Watercolor Pencils versus Regular Color Pencils: What are the differences?

You’ve been using regular color pencils for a while but want to expand your artistic outreach. You’ve heard of watercolor pencils and the extra dimension they lend to paintings. But how are they different, and are they any better?

Watercolor pencils are water-soluble, while regular color pencils are wax or oil-based. Watercolor pencils resemble regular kinds, but when water is added, they create soft effects resembling watercolor paintings. Regular pencils offer a dry, user-friendly medium with intense colors.

So, Watercolor Pencils versus Regular Color Pencils: What are the differences?

Learn the Distinction

Watercolor pencils and regular ones are both colored media encased in wood. But the way color works and the range of its strength varies between them. Knowing their differences and limitations will improve your art and guide you in using them to their full potential.

These differences include material (what they’re made of), process (how they work), and surface (the canvas on which you apply them).

A Note on Binders

Most colored media have binders that hold the pigment and transfer it to a surface. The binder is important because it tells you what methods to use to apply the medium. It also gives you an idea of the pencil’s quality, which depends on the binder ratio to the pigment.

The binder defines the type of colored pencil. As various pencil types use different binders, the artist’s approach is also different. Understanding the binder and the way it behaves will make all the difference in your applications and artwork.

Characteristics of Regular Pencils

The pigment inside colored pencils contains a binder of wax or oil. This wax/oil base makes it easy to mix and layer colors.


  • Traditional color pencils are user-friendly, so they’re a better choice for drawing beginners, those who don’t like drawing with watercolor, or people with little artistic training who like adult coloring books.
  • Impatient artists will appreciate these pencils as they offer instant gratification. They’re also suited to those who engage in coloring to relieve stress.
  • Color pencils have deeper, more vibrant colors and are excellent for drawing fine detail. They can be easily layered and mixed directly on the drawing surface. Colors can become complex after multiple layers have been applied, but these can be easily blended with a colorless blender pencil, petroleum jelly, or baby oil. No special techniques are needed.

For easier blending, try tri-tone pencils with three colors blended in the same pencil lead.

  • Color pencils have a wide price range for every budget. The cheaper brands have a wax base. Many colorists prefer oil core pencils, though, because their harder leads are easier to sharpen into fine points for intricate work.
  • The most valued characteristic of color pencils is that their colors can be burnished. Burnishing is the process of building up heavy layers of color on a pencil drawing so that it looks like a painting.
  • Normal color pencils can be used on any type of paper, even thin ones. As they don’t leak through paper, they’re ideal for working with coloring books printed on both sides.


  • Traditional color pencils can be tricky to use when covering large areas.
  • You can’t lighten colors easily.
  • The more layers you put on the surface, the harder it is to remove them.
  • Their oil/wax bases may be troublesome if used with other media, particularly wet ones.
  • As color pencils are wax or oil-based, they’re designed to use dry. Their binders don’t dissolve in water-based solutions, so they should not be diluted in water.

Characteristics of Watercolor Pencils


  • Watercolor pencils combine the fun of drawing with the pleasure of painting. They can be used alone as regular pencils or with water. Some high-end brands, like Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer and Caran d’Ache Supracolor, are creamy enough to be used with or without water.

You can justify the purchase of these expensive brands by recognizing that one set of these pencils easily takes the place of two (a water-soluble kit and a non-water-soluble one).

  • Watercolor pencils add a new dimension to artwork, not usually attainable with regular pencils. Adding water to a watercolor pencil drawing intensifies the pigment and spreads it over the paper to create subtle flowing effects similar to those achievable with watercolor paint.
  • They also allow you to glaze over an existing artwork the way you can with watercolor paint. Both instances prove these pencils are excellent alternatives for those who appreciate the look of watercolor paintings but are wary of using paint.
  • Watercolor pencils offer better control than watercolor paint. With watercolor pencils, you usually don’t apply water until you’ve done your pencil work, so there’s no worry of having the paper dry out too fast.
  • Since watercolor pencils are made with a water-soluble pigment binder, applying water is a fast and easy way to lighten up the color. This is much more manageable than trying to lighten up the color of conventional pencils after a thick layer has been applied, which can sometimes be very difficult to remove once it is on the paper. Achieving a consistent wash needs practice, though.
  • Watercolor pencils allow you to manipulate colors and modify traditional artwork. They enable you to add layers to your drawings, paving the way for experimentation with fanciful color combinations.
  • Watercolor pencils are far more portable and much easier to use than watercolor paint, as their pigment is easy to lighten.
  • They can cover large areas with just a small amount of water—useful when working with skies, water, or grass.
  • They work well with other media, wet or dry. They can be used on top of the paint, and higher-end sets can be used without water, making them double-purpose kits.
  • Watercolor pencils have much more flexibility in style and range. They’re also available in nontoxic formats for children’s use.
  • They can be sharpened. No need to add water to achieve a crisp line. You don’t have to depend on paintbrushes with fine points to do intricate details.
  • With watercolor pencils, you can convert a drawing into a watercolor painting. Draw first, then add water later to create a whole new artwork. You can do this even with a drawing completed months ago.
  • As they are portable, you can bring a limited number of colors on the road, yet come up with a full palette after mixing them.
  • They are less expensive and more convenient than watercolor paint.


  • They are more expensive than regular pencils.
  • They have a limited range of colors. Traditional colored pencils in sets of 48, 72, or 120 colors are easily available. Most standard watercolor pencil kits only have between 10 and 40 watercolor pencils in a pack.
  • The colors of watercolor pencils are not as intense and are harder to blend when dry. This depends, however, on the brand. Artist-quality pencils blend better than cheaper ones. Watercolor pencils are easy to lighten, though, just by adding water. They’re appropriate for when you want a lighter color or if you want to lift some colors off your painting. You can also use water to create a more subtle range of color hues.
  • Watercolor pencils don’t layer in the same way as colored pencils. They can’t be burnished either, because watercolor pencils have a different binder and belong to a completely different medium.
  • Using watercolor pencils means you have to buy watercolor paper and brushes, which adds to art-related expenses. The added flexibility is worth it, however.
  • There’s a higher learning curve associated with watercolor pencils compared to regular ones. They may be challenging and frustrating for beginners. If you’re intent on improving your artistic skills, however, watercolor pencils can be a wonderful addition to your arsenal.
HulloAliceOpens in a new tab.

A Word on the Drawing Surface

Paper quality is essential when working with watercolor pencils. Whenever possible, use hot or cold-pressed watercolor paper, which is specifically designed to withstand water use. As it is heavier and more durable, it won’t rip. 

Capable of holding a more vibrant color, it is ideal for re-working and experimenting with textures. Keeton’s Office & Art SupplyOpens in a new tab. recommends 140# hot-pressed watercolor paper when mixing watercolor pencils with regular ones.

Even if you don’t plan on using water, senior artists recommend working on watercolor paper if you change your mind later on. For a sturdier surface suited to experimentation with textures, use high-quality card stock. Watercolor canvas, a recent invention, is designed to keep drawings moist longer.

If you happen to use ordinary paper and it is in danger of buckling, tape it to a sheet of cardboard, a clipboard, or any flat surface with masking tape, artist’s tape, or painter’s tape.

One artist’s recommendation is YupoOpens in a new tab., a 100% recyclable, waterproof, tree-free synthetic paper. It has efficient wipe-out capabilities and doesn’t need stretching or taping. As this paper is water-resistant and doesn’t absorb paint like ordinary watercolor paper, it’s ideal for use with watercolors. This feature allows artists to create interesting texturesOpens in a new tab. that form as the paint dries.

Which Is Easier to Use?

Regular pencils are much easier to use than watercolor pencils because there are fewer techniques to learn. Once you add water to the pigment of watercolor pencils, several things can go wrong. 

Why Not Try Both?

Neither pencil type is costly if you buy one small kit for starters. So consider getting both and trying them out. See which you prefer. Perhaps both will work out for you. Many artists combine both (in addition to other media) to create unique masterpieces.

To help you with your choice, the site Best Colored PencilsOpens in a new tab. has prepared this color chartOpens in a new tab. that features both regular colored pencils and watercolor pencils. It is in alphabetical order with important metrics in descending order. It is set up for easy sorting and searching for a particular brand or pencil type.

The Virtual InstructorOpens in a new tab. also offers this colored pencil comparison chartOpens in a new tab..

Can You Use Watercolor Pencils As Regular Ones?

Yes, you can use them as regular color pencils or with water. They have the advantage of combining the attributes of both colored pencils and watercolor paints. The way the colors blend is awesome. The application of water to a drawing made with watercolor pencils has the added benefit of the final product resembling a watercolor painting. 

Can You Use Watercolor Pencils With Other Art Media?

Yes, you can combine the use of watercolor pencils and colored pencils to create various effects in a single artwork. You can also use watercolor pencils with other compatible media.

Watercolor pencils are excellent used in mixed media, as well. You can combine them with pastels, traditional colored pencils, ink, or other materials you have at hand. A word to the wise, though: only add regular colored pencils after you’ve applied water to the drawing.

Can You Use Regular Color Pencils As Watercolor Pencils?

No, you cannot because they are made with different binders and are not designed to work similarly. You can use them the other way round, however. Use watercolor pencils as the normal kind. Some artists are content with this. Others, however, prefer to own a kit of each kind because they deliver different results.

Watercolor Pencil Tips and Tricks 

Artist Mark D. CampbellOpens in a new tab. suggests these techniques for making the most of watercolor pencils:

  • Use them like regular pencils to sketch, draw, and blend but activate the pigment with water later.
  • Create swatch cards for yourself and for sharing with others. Blend colors to create new ones.
  • Use a spray bottle to spray right on top of a sketch made with watercolor pencils to draw out the pigment, thereby creating a soft effect. Afterward, you can use a paintbrush to draw out the watercolor effect even more.
  • Use an X-ActoOpens in a new tab. blade to chip away little bits off the tip of a watercolor pencil and get the pigment into a bit of water to create a nice effect before or after painting.
  • Dab a wet paintbrush on the tip of the pencil and draw off the pigment.
  • Use water to flick off the tip of a pencil to create a little spatter effect, which is a really cool after-effect once you’ve completed a watercolor painting—or even before you begin one.
  • Wash over specific sections of your work, while keeping other parts dry.
  • Wet the paper before you start drawing or painting. Dip your brush in a cup of water and run it over the area you are working on. Add color onto the wet surface with a watercolor pencil.
  • Use a wet pencil on wet paper for richer color. Note that colors may bleed together (especially when using a lot of water on paper).
  • Layer two colors and activate them with water.
  • Mix and match regular color pencils with watercolor pencils or paint.
  • Use various tools to distribute pigment and make your art more interesting, such as brushes, sponges, cotton buds, spray bottles, and toothbrushes (for spattered effects).

Recommended Regular Color Pencil Brands

The Virtual Instructor categorizes his recommendations according to the artist’s skill:

Prismacolor Scholar Colored Pencils, Adult Coloring, 60 Pack
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12,117 Reviews
Prismacolor Scholar Colored Pencils, Adult Coloring, 60 Pack Opens in a new tab.
  • High-quality art pencils designed for beginning artists and crafters
  • Soft, smooth leads for superior blending and shading
  • Hardened cores resist breakage

Last update on 2024-05-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Recommended Watercolor Pencil Brands

Keeton’s Office & Art SupplyOpens in a new tab. suggests these top brands:

Seasoned artists usually give the assurance that if you’re just starting, student-grade pencils are fine. You can always upgrade to professional quality pencils as your skills progress. These have a higher level of pigment than the student-grade ones, so they produce more vibrant colors and present you with more options.

For those starting with watercolor pencils, go with a more affordable and user-friendly model until you get used to it. In the budget category, both kinds of pencils are in the same price range. For artist-quality pencils, be prepared to pay a lot more.

Before buying, though, do proper research by checking out reviews (online and in print) and consulting master artists, art instructors, and even interviewing managers of art supply stores.

This will ensure your next pencil purchase is the best one for your specific needs. No matter what you choose, always be on the lookout for new types of pencils. Trying them is a fun way to discover more efficient tools better attuned to your particular inclination and artistic temperament. 

Final Words

Ever heard of the adage, “One person’s garbage is another one’s treasure?” It’s the same with color pencils. What’s suitable for one artist may not be for another. 

After discovering the differences between the two types, it’s ultimately a personal choice. So ask yourself: What do you want from your pencils? What do you plan to achieve in your art? Your answer will lead you to the appropriate pencil type. Whether you choose one or both, what’s important is what you create with them and the fulfillment that comes with it.


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Caraca's self-taught artist based in the UK, Ines explores unconventional materials and sustainability.

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