Colored Pencils Vs Watercolor Pencils: What’s The Difference?

You have probably come across both colored pencils and watercolor pencils.

They look so similar, that you might even be wondering if they ARE the same.

The very short answer is no.

When comparing colored pencils with watercolor pencils, the colored pencils come out on top if you use them dry. But watercolor pencils give you the added option of turning them into beautiful watercolor paint when you activate them with water.

Keep reading if you want to know the why, how and what.

The secret is in the binder

So you might be wondering why colored pencils and watercolor pencils are so different.

The answer lies within the binder of the pencils.

Normal colored pencils use a waxy or oily binder that will keep the pigment together. While watercolor pencils use a water-soluble binder to bind the pigment.

The obvious conclusion is that watercolor pencils can be turned into paint when you wet them with a little bit of water, and colored pencils can’t.

But there is more too it than just that.

Even when you use both types of pencils dry, you can get quite different results.

Perhaps the most striking difference is when burnishing.

Burnishing is a common technique used with colored pencils to blend two colors together until no paper tooth can be seen anymore.

However, when you try the same technique with watercolor pencils, the colors will hardly blend, if at all.

In general, most of the techniques used for colored pencils need to be changed for watercolor pencils or they just don’t work as well.

So if you don’t have any plans of actually activating your colored pencils and want to work dry, I would recommend you to stick with colored pencils.

Note: Some high-quality watercolor pencils might perform almost as good as colored pencils when used dry. But in my experience, I haven’t seen any watercolors pencils work better than colored pencils when used dry.

How to use watercolor pencils correctly

You probably guessed by now that I’m not a huge fan of used watercolor pencils dry.

However, not everyone might be familiar with how to use watercolor pencils.

You might be wondering how and when to apply the water.

So let’s take a look at some of the most common techniques for watercolor pencils.

  • Draw on the paper and then apply water with a brush: This is the most commonly used methods. Start by using your watercolor pencils as if they were regular pencils. When your drawing is done, you can take a paint brush and add water where you want to bring the paint to life.
  • Drawing on wet paper: For this technique you first want to apply some water to the paper and then draw on it with your watercolor pencils. The binder will slowly dissolve when it touches the wet paper. It’s best to only wet the part of the paper where you want to draw. If you wet the entire page, the water might dry before you finish.
  • Dipping your pencil in water: You can quickly dip your watercolor pencils in some water and then draw on paper. The paper can be either dry or wet, depending on the effect you want.
  • Drawing over watercolors: Maybe this is more of a trick than a technique, but I like to add small details to my watercolor paintings with my watercolor pencils. Normally I would start by using my watercolor pencils on the paper dry, then turn them into watercolor by adding some water, and when everything is dry I would use the pencils one more time. Make sure to sharpen your pencils before making any small details.

The first three of these techniques can are often referred to as “dry-on-dry”, “dry-on-wet”, “wet-on-dry”, etc.

Paper for watercolor pencils vs colored pencils

So depending on how you use either pencil, you can get some pretty great results.

But – and this a big but – you have to make sure you are using the right type of paper for your pencil.

And unfortunately, printer paper isn’t ideal for either of them.

Although you can still get decent results if you use colored pencils on printer paper, using watercolor pencils will be a disaster.

As soon as you add water the page will start to wrinkle and the watercolor paint might bleed straight through the page.

For colored pencils you can use a wide rang of paper such as Bristol, toned paper, or mixed media paper. One good option is the Strathmore Bristol Vellum paper that you can find on Amazon by clicking here.

When it comes watercolor pencils, or watercolor paint in general, I wouldn’t stray too far away from standard watercolor paint paper. The Arteza watercolor pad is a good paper option for watercolor pencils. You can find it on Amazon by clicking here.

Pros and cons

Let’s go over what we have discussed so far.

Colored pencils work better than watercolor pencils when they are used dry, watercolor pencils give you the extra flexibility of using them either dry or wet, and you have to be careful when you choosing which paper to use.

That last one also means that if you want pencils for coloring books, you should probably go with regular colored pencils.

Most coloring books have very thin pages and can’t deal with water very well. Although there are some coloring books specifically made for watercolors as well.

Another difference can be found in the color range and price of these pencils.

Colored pencils are available in more colors and are in general cheaper than watercolor pencils.

So for beginning artist, colored pencils might be the better choice.

However, if you are interested in both colored pencils and watercolor paint, then buying watercolor pencils is much cheaper than buying both mediums separately.

Summary

They might look similar, but when you compare watercolor pencils and colored pencils you will quickly notice some big differences.

When using them dry, colored pencils are easier to work with and give better results than watercolor pencils.

However, that doesn’t mean that watercolor pencils look terrible when used dry. Especially high-quality watercolor pencils can look almost just as good as colored pencils.

Moreover, watercolor pencils give you the opportunity to experiment with two different art mediums at the same time.

If you want to know more about art mediums, you can read our article on easy art mediums for beginners.