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The best watercolour pencils you can buy right now

best watercolour pencils
(Image credit: Staedtler)

The best watercolour pencils allow you to combine painting and drawing. With normal coloured pencils, the pigment is contained in a waxy or oil-based binder, but watercolour pencils have a water-soluble binder. You can draw normally, but if you add water to the marks you've made, you get more of a watercolour paint wash, which you can spread around the paper with a brush, sponge, or other tools. 

Watercolour pencils open up a range of creative possibilities. Since they can be sharpened, they allow you to add fine details that are hard to achieve with a brush. They're also much easier to transport than paints if you want to travel with them.

In this article, we've gathered together our pick of the best watercolour pencils for artists and designers. Each option offers slightly different things, but they're all excellent products from leading brands.

If you're new to watercolour pencils, you can jump to the bottom of this article for some tips on choosing the best watercolour pencil. You may also want to take a look at our essential pencil drawing techniques or painting techniques for some advice, or check out our how to draw tutorials. We also have a general guide to the best pencils for different uses.

The best watercolour pencils in 2021

Best Watercolour Pencils: set of Staedtler Karat Aquarell pencilsCB

01. Staedtler Karat Aquarell Watercolour Pencils

The best watercolour pencils overall

Lead: 3mm | Available sets: 12, 24, 36, 48 and 60 | Extras: None

Break-resistant leads
High pigment content
Good for hobbyists or pros
No extras included

The German Staedtler company, founded in 1835, claims to have invented the colouring pencil. Given the brand's history and tradition, it's not surprising that they have some of the best watercolour pencils on the market. The Staedtler Karat Aquarell watercolour pencils top our list.

Easy to hold and manoeuvre, these lovingly designed pencils have a practical hexagonal shape, which means they're less likely to roll off a table. The 3mm, high-pigment leads are resistant to breakage, and the pencils are easy to sharpen with a quality metal pencil sharpener. They lay down colour beautifully, and it's easy to blend colours and create fantastic washes. 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, this is pretty much the perfect watercolour pencil for both hobbyists and pro artists, although it is more expensive than some other options.

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

02. Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Watercolour Pencils

The most flexible watercolour pencils

Lead: 3.8mm | Available sets: 12, 24, 60, 120 | Extra: 10mm paintbrush

High-quality materials
Includes a brush

Faber-Castell is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of wood-cased pencils. Its Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer watercolour pencil set is one of our favourite watercolour pencil sets, and it's flexible enough to use for all kinds of art, whether you use the pencils wet or dry.

The Albrecht Durer watercolour pencils are made using high-quality materials and the company's SV (Secural Bonding) process, which results in super-strong 3.8mm leads that are less likely to break. They provide sharp, fine lines and excellent point retention; the colours are rich, vivid, and attractive, and they blend beautifully when water is added. The colours also match the company's Polychromos oil pencils, so the two sets can be used together. These pencils come in sets of 12, 24, 60, and 120. A 10mm paintbrush is included in the tin.

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

03. Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Magnus Watercolour Pencils

The best watercolour pencils for large-scale art

Lead: 5.3mm | Available sets: 12, 24 | Extras: 10mm paintbrush

Larger size for comfort
Soft colour laydown
Brush included
Limited range of colours for price

The Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Magnus watercolour pencils are less well known but similarly high-end. These are big, fat pencils, with big, fat 5.3mm leads, and this bigger size and shape make them easier on the wrist during long periods of use. They're also an ideal choice for large-scale drawing, covering large areas quickly. They have a very soft and vibrant colour laydown. 

These watercolour pencils are available in tins of 12 or 24. Like the standard Albrecht Durer pencils above, a 10mm paintbrush is included. You pay a little more for these pencils, but you get a very high-quality product in return.

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

04. Staedtler Ergosoft Aquarell Triangular Watercolour Pencils

The best watercolour pencils for children

Lead: 3mm | Available sets: 12, 24 | Extras: None

Comfortable to use
Break-resistant leads
Suitable for all ages
Limited range of colours

If your kids want to have fun experimenting with watercolour pencils, we'd highly recommend the Staedtler Ergosoft Aquarell Triangular Watercolour Pencils, which are suitable for all ages. 

With a triangular shape and non-slip grip, these pencils are uniquely ergonomic and comfortable to hold and use over long periods. They're also more difficult to break since all Staedtler watercolour pencils benefit from break-resistant leads. They're also easy to sharpen with any quality sharpener. The 3mm wax-based leads are soft and produce vibrant colours. Kids will love them, whether they want to draw freehand or to complete colouring books. The pencils come in boxes of 12 and 24.

Best Watercolour Pencils: set of Derwent Watercolour Pencils

05. Derwent Watercolour Pencils

The best value watercolour pencils

Lead: 3.4mm | Available sets: 12, 24, 36, 48 and 72 | Extras: None

Mid-range price
Strong on soft and light colours
Great for mixing colour
Work dries quickly

These Derwent watercolour pencils are 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 colour. You won't be short of colours to mix, although there's a notable absence of 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 hexagon-barrelled pencils are a little cheaper than their Faber-Castell rivals, but still perform well in terms of usability (they're nice to hold, and easy to sharpen) and finished looks. With a 3.4mm lead, they're available in sets of 12, 24, 36, 48 and 72. All in all, at this mid-range price level, these represent the best value watercolour pencils on the market.

Best Watercolour Pencils: set of Derwent Inktense pencils

06. Derwent Inktense Permanent Watercolour Pencils

The best watercolour pencils for intense hues

Lead: 4mm | Available sets: 12, 24, 36, 48, 72 | Extras: None

Intense colours 
Suitable for layering
Good value
No good for using dry

The 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: set of Prismacolor Premier pencils

07. Sanford Prismacolor Premier Watercolour Pencils

The best watercolour pencils for beginners

Lead: 4mm | Available sets: 12, 24, 36 | Extras: None

Thick, creamy colours
Great for blending
Easy to handle
Not suitable for pro work

The Sanford Prismacolor Premier watercolour pencils produce deep, thick, creamy colours that are easy to apply and blend. We recommend these as the best watercolour pencils for beginners to watercolour pencils, although more experienced artists may also consider them. 

They lay colour down smoothly and are highly break-resistant. The only downside is being limited to just 36 colours, even if they are well chosen. If you're happy to blend your colours, of course, this may be no concern, and as noted, 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: set of Caran d’Ache's Prismalo Aquarelle pencils

08. Caran D'ache Prismalo Aquarelle Watercolour Pencils

The best watercolour pencils for fine detail work

Lead: 3mm | Available sets: 12, 18, 30, 40, 80 | Extras: None

Lead can be sharpened to a fine point
High-quality product
Great to hold
High price point

The Swiss-made Caran d’Ache Prismalo Aquarelle watercolour pencils sit at the high end of the market, and they have a higher price to match. Their hexagonal barrels are a delight 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 taking these top-quality pencils for a test drive to see what they can do (if your budget allows, of course). They're available in sets of 12, 30, 40, and 80.

Choosing the best watercolour pencils

There are several things to consider when it comes to choosing a watercolour pencil. First, 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 will 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 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.