Water-soluble Pencils Vs. Watercolor Pencils: What’s The Difference?

The main difference between water-soluble pencils and watercolor pencils is:

  • water-soluble pencils become permanent ink on paper once it is dry, and
  • watercolor pencils can be activated again even after it has dried.

A lot of artists use these terms interchangeably, which can lead to a lot of confusion since their function and use scenarios differ.They also have differences in how to use them, and how to layer them properly.

Key Differences

  • The look. Both water-soluble and watercolor pencils look like any other typical color pencil.
  • The precision it offers. A lot of artists who do paintings prefer to incorporate these pencils because they can color precisely, and is perfect when coloring or painting small details.
  • The paper you need to use. When using both mediums, make sure you are using watercolor paper or mixed-media paper that is at least 200 GSM so it can hold the water you’ll be using.
  • The price. Both are more expensive than common wax-based color pencils, depending on the brand, and may range from $25 – $40.

Below I have answered some of the most frequently asked questions regarding each type, which at the same time serves as a practical comparison of the two.

Brief On Watercolor Pencils And Water-Soluble Pencils

  • Watercolor pencils are a type of colored pencil that has a water-soluble pigment binder. They are designed to be diluted with water so you can blend out the colors like how you would manipulate with watercolors.
  • Water-soluble pencils are a type of pencil that use gum Arabic as its binder, which also dissolves in water. They are designed to create intense colors when activated with water that becomes permanent ink on paper when dried.

How Do You Use Watercolor Pencils?

Watercolor pencils should be used just like any other “regular color pencil”. In other words, you simply color your drawing depending on the intensity of color desired.

Then, once you already have your desired colors on the paper, you can use a regular painting brush to blend it and work with it just like watercolors.

Wet your brush with clean water and make sure that it’s not too wet. Otherwise it will make a mess on your paper.

Then, just carefully slide your brush on the colored parts and blend your desired colors together. The streaky look while it was dry should disappear and turn into a soft, watercolor painting-like look.

Pro Tip: Blend lighter colors first before moving on to darker colors. Don’t go back and forth between the two to avoid darker pigment transfers onto the areas with lighter colors.

You can still use watercolor pencils when dry just like a regular color pencil, but of course, that would defeat the whole purpose of it being a ‘watercolor’ pencil. Besides, watercolor pencils may be pricier than regular wax-based color pencils, depending on the brand.

How Do You Use Water-soluble Pencils?

Use them like you would a regular color pencil and color your drawing.

You can opt to color it thinly since most water-soluble pencils produce vibrant ink that goes a long way.

Just like with watercolor pencils, you can use a regular painting brush to activate your color. Make sure that it’s not too wet, and that you’re using clean water so it doesn’t create a mess on your paper.

Carefully slide your brush on the colored parts to activate the color, and you should see that the streaky look, while it was dry, will be replaced with a soft and smooth look.

Pro Tip: Test out your colors on scratch paper before laying them onto your drawing to see how far the pigment can spread with water.

You can also use your water-soluble pencil when dry just like a regular color pencil, but of course, that would defeat the whole purpose of it being a ‘water-soluble’ pencil. Besides, just like watercolor pencils, water-soluble pencils may be pricier than regular wax-based color pencils, depending on the brand.

Layering With Watercolor Pencils

Note that even after your watercolor pencil ink has dried after being diluted with water, it can still be “reactivated” with water. This means you can move around your colors once more. However, you need to be careful when doing this because it can damage your paper.

Another thing to note is that although this may be beneficial if you want to lift and lighten your colors, this might make layering colors a bit challenging.

If you want to layer another color on top of a color that has already dried after being activated, this previous layer may be reactivated and mixed with the new color you wanted to layer.

If you’re not careful, you might lift your previous color unintentionally, or end up with a muddy color mixture.

Pro Tip:  Use a slightly damp brush to blend in the other watercolors slowly.

Layering With Water-soluble Pencils

Unlike watercolor pencils, the water-soluble pencil ink becomes permanent when dried after being activated with water.

This means that you can paint over your dried layer with something else. This gives rise to various opportunities for layering, creating textures, or producing depth in your paintings.

Best watercolor pencils

If you’ve decided that you want to try out watercolor pencils, here are my recommendations:

  1. Prismacolor Premier Watercolor Pencils – This is a high-quality watercolor pencil that has a smooth and creamy texture that blends beautifully when activated with water. One thing that stands out about it is that you won’t have trouble wasting your product while sharpening it.
  2. Derwent Watercolour Pencils – This watercolor pencil promises break-resistant and easy to sharpen pencils that are ideal for artists who use colored pencils for long periods of time. At the same time, the lead is soft and requires little pressure for the color to transfer onto the paper.

Best water-soluble pencils

If you’ve decided to try out water-soluble pencils, here are my recommendations:

  1. Derwent Inktense Water Soluble Pencils – This water-soluble pencil set is known for its bright, intense pigments that are permanent after it has activated. Its pigment dries quickly and permanently, which means there is little to no opportunity for color bleeding. A little goes a long way for these pencils.
  2. Derwent Graphitint Pencils – This set is best for graphite artists who want to add dimension to their drawings. When dry, it provides a hint of color, and when activated with water, it transforms into a rich, vibrant pigment.

About the author: My name is Marcus, I am a lawyer (LL.M.) and the founder of this website. Besides sometimes doing lawyer stuff, I like to draw and improve my skills as a “digital artist”, and I write about what I learn on this website. If you want to know more about me or reach out, then you can click here.

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