If you pick the best watercolour pencils, you'll be able to create watercolour art without using brushes or paint. With water-soluble leads (actually made from soft wax), you can simply dip them in water and create a mesmerising watercolour wash on your canvas.
The beauty of watercolour pencils is you can also use them dry, like a standard pencil. Plus, they give you the opportunity to draw dry and go over your marks with a wet brush to implement watercolour effects in different and unusual ways.
Watercolour pencils are a brilliant choice for holidays, day trips and travel if you're into plein air drawing, as they're much less likely to make a mess whilst being transported. Plus, you can deploy one of the best pencil sharpeners to give them a fine point, which will allow you to add intricate detail to your artwork. In short, they give you a multitude of new ways with which to explore your creativity.
Remember, watercolour pencils need to be used with much thicker paper than standard paint. That means you can work with your marks before the paper absorbs the liquid. Need to buy some? Check out our guide to the best watercolour paper.)
So what are the best watercolour pencils on the market right now? Below, we've brought together our favourite options, along with the information you need to choose between them. We chose our picks based on customer reviews and industry reputation, as well as our own expertise.
Meanwhile, for more art advice, see our roundups of the pencil drawing techniques, and how to draw tutorials. I you need other types of pencil, don't miss our guides to the best coloured pencils and the best pencils. Plus, you can scroll to the bottom to find out more about what to watch out for when you're choosing.
The best watercolour pencils in 2022
We'll start with the absolute best watercolour pencils you can buy today. Staedtler Karat Aquarell Watercolour Pencils are expertly crafted, 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.
All this makes these watercolour pencils, which are available in sets of 12, 24, 36, 48 and 60, a great choice for both hobbyists and professional artists. They are on the pricey side, but you do get what you pay for.
Once you've got used to watercolour pencils, why not experiment further and combine them with oils? Faber-Castell's Albrecht Durer Watercolour Pencils match the company's Polychromos oil pencils (opens in new tab), so they're perfect for using together. And in general, they're great watercolour pencils too.
These watercolour pencils come in sets of 12, 24, 60, and 120, provide sharp, fine lines and offer excellent point retention. They 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.
All this makes these watercolour pencils great to use for all kinds of art, whether you use them wet or dry, or using a hybrid approach. Oh, and you get a 10mm brush thrown in for free.
If you like working on a big canvas, then Faber-Castell's Albrecht Durer Magnus watercolour pencils will be right up your street. These are big, fat pencils, with big, fat 5.3mm leads, that let you cover large areas quickly and easily. Plus 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. And like the number two set on our list, also from Faber-Castell, you get a 10mm paintbrush as an added extra.
You might not think it, but watercolour pencils are great fun for kids, because they tend to be more open to new ideas than grown-ups. And 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.
Like getting a bargain? Then you'll love these watercolour pencils from Derwent, as they're a little cheaper than most on this list. but they still perform well in terms of usability and finished looks.
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.
If you really want your work to stand out, Derwent Inktense Permanent Watercolour pencils can help you create the kind of vivid colours that will really grab people's attention. 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.
If you're seeking to create incorporate intricate details to your artwork, we recommend Caran d’Ache's Prismalo Aquarelle watercolour pencils. That's because they have small 3mm leads that can be sharpened to a fine point, making them ideal for drawing fine and precise marks.
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.
The best watercolour pencils are actually very versatile. You can use them dry on paper like a normal pencil for details and fine lines. And if you're using them wet, you can use them dipped in water for a flowing effect and bold colours, apply them on wet paper for blurs, colour fades and washes, or you can dissolve them in water than then brush them on saving you from reaching for your paints. Of course you can also combine them with watercolour paints.
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 are the benefits of using the best watercolour pencils?
The big benefit of watercolour pencils over paints is that you can take them anywhere you go with a lot less mess. Pack some good watercolour paper and your pencils, and you have a very portable little workshop which you can set up almost instantly to start work whenever inspiration strikes.
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 (opens in new tab) or Savoir Faire Studio Watercolor Pad (opens in new tab), 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 (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab). 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 (opens in new tab), 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.