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They look just like colored pencils, but watercolor pencils are far more versatile. With cores made with a water-soluble binder, these implements can be used dry or with water for a wide range of effects. Artists can dip the tip of a watercolor pencil into water for a velvety, thick line; they can wet their paper and then draw on it; or they can draw dry, opaque lines and then run a wet brush over their marks. Extremely portable, the pencils are a great alternative to pan or tube watercolors, especially if traveling. Artist-grade watercolor pencils are made with high-quality pigments, offer a high level of lightfastness, and are almost always available by the pencil for easy and economical replacement. Try one—or a few—of our picks below to figure out which you like best.
Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer Watercolor Pencils
Featuring oil-based cores, these water-soluble pencils perform the most like watercolor paint when wet. The pigment-rich leads are easy to control and spread, and they retain their vibrancy even across larger swaths of paper. They also dissolve with little effort and blend cleanly. The 3.8-millimeter cores are firm to resist snapping when applied with pressure, and they are capable of retaining fine tips for sharp lines. This line also offers outstanding lightfastness, and each pencil is labeled with its rating for convenience. Pencils are sold individually or in sets and are available in a comprehensive range of 120 colors.
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Caran d’Ache Supracolor Aquarelle Pencils and Sets
Slightly softer than the Albrecht Dürers, the Supracolors are a slightly pricier series that we consider an upgrade pick. These pencils, which feature a 3.7-millimeter core, are beloved for their easy blendability, smooth strokes, and lively colors. They lay down almost buttery lines and layer and blend smoothly whether wet or dry, and their pigments can be activated to produce stunning washes. Their priciness—nearly $3 per pencil when purchased individually—drops them to number two on our list, and they also lose some points for lightfastness: Some colors do not have excellent ratings, so be sure to check before you buy.
Winsor & Newton Studio Collection Colour Pencils, Set of 48
A relative newcomer to the watercolor pencil market, Winsor & Newton’s series is a great choice for artists who want to use professional-grade watercolors without spending too much. These wax-based pencils are similar in softness to the Supracolors (with the same core size) and lay down very vivid, almost luminous colors. Wet or dry, they also blend effortlessly and layer well, with pigments staying bright without muddying. We judge them best for students for two reasons: You can purchase them only in sets of 4 to 48, not by the pencil, and they do not have lightfastness ratings.
Derwent Inktense Pencils and Sets
In performance, Derwent’s pencils are similar to watercolor pencils, but they are technically made with water-soluble, highly pigmented ink. The result: extremely intense colors that can be applied wet to produce bold strokes and washes. Once dry, the marks are permanent—so while this is not the most forgiving water-soluble medium, it is excellent to use for layering when you want to leave underlying layers undisturbed. These pencils are compatible with paper as well as fabric and are a great complement to traditional watercolor pencils.
Prismacolor Premier Watercolor Pencils, Set of 36
Prismacolor has long maintained a reputation for superior colored pencils, and this set of 36 watercolor pencils are no exception. They are soft and pigment-rich and showcase excellent mixing ability. You can achieve smooth, saturated color on most papers; when hydrated, the colors can produce scintillating, translucent, watery effects. The full spectrum of hues—which includes neutrals, metallics, and several shades of gray, are lightfast.
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