Monday, January 6, 2020

Dry-on-Wet with Watercolor Pencils

Dry pencil applied to a wet surface
In my review of Charles Evans’ book, Quick & Clever Watercolor Pencils, I mentioned that I was reminded of some techniques that I don’t use often and was inspired to try again. One is dry-on-wet, which looks rich and organic when everything goes well, but – as with anything that involves “on wet” – it’s unpredictable. While the paper is still wet from a previous water activation of pencil pigment or from a fresh spread of clean water, you draw with a dry watercolor pencil onto the wet area. The wet-on-wet technique with traditional watercolor paints is tricky enough, but an additional complication with pencils is that the point is firm, so it can damage a wet paper surface more easily than a soft brush can. I find it less damaging to use the side of the pencil lead rather than the point.
1/1/20 Trial 1: Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle (red 60, yellow 240,
blue 660) in 
Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

1/1/20 Trial 2: Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle (red 60, yellow 240,
blue 660) in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
Another challenge is that the paper must be wet enough for the newly applied dry pigment to settle and blend with the previous color but not too wet that the new pigment floats away. If the paper dries too much, the pencil will skid unpleasantly on the damp surface, leaving only a faint trace of pigment, and the point is more likely to damage the paper. It’s a narrow window between wet enough and too dry. This technique requires a high-quality pencil containing lots of pigment. (It’s actually a good test of pigment content; see the comparison chart I made a few years ago, including more info about various techniques.)

Given all these challenges, I tend to use dry-on-wet only when sketching trees or other foliage, where unpredictable results have a better chance of being happy accidents (in the Bob Ross sense). I haven’t used it much at all on still lives, so I gave it a shot on my oddly shaped Cosmic Crisp (which also gave me more opportunities to try some primary triads). In all cases in this post, I used Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles so that I could count on high pigment content.

In my first try (top), the blue I chose (which looked so innocuous in the test swatch) turned out to be disastrously dark for the shaded side of the apple when I applied the rich pigment too heavily. I immediately tried again (above) using the same triad, but I applied the blue with a lighter hand. A little better, but the paper had started to dry by the time I applied the red, so more of the rough pencil strokes are apparent.
1/2/20 Trial 3: Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle (red 560, yellow 10,
blue 162) in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

Using a different triad, I got slightly better results on my third try (at right), though the paper reflection under the apple turned muddy. I thought this technique would be faster than my usual dry-on-dry-then-wet approach, and it was – until I had to wait for the paper to dry completely before I could apply more dry pigment.

I’m not happy with any of these tries, and I’d need a lot more practice with this painterly technique to get better results. As with other painterly approaches I’ve taken, I miss being able to render the form with the shape of the pencil stroke. With pencil “paint,” I have to rely more on effective shading to shape the apple, and I have only about a minute to do it while the paper is still wet. I’m a fast sketcher, but not that fast!


  1. I think I'd like this guy. When recommending or reviewing books I often find myself wishing it were a book available when I was learning whatever techniques are being demonstrated. We truly live in a golden age of sketching, with more and more useful books available but it does make it hard for experienced people to gain much from them. Personally I like the 'lick' method and have used it often, along with using colored scribbles and lines to color my work. I've never been much of a fan of using colored pencils, watercolor or otherwise, as my base drawing tool.

    1. I agree -- I could have really used this book a few years ago when I was just beginning to explore watercolor pencils!


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