Color Spree

Color Spree
My favorite color is "all of them." What's yours?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Derwent Fortnight #2: Watercolour Pencils

Derwent's brilliant colourmen have turned a frustrating product into a must-have range of soft, pigment-rich watercolor pencils. When you buy them, look for the new tin with a picture of a gondola in Venice, with pencils angled over it as if they're laying on the sketch in progress. This formula's been around for a while. Blick's got this version of them, vastly improved from their old watercolor pencils.

Back in 1990, I had a set of 72 Derwent Watercolour Pencils. They came in a gorgeous tin with a picture of a trout fisherman flipping the fish into close focus. Half the drawing was dry, the other half had been washed into a watercolor painting. I was awed by that illustration and it's why I bought that brand of watercolor pencils. I wanted to be able to do that some day.

I was frustrated with the pencils though, because the leads seemed hard and dry. I couldn't get the strong smooth application that I did with my Prismacolors when I used them dry, though they did melt perfectly when I applied a wet brush and were great as watercolors. The color range was exciting, with strange and beautiful hues like Mist and Water Green, colors I loved as soon as I tried them.

I didn't use them often because of that hardness and gave the set to a friend when I moved away from New Orleans years later. When I replaced it, I bought the Cretacolor Aqua Monolith set of 72 because the woodless watercolor pencils seemed a lot more frugal.

Derwent has reformulated the pencils since then.

I love the new texture. They laid down easily. There's still a slight echo of the "dry" feeling, they are less waxy than most soft colored pencils. They're so pigment rich and soft though that it's just a pleasant variation on the feel of colored pencils.

They easily give full heavy coverage with only medium pressure. My old ones demanded heavy pressure, enough to incise lines in the paper if I wanted to get rid of the white specks in one go. Their unique texture gives a lot of control and a nice opacity to them in dry applications.

Light pressure still produces the lovely skip and dance broken color that gives a Derwent Artist Pencil drawing such a gorgeous "drawing" look. They sharpen to a good small point too, allowing great details.

Derwent Watercolour Pencils still have a big range of unique proprietary colors like Copper Beech, Water Green and Mineral Green. The color that's called Grass Green is different in every brand of colored pencils, it's just one of those common descriptive names. In these, it's the light yellow-green a bit greener than May Green and serving pretty much the same purpose of highlights on foliage. In many brands a Grass Green is a spectrum bright emerald color.

Notice on my sample painting how I managed to tuck in some very tight angled corners. I drew the crocus from the negative space, sketching around it with Copper Beech sharpened to a fine point and then working heavily into the area adjacent to the hard edge of the flower before washing. The old pencils wouldn't have given me that solid coverage, while others wouldn't give tight a turn where the petals meet unless I sharpened it per point.

Once I washed them, I had perfect control of how fast they dissolved. They do dissolve easily so I had to work with very little water where I wanted distinct marks to remain, almost dry-brushing over it, while areas I scrubbed a little came up completely and turned into pure high quality watercolor.

If you are concerned about lightfastness, Derwent posts lightfastness ratings on the Blue Wool Scale for each of their pencils. As usual, some colors perform better than others, but a large number of the Watercolour Pencils have a rating of 6, 7 or 8 -- the three artist grade lightfastness ratings. So I would recommend Derwent Watercolour Pencils especially for use in watercolor journals and travel journals.

If you only want to do archival lightfast framing-art with them, choose the lightfastness 6+ pencils from open stock -- or buy the full range and just sort them into "sketching" and "painting" pencil cups.

My 12 color set fits neatly on top of my Moleskine watercolor journal. That's the perfect take-along for field drawing and painting. There's one more point I have to make about Derwent's color choices in small sets.

They do know what they're doing when they decide exactly which colors to put in a blister pack or a set of 12. Unlike most colored pencils manufacturers, you really can try their pencils in a small set and have a useful small set with a full range you can use to draw anything you want. I can't count the number of times I've gotten a 12 color set of pencils that did not have a cold red or magenta in it, only the orangy-red that doesn't mix to purple. Or doesn't have purple.

This is the range in the 12 color set, charted.

If I had to go on a trip and could only bring one set of colored pencils, the new formula Derwent Watercolour Pencils would be one of my top picks. They are extremely versatile, they can handle all of my colored pencils tricks from burnishing and blending to washes and broken-color light tonal value drawing.

They erase well -- I had some areas in my sample painting that came out too dark before I washed them and they lifted easily with a kneaded eraser. Areas I lightened after washing came up very easily with a damp brush and a quick blot with a clean cloth. You can't pick up all the color with wet lifting, but you can lift quite a lot, the colors reactivate well. So moving them around on the painting was very easy.

You can get some downloadable projects and lessons for all of Derwent's products from Derwent's home page. Here's an example artwork I did last night with mine.

4" x 5"
Derwent Watercolour Pencils
Moleskine watercolor journal


  1. I was frustrated with the pencils though, because the leads seemed hard and dry.flower art

  2. Hi I would like to know if the Derwent watercolour pencils are the same qualities as the Derwent academy watercolour pencils. Much appreciated!