The best watercolour pencils offer the best of both painting and drawing. With normal coloured pencils - see our best pencils list for your options - the pigment is contained in a waxy or oil-based binder, but watercolour pencils have a water-soluble binder. That means 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.
The best watercolour pencils open up a range of creative possibilities. Since they can be sharpened, watercolour pencils allow you to add fine details that are hard to achieve with a brush. Plus, if you're travelling, then the advantage of watercolour pencils is that they're much easier to transport than paints.
In this article, we've rounded up our pick of the best watercolour pencils for artists and designers. Every option offers slightly different things, but they're all excellent products from leading brands with great track records.
New to watercolour pencils? You can jump to the bottom of this article for some tips on choosing the best watercolour pencil. Then you can explore our essential pencil drawing techniques or painting techniques for some advice, or check out our how to draw tutorials.
The best watercolour pencils in 2021
The German Staedtler company, founded in 1835, claims to have invented the colouring pencil. So it's not surprising that they have some of the best watercolour pencils on the market. That includes the Staedtler Karat Aquarell watercolour pencils, which sit at the top of our list.
These lovingly designed pencils are easy to hold and manoeuvre, and their hexagonal shape means they're less likely to roll off the table. They lay down colour beautifully, are easy to sharpen with a quality metal pencil sharpener, and the 3mm, high-pigment lead is powerfully break-resistant. The colours are easy to blend and create marvellous 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, aside from being more expensive than other brands.
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 pencils on the market today. Whether you use them wet or dry, these little beauties perform superbly and are flexible enough for all kinds of art.
The Albrecht Durer watercolour pencils are made using high-quality materials, and the company's SV (Secural Bonding) process 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 blend beautifully when water is added. The colours also match the company's Polychromos oil pencils, so the two sets can be used together easily. They come in sets of 12, 24, 60, and 120 watercolour pencils. A 10mm paintbrush is included in the tin.
The lesser-known but similarly high-end Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Magnus watercolour pencils have 5.3mm leads and a very soft and vibrant colour laydown. They're an ideal choice for large-scale drawing and covering large areas quickly. These are big, fat pencils, with big, fat leads - and this bigger size and shape make them easier on the wrist during long periods of use.
These watercolour pencils are available in tins of 12 or 24. Like the standard Albrecht Durer pencils above, a 10mm paintbrush is included. You're paying a little more for these pencils, but getting a high-quality product in return.
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 age groups.
With a triangular shape and non-slip grip, they're uniquely ergonomic and comfortable to hold and use over long periods. They're also more difficult to break - all Staedtler watercolour pencils benefit from break-resistant lead and are easy to sharpen with any quality sharpener. The 3mm wax-based leads are soft and produce vibrant colours. Overall, kids will love these pencils - which come in boxes of 12 and 24 - whether they want to draw freehand or complete colouring books.
Made with natural wood barrels and quality water-soluble pigments, the soft wax of the Derwent watercolour pencils blends and dissolves easily in water, making them a great choice for mixing colour. You won't be short of colour to mix, either, although very vibrant hues are conspicuous by their absence. 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. Overall, at this mid-budget price, these represent the best value watercolour pencils on the market right now.
Derwent's Inktense and Watercolour collections are often confused, so let's be clear - both ranges are water-soluble. However, that's where the similarity ends. With Derwent's Watercolour pencils, once your layers have dried, they can be re-worked by adding water on top. With Inktense pencils, however, once your layer has dried, it's permanent, so layers added on top don’t affect it. More colour can be added on top without affecting the layer beneath.
Furthermore, while the Derwent Watercolour pencils' colours are more subtle and muted, the Inktense pencils produce a vivid, ink-like colour when combined with water really leaps off the page. (They work well on fabric, too.) However, when Inktense pencils are used dry, they're dull and inspiring. These round-barrelled pencils come with a 4mm lead and are available in sets of 12, 24, 36, 48 and 72.
The Sanford Prismacolor Premier watercolour pencils produce deep, thick, and creamy colours that are easy to apply and blend beautifully. We recommend them as the best watercolour pencils for beginners to the discipline. These round-barrelled pencils come with a 4mm lead and are available in sets of 12, 24, and 36.
More experienced artists can also consider them because these are very good quality pencils that lay colour down smoothly and are highly break-resistant. The only downside is being limited to just 36 colours - albeit well-chosen ones. If you're happy to blend your colours, of course, that may not be a concern, and as noted, these pencils do make blending easy.
The Swiss-made Caran d’Ache Prismalo Aquarelle watercolour pencils sit at the higher quality end of the market, with a higher price to match. The hexagonal barrel is a delight to hold and use, and the vivid colours mix beautifully with water on the page and are easy to control. The small 3mm leads can be sharpened to a fine point, making these pencils perfect for drawing in fine detail.
If you're an experienced artist who wants to see if a pricier pencil can improve your art - particularly if you're working on intricate designs - then we'd recommend you take these top-quality pencils out for a spin and 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 a number of things to consider when 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 wide spectrum of colours as possible (ie. a big set)? Or do you plan to do a lot of blending (which means a smaller set will do)?
Finally, how tough do you need your pencil to be? If you tend to break a lot of leads, you might want to go with a brand that prides itself on its toughness and durability.