Saturday, January 4, 2020

Book Review: Quick & Clever Watercolor Pencils

Quick & Clever Watercolor Pencils by Charles Evans

During the cold, soggy months, I use the indoor time to scan book descriptions and page samples on Amazon and our public library online catalog, looking for potentially interesting art technique books. I learned long ago that probably 98 percent of books on colored pencil techniques focus on the time-intensive studio process I learned in my colored pencil class at Gage a few years ago involving layer after carefully applied layer of pigment. From that class and the watercolor pencil class that followed, I learned so much about drawing in general and the medium in particular that it was certainly worth understanding and practicing the process, but I also know it’s not the kind of work I want to do. So I continue to look for books that might offer an approach closer to my own: working on location with a method that enables me to finish a sketch right there (instead of many hours back at home). I was therefore delighted to come across Quick & Clever Watercolor Pencils, by Charles Evans, which sounded from the description to be close to my desired approach.

Evans is an urban sketcher at heart.
A traditional studio and plein air painter, Evans uses water-soluble colored pencils in a sketchbook while in the field. He encourages readers to use this medium on location for two purposes: to get their feet wet with plein air work without the fuss and heavy equipment of traditional plein air painting; and to make field studies that can then be taken back to the studio to develop into large-scale paintings. Discouraging working from photos, he believes that making a sketch on location “will capture really special, personal moments with much more feeling than a quick snap on the camera.” I appreciate that Evans is an urban sketcher at heart!

After the usual brief introduction to materials and tools, he demonstrates various wet and dry pencil techniques. (The techniques were not new to me, so I didn’t learn much there, but I was reminded of some techniques I rarely use, and I’m now inspired to try them again.) The bulk of the book is made of 17 lessons, each based on a sample sketch with step-by-step photos of how he completed the sample. Most examples are natural landscapes (some urban), and almost all are from life.

The author's favorite technique: using a wet brush to pick up pigment from
the pencil tips.
Although I was excited that the book comes as close as any I’ve seen to my own approach to urban sketching with watercolor pencils, I was disappointed that every lesson relies strongly on one technique: “taking the paint off the pencil with the brush” and applying it to the paper with the brush (what I refer to as the “licking” technique).

Some lesson examples were made entirely by this method, which is exactly the way one would use traditional watercolor pan paints – except it’s more difficult with pencils. As a traditional watercolor painter, the author is probably very comfortable working in this manner, whether the paint comes in pans or in pencils. While I have nothing against the technique, I feel that if I’m going to do the work of completing entire sketches by taking pigment off of tiny pencil points, why not just use actual watercolor paints, which would be much easier to get onto the brush? My complaint is that he emphasizes using watercolor pencils as a substitute for watercolor paints instead of taking greater advantage of the unique properties of watercolor pencils. In all fairness, he does mix a variety of techniques within each sketch, but the overall effect is more painterly rather than drawing. (Obviously, my preference is to view and use colored pencils as a drawing medium rather than a painting medium.)

Despite my complaint, readers who are interested in learning to use this “licking” method would find the book informative. The lessons are broken down into manageable steps, and photos are plentiful. I’m thrilled that a book that is close to my own approach (at least in philosophy if not methods) is even on the market. It gives me hope that other such books may follow (even if I’m the one who has to write them someday!).

As mentioned earlier, the book rekindled my interest in techniques I had forgotten about or rarely use. I’m going to explore some soon; stay tuned.


  1. Well you have now given yourself the task we need you to do - write that book on watercolour pencils and urban sketching. We need the tips and tricks you have learnt. You keep saying it's too cold outside to sketch for long so here's a challenge for the winter.

  2. Thanks for your vote of confidence, Jan and Cathy! I do have it in the back of my mind to write a book someday! I'm happy to know that I would have at least two readers if/when I do write it. ;-)


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