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The best watercolour pencils 2021

Included in this guide:

best watercolour pencils: close up of hand creating a watercolour picture with a pencil
(Image credit: Staedtler)

The best watercolour pencils offer you the best of both worlds. You can use them dry, just like a normal colour pencil. Or, you can add water and create stunning watercolour effects to your drawings. 

That opens up a huge range of creative possibilities for creating art. Watercolour pencils, for example, can be sharpened. That means that unlike brushes, you're able to add fine details to your drawings. 

It also means you can create watercolours without having to use paints, which makes them both less messy and easy-to-carry when travelling. For this reason watercolour pencils, also known as aquarelle pencils or water-soluble pencils, are a popular option for plein air drawing. They're also good for sketching out a watercolour painting that you ultimately want to create with brushes.

So what ones should you buy? In this article, we've gathered together our pick of the best watercolour pencils for artists and designers. Each option has something different to offer, but they're all excellent products from leading brands. You may even find Black Friday deals popping up on them soon. 

Once you've bought your pencils, also check out our guides to pencil drawing techniques and painting techniques, and our selection of how to draw tutorials. Plus, if you're looking for conventional pencils too, our guides to best coloured pencils and the best pencils will set you straight.

The best watercolour pencils in 2021

Best Watercolour Pencils: box of Staedtler Karat Aquarell pencilsCB

01. Staedtler Karat Aquarell Watercolour Pencils

The best watercolour pencils overall

Specifications
Lead: 3mm
Available sets: 12, 24, 36, 48 and 60
Extras: None
Reasons to buy
+Break-resistant leads+High pigment content+Good for hobbyists or pros
Reasons to avoid
-No extras included

Given that Staedtler, founded in 1835, is believed to have invented the colouring pencil, it's perhaps not surprising that their Karat Aquarell pencils 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, thanks to their hexagonal shape, which also means they're less likely to roll off your table. 

The 3mm, high-pigment leads are resistant to breakage, and they're easy to sharpen too. There's a good range of colours and the brighter hues really stand out, even when mixed with water. 

Available in sets of 12, 24, 36, 48 and 60, we'd recommend these pencils for both hobbyists and professional artists, although be aware they are more expensive than many.

Best watercolour pencils: box of 120 Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer pencilsCB endorsed

02. Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Watercolour Pencils

The best watercolour pencils for professionals

Specifications
Lead: 3.8mm
Available sets: 12, 24, 60, 120
Extras: 10mm paintbrush
Reasons to buy
+High-quality materials+Fade-resistant+Includes a brush
Reasons to avoid
-May be overkill for non-pros

Faber-Castell is one of the world’s best known pencils brands. And this set contains some of the best watercolour pencils you can buy today. 

Thanks to the company's SV (Secural Bonding) process, they have super-strong 3.8mm leads that are less likely to break. They come in sets of 12, 24, 60, and 120, and you get a 10mm paintbrush as an added extra.

These pencils provide sharp, fine lines and excellent point retention; the colours are rich, vivid, and attractive, and they blend beautifully when water is added. In other words, they're great to use for all kinds of art, whether you use them wet or dry. The colours also match the company's Polychromos oil pencils, so the two sets are perfect for using together. 

Overall, we'd recommend these as the best waterpencils for professional use, but they may be overkill for hobbyists. 

Best Watercolour pencils: box of 24 Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Magnus pencilsCB endorsed

03. Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Magnus Watercolour Pencils

The best watercolour pencils for covering large areas quickly

Specifications
Lead: 5.3mm
Available sets: 12, 24
Extras: 10mm paintbrush
Reasons to buy
+Good for long sessions+Soft colour laydown+Brush included
Reasons to avoid
-Limited range of colours

Faber-Castell's Albrecht Durer Magnus watercolour pencils are the ideal choice for large-scale drawing, allowing you to cover large areas quickly and easily. They have a very soft and vibrant colour laydown. 

These are big, fat pencils, with big, fat 5.3mm leads, and their size and shape make them easier on the wrist during long periods of use. They're available in tins of 12 or 24. Like the standard Albrecht Durer pencils above, you get a 10mm paintbrush thrown in. In short, you might pay a little more for these pencils, but you get a very high-quality product in return.

Best Watercolour Pencils: box of Staedtler Ergosoft Aquarell 156 SB24 Triangular pencils

04. Staedtler Ergosoft Aquarell Triangular Watercolour Pencils

The best watercolour pencils for kids

Specifications
Lead: 3mm
Available sets: 12, 24
Extras: None
Reasons to buy
+Comfortable to use+Break-resistant leads+Suitable for all ages
Reasons to avoid
-Limited range of colours

If your kids want to have fun experimenting with watercolours (and it is a lot of fun), we'd recommend the Staedtler Ergosoft Aquarell Triangular Watercolour Pencils, which are suitable for all ages. 

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. They come in boxes of 12 or 24.

The 3mm wax-based leads are soft and produce vibrant colours, yet they're still easy to sharpen. In summary, youngsters will love these pencils, and they'll last longer than most others in their hands.

Best Watercolour Pencils: box of Derwent Watercolour Pencils

05. Derwent Watercolour Pencils

The best watercolour pencils for value

Specifications
Lead: 3.4mm
Available sets: 12, 24, 36, 48 and 72
Extras: None
Reasons to buy
+Strong on soft and light colours+Wax dissolves easily in water
Reasons to avoid
-Work dries quickly-Short on vibrant hues

Looking for great value? You'll find it in Derwent watercolour pencils, which are a little cheaper than their Faber-Castell rivals, but still perform well in terms of usability and finished looks.  

These hexagon-barrelled pencils (they're nice to hold, and easy to sharpen). With a 3.4mm lead, they're made with natural wood barrels and quality water-soluble pigments. 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, although admittedly they're lacking in very vibrant hues. 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 available in sets of 12, 24, 36, 48 and 72. All in all, at this mid-range price, these represent the best value watercolour pencils on the market today.

Best Watercolour Pencils: box of Derwent Inktense pencils

06. Derwent Inktense Permanent Watercolour Pencils

The best watercolour pencils for intense colours

Specifications
Lead: 4mm
Available sets: 12, 24, 36, 48, 72
Extras: None
Reasons to buy
+Intense colours +Suitable for layering+Good value
Reasons to avoid
-No good for using dry

Derwent Inktense Permanent Watercolour pencils are often confused with the product above, but they're quite a different proposition. Both ranges are water-soluble, but that's where the similarity ends. 

With the Derwent Watercolour pencils above, 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, so more colour can be added on top without affecting the layer underneath. 

The colours are also different. 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. These round-barrelled pencils come with a 4mm lead and are available in sets of 12, 24, 36, 48 and 72. 

Best Watercolour Pencils: box of Prismacolor Premier pencils

07. Sanford Prismacolor Premier Watercolour Pencils

The best watercolour pencils for beginners

Specifications
Lead: 4mm
Available sets: 12, 24, 36
Extras: None
Reasons to buy
+Thick, creamy colours+Great for blending+Easy to handle
Reasons to avoid
-Not suitable for pro work

Sanford Prismacolor Premier watercolour pencils produce deep, thick, creamy colours that are easy to apply and blend. They lay colour down smoothly and are highly break-resistant.

That's why we recommend them as the best watercolour pencils for beginners, although that doesn't mean experienced artists won't enjoy using them too. The only downside is being limited to just 36 colours. 

If you're happy to blend your colours, of course, this may be no concern. And as we've said, these pencils do make blending easy. These round-barrelled pencils come with a 4mm lead and are available in sets of 12, 24, and 36.

Best Watercolour pencils: box of Caran d’Ache's Prismalo Aquarelle pencils

08. Caran D'ache Prismalo Aquarelle Watercolour Pencils

The best watercolour pencils for fine detail work

Specifications
Lead: 3mm
Available sets: 12, 18, 30, 40, 80
Extras: None
Reasons to buy
+Lead can be sharpened to a fine point+Colours mix beautifully+Great to hold
Reasons to avoid
-May be overkill for hobbyists

The Swiss-made Caran d’Ache Prismalo Aquarelle watercolour pencils sit at the top end of the market, 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. The small 3mm leads can be sharpened to a fine point, making these pencils ideal for drawing fine detail.

If you're an experienced artist who wants to see whether a pricier pencil might make a difference, particularly when working on intricate designs, then we'd recommend giving these pricey pencils 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, in 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?

You can use watercolour pencils in one of two ways. Firstly, you can use them dry, just like a normal coloured pencil. Secondly, you can use them wet to make a watercolour wash. 

For the latter, 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 watercolor 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.

You’ll want to use something that’s a little thicker than regular paper, which will warp when you add water to it. Specialist watercolour paper, in contrast, can hold a large amount of water without getting distorted. We'd recommend starting with Arches Watercolor Paper or Savoir Faire Studio Watercolor Pad.

How do you choose the best watercolour pencils?

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.

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Tom May

Tom May is a freelance writer and editor specialising in design, photography and tech. He is author of Great TED Talks: Creativity, published by Pavilion Books. He has previously been editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine.