The best watercolour pencils in 2023

The best watercolour pencils are represented by a hand drawing on a wet paper, depicting a pond
(Image credit: Staedtler)

For an alternative to pans and paints, the best watercolour pencils will help you create intricate, beautiful artworks by brushing over your drawn creations with water. 

It's important for watercolour paints to lay down well, blend easily and hold comfortably, and to not break with regular usage. We've considered these factors as well as the value and colour range to narrow down the options to the best of the best and included helpful answers to frequently asked questions.

You'll need thick enough paper to stand the volume of liquid, so make sure to check out our guide to the best watercolour paper. We've also written useful roundups of pencil drawing techniques, as well as how to draw tutorials. Not ready to try watercolour pencils or the best watercolour paints? Why not try some of the best coloured pencils and the best mechanical pencils.

The best watercolour pencils available now

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The best watercolour pencils: frequent questions

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 or Savoir Faire Studio Watercolor Pad, 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 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. 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, 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.

Tom May

Tom May is an award-winning journalist and editor specialising in design, photography and technology. Author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Great TED Talks: Creativity, published by Pavilion Books, Tom was previously editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. Today, he is a regular contributor to Creative Bloq and its sister sites Digital Camera World, and Tech Radar. He also writes for Creative Boom and works on content marketing projects. 

With contributions from