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An artist can never have too many sets of colored pencils, and I personally use them for so many different things that I can’t imagine not having them at hand all the time. I not only draw with them, I take colorful notes and write out ideas, combining words, images and colors in ways that really help me explore my own creativity.
Lately, I’ve been using watercolor pencils a lot more frequently, and find that for many things I actually prefer them to normal colored pencils.
For instance, I often find that doodling, note taking and even focused drawing with these pencils allows me to play around with the colors and effects more than I can with standard wax-based or oil-based colored pencils – and, again, more freely and effectively follow a creative path as it appears. Write an idea down, outline it in color, draw some funny little pictures and shapes in other colors and then brush them all with water and see where it leads.
And if I am painting in watercolors, I find myself more and more using watercolor pencils instead of – or at least in conjunction with – watercolor paints, which opens up all kinds of new possibilities not really available with paints alone.
The results you can get from watercolors are simply beautiful, and this can be especially true with the best watercolor pencils, which still offer all of the cool effects you would get from watercolor paints – blending, fading and transitions, soft, watery colors, layering, large area washes and more, with that trademark soft yet intense watercolor quality to the colors and textures. These pencils, though, can also allow for more distinct shapes, outlines, borders, lines and details, more definite and bold colors, by using them as sharp-pointed pencils without water.
And this is also why so many other artists say they love water coloring pencils so much – their versatility. Some of the ways you can use them are:
You can even use these pencils in combination with watercolor paint, and often the same company will make both and offer matching or complementary colors between the two.
Whichever techniques you use, the best watercolor pencils will allow you to create truly beautiful watercolor paintings and drawings, with dimensions and qualities that ordinary watercolor paints may not provide.
And you can take them with you anywhere you go, and with a nice watercolor notebook you can have a great portable atelier with much less fuss and mess than with conventional watercolors.
Indeed, you can set up and begin creating pretty much instantly with this type of pencils in a way that would be impossible with ordinary watercolor paint, allowing for a sense of spontaneity which can be so important when creating art.
In this buyer’s guide I’m going to list out the very best watercolor pencils I’ve used, and try to answer some questions you might have, like:
Some of the watercolor pencil sets I list are a bit pricey, for sure, but considering the beauty of their colors, the way they feel in your hand and on the paper, and what they allow you to achieve, I think they are well worth the money, and among the finest artist tools of any type I have ever found. Other sets are surprisingly inexpensive, but still offer something of that superb feeling and those superb results.
Whichever set you select from my list of best watercolor pencils in 2021, you will be amazed at the beauty of their colors, how well they work and how great they feel. And, if you are like me, you will end up using them a lot more than you might expect!
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GREAT VALUE-PRICE RATIO
FOR ART STUDENTS
We might as well start out with the best of the best, and the Caran D’Ache Museum aquarelle (the French word for watercolor) pencils are certainly that – the finest pencils I’ve ever used, and a superb tool for the most demanding or advanced artist.
Nowhere else can you find such perfectly consistent, smooth and flowing laydown of pigment onto the paper, whether wet or dry, and no other pencils at any price – and very, very few of even the very best watercolor paints on the market today – offer the superb color quality, selection, combinability, saturation and brightness of the Caran D’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils. They are as well the most, water soluble, durable colors I have ever used, with absolutely no fading or shifting over time regardless of atmospheric conditions.
Yes, they are the perfect watercolor pencil, and without any real competition. If I had to really dig and find a drawback – any problem whatsoever – I might speculate that the high price would discourage you from using these astonishing pencils more often, but actually the exact opposite is true. The quality of the Caran D’Ache Museum watercolor pencils is so high in every regard that they are truly thrilling to use, and themselves a source of great inspiration, urging their lucky owner to create more and more.
And yet I cannot say that they are too expensive, and see them as one of the best investments you could possibly make – truly Museum quality, the Caran D’Ache Museum aquarelle, watercolor pencils are absolutely the best watercolor pencils overall on the market today.
And, if you are looking for the perfect present for any serious artist, and want to be in their good graces ‘til the end of time:
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that for some strange reason, while you certainly think they are worth the money, you simply cannot spend 400 dollars on a big box of pencils, and yet you still want the best of the best. For serious fine artists, who want the highest levels of beauty, subtlety and finesse from their pencils, and superb quality in all other respects, the Faber Castell Albrecht Durer (or, to be more exact, Albrecht Dürer) watercolor pencils are the best water soluble pencils I’ve found.
The Albrecht Durer watercolor pencils lay down onto the paper with such ease and smoothness that even fully dry they immediately present incredibly rich, saturated colors, and those colors will really hold up, being remarkably fade-resistant over time or with exposure to sun. Wet or dry, these paint pencils are incredibly controllable, and the colors can be as washy and soft as you want or so intense that they are almost overwhelming. Equally good for expressive work and precise fine detail, the Durer watercolor pencils are also a superbly made product, with amazing material quality, long lasting and beautifully premium in every way.
In all respects, the Faber Castell Albrecht Dürer watercolor pencils are one of the very best watercolor pencils on the market today, and in my opinion only give way to the stunning Caran D’Ache Museum pencils above (and by but a small margin). But to me the most impressive and notable thing about the Durers is how they feel, and how I feel, when I’m using them. An easy recommendation, then, for the best watercolor pencils for fine artists in 2021.
Many artists actually prefer the Derkwent Watercolour art pencils over the wonderful Durer sets described above, and they are unquestionably in the same league – both absolutely top-tier water soluble pencils for artists on any level.
It might be said that while the Faber Castell Albrecht Durer watercolor pencils give more controlled, consistent and predictable overall results, the Derkwent offer, if possible, even more bold and beautiful colors.
Indeed, if the brightness, saturation and impact of color and color combinations is of the utmost importance look no further – for color-intensive work the Derkwent watercolour art pencils are the best on the market, and as such are often the first choice of working commercial artists and illustrators.
And, as an overall superb watercolor paint pencil, the Derkwent Watercolour still offer the highest levels of control, detail and precision, as well as similarly high levels of material quality and durability – a truly professional art tool. I would want to have both – the Derkwent for the boldest and most expressive gestures and colors and the Durer for the absolute control, subtlety and beauty, but certainly either one would, by itself, serve an artist fully.
My choice then for the best watercolor pencils for commercial artists, the Derkwent Watercoulor pencils are an impressive force as an expressive tool, and an absolute joy to work with, allowing your creative forces to truly shine.
Yes, the three sets reviewed above are a wee bit expensive – absolutely worth it, and not really that much money considering what you’re getting and what you can accomplish with them, but a wee bit expensive nonetheless.
That is why I am so excited about the Koh-I-Noor Modeluz Aquarelle (again, simply the French word for watercolor) pencils, which are much more moderately priced and yet offer truly beautiful, bold and incredibly combinable colors, a brilliant balance between expressive freedom and precision control, and levels of material quality, consistency and durability similar to the most expensive watercolor pencils on the market today.
Indeed, the way these water soluble colors lay down on the paper, both dry and wet, the way they combine, layer and wash, the way they pop even when they’ve fully dried and, maybe even more importantly, the way the paint can be controlled to be more subtle, more hushed or muted, when desired, is amazing for a pencil in this range. And they feel great in the hand, seeming almost eager to flow with me and my creative energy.
Every mid-priced artist’s watercolor pencil on the market, it seems, tries to compare itself favorably to the Caran D’Ache Museum, the Faber Castell Albrecht Durer or the Derkwent Watercolour pencils, but the Koh-I-Noor Mondeluz Aquarelle watercolor pencils actually do compare favorably to those legendary sets, and would serve any artist on any level perfectly. The Mondeluz are, then, my top choice for best value watercolor pencils for artists on a budget.
A great choice for art students or beginners, or anybody who is just exploring watercolor as a medium, the Lyra Graduate aquarelle pencils offer performance amazingly close to the more expensive sets on my list of best water soluble pencils for artists, but at a price that is low enough to encourage lots of practice and experimentation.
The Lyra Graduate watercolor pencils lay down with amazing smoothness, and the pigments are of very high quality – resistant to fading and shifting over time, with bold and beautiful colors that are imminently mixable and controllable. They respond perfectly to water and really allow any student to learn both the basics and more advanced watercolor techniques with consistent and excellent results.
I always think that a good student art tool, of any kind, is not only affordable but of high enough quality that it will never limit or discourage artists while they’re learning, and will offer such beautiful and consistent results as to make learning easier and more productive while building confidence and offering inspiration every step of the way. The Lyra Graduate aquarelle watercolor pencils do all of that, and are an easy choice for best watercolor pencils for art students and beginners alike.
I wanted to recommend at least one big, cheap, watercolor pencil set, which would allow anybody to just play around without any concerns at all. Problem is, most of the big, cheap sets I’ve tried are just too cheap in every sense of the word. And really, joyous exploration of new creative realms is no fun if the paint pencils are pale and uninspiring, cakey or hardly responsive to water, if they break easily or feel bad or unnatural in the hand.
Castle Art Supplies, on the other hand, offers a really big set of cheap water soluble pencils – 72 colors for less than 40 dollars – which are in every way exactly the opposite of most other sets in this range. They offer lots of bold and beautiful colors that apply with remarkable smoothness and consistency, wet or dry, and combine beautifully for lots of effects and even more color possibilities. They also feel really good in the hand, strong, comfortable and of apparently premium quality, and last a long time.
This big watercolor pencils set comes in a nice metal box with three layers, which makes finding the right color easy – even with so many choices. If you want a big, cheap set of watercolor pencils which will really serve you and your artistic vision – offering fun and inspiration rather than problems and frustration – the Castle Art Supplies Watercolor Pencils are a great choice, and the best cheap watercolor pencils I’ve ever used.
My last recommendation in this buyer’s guide for the best water soluble pencils for artists is, I must say, absolutely brilliant, and something I would have given my pet hamster to have when I was a child. Ok, I didn’t have a pet hamster, and if I did I probably wouldn’t have traded her for anything in the world, but this set is, nonetheless, absolutely brilliant.
The Stabilo Woody Multi-Talented pencils for kids are watercolor pencils, but they are also soft crayons and normal drawing pencils, with extra-large leads for big, bold, fun strokes and full expressivity. The pencils and the lead are very durable and won’t easily break, but the lead is soft, and draws with strong and intense color, and will work on pretty much any and every surface – but don’t worry! They are easy to wash off.
With eighteen exciting colors kids are sure to love, these big, thick pencils are extremely easy to hold and to use, and are designed in every way to really support and inspire any child’s creativity and inner vision while developing their talent and teaching them about various art techniques. The set comes with a paint brush and kid-safe sharpener as well.
The Stabilo Woody Multi-Talented pencil set is my recommendation as the best watercolor pencil set for kids, and a wonderful present for any budding artist at any age.
I got a little carried away and excited exploring and trying out all of the different watercolor sets that I kind of lost my way and tried a bunch of watercolor pens as well – and without getting into a bunch of explanation about the wonderful world of watercolor pens, or detailed descriptions of each and every set, I thought I might at least offer a list of some of my favorites here.
These are all excellent quality sets, which work wonderfully, feel great, offer bold and beautiful colors, excellent control, laydown, mixability and watercolor effects, and they are all remarkably affordable. Any one of these sets would be a great choice for exploring this fun and highly expressive little niche medium.
And if you are already into watercolors, or even watercolor pens or markers, my personal favorite – the Winsor and Newton Promarker, in various color sets – will offer absolutely superb results, and should satisfy even the most demanding and advanced commercial or fine artist.
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So many people ask me if it is possible, or a good idea, to substitute watercolor pencils for watercolor paints, and honestly this is a bit of a tough question. I personally would never be without a set or two of really high quality watercolor paints, a nice set of brushes and the highest quality watercolor paper, and anyway pure watercolor painting is different, more focused and specific as compared to the many different things you can do with pencils – when I am painting, I am really painting, and I use paints and brushes.
At the same time, the best watercolor pencils do offer a painting experience nearly as advanced and successful as the best paints, and can do so much more, including more detailed and controlled drawing. Watercolor pencils are also, obviously, more portable, and easier to take with you and use anywhere and anytime, and can offer a spontaneity and ease not possible with paints.
Ideally I would want both – a nice full watercolor painting kit and a lovely set or two of watercolor pencils, using them separately at different times for different things and also having the option of combining paint pencils with paints and brushes, which can really take watercolor to a whole new level.
If you are new to watercolor, you may eventually want to invest in a whole set of paints, paper and brushes as well, but a great set of watercolor pencils is quite possibly the best idea for starting out and exploring this unique, beautifully expressive art form.
Thanks so much for reading my latest article – The Best Watercolor Pencils For Artists in 2021: A Detailed Buyer’s Guide – and I encourage you to visit my blog – Art Side of Life – for other buyer’s guides, online courses, articles and lots of other resources.