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Confused about the differences between watercolors and watercolor pencils? Are you curious if the skills you have acquired with either of these mediums translates into the other? Or, perhaps, you already bought a set of either and don't know how to use them for optimum results?
This blog post will help clear up most of the doubts that revolve around these two water-soluble artistic mediums. I will be comparing the two in terms of preparation of supplies, painting process, and will finish up with a side-by-side comparison of the finished art studies.
While I find it totally awesome that there are constantly new kinds of art supplies being produced and that an artist's options continue to grow, such a diversity in products may be overwhelming at times.
All of these options can cause confusion, not to mention spending money on products that we may not end up using, which is always a bummer.
I'm a huge proponent for encouraging artists to try every type of medium they can. Experiencing supplies first-handedly is definitely the best way an artist can come to conclusions about personal likes, dislikes and overall needs.
Artists have to discover not only what artistic mediums suit their styles best, but also their preference in brands (what may be good for one of us may be terrible for the other).
However, art supplies can be very expensive and I certainly don't recommend investing in a new medium out of whim (unless you have the money to do so).
We don't want to waste our money on materials that we may not enjoy using, which can happen even if the medium at hand is often compared to another which we have experienced and liked.
So, in order to save you some of the hassle, I will share my process as I create a simple painting using both watercolor pencils and watercolor paints. Then, I will compare the final outcomes and explain my conclusions.
This way, you can decide for yourself if either of these is worth looking into. I'll also share some tips and tricks that may help you enjoy these mediums more and achieve more effective results.
To find a list of my favorite art supplies so far, read my blog post titled My Favorite Art Supplies (So Far).
To find a list of my favorite free online photo resources go to my post titled My Favorite Free Image Sites & Two Examples of References with Finished Illustrations.
Painting Process Using Both Art Mediums
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Watercolor Pencil Study
-Brush (stiffer bristles)
-Rag (for lifting)
a) Create your pencil sketch lightly and select the colors you'll be using (this will depend on the reference photo you're working with). Lay down your colors as needed, leaving the whitest areas free of color.
Imagine you're using regular colored pencils and start creating color mixtures as you see fit, being careful not to "burnish" or press on your paper too hard. Start off with a good amount of color right off the bat. You really don't have to think about it too much because the color will be moved around.
b) Once your initial layer of color has been added, use a paintbrush with a small amount of water to move the pigment around your paper. I like using a combination of straight/curved paintbrush strokes as well as scrubbing in small, circular motions.
Try to pay attention to where the colors/values are in your reference picture so that you don't drag a color too far from where it should be. Look at your reference continuously.
c) Allow initial paint layer to dry COMPLETELY and place more pigment on areas you'd like to make darker. However many layers of detail you decide to add is up to you, just make sure to allow them enough drying time in-between. Focus on creating needed values, as well as creating washes of color wherever needed.
*When placing your deeper values, it's useful to wet your brush and take the pigment straight off the pencil tip! You can also use a watercolor pencil directly on your wet paper wherever you need a very dark value to be, but make sure that you are careful when doing this because you don't want to damage your paper.
d) Finally, it's up to you if you'd like to use your watercolor pencils to create any final details, outlines or expressive line work that you feel could compliment your painting!
Watercolor Paint Study
-Paint mixing palette
-Rag (for lifting)
a) Create your pencil sketch lightly and prepare the colors you will be using (this will depend on the reference photo you have selected). Prepare your color palette by either taking some amount of pigment from your paint set and mixing it with water to create a few different values, or by creating color mixtures yourself.
b) Start laying down your first layer of paint, making sure to leave the lightest areas free of color. Start with your lightest and most transparent layers of paint.
c) Allow each layer to dry before moving on to the next. Remember, the point is not to cover your previous layer of paint, but to go on adding deeper values only where you can actually see them in your reference picture.
The amount of layers you create is up to you (depending on how detailed you want your painting to be). Remember to look at your reference image continuously.
Comparing Finished Studies
The main difference between these two art mediums is that watercolor pencils are a drawing and a painting medium in one, when watercolor paint is only a painting medium. Furthermore, supplies needed are a bit different in that watercolor pencils require paintbrushes with stiffer bristles so that pigment can be effectively moved around the paper.
No color mixing palette is needed with watercolor pencils, as the mixing happens right on the paper. However, we do need a sharpener.
In terms of process, the main difference noted is that the beginning stages of a watercolor pencil piece don't require as much thought and care as a watercolor painting piece does.
Though I really recommend pre-selecting and preparing colors before starting with either medium, a watercolor painting involves creating sets of values and mixtures on a palette.
Also, when laying down initial colors in a watercolor pencil project, the artist doesn't have to worry about being so precise because the color is going to move around a lot.
By comparing my finished studies side-by-side, we can conclude that watercolor pencils allow for a more controlled and tighter outcome when compared to the watercolor painting piece.
Most of the time, some amount of line work will remain visible at the end when using watercolor pencils (I did my best to soften most line work in mine because I wanted to go for a painted look).
The watercolor painting has more of a luminosity to it, which may be related to the fact that I have more experience with this medium than with watercolor pencils. Also, brush strokes are a lot more visible, which create a more painterly effect.
Watercolor pencils are generally less messy and offer a solution for artists who want to create watercolor effects without the hassle of clean up. They can also be more portable,and don't require setting up a painting station when creating artwork in plein air.
Because these mediums are water-soluble, both require watercolor paper for optimum results, as well as drying time in-between layers. It is also necessary for the artist to plan and protect the lightest areas before starting, in order to achieve effective luminosity and form.
However, generally speaking, watercolor pencils require less water throughout the painting process which gives the artist more control and makes it somewhat easier to protect the whites.
Both mediums have their learning curves in regards to water control, but once the artist has enough practice with them, realism and more expressive "loose" effects can be achieved with both.
Also, both mediums dry lighter than they look when they are wet, but color payoff will vary greatly depending on the quality of supplies used. Both allow lifting to a certain extent, which can be used to correct some mistakes.
Finally, both mediums require a certain amount of research in order to find quality products at affordable prices. Using lower quality products can lead to frustration and disappointment.
Though watercolors and watercolor pencils are often compared due to their water-soluble properties, they are different in terms of how they are used and may lead to artworks with very different characteristics.
Depending on the artist's individual style and preferences, he/she may find one medium much more enjoyable than the other.
I personally wouldn't recommend watercolor pencils to artists that are specifically interested in painting techniques.
However, watercolor pencils present a versatility that may be very appealing to artists that enjoy sketching/drawing and line work, as well as those looking to combine different techniques into one same project.
2/6/2018 07:52:31 am
5/5/2019 08:36:20 am
5/9/2019 09:33:43 am
11/4/2019 12:18:35 am
Great article! As a coloured pencil artist for many years, I transitioned into watercolour pencils much easier than watercolour paint. I love how easy and fast the pencil medium is, and I find the planning of a piece much easier in pencil form as I usually lay out all my pencil colours before going over them with water. I am not opposed to trying regular watercolours, but I'm not sure where to start.
11/5/2019 11:55:58 am
1/19/2020 10:36:45 pm
Erica, do you have a post / videos on combining both watercolors and watercolor pencils on one image? Thanks so much! - Adan
1/26/2020 12:17:22 pm
Hi, Felipe! :)
You can use watercolor pencils like watercolor paints, essentially. Take the pencil, get a mixing area, and use the wet tip of a brush to put the pigment from the pencil in the mixing area. Using this technique you won't see any line work and your piece will look like it was done with watercolor paint.
4/15/2020 04:34:12 pm
Hi, Neil! :)
5/4/2020 01:13:14 pm
Hi Erika. Quite an helpful article you wrote here. For someone who never painted since primary school, and even then I wasn't very talented, what would you recommend for a start:pencils or paint? I only want to do it as a way of meditation and relaxation, but I also wish to be somehow proud of the final result.
5/5/2020 10:07:32 am
5/14/2020 07:53:32 am
5/20/2020 04:59:05 pm
9/21/2021 05:31:02 pm
My cousin has been thinking about learning how to watercolor. She would really like to get some help from a professional in order to be safer. I liked what you said about how pigments should only be made darker when the initial paint layer is dried completely.
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