance, Caran d’Ache use the same pigments in the 120 Supracolor aquarelles as they use in the 120 Pablo pencil range.  The only difference is in the content of the oils and waxes where the aquarelles require water soluble ingredients. Most aquarelles will layer colour and show the same levels of transparency dry as their waxy cousins.  This means that if you can only afford one good box of pencils, a top quality aquarelle set from Derwent, Caran d’Aache Faber- Castell or similar maker will serve the purpose well.   I find that watercolour pencils from one or two makers ( such as Faber-Castell ) have a different, drier ‘feel’ which do not appear to move as smoothly on the paper as other aquarelle brands, but the soluble pencils still work admirably both wet and dry. 2….. Dry Pencil on Dry Paper - then wet pigment with a brush.  This is straightforward and is the most common application. The pigment is applied directly to the paper in lightly applied layers. Take care NOT to make a firm line on the paper with the dry pencil point unless you wish to keep the line after water treatment.   The first thing you will note when you add water, is that in many cases there will be a marked increase in colour strength.  For this reason it is wise to test your colours on scrap paper first before launching into your masterpiece The brush needs to be kept fairly MOIST rather than wet (wipe any surplus water from it on a piece of kitchen roll before applying it to the paper)  The brush tip should feel damp to the back of your hand. By adding water, the pigment will soften and set into the paper surface giving a more even tint.   If the colour is too intense, lift out the surplus wet paint with the clean dried brush or use a piece of kitchen roll to dab the paint surface and lift off the excess.   TAKE CARE though, if you use a paper pad, to use a clean surface on your pad each time you ‘dab’ otherwise you may find yourself ‘rubber stamping’ the colour image from the pad to the paper. Sometimes it helps to make a ‘point’ with the tissue to remove the pigment accurately.  Once you let the pigment dry, the colour will probably be permanent. This basic wetting of the lines of dry colour will open up a whole range of ideas and help you show delicate tints of the original colour or alternatively bring out very strong colour effects not normally seen from pencil work.  An example is shown here using Derwent Inktense.  This range gives very strong colour and the first image shows the dry colour only.  The second image shows the addition of water to the red pigment, and the final image shows the addition of water to most of the yellow pigment ( I have left a small area of yellow at bottom right in 3 so that you can see the effect the addition of water has)  : 3 ……. When you need to lift Pigment from the Paper : if the pigment is still in its original dry state you can use an eraser. A piece of low tac sellotape or a blob of WhiteTac will also  lift a layer of colour and reduce the strength of the pigment. ( White tac is stickier and softer than Blue Tac - if you can find a packet buy it.  (Wilkinsons sell a good own brand product) If you find the wet colour too intense, you have the option of removing some of it with a clean moist brush.  Some colours stain more than others, and you will need to ensure you remove the surplus as quickly as possible.   Purpose made watercolour paper has a protective coating of a type of gelatine size and may enable you to have longer to decide - Bockingford and other cold pressed watercolour papers are excellent for resisting staining colours but are possibly too rough for fine pencil detail.   I have found  Hot pressed papers more difficult to lift colour from. Cartridge Paper is unsized, colour soaks in and locks to the surface quickly, and offers a VERY short time for you to react. 4....  Dry pencil point wet directly with a brush - brush applied to paper   & 5 .... Moistened pencil tip applied to paper These are both a NO NO in my teaching for the reasons expressed on the opening page of this section.   Water damages the integrity of the pencil core, and wetting the pencil is wasteful of good art materials.   If you try and use pressure on the point of the pencil after it has been wet and then dried, many times the point will simply break and the pencil will need to be re-sharpened.   You CAN apply water to the pencil point, but it is my firm belief that you shouldn’t. 6..... Dry Pencil on Dry Paper - ‘Dab’ moisten the dry image surface with a moist pad of tissue, then work with a damp brush. This is a good way to shade out the colour with a very small amount of water.  Moistened Aquarelles will often produce a much more vivid area of colour than you need, and the art is to keep the amount of pigment as small as possible until you know how your pencils react to water. You can also lightly spray water on the pigment surface and this will produce a different result where there are areas of wet and dry pigment side by side, some more intense than the other.  Think Gravel. 7..... Dissolve Pencil Pigment shavings or gratings of pigment to produce watercolour ( Pigment only, beware of wood fragments)   Sharpen the pencil pigment carefully into a dish and add clean water to mix up a stock of watercolour.   You might suggest to me that you could just as well get the watercolours out, and I agree, you could. The point here is that if you use a pencil source for your wash, the exact colour you choose for your wash is then available in pencil form to work fine detail.  The soluble binder in many  aquarelles is different from that found in watercolours - it has to withstand sharpening after all.  I have been assured by some watercolour CP artists that the wash from pencils is more ‘friendly’ and handles more easily in washes and on touching damp edges (fewer cauliflowers). I pass this on but have no proof ! 8..... Colour Shavings dropped directly on to the paper and  worked with a damp brush.   Works well for grasses and the like where the brush can be used to flick the concentrated pigment giving a series of mini streaks . Can also be used for random colour effects for stone where a mixture of colour grains are scattered and worked. 9 ..... Dry Pencil Sketching softened with a moist brush to produce a pen and wash effect. A very good way of sketching in the wild.  A small brush and a small sealable pot of water (or a drop from your drinking bottle) will suffice to give you a very versatile medium.  The technique is also useful for flower studies where the petal colour fades from a strong coloured area.  Watch out for leaving a line at a petal edge though ( if you don’t need one ). Aquarelles tend to bruise the paper surface if a strong line is laid down leaving a line that persists through the later wash.  A gently shaded area of colour will work much more reliably for producing a fading wash with no remaining line 10 .…. Grit paper palette  A Good approach for using Aquarelles for mixed media - providing the source for a small amount of watercolour Is to develop a palette of colours on waterproof grit paper.  I use a 400 grit Hermes paper which is light grey in colour. You could use any suitable fine grit paper found in the DIY superstore which is light coloured and waterproof.  Apply dry colour from your pencil points ( this will keep your pencil point sharp at the same time ) and then apply the brush to the dry colour and mix and develop your blends of colour on the grit paper before using on your picture.  You can then work dry colour on top to define and develop your picture further.  I show a small sketch example below with the palette I used. The grit paper palette holds a greater volume of pigment and is more suitable for working a full picture than the option below. 11 ….. Travelling watercolour palette Finally, leading on from the last suggestion, for those who are enthusiasts of watercolour painting in the wilds who want to travel light ( really light ),  a watercolour kit weighing very little can be made up with a piece of 300 gramme cold pressed watercolour paper on which the appropriate colour swatches have been worked in strong blocks. With this as your paintbox, take a mini watercolour pad, a graphite pencil, a waterproof pen and a small pot for water ( and a bottle of water to drink ). Add a small brush and you are fully equipped to sketch, apply fine line pen and add watercolour tinting wash.  And everything will fit in one pocket This Palette will hold less colour than the one listed above, but will be enough to enable light colour washes. FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO WOULD LIKE TO TRY OUT A SIMPLE EXERCISE which covers the basics of using Watercolour pencils, I have included the ‘Two Pears’ exercise that has been used for beginners workshops for several years. The original reference is now not known to me, It certainly wasn’t one of my own images, so it probably comes from one of the free image libraries that I dipped into 10 years or so ago when I first started out teaching with pencils.   If you do know the source and can let me know I will acknowledge it here. THE TWO PEARS This is a simple exercise which needs only a fairly small piece of watercolour paper ( Ideally Hot Pressed around 300gsm - fairly thick and relatively smooth ) You will need only a small group of watercolour pencil colours I have used Staedtler karat pencils - a very good student quality pencil that dissolves well. You could use any suitable artist quality watercolour pencil which has similar colours. The colours selected were a limited range of 001 Yellow, 029 Carmine, 076 Van Dyke Brown, 057 Olive Green, 006 violet, and a mid grey for outlines These are - light yellow - dark red - a dark red /brown - brownish green - violet - and grey
Here we look at a range of ways you can use your Watercolour Pencils and a simple step by step exercise that will get you used to how the pencils work
This is the completed exercise
This is our photo reference
Start with a clean piece of paper and first lightly draw the shapes of the pears.  You can use a graphite pencil but a grey W/C pencil would be better.   If you have a problem drawing the shapes, draw a pair of circles for each pear and join up the sides.  Erase any of the lines you don’t need, and you can then start with colour
Using two colours (first a yellow and then a dark red) lightly shade in a layer of colour, keeping all your lines going in the direction of the shapes and keeping clear of areas of shine which will stay white.   All this colour is going down as DRY PIGMENT on to the paper.   I REPEAT - Keep your shading going n the direction of the skins of the fruit  and put down several light layers rather than one heavy covering Then develop this. Once you have covered the pears with a first full layers (apart from the shine), you can add the stalks with a dark brown
the pears then have another layer of the two basic colours, using small, light, circular, strokes and making sure your ‘scribbles’ keep to the shape of the pears. Save your heaviest strokes for the darkest areas.  Look at the photo and you will see that the area of darkest shadow is as dark as the stalks. This is where you are going, but there are a few stages yet.  
We can now take a damp watercolour brush and merge these colours - keeping clear of the areas of shine.  Work from light areas to dark and don’t get your paper too wet.  Your brush should follow the lines of the pear skin. It may help you to use a ‘dabbing motion’ with the brush and keep wiping it on a scrap of kitchen roll to remove excess colour. The colour is now much more intense, and forms the base for more layers of dry pencil once the paper is thoroughly dry.
Allow your artwork to dry thoroughly before moving on. If you feel that your colour base is still too light, you can add a further process, repeating the stages above. We can now add more layers of dry colour. The aim now is to build up depth of pigment on top of the tinted paper surface.   At this point we could move over to wax based Coloured Pencils as we are not going to use any more water, but for this exercise I am using the Staedtler karat pencils throughout. After layers of red and yellow again, we can add some violet (No 6) and Olive Green ( No 57).   The violet goes into the dark shadow area and the green into the lighter parts of the fruit.  Successive layers of red can be applied until the colour depth reaches the desired degree of darkness and richness. Finally the shadow is applied under the fruit and also some marks on the fruit surface with the Van Dyke Brown (76). You can continue working on the fruit and get the colour deeper and stronger, but this is a satisfactory point to finish Go back to the reference photo and see how dark the shadow area is between the pears - it is nearly as dark as the pear stalks. The darkness of the rear pear shadow emphasises the lighter edge of the forward one and separates the two.
This exercise shows you how the dry colour can be built up and then merged down into the paper with a damp brush.  It then goes on the show how further layers of dry colour bring up the detail and build on the depth of colour the earlier stage has put down
Page revised February 2019