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Written by Fawzan Barrage

I have been painting in watercolours for more years than I care to share, but until recently, I hadn’t actually considered using watercolour pencils as a serious medium.

That all changed when I received a set of artist-quality watercolour pencils for Christmas. At first, I wasn’t sure if I would use them at all. My mind could not wrap itself around the idea of watercolours in a pencil form, but I decided to open the box and break them in anyway.

Just as I would do with any new watercolours, I started by testing the pigments and creating swatches. I drew several one inch squares on sketch paper and filled them in with graded strokes of dry pencil. I then wet half of each square to see how the pigment reacted to water. This is an excellent method of testing your watercolour pencils (as well as your regular watercolours), so you can become familiar with the medium and be able to control it to your desired effect. 

Hint 1: Remember to experiment with the pressure of the pencil stroke and with the amount of water in the brush when testing your pencils. Try heavy strokes as well as light ones to see how they differ when wet, and try using different kinds of brushes to find the ones that suit your purpose best.  

After this basic test, I decided to go ahead and make a small painting using a limited palette of watercolour pencils.

I started my painting with a faint pencil drawing of my subject: orange sections in a blue and white plate on a yellow, blue and white cloth. I chose the yellow background with a linear, contrasting blue motif to make full use of the medium as a drawing tool as well as a painting one.
  I then very lightly added a first layer of colour with my watercolour pencils. You will notice the light touch that I used when using the watercolour pencils, and in the next picture, you will see how just brushing in with some water has brought out the rich deep colours.
  HINT 2: Good (artist quality) watercolour pencils are strongly pigmented and even the lightest touch of pencil on paper will result in rich vibrant colours - once you get them wet. Don’t be fooled by the subdued colour that you see before you wet the deposited pigment - A touch of water will activate it and turn light, faint lines into rich colours in seconds.
So unless you intend to have a very thick, opaque layer of colour on your paper, use a light touch, and trust that your wet brush will bring out the full vibrancy of the colour once you lay in the water. For this medium, less is always better than more. You can always add another layer if you feel the colours are not deep enough.
  I let the painting dry completely, which doesn’t take too long. I then added the deeper orange colours for the fruit and the violets and deep blues for shadows with dry pencils on dry paper.  
Note: As long as your pencil marks are light, you need not worry about these marks showing up once you wet the pigment.  On the other hand, you can also use these pencil marks as an added texture if you wish – in which case, just make sure that your marks are consistent with the texture you want to show.
  Once I was satisfied that I had enough colour added in for my second layer of orange and shadows, I once again went over the painting with a wet brush. (Yes, these vibrant colours really did come out of the previous layer pictured before - this is how powerfully pigmented good artist-quality watercolour pencils are).
HINT 3: Because the pigment from your watercolour pencil is not bound to the paper before you use your wet brush on it, you want to make sure that the brush you use will not disturb the layer of colour that you’ve applied. The best brush to use for this purpose is one that has a very light touch - a squirrel or camel hair brush is usually best. Sable and synthetic brushes have more spring to them and are, of course, excellent for painting in watercolour, but not as suitable for watercolour pencils.
  For the final touches, I picked up the white watercolour pencil, wet the tip by dipping it in water and drew in a few highlights.  I then went back in with my wet brush and blended a few areas in the background to make them recede.  With that, my painting was done.

Whether you are painting outdoors or in the comfort of your home or studio, watercolour pencils are a hoot to try – they are versatile tools that can be used wet or dry, and on either dry or wet paper.  Don't hesitate to experiment with them and see what great effects you can come up with. I love my watercolour pencils now, they are very rewarding.

One word of caution: If you have kids around, make sure they have their own set or something else to enjoy while you paint. Chances are you won’t be able to keep your budding artists from getting their hands on your pencils once they see what you can do with them. They really are magical colouring instruments.