Friday, September 11, 2020

Demo: Sequence for Spritzing Watercolor Pencil

Demo sketch

Several months ago when I sketched a peek-a-boo view of Mt. Rainier from our upstairs deck, I had enough forethought to take a few process photos that explained one method for planning the water-activation sequence when using watercolor pencils. The critical point is when I use a spritzer, which is my favorite way to activate foliage because it retains more texture and sparkle compared to dab, dab, dabbing with a waterbrush.

The issue is that it can be difficult to aim the spritzer accurately and confine the water to a targeted area. Adjacent parts of the sketch can be unintentionally sprayed, causing those details to become blurry when I want them to remain crisp (here’s an example of such a mishap). In the Mt. Rainier sketch, I used a waterbrush to activate the parts that I wanted to keep sharp and let them dry completely. Although activated watercolor pencil pigments are not permanent, they are far less soluble than dry pigments. When I spritzed nearby trees, the crisp areas were minimally disturbed.

That’s one way to keep the crisp areas from blurring. Another way is even more effective, but it takes more planning, which I don’t always remember to do. I explained the process a couple of days ago with the sketch of the North Substation tower, but I hope the steps below will be more thorough. This time I used the sketch with a tiny view of Green Lake that you saw on Wednesday:

Step 1 - block in: I like to use a Payne’s Gray Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer pencil for blocking-in because it’s harder and retains a point better than my usual Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles. As you can see, I don’t draw much with the initial block-in – just the large elements that I want to scale accurately to fit the composition on the page. (Sorry that the marks are difficult to see . . . I do the block-in very lightly.)

Step 1: block-in

Step 2 – draw tree and spritz-activate: I forgot to photograph this step, but instead, I’m presenting here the images I made for my workshop (which, sadly, was cancelled), which are probably clearer than any photos I could take in the field. Image 2A below is a tree drawn with dry pencil. In Step 2B, it has been spritzed just enough to activate the pigments while still retaining texture and sparkle.

Step 2A: dry pigment applied

Step 2B: spritzed

By contrast, shown below in image 2C is a brush-activated tree, which has lost most of its texture (this may be the look you want; I tend to prefer a more textured look). Image 2D shows what can happen if you are over-enthusiastic in spritzing – the pigments will float away in a messy puddle. Take care to spritz lightly, wait a moment for pigments to activate and settle, then spritz again if needed.

Image 2C: brush-activated

Image 2D: result of over-enthusiastic spritzing

A note on the spritzer: My favorite spritzer originally contained hand sanitizer, but it was purchased several years ago, and I can’t find the brand anymore. Ideally, use a spritzer that delivers a fine, even spray. Make some heavy swatches of watercolor pencil pigment and test your spritzer before using it on a sketch. You can vary the concentration of the spray by moving your sketch closer or farther away from the spritzer. I hold the spritzer about a foot and a half away from the sketch.

Step 3 – “licked” sky: I spritzed the sky area generously. Working quickly before the paper dried on this warm day, I “licked” pigment from the Museum Aquarelle Middle Cobalt Blue (660) pencil with a waterbrush and used the brush to apply the pigment to the wet paper. (This step is similar to the wet-in-wet technique with traditional watercolors.) I showed more details of the “licking” process in another demo a few years ago. The small refinement I’ve made in recent years is shown in the second image below: I’ve sharpened the pencil with a knife to expose as much pigment as possible, which makes the “licking” more efficient.

Step 3: pigment "licked" from pencil point with waterbrush and applied to wet paper.

pencil sharpened with knife to expose more pigment core

Step 4 – draw the main elements: While waiting for the sky and tree to dry, I drew the other elements, avoiding areas that were still damp. If you try to use watercolor pencils on paper that is damp but not glossy-wet, it’s truly unpleasant! The pencil point skids around without applying color, and if you rub too hard, you could damage the paper’s surface. If the pencil hits a slightly wetter area, it leaves a mark that might be unintentionally too bright. As with watercolor paints, it’s worth it to wait patiently. Note that distant foliage is left dry to keep them less vibrant and therefore in the background. By contrast, activation brings the closer tree forward.

Step 4: draw remaining elements, avoiding areas that are still damp

Step 5 – finishing details: After the sky and other areas were completely dry, I drew wires and other details.

Step 5: final details added

If you try this, please let me know how it goes and whether you like the results. This demo is similar to the one I wrote a few years ago except that I’ve improved and refined a few points.

9/4/20 completed sketch


  1. I thought I commented on this, but maybe I didn't do it here. lol Thanks for showing the steps. Nicely done!

    1. Thanks, Joan! I hope to post a few more tips like this sequence in the future.


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