Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Colored Pencils Are Taking Over

Why do I have so many water-soluble colored pencils? Obviously,
the devil made me do it.
For most of the time I’ve been sketching, I’ve been loving Kuretake Zig Clean Color Markers for their “real” brush tips (as opposed to hard felt or other compressed fiber tips) and wide range of colors. Zigs have been on my Top 10 product lists for 2014, 2013 and 2012. As far as markers go, I still favor them over all the many other brands I’ve tried. The brush tips impart a more painterly texture than most markers (which tend to produce a hard-edged, streaky “marker” stroke). But I’ve been using them less and less in sketches the past year or so – about the same length of time I’ve been increasingly using water-soluble colored pencils and waterbrushes filled with ink. Since my trip to France is the first travel opportunity that I am not packing any Zigs and am bringing more colored pencils instead, I thought I’d talk about why I’m now favoring the latter.

Applying water-soluble marker to
water-soluble ink
resulted in the muddy headband.
Markers of any kind are definitely more efficient than pencils for filling a small space with intense color quickly. That’s one of the main reasons Zig markers became part of my basic arsenal.

Efficiency isn’t the only factor to consider, though. I find that the times when I most often reach for Zigs is when I am making a mostly monochrome ink sketch that I want to add a touch of color to – and in that type of sketch, I tend to use water-soluble inks. (If I use waterproof ink, it’s probably because I’m planning to use watercolor, and then I wouldn’t need the markers.) Being water-soluble themselves, Zig markers will smear and reactivate water-soluble ink, sometimes resulting in a muddy mess (see left). With careful application, that’s a minor consideration, but it’s not a problem at all with colored pencils, which go on dry.

Red and yellow colored pencils are easy to apply quickly to small areas.
I think the main reason water-soluble colored pencils are supplanting markers in the role they used to play is that pencils are more versatile. I can spot-apply pencil to a small area and then activate it with a quick swipe of the waterbrush to make the color more intense (this doesn’t take much longer than the stroke of a marker). I can use colored pencils to make a lot of scribbly marks (see below left) with light pressure to indicate the background, mid-value foliage or anything else I don’t want to call too much attention to. And I can also run the side of the soft pencil lightly over cold-press paper to impart a subtle texture to tree bark or a gravelly ground (below right). These last two techniques are definitely things I can’t do with markers, which make bold marks of strong color every time.

No Zig markers will be in my bag in France. We’ll see if I miss them.

Updated 6/5/15: I didnt miss the markers at all. See my post-travel follow-up for details.

Scribbling the trees at left pushes them into
the far distance.
Rubbing the side of a soft colored pencil on cold-press paper
imparts the texture of tree bark.


  1. I hope you don't miss the markers, but I'm sure the water-soluble pencils will work well!

  2. The colored pencils I have don’t work well for me, particularly the light yellow. When dry, it’s invisible on the white page, so I can’t see what I am doing or what I have done if I wanna apply water to it. How can I solve that?

    1. What brand and type of pencils are you using? It sounds like they are just low in pigment. Even if they are high in pigment, with lighter colors, you need to apply multiple layers. Please note also that when very pale-colored watercolor pencils are activated with water, the hue tends to become more diluted rather than more intense (as with most other watercolor pencil hues).


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