The best watercolour pencils provide you with a new and exciting way to create watercolour art. These purpose-built pencils come with water-soluble leads made from soft wax, which you can dip in water to create a wash directly on your canvas. Alternatively, you can simply draw dry, then work over your marks with a wet brush. Plus, of course, you can just use watercolour pencils dry, like a normal coloured pencil.
Watercolour pencils can be given a fine point using the best pencil sharpeners, allowing you to add fine details to your artwork. They're much more portable than brushes, and much less likely to cause mess when transporting. This makes them a great choice for holidays, travel and day trips for plein air drawing.
As with watercolour painting, using watercolour pencils requires using thicker paper than normal. The thicker the paper, the more time you'll have to work on your marks before the paper absorbs the liquid. For more on this, read our guide to the best watercolour paper.
In this article we've selected the best watercolour pencils available today, and give you the information you need to choose between them. For more art advice, check out our guides to pencil drawing techniques, and our selection of how to draw tutorials. And if you're also looking for other types of pencil, read our roundups of best coloured pencils and the best pencils.
The best watercolour pencils in 2022
These pencils from Staedtler are quite simply the best watercolour pencils you can buy today. Expertly crafted, they lay down colour beautifully, and make it easy to blend colours and create washes. There's a good range of colours and the brighter hues really stand out, even when mixed with water.
Their 3mm, high-pigment leads are resistant to breakage, and easy to sharpen too. And their hexagonal shape means they're easy to hold and use, so they're less likely to roll off your table.
These pencils, which are available in sets of 12, 24, 36, 48 and 60, are a great choice for both hobbyists and professional artists. They are on the pricey side, but it's very much a case of getting what you pay for.
Want to combine watercolours and oils? Faber-Castell's Albrecht Durer Watercolour Pencils match the company's Polychromos oil pencils, so they're perfect for using together.
In general, they're great watercolour pencils too. They come in sets of 12, 24, 60, and 120, provide sharp, fine lines and offer excellent point retention. They pencils also have super-strong 3.8mm leads that are less likely to break, thanks to Faber-Castell's proprietary SV (secural bonding) process.
The colours are rich, vivid, and attractive, and they blend beautifully when water is added. That means they're great to use for all kinds of art, whether you use them wet or dry, or using a hybrid approach. Finally, note that you get a 10mm brush thrown in for free.
Anyone working on a big canvas should check out Faber-Castell's Albrecht Durer Magnus watercolour pencils, because they let you cover large areas quickly and easily. These are big, fat pencils, with big, fat 5.3mm leads, and their size and shape make them easier on the wrist during long periods. They have a very soft and vibrant colour laydown, and are available in tins of 12 or 24.
Like the Faber-Castell pencils above, you get a 10mm paintbrush as an added extra. So while you might pay a little more for these pencils, they do offer great value.
Watercolour pencils sound like something only adults would appreciate. But actually they're even more fun for kids, as youngsters tend to be more open to new ideas than grown-ups. And in our view, the best watercolour pencils for children are Staedtler's Ergosoft Aquarell Triangular Watercolour Pencils.
Their triangular shape and non-slip grip make them comfortable to hold and use over long periods. Like all Staedtler watercolour pencils, they're also highly resistant to lead breakage, so your young ones are less likely to experience frustration and tears. And the 3mm wax-based leads are soft and produce vibrant colours.
These pencils come in boxes of 12 or 24. One thing to note, though, is that because of their triangular shape, they're not so easy to sharpen with a pencil sharpener; you're better off using a knife.
Watching the pennies? Derwent watercolour pencils are a little cheaper than most on this list. but they still perform well in terms of usability and finished looks, making them excellent value. These hexagon-barrelled pencils, made from natural wood and quality water-soluble pigments, are nice to hold, and easy to sharpen. With a 3.4mm lead, the soft wax blends and dissolves easily in water, making them a great choice for mixing colours.
You won't be short of colours to mix, either, unless you're seeking very vibrant hues, which aren't included in these sets. Also note that these colours dry quite quickly, so depending on how fast you work, you may have to keep applying fresh colour and water as you go. These pencils are sold in sets of 12, 24, 36, 48 and 72.
Seeking a way to produce intense, vivid colours? Then let us introduce you to Derwent Inktense Permanent Watercolour pencils. These pencils are often confused with Derwent Watercolour pencils (number 5 on our list), given their similar names. But they're actually quite different.
With the previously mentioned Derwent Watercolour pencils, once layers have dried, they can be re-worked by adding water on top. With these Inktense pencils, however, once your layer has dried, it's permanent. And that means more colour can be added on top without affecting the layer underneath.
The colours also differ between the two sets. The Derwent Watercolour pencils have more subtle, muted colours, while these Inktense pencils produce a vivid, ink-like colour when combined with water and really leap off the page. They work well on fabric, too.
However, note that when the Inktense pencils are used dry, they're rather dull and uninspiring, so there's a compromise to be made there. These round-barrelled pencils come with a 4mm lead and are available in sets of 12, 24, 36, 48 and 72.
Think of watercolours and you usually imagine dreamy, impressionistic washes. But some artists like to create more intricate designs, and for that we recommend these Caran d’Ache Prismalo Aquarelle watercolour pencils.
These pencils have small 3mm leads that can be sharpened to a fine point, making them ideal for drawing fine details. Made in Switzerland, these are premium pencils, in terms of both price and quality. Their hexagonal barrels are lovely to hold and use, and the vivid colours are easy to control, mixing beautifully with water on the page.
If you're an experienced artist who wants to see whether a top-end pencil might make a difference, particularly when working on intricate designs, we'd recommend giving them a try. They're available in sets of 12, 30, 40, and 80.
How do watercolour pencils work?
While a normal colour pencil secures the pigment in a wax- or oil-based binder, a watercolour pencil has a water-soluble binder. That means if you add water, the pigment will dissolve in it, giving you a watercolour paint wash that you can spread around the paper. If you don't add water, though, you can just use it as a normal pencil.
How do you use watercolour pencils?
Watercolour pencils are used to make a watercolour wash. There are a range of techniques you can employ. One is to first make your marks just as you would with a normal coloured pencil. Then apply a damp paintbrush or sponge to intensify and spread the colours around the paper.
This technique is great for combining detailed lines with softer, watercolour strokes. You might use it, for example, when detailing specific flora and fauna in a nature scene. It can also be used to blend colours together.
Another approach is to dip the tip of your watercolour pencil into the water before making your marks. This will result in vibrant, free flowing lines, and make a particular colour really stand out on the paper.
Can you use watercolour pencils normally?
Yes, you can use watercolor pencils dry, just like you would a normal coloured pencil. In this case, the marks you make won't differ from using the latter at all. It does, however, give you the option to apply water to those marks later and create a watercolour wash... but you don't have to.
What kind of paper do you need for watercolour pencils?
When you're using watercolour pencils, it's advisable to use something that’s a little thicker than regular paper, which will warp when you add water to it. The best choice is to use specialist watercolour papers.
Specialist watercolour paper is better than normal paper for watercolour drawing and painting. That's because it's thicker than normal sketching paper and coated with a special treatment, so it won’t absorb water too quickly. This means you won't have to rush your artwork, and will have more time to get it right.
Watercolour papers are typically 140lb (300gsm), 200lb (425gsm) and 300lb (638gsm). The heavier the paper, the more water can be applied.
What's the best watercolour paper?
There are three standard types of machine-produced watercolour paper on the mass market. The smoothest surface is hot pressed (HP) watercolour paper. Cold pressed (CP) watercolour paper offers a slightly raised surface. Finally, rough watercolour paper has a textured surface. If you want to paint fine detail, hot pressed is best, while rough paper is better for atmospheric creations, and cold pressed sits between the two for more general artwork. We'd recommend starting with Arches Watercolor Paper or Savoir Faire Studio Watercolor Pad, or see our best watercolour paper guide for more options.
How do you sharpen watercolour pencils?
Because the leads of watercolour pencils are soft, it can be a challenge to sharpen them without the leads breaking. For that reason, you should avoid electric pencil sharpeners, and low quality manual pencil sharpeners. Use the best pencil sharpener you can afford, place the pencil in the biggest hole if there are two, and always twist the sharpener rather than the pencil. Alternatively, use a sharp knife or scalpel.
How do you choose the right watercolour pencil?
There are several things to consider when it comes to choosing a watercolour pencil. First, there's the thickness of the lead. Thinner leads are better for fine detailed work, while thicker leads will help you cover more area quickly. Then there's the shape of the pencil: will a round, hexagonal pencil or triangular pencil sit more comfortably in your hand?
Another consideration is the number of pencils in the set. Do you need a big set with the widest spectrum of colours possible, or do you plan to do a lot of blending, which means a smaller set may do?
Finally, you should consider how tough you need your pencil to be. If you tend to break a lot of leads, you might want to opt for a brand that prides itself on the toughness and durability of its leads.
What's the best watercolour pencil?
We believe that Staedtler's Karat Aquarell pencils are the best watercolour pencils overall. These expertly crafted pencils lay down colour beautifully, and make it easy to blend colours and create washes. They're easy to hold and use, the leads are resistant to breakage, and easy to sharpen, and they come in a wide range of colours.
What's the best watercolour pencil for kids?
In our view, the best watercolour pencils for kids right now is Staedtler's Ergosoft Aquarell Triangular Watercolour Pencils. They're great for little ones because their triangular shape makes them easy to hold and use; their strong leads are more difficult to break; and their leads are produce fun, vibrant colours.
What's the best cheap watercolour pencil?
If you're looking for a bargain, the best watercolour pencils we can recommend are Derwent Watercolour Pencils, which offer high quality at an affordable price. Made from soft wax, their 3.4mm lead blends and dissolves easily in water, making them a great choice for mixing colours. They're easy to sharpen, break-resistant and perfect for long periods of drawing.