Choosing the wrong pencil for an underdrawing will ruin your watercolor painting. Too soft and your watercolor wash gets dirty, too hard and the pencil will scratch the paper.
The best type of pencil to use with watercolors is a graphite drawing pencil, grades F, H, or 2H. Water-soluble graphite and water-soluble colored pencils are also suitable.
As always there’s more to the subject than meets the eye. I’ll direct you on the right path to choosing a pencil that suits your style and technique.
N.B. This post is about complimentary pencils for use with traditional watercolor paints, not to be confused with choosing a set of watercolor pencils.
Let’s crack on.
(I earn commissions for purchases made through affiliate links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)
3 Types of Pencils for Use With Watercolor Underdrawings
Professional artists will use their favorite graphite drawing pencils to make a preliminary sketch before starting a painting. It’s impossible to suggest the “best” for one simple reason. Each brand uses its own grading system. An HB pencil in one brand might be an “H” in another, or even a “B”.
These are the top brands of graphite drawing pencils:
- Faber Castell: The Graphite 9000 Series Pencils
- Staedtler: The Mars Lumograph Graphite Pencils
- Derwent: The Derwent Graphic Pencils
- Caran D’ache: The Grafwood Graphite Pencils
- Tombow: The Mono Graphite Pencils
- Lyra: The Rembrandt Art Design Graphite Pencils
- Conté à Paris: The Conte 601 Artists Pencils
- Generals: The Kimberly Graphite Pencils
The key to choosing an appropriate graphite pencil is to choose a grade that will not lift off when a wash is applied and is faint enough to be lost or disguised by subsequent layers.
The Advantages of Using Graphite Pencils are:
- Graphite pencils are tried and tested and for most artists, they remain the pencils of choice. Choosing the appropriate pencil grade for your style of painting is the key.
- Harder pencils produce lighter, less intense lines, and are less likely to show through transparent watercolor washes.
- Light pencil marks are easy to overpaint and erase, and those that remain are unobtrusive.
- The washes will remain clear and fresh.
The Disadvantages of Using Graphite Pencils are:
- With no universal grading scale you have no choice but to buy a brand and get to know them first. The answer is to choose a high quality brand and get to know them.
- Harder “leads” 2H and above, must be used with a very light hand; any undue pressure and the pencil will score the paper.
- Softer B grades will smudge and the graphite mixes with watercolor washes.
- Overuse can make the colors look dull and dirty
I use Derwent Graphic pencils so I can tell you that using grades F -2H work for sketching a light underdrawing, but that requires you to use Derwent pencils to follow my advice.
I wrote a couple of posts about drawing pencils:
- Best Drawing Pencils for Beginners: How to Choose (2023)
- What Do Pencil Numbers Mean? Pencil Grades Explained + Charts
I’m not promoting Derwent pencils as the best pencil, they just happen to be the brand I chose at the beginning, and I can buy replacements easily where I live. They are as good as the other leading brands.
Watercolorists who use Goauche have more scope for using darker pencil grades. Translucent color will cover light pencil lines easily.
This very popular drawing course by Brent Eviston is on Udemy.
He has over 73,000 students!
Water-Soluble Graphite Pencils
I’ve never been a big fan of soluble graphite. It’s not a great substitute for pencil shading and as a wash, Indian ink looks better. But each to his own. These are the pros and cons of using water-soluble pencils as I see them
The Advantages of Using Water-Soluble Graphite Pencils are:
- Just like regular pencils, water-soluble graphite pencils come in various hardness grades.
- Water-soluble pencils are designed to counter the problem of painting over graphite by dissolving into the wash itself.
- Softer pencils make more intense lines and can be used for making standalone washes
- Hard pencil grades will dissolve into a subtle grey and mix almost unnoticeably with watercolor.
The Disadvantages of Using Water-Soluble Graphite Pencils are:
- Dark lines bleed into wet paper
- Graphite is a cold grey and makes the pigment dull.
- Graphite washes have a dirty appearance
- No obvious benefit over using a normal graphite pencil or water-soluble colored pencil
James Gurney often uses watercolor pencils for his initial outline sketch and that’s good enough for me. They are particularly useful for adding the finishing touches where drawing fine details are required. Watch him sketch.
The Advantages of Using Watercolor Pencils are:
- Colored pencil lines blend seamlessly with watercolor paint and washes.
- High-quality, artist-grade watercolor pencils have good lightfastness
- It’s possible to use watercolor pencils like traditional watercolors
- They complement watercolor and gouache paint and are great for adding fine lines
The Disadvantages of Using Watercolor Pencils are:
- Damp paper produces vibrant colors. Adding a little water makes more intense colors than you expect. It takes experience to get the judgment right.
- Some colors especially with cheap brands are not permanent
- They are difficult to erase
- Not much use if you want visible pencil lines to show through
The Importance of High-Quality Pencil Brands
Choosing a quality pencil brand is important for a number of reasons.
- Lightfastness: Quality colored pencil brands typically use superior pigments, resulting in richer and longer-lasting colors.
- Consistency: High-quality pencils provide consistent performance. Top brands have predictable grades and durability. They have leads that sharpen to a fine point without many breakages, and wooden casings that cut reliably without splitting.
- Color Range: The best brands of colored pencils offer an extensive range and offer individual replacements.
- Graphite Range: Top brands offer a full range of pencil grades, typically 9H – 9B, again with replacement available
- Blendability: Quality colored pencils contain more pigment and less binder, resulting in richer colors and softer pencils. They blend smoothly and layer more easily.
Investing in quality pencil brands may come with a higher initial cost, especially colored pencil sets, but the benefits in terms of performance, appearance, and longevity of your artwork make it a worthwhile investment.
Can You Use Regular Colored Pencils with Watercolor?
You can apply watercolor or gouache washes as a base before drawing over them with traditional colored pencils. Watercolor underpaintings can be used to harmonize the picture and “hold” it together.
Using them to sketch an outline prior to painting doesn’t really work. Standard colored pencils use an oil or wax-based binder and are totally incompatible with water.
These are the best brands of colored pencils:
- Faber-Castell: The Polychromos Colored Pencils
- Prismacolor: The Premier Colored Pencils
- Caran d’Ache: The Luminance 6901 Colored Pencils
- Derwent: The Chromaflow Soft-Colored Pencils and Derwent Lightfast Color Pencils
- Tombow: The Irojiten Colored Pencils
Can You Erase Underdrawings?
You should erase any unwanted pencil marks before painting. Once the paint has dried over your pencil it’s too late.
Use a kneadable eraser to remove pencil marks. They are gentle on the paper’s surface, leaving no residue and almost no crumbs. They are self-cleaning in as much as kneading them disperses accumulating graphite and molding them exposes a cleaner edge.
Read this guide for more info: Best Erasers for Drawing: The 9 Eraser Types for Artists
Putty erasers will remove light pencil marks entirely or lighten dark pencil marks enough that overpainting is possible. They do not remove colored pencil marks easily.
Daily Sketching by Sorie Kim is a very popular course. You should check her out on Domestika
Can You Erase Pencil Marks Drawn Over Watercolor?
Use a kneadable eraser to play safe. Over-enthusiastic use of plastic erasers will remove some of the color, which defeats the point. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, only erase dry paper.
Using watercolor as a base for detailed drawings can be incredibly effective. I used this approach many years ago when I first started to sell my art.
I’m colorblind and mixing colors is a challenge, to say the least. I had enough confidence to use a limited color palette as an underpainting and I used my drawing skills to draw on top and bring the work to life.
1 in 8 men are colorblind. If you, or someone you know, has the same issue read this: How To Be a Colorblind Artist (I’ll Show You How I Do It)
My experiments taught me that drawing over dry watercolor works very well and erases easily, but working the other way around by adding watercolor over pencil, usually ends up looking dull and lifeless.
How to Choose the Best Watercolor Paper
Choosing the correct watercolor paper will determine the results. You need to consider the “weight” (thickness) and the paper texture.
The most popular paper weights for watercolors are:
- 90lbs (185 gsm): Quite thin paper used for sketching and holds light washes over small areas
- 140lbs (300 gsm): A medium allrounder able to withstand more robust usage and washes over large areas
- 300lbs (640 gsm): Almost guaranteed to survive a wet-on-wet technique without buckling
Watercolor paper texture is described in the following ways:
- Hot-Pressed Watercolor Paper – Hot-press paper has a smooth texture with a surface more suitable for line drawing and finer details. It is less absorbent and produces beautiful washes.
- Cold-Pressed Watercolor Paper – Cold press paper is the most versatile surface for using watercolor with pencil. It has a grainier texture and absorbs watercolor quickly. It is more suitable for a looser drawing and painting style.
- Rough Watercolor Paper – Rough paper has a pronounced grainy texture excellent for dry brush techniques and using watercolor pencils for drawing the finer details.
Most beginners will choose 140lb cold-pressed paper at first. It offers something for everyone. After some practice and discovering different techniques, a learner can assess whether to experiment with hot-pressed or rough paper.
As always, choose a quality paper. You need acid-free cotton rag paper.
I love this simple watercolor of a harvest mouse by Sarah Stokes. Check out her course on Domestika
Stretching Thinner Paper for Watercolor
The alternative to buying a very expensive heavyweight watercolor paper is to stretch thinner paper. You can even stretch your favorite drawing paper.
This post will help with drawing paper: What is The Best Paper for Graphite Pencil Drawing?
This is how to stretch your paper for watercolors:
- Immerse your sheet in a bowl of water or use a wet sponge to drench it for a few minutes.
- Drain and remove the excess water
- Lay the paper on your drawing board and use gummed paper to secure the edges
- Allow it to dry
The paper will shrink and dry flat. It is now suitable for holding watercolor. The preparation is extra work but it’s the best option if costs are of concern.
Does Fixative Work With a Watercolor Pencil Drawing?
I wouldn’t recommend using a fixative over pencil or watercolor for two reasons. Firstly most fixatives darken the tonal values you worked so hard to achieve, and secondly, it’s permanent. You can’t go back and add some watercolor later. Fixative repels water.
Fixative has its uses, it’s primarily for binding loose pastel or charcoal particles. It can also be used for reducing graphite shine. It’s seldom used with watercolor, although a few brands market specialist fixatives intended to block UV and seal the surface.
Learn how to use fixative: How to Protect and Preserve Your Pencil Drawings Properly
There is little value in using fixative when you’ll have to frame pencil/watercolor behind glass anyway. Plus you can buy UV glass if fading is a concern.
I would consider using fixative only for very specific reasons. To eliminate pencil shine on an overdrawing, and to deliberately darken an image that is washed out and too light.
What Type of Pencil Works With Watercolor? Final Thoughts
As ever, the best results will be achieved by using the best materials. Choosing inferior art supplies under the false premise that you are only learning, or practicing can backfire badly when you fail to see much progress.
The extra cost involved will pay back over time with better outcomes, besides, professional pencils tend to be very affordable. Likewise, professional watercolor sets last a very long time. I would argue that they represent the best value for money.
Buying a whole set of the best watercolor pencils will burn a hole in your pocket, that’s true, and the solution is to buy your pencils individually and build a collection over time. You don’t need a fancy box anyway.
Amateur artists get very concerned about the right and wrong way to do things. There is no rule that says “real” watercolor artists use pure watercolor without any pencil guidelines. In fact, they are the exception, not the rule.
Watercolorists with vast experience might forgo the initial outline sketch but they have acquired the artistic skill and memory over many years. Few learn their craft that way.
Use pencils and mix and match mediums to your heart’s content. There are no rights and wrongs, only different ways of doing things.
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