Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Magic of Water Soluble Pencils: Reviews and Techniques for Royal & Langnickel and Derwent

I had half of this post written before I even started to play with the pencils I would be reviewing, but then I had to go and delete the whole bit I had written. Why? Because I had thought that my memory would suffice for certain parts of this review. I found out how wrong I was when I began to compare swatches. This is no way to review or discuss water soluble colored pencils. In fact, it is just boring and uninformative.

When looking at the dry swatches, there is very little difference, except for variations in a color between brands. That is because a swatch is a poor evaluation tool. I am sure that plenty of people want to know which brands are the best, but what if you buy the best and realize that the medium is nothing like you expected? When it comes to watercolor pencils, artists want to know how they compare to traditional watercolors.

I am no watercolor aficionado- let's get that straight from the start, but I am a life-long mixed media artist who loves to try new techniques and products, especially when they fall into the colored pencil category.

Two of the water soluble lines I am discussing today are from Derwent, a respected artist quality brand. Nothing from Derwent is cheap, but I have always found their products worth the price. I have a set of 24 watercolor pencils, the Metallic 12-piece set, and a large collection of Derwent InkTense pencils. The Inktense line is on a whole different level than your typical watercolor pencil, so I will discuss them in a separate post.

 I am also including the inexpensive Royal & Langnickel watercolor pencils and Aquafine pan watercolors by Daler Rowney. I am not reviewing the pans, just using them to show how watercolor pencils compare to standard watercolors.

Watercolor Pencils Vs Watercolor Paints

I think the first points to cover are the benefits and limitations of watercolor pencils. Should a traditional watercolorist even bother with them? Sure! Here's why:

  • Very portable, even more so than pan watercolors 
  • Mix perfectly with regular watercolor, unlike graphite and colored pencils
  • Sharpen to a point for adding tiny details 
  • You can use the same techniques as you do with watercolor paints
  • There are wc pencil techniques that you cannot use with watercolor paints
  • May be less costly than regular watercolors


  • Not ideal for large paintings 
  • Not a "shortcut" for learning traditional watercolor techniques
  • Pretty inconvenient if you forget your sharpener on a plein air outing
  • Harder to make smooth, consistent washes
  • Extra binder in the pencils weaken the colors

If you are very comfortable with your drawing skills but new to watercolor, it may be tempting to try out the water soluble pencils first. It seems so logical, but, in truth, adding water to a watercolor pencil drawing will not make it look like a watercolor painting. If you want to learn how to paint in a traditional manner, you should learn about the properties and methods for traditional watercolor first.

On the other hand, there is no reason to balk at trying the pencils just because you are not familiar with watercolor paints. There are plenty of ways to use these pencils that have no bearing on traditional watercolor techniques, and you may enjoy the result even if it doesn't resemble traditional watercolor. If that is confusing, don't worry! I have some images below that should illustrate how the mediums differ.

images of cats painted in watercolors and wc pencils
Top: painted with Daler Rowney Aquafine watercolors
Bottom: drawn with Derwent wc pencils, water added after

In the image above, you can see how the illustration on top, which is painted with a brush and traditional watercolors, looks different from the painting on the bottom, which was drawn with watercolor pencils then brushed with water. I created both images in the same order: sky, window border and sill, then cat. I let each layer dry completely in between applications.

I discovered that I should have drawn the cat smaller when I used the pencils because the water spreads the lines outward. Ironically, The top image, which was painted with a #6 round brush, is much crisper than the bottom image in which I used a sharp pencil and the same brush.  The colors are more vivid on top as well. I believe that the binder in the pencils make the colors weaker because I used the same amount of layers each time.

The image below is more complex, but I used exactly the same method as I did with the kitties. The top painting is all done with my Daler Rowney watercolors and a #6 round brush, while the bottom was drawn with Derwent watercolor pencils and then stroked with water. When I did the bottom painting I rubbed the crimson lake pencil over the wet paper to make the darker areas of sakura blossoms in the trees and on the ground. You can really see here how the textures vary between brush and pencil. Again, the color brighter with the watercolor paints, but the fallen blossoms have more definition in the bottom image where I used the wet pencil. One must also consider that lines and shapes created with a rigid pencil point will never look like those made with a flexible paintbrush.

images of sakura trees painted in watercolor and wc pencils
Top: painted with Daler Rowney Aquafine watercolors
Bottom: Derwent watercolor pencils and water

Which version looks better is purely subjective. I only want to illustrate how the two mediums differ and to support my assertion that adding water to a watercolor pencil drawing is not like painting with watercolors. In fact, I think that I could improve this image greatly by using both mediums together. Okay, on with the reviews!

Affiliate Disclaimer: For full transparency, you should know that many of my links in my posts are affiliate links. As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when readers purchase items using my affiliate links. This helps me fund the blog domain costs, and you will not be charged extra if you buy anything using my links. 

Derwent Watercolor Pencils

I saved up for a set of 24 Derwent watercolor pencils, which cost about $25 at Amazon if you have a Prime membership, $24 plus shipping at Dick Blick, and roughly $32 plus shipping at Jerry's Artarama. (note: to date, this is the largest price difference I have seen between Jerry's and Blick!). If you are strapped for cash and want to try these pencils, go for a set of 12 from Dick Blick for about $8 because Amazon and Jerry's charge nearly twice that. You can buy these as open stock as well. You can blend watercolor pencils as you would paint, so it is not necessary to have a huge set.

Derwent watercolor pencils are available in 72 colors, and they are consistent with their dry colored pencil palettes (Derwent Coloursoft, Studio and Artist's lines). You can download the full chart from the Derwent website. What I love most about Derwent's watercolor pencils is their pure, rich color and consistency.

The only problem I have had is leftover pencil marks, which are an issue with most water soluble pencils. If you use the pencil dry, there is a chance that a few pencil marks will still show after you apply water and blend. Applying more water may get rid of the marks, but it will also affect the pigment that you had dissolved previously. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your intent. If you want a smooth, undisturbed wash, it is better to take pigment off of the pencil tip with a very wet brush. This is how you achieve traditional watercolor effects with the pencils, not by coloring and wetting the pencil marks, which is better for creating textures.

Derwent Metallic Watercolor Pencils

These pencils are hit-or-miss according to color. Most of the actual "metal" colors, namely gold, silver, bronze, and antique gold look dull when dry and extremely pale and grainy when wet. I can barely tell the difference between bronze, gold,  and antique gold, wet or dry, but, frankly, they are both ugly, so it hardly matters. Silver nearly disappears when I add water, and no amount of layering will bring it up to snuff- the scan makes it look darker than it is in real life. Pewter is nice, but it is basically a dark gray, and copper is lovely and more metallic than the rest.

Swatches of Derwent Metallic watercolor pencils
Derwent Metallic water soluble pencil swatches.
The labelled blobs are from the set.

The metallic primaries and secondaries are a little more usable, but I don't think they really look metallic. The red, blue, green, pink, yellow and purple are very vivid and beautiful colors when wet, and that is what saves the set from being a total waste. My dear sister got these for me one year as a gift, so I am glad that I can use eight of the twelve colors, at least.

Okay, I mentioned that the colors so not look very metallic, and to my bare eye they do not. However, once you scan a piece of art made with these pencils, you will know that they have metallic bits mixed with the pigments because the reflective grains wreak havoc with the scanner light source, and the scanned image ends up looking overexposed. It is not a good look, so I recommend taking flash-free photos of your art in good lighting.

Royal & Langnickel Watercolor Pencils 

I have owned my set of 12 R&L pencils for a long time, so I no longer have the case, and the colors are not labelled on the pencils. The set contains black, white, brown, light and dark blue, light and dark green, red, pink, purple, yellow, and orange. They are inexpensive, but they are not "cheapo" quality. You can get a set of 24 colors for about $15 on Amazon. I have found that it is easier to dissolve all of the pencil marks with this brand compared to the Derwent pencils, but the color is more transparent with the Royals. I suspect that the Royal colors are more fugitive since they are scholastic grade. If you want lightfast pigments, go for the Derwent or other artist grade brands. 

Below, I have added my swatches of different brands in similar shades of blue. The scan cut off a little on the top, but I show each brand as a shaded swatch, a denser circle done in circular scribbles, and a lightly shaded circle from left to right. I used water on half of each swatch. At the far right of the page, I have created a washes using a wet brush to take pigment off of the pencil tips.  From top to bottom, I have labelled the brands: Royal & Langnickel, Derwent watercolor, Derwent Metallic, Derwent InkTense, and at the bottom is a comparison swatch of Daler Rowney watercolor paint. 

Swatches of Various Watercolor Pencils with DR watercolor swatch for comparison
The swatches on the very top row are Royal & Langnickel.
This image shows a comparison between brands, including
Derwent InkTense pencils, which I am not reviewing in this post. 

I know that I have not covered all of the techniques that make watercolor pencils unique, but I hope that this post has been informative. What is your experience with watercolor pencils, and what techniques do you like best?

1 comment:

  1. I have a few Derwent wc pencils which I love for small images, a set of Derwent graphitints ( as I love muted colors ) which I love. A set of Fiber Castel art grip wc pencils and one Faber Castel Albert Durer wc pencil that Faber Castel sent me to try per request. The FC Albrect Drurer of course is the most highly pigmented. I will buy a set when I save up. The graphitints are very different as they are colored granite that is water soluble . Like your posts .