Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Watercolor Lessons from Pencils

11/11/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood
Back when I was using watercolors, it was annoying to wait for the paper to dry so that more color could be added without blurring away (or the opposite frustration of the paper drying too quickly on a hot day, though that doesn’t happen as often in these parts). And paper is not just “wet” or “dry”; the shifting state of dampness between those extremes can significantly affect the way the newly applied paint might look. Experienced painters take advantage of this somewhat unpredictable quality of water on paper to create the effects they want.

The aggravation with all of the above is among the many reasons I switched from watercolor paints to watercolor pencils – and I’ve never looked back. And yet every now and then I am reminded that even relatively forgiving watercolor pencils depend on their interaction with water and paper, and that interaction can still be unpredictable.

Last week during my walk, I noticed that the sky behind downtown Seattle looked like it was still tinted with sunrise – at 10:30 a.m. Wanting to capture the strange colors, I spritzed a Stillman & Birn Beta page with water and used my “licking” method to apply color to the wet paper. It was 40 degrees, and the air felt damp and heavy (brrrr!), so I knew it would take a while to dry. I walked around the block while waving the book around, hoping to accelerate drying time.

Wet paper with a wash of color

When I came back around to my sketching spot, the paper felt cold – a hint that it wasn’t dry yet – but I thought it was “dry enough.” (Famous last words.) If I were painting, I think that degree of “dry enough” might have been acceptable for applying more paint without problems (or not; I quit painting, so what do I know?).

Watercolor pencils, however, have their own issues: When applied to a generous, newly wet surface, watercolor pencil pigments can be spread into beautifully intense, organic-looking marks. And of course, those same pigments apply nicely and predictably to completely dry paper. But if the paper is slightly damp – that vast gray area between “wet” and “dry” – the result is almost always undesirable. Instead of rubbing onto the paper’s tooth (now temporarily softened by water), the pencils skid unpleasantly, leaving little on the surface except scratch marks. If applied with greater pressure with the hope of getting more pigment on the page, the pencil point could damage the paper.

Before adding more color at home.
When I started drawing the buildings on the damp-ish paper, it didn’t feel great, but I decided to keep going and got away with it. I even gingerly scraped the side of a pencil tip onto the sky to put in some clouds. (A risky move! If a small spot on the paper had been wet, it would have been intensely dark just there. Whew! Dodged that one.) When I put in the surrounding foliage, though, the paper in those areas was a bit damper, and the pencils barely applied pigment (at right). I stopped there, let the page dry completely at home, and added a bit more color then (top).

Sketching on location in cold weather is a dangerous mission, but someone has to do it.

A strange sky, 10:30 a.m.


  1. You had a good strategy with the watercolor pencils. No matter which method you use, they seem to have a mind of their own and don't like to be hurried. I like the way this came out!

    1. I'm sure you could teach me all about how to tame the watercolor/water madness! ;-)

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you! And I'm glad that you enjoyed the post.


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