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Painting with Derwent Aquatone Watercolor Pencils

Updated on May 19, 2009

#23 of 100

Still rolling on my 100 Hubs Challenge... can I catch up for the three days I missed by starting late?
Still rolling on my 100 Hubs Challenge... can I catch up for the three days I missed by starting late?

Derwent Aquatone Woodless Watercolor Pencils

 Derwent is a very wicked British pencil company, formerly called Rexel Cumberland, which has plotted for centuries to soak up as much of my spending money as it possibly can. Mad scientists and colourmen work year round to create new and interesting proprietary pencils unlike any other company's products, which they invariably introduce while I'm saving up for something else. Then because it's in the UK, I have to wait and drool at them for a year or two till they come over and Dick Blick or ASW makes them available to me in the USA.

Derwent Aquatone were actually one type I resisted for a good long time, because in 2000 a friend gave me a 12 color set of Cretacolor Aqua Monolith woodless watercolor pencils and in 2004 I got spending money for the first time in years and got the big 72 color set of those. Aqua Monoliths are an excellent buy too.

Though they cost more than other watercolor pencils, woodless ones are a true bargain because you can use every grain of the pigment. When you sharpen them, line up some pill bottles or other containers, one per color. Wipe the hand sharpener clean between pencils and save the shavings. You can add a few drops of water and have liquid watercolor to paint with. This works with either Aquatones or Aqua Monoliths, and those are the only two brands of woodless watercolor pencils I'm aware of.

Aqua Monolith are medium-hard, about the hardness of a good firm artist grade colored pencil. They don't always put down a heavy covering but can hold a very fine point. They're softer than Prismacolor Verithin but way harder than Prismacolor Premier, for comparison. But the temptation of having 72 watersoluble colors was just too much to bear, so I chose that brand over Derwent and enjoyed them for years.

Then a friend bought some open stock Derwent Aquatone pencils on sale at a physical art store, and I got to try one.

I didn't realize these were a third again longer than Aqua Monoliths, which are rather shorter than normal colored pencils. LIke those, they weigh heavy in the hand. They're solid core material wrapped in a paper wrapper so your sweaty hands don't dissolve the color. Aqua Monoliths are dipped in lacquer for the same reason. I like the wrappers, but will have to be very careful and use a razorblade or art knife to cut and peel off the wrappers as I wear them down so that most of the wrapper is still on the pencil till it's a stub and I use a Koh-I-Noor Pencil Extender to hold it.

I didn't realize that Derwent Aquatone were nearly as soft as Derwent Coloursoft and laid on a smooth, heavy coverage with medium pressure. I'm very happy with their softness and it makes the colors blend easier. The full range is only 24 colors unlike the 72 color range of Derwent Watercolour Pencils. The color isn't as strong as Derwent Inktense because nothing else is, but it comes very close -- it's not going to have the "too strong" effect in a light area that I get sometimes with Inktense.

They are true watercolor pencils. That is, they are rewettable and if you get an area too dark, you can brush water over it and dab it off with a white cloth or facial tissue to lighten it up. The colors in the 24 color set are well chosen for good mixing colors -- this is an excellent 24 color watercolor set if you want to look at it that way.

Which is a darn good way to look at it because it's very portable and it gives you a lot of paint if you just use a wet brush to pull color off the points of the pencils, or scribble a palette on a spare bit of watercolor paper. Below is the color chart I made on 90lb watercolor paper showing two shaded bands for each color, one washed and one not. All the washed bands have water brushed on from the light end pushing toward the darker end.

Color Chart of 24 Derwent Aquatone watercolor pencils

I keep this color chart tucked into the tin so that I can tell exactly how each pencil looks wet or dry when I get them out to work on a painting.
I keep this color chart tucked into the tin so that I can tell exactly how each pencil looks wet or dry when I get them out to work on a painting.

Color Charting and Scanning.

My first tip is that cool as my color chart is, you may want to make your own if you buy a set or a few of them from open stock. This will help a lot if you do a bunch of seascapes and have short little bits that lost their wrapper and color name, testing the stubs on scrap and putting it next to the chart can help you reorder. Also it helps to see exactly the effects you'll get after adding water while you're working dry. That way you know it if a certain color gets much darker and stronger when it's wet or another one doesn't.

No scanner or photo is perfectly accurate in reproducing hue and value in all colors. Each scanner or camera has its own distortions -- this chart is fairly true to color but scanning it also gave me a vital preview of what areas in an actual painting I might have to select and adjust in order to get the scan to look as true to the art as possible.

Most of the lightest values washed out in the scan, that scanner was worse than my current one for doing that. It just lightened everything by one full value step, but the lightest values actually look more like the next-lightest do in the picture. Magenta is a very true bright pink-magenta and one of the best mixing reds you can use for any purple or purplish combination, it functions the way Permanent Rose does in my watercolor set. Crimson Lake is a nice mixing red too, and Deep Vermilion a wonderful orange-cast red, so you can have hue shifts going on without much change of values in the red range.

Ultramarine and Light Blue are warm (purplish) blues, Prussian Blue, Indigo and Kingfisher Blue are cold (green cast) blues. Kingfisher Blue is a touch greener than it looks in the scan. Zinc Yellow is a very strong yellow leaning toward lemon, Middle Chrome a quite orangy warm yellow leaning toward red. So you've got warm and cool primaries with those, plus a good Spectrum Orange that's a little red-leaning. Bottle Green is blue-leaning. Emerald Green is bright mid-green, May Green, Sap Green and Cedar Green all lean toward yellow.

I love having a good range of greens including warm (yellowish) and cool (bluish) dark greens, because I love doing landscapes. It's easier for me to mix greens if I have some bright greens to work with and need bright greens in the composition, though mixed greens from the blues, golds and yellows are also very powerful.

Great range of earth tones, five of those in total -- Burnt Umber is a necessity, the brown I first used in watercolor along with Raw Sienna for a gold color. and Raw Umber in between them -- all cool yellowish browns. Venetian Red is close enough to Burnt Sienna for what I use it most for -- earth tones and anything reddish in dried plants and dirt. Burnt Carmine is an interesting addition because it's a purplish earth red and very dark. It can also function as a deep dark red if you're doing something like a deep red rose and want to highlight with Crimson Lake and use black in the darkest inner shadows.

Ivory Black and Chinese White finish out the lineup. I went over the area with a black permanent marker before using the Chinese White pencil to test its opacity -- it's moderate, but if you add enough of it you can use light touches over dark. It's stronger before it's been wetted and that was something else I noticed right off. Giving it a while to set and going over it again will strengthen it. I just tried that on this chart and it came out a lot lighter gray than what shows in the scan.

I think the ink may not have been completely dry when I washed it earlier and might have mixed in, but let's find out. Yep -- going over it again and washing it again has made the washed bit of white over black show up and the top part now looks exactly the way it does on the scan where it had been lightened by the scanner's effects -- I wasn't pressing hard enough on white when I made the chart. I won't re-scan because that just fixed it to look the way the scan does!

Drawing with Derwent Aquatone

Horse in Winter, dry layer completed, planned for washes.
Horse in Winter, dry layer completed, planned for washes.

Dry Drawing Preparing for Wet Effects

 Derwent Aquatone handle a lot like Prismacolors or any soft artist grade colored pencils such as Caran d'Ache Pablo or Faber-Castell Polychromos. You can layer colors to blend them easily and burnish over combinations with a lighter color to get a smooth gradual shaded surface. You can use any colored pencils techniques with them -- hatching, stippling, varying pressure in strokes, smooth tonal layers.

There's a big difference in drawing with them to keep dry and turn it into a colored pencils painting, or drawing dry in order to add water and turn it into a watercolor painting. That is one of my favorite techniques with them. I get much more control than I do with liquid watercolor washes, especially when it comes to doing smooth areas of flat wash because I never really got the knack of Flat Wash in painting with watercolor. Gradated washes are very easy with watercolor pencils -- just shade them in light tonal layers.

When I'm drawing under a painting with them, I reserve much bigger white areas than I would if I were directly painting. I know that I'm going to push color into pure white areas from the adjacent color areas and will establish the edge of the light washes with the brush. The highlights on the mane are entirely white because I plan to make them a nice mid-gray pulling strokes up from the heavy black shadowed areas of the mane.

I went quite heavy on the eyes since I'll only dampen them to change texture. I used three different earth tones in the horse's roan coat -- Raw Sienna, Raw Umber and Burnt Carmine together, keeping everything toward the red cast and making the Raw Umber the heaviest layer so that golden cast is retained in the mixture. I went very light on some of the face shading since I did not want to create patches of stark color when I washed it.

My photo reference is from where every week a different member hosts a Weekend Drawing Event in the All-Media Events forum. This reference is from the WDE starting May 17th, posted by host WC member Michael_Akin.

Not only does WetCanvas have a great reference image library, events and challenges like the WDE ensure a continuing source of new references and prompts.

Cold press watercolor paper has a rough, toothy surface with relatively small hills and valleys in the surface. Pressing hard with a soft colored pencil like the Derwent Aquatones will fill all the valleys and give solid coverage, but medium or light pressure will skip the valleys and create white specks like a stipple-shaded effect. Aquatones dissolve completely when washed and are rewettable -- if you miscalculated and got an area too dark, it's easy to dampen it again with a clean brush and press a white facial tissue, toilet paper, cloth or paper towel over it to lift off some color and lighten it.

I went purposely light in many areas because looking at my color chart, I could see that light applications were going to give me strong color. I worked around the horse's white markings but left some of the roan areas white in order to wash over them from roan areas and get highlights.

Watercolor pencils are a lot easier than painting for artists who love watercolor but have trouble with it. They're great for watercolorists who can draw. The resulting paintings are still watercolor paintings -- it's just a different way to get watercolor onto paper, which you can do with a brush, an airbrush, a spatter gun, a sponge, pretty much anything you can think of. A trick I didn't do that's lots of fun in watercolor paintings is to get an area covered with clear water or a thin wash, then use a razorblade to shave off grains of color from the pencil tips to make a speckled effect.

Being completely rewettable, these can be combined with other watercolors. You can mix color from some shavings in a palette cup and add a brushful of watercolor from a pan or tube to get those effects, so the set can also be used to extend the range of your other watercolors.

If you're using them for pen and watercolor paintings and your ink is waterproof, go ahead and put the inked lines down first. The waxiness of the pencil layers may make it hard to ink over them if your ink lines need to go over areas of full heavy coverage, but any lines that get obscured can be strengthened after it's been washed or cleaned off in the process of washing. This makes these a good way to color anime or manga drawings.

I personally find it a lot easier to draw a smooth tonal layer of medium or light shading by using light pressure and overlapping lines that I carry off the page gradually at beginning and end of the strokes. Others might have trouble because heavy pressure leaves distinct separate marks that can show in the long run -- as I intended to do in the wood grain shading and parts of the mane and forelock. I have trouble with flat washes in coloring cartoon style art because they'll get thick and tin, irregular with either watercolor or markers, but this lets me do it smoothly if that's what I really want.

When you draw only on the hills and leave the valleys white, washing over it eliminates those white spots completely.

That makes these a wonderful first layer for colored pencils painting when you don't want those white flecks, do want an underlayer painted in to eliminate them and want to control how light or dark areas of that underlayer are. I've used watercolor pencils for underpainting colored pencil painting for years, much more often than I've used thinners to dissolve non-watercolor pencils because I can use plain water and don't have to worry about thinner and its fumes.

Derwent Watercolor Pencils can be used wet with any watercolors and dry with any brand of colored pencils. Like most colored pencils, they blend well with unrelated brands and will extend your color page. Most of these colors are not duplicated in the 72 Cretacolor Aqua Monoliths set anyway, not exactly. So I've got more colors at my disposal and a range just right for going outside and painting plein air.

If I don't want to carry much with me, I might grab some small blocks and sketch rapidly out in the field, then wait till I get home to do the water effects. Or just carry a waterbrush like the Derwent waterbrush included in my Graphitints sketching kit. That's a lot less trouble than carrying tubes and a big palette and finding a place to dump colored water out in a wilderness somewhere.

On with the water. I used my Derwent waterbrush for the final stage of this painting.

Horse in Winter

Horse in Winter  4" x 6"  Derwent Aquatone on Canson Montval 140lb cold press watercolor block.  Robert A. Sloan
Horse in Winter 4" x 6" Derwent Aquatone on Canson Montval 140lb cold press watercolor block. Robert A. Sloan

Wet Effects and Techniques

 With this painting my wet effects were fairly conservative, close to my earliest watercolor techniques. I didn't squeeze extra water into the waterbrush, but went very lightly into each color area separately, either blending back and forth for smoothness like the roan area on its shoulder and the faded grey wood of the snow-covered fence or following the shapes and contours of the face and mane.

I brushed down from that narrow dark ridge at the top of the mane to bring some color into the highlights and then in narrow overlapping strokes, up from the very bottom where it's heaviest to blend that in. Because I didn't use much water, I was able to keep some strokes distinct following the direction of the flowing hair. Looking close at the reference, I washed over face areas and then moved color with the tip of the brush to reinforce light and medium variations in the light roan face areas. I washed over the ears and forelock in similar ways, careful to do the reddish-browns separately from the black and gray areas.

The ear shadows and some black and dark areas weren't deep enough. So after I finished that layer, while they were still wet, I drew in with the point of the pencil on the damp paper. This will always give a very strong mark with slighly blurred edges, not a problem if you're darkening the middle of a black patch that turned out to be medium grey by mistake.

I lightened and lifted a little of the brown patch that shows the horse's jaw shining through the translucent snow, since that came out too dark at first. I washed around on the snow details to get that dirty wet gray snow effect, separately from doing the fencepost.

Finally I did light strokes over the sketchy violet and blue lines of the bare trees in the background, strengthening them but keeping them much lighter than the horse, which pushed him forward. I put in my signature and then washed over the lines, which blurred them but not unintelligibly.

Painters more familiar with watercolor than drawing may find watercolor pencils interesting but have trouble controlling them, since it takes much more pressure to do "heavy pressure" with a pencil than it does to bend a watercolor round brush's soft hairs to its full width. However, drawing practice improves every artist's control of any medium and accuracy of observation, so they're still a good idea even for a serious painter who doesn't draw often.

In fact, these are a good choice for someone who doesn't want to have to buy too many different sets of pencils. They are artist grade and tremendously versatile, capable of all the effects of both watercolor and good artist grade colored pencils. If you use an Outliner graphite pencil from the Derwent Inktense set or just purchase one separately, it doen't dissolve into the color so you can do drawings with distinct nonsoluble outlines, or just use a waterproof pen for that style of work.

They are a bit expensive but worth every penny for their versatility, softness, quality and sheer quantity of pigment. Every bit of it is useful down to the shortest little stub -- when it's so tiny you can't use a pencil extender to hold it any more, just put it into an empty half pan or palette cup and use it as a pan watercolor till it's entirely gone.

They are available individually in open stock, in sets of 12 or 24 at Dick Blick and most art supply stores or companies. Call ahead if you're checking a Michael's or Hobby Lobby or something though, since they may have to order it for you.


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    • pennylu profile image

      Penny Lulich 

      2 years ago from Indiana

      Thanks for all of the great information on these pencils. I used a few in my watercolor painting but had not decided on any certain set to purchase yet. Love the color chart you added. So helpful.

    • Fiona Jean Mckay profile image


      3 years ago from South Africa

      Was thinking of buying a set of the Derwent Aquatones but wasn't sure because I do already have Inktense pencils. Thanks to your color chart, I think I will get them. Thanks

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      a little of both. I was happy to find a bunch of nokbooets and paper this year, that I bought last year! I buy a bunch of extra stuff b/c of the good sales, if it's left next year then great, if not, no biggy. We use a lot of the items throughout the year for in home crafts.

    • Kayness profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks Rob, very detailed and useful hub. I even linked it from my review of Aquatone:

    • profile image

      Miss Clever :) 

      7 years ago


      I have just bought some! England

    • Hendrika profile image


      8 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      I am thinking of water colors, but I have not given watercolor pencils a thought before, but now I will see what I can get here in South Africa.

    • profile image

      Kids Personalized Pencils 

      8 years ago

      I never thought that there is a water colored pencil.. but I like it i may buy one this week.. this would be a great present.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Great site with lots of useful information! I've just started using watercolor pencils and believe I've found my favorite medium. I will keep coming back to your site! Thank you


    • profile image

      Elsie Hickey Wilson 

      9 years ago

      Hi, Robert,

      I just got some Derwent Aquatones and decided to google to see what folks might say about use...and right off your great article popped up! I have some of the Cretacolor watercolor woodless and really like them, too. Can't wait to try my new Derwent AquaT's!



      Elsie from WC Pastel Forum LOL :-)

    • profile image

      henry pierce 

      9 years ago

      Hi Robert;

      you ever hear of a dry-pen type of watercolor which once applied can be wet with a paint brush ? know where i can find them in the www ? thank you!

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Please do, as long as you credit me and link back to this article. Enjoy! AquaTone are a great adjunct to Derwent Inktense, though I wouldn't use them on fabric as they'd wash out. Inktense might be a good choice for painting on fabrics!

      I'm doing that with the regular colored pencils and may go for watercolor pencils as well eventually. It's wonderful having a full range in multiple brands because so often the colors don't really match each other at all, so the different brands become a superset with even broader range.

      If you're interested in oil pastels including watersoluble oil pastels and artist crayons, I have an oil pastels site: http://www.explore-oil-pastels-with-robert-sloan.c... that has 88 pages of good information already. I'm about to post a more advanced series on perspective soon, since a friend of mine is writing it for me and I'll credit him for his articles but get to post them. The others are all written by me, a lot like my Hubs.

    • profile image

      Annette Jimison 

      9 years ago

      Hi Robert!

      Can I put your color chart up on my blog with credit to you? I love the control that I get from the watercolor pencils. I am using Derwent Inktense on fabric, and I want to collect all professional watercolor pencils!!! I just love this. Thanks for your website. I will keep coming back here!


    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Glad it was useful! Thank you for commenting, it means a lot. These pencils are a good buy and a lot easier to use than watercolor pure, they're a great way to introduce beginners to watercolor.

    • profile image

      Milford Dennison 

      10 years ago

      Very helpful for us beginners. Thank you.


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