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Fun with water-soluble pastels/crayons (Neocolor II & Stabilo Woody)

I discovered water-soluble crayons a few years ago, and at first I wasn't sure how to use them. Once I figured out how versatile these things are, they quickly became one of my favorite art supplies!

Water-soluble pastels Neocolor II and Stabilo Woody

My first love were watercolor pencils and I still enjoy using them, but the crayons are so incredibly versatile and far more opaque than any pencils I've tried.

Everyone can use them, no matter how much experience or skill you have. Beginner journalers can get started very easily, and experienced mixed media artists get to experiment with advanced techniques.

They're no fuss and require no cleanup, so I use them while chilling on the couch, or when I'm away from home (in places where I can't safely use paint). This also makes them very kid friendly and travel friendly.

They can be used to draw, scribble, or write over almost any kind of surface – even glossy paint, gel medium, magazine pages, and plastic. They're maybe not as opaque as gouache, acrylic paint, or paint markers, but if you add them thick enough, it's pretty close so they can be used over darker colors.

Drawing of an anatomical heart with water-soluble crayons over a book page
Drawing of an anatomical heart with crayons over a book page collaged using decoupage glue. Black border is crayon activated with water.

Once applied to the surface, they can be blended and activated in many different ways:

  • Smudging with fingers (if the surface is textured/absorbent, wetting your finger a bit helps).
  • Activating with a wet brush.
  • Activating with acrylic mediums or PVA glue/Mod podge (makes the layer waterproof).
  • Activating with gesso or white paint (lightens the color).
  • Spraying with water and tilting the surface so the colors run down.

Like with most water-soluble media, colors become brighter and more intense when they're activated.

After heating the surface with a hairdryer, the crayons will apply on it in a thick, creamy fashion as they melt with heat. Drawing with a crayon into a wet area will create a similar creamy effect. You can also dip the crayon into water, and more pigment will peel off of it while you color. (A layer of crayons will also melt if you dry the other side of the page with a hair dryer, so be careful with it.)

They can also be used like paint by rubbing a wet brush over the crayon and painting with it, which works better for small details. You can also rub a crayon on a palette (or a plate, or a plastic card, or a lacquered table) and lift the color with a wet brush. You can rub several crayons on the palette and mix them together with a wet brush. If you decide to sharpen the crayons (I don't, but some folks do) you can use shavings like paint. Some artists prefer this type of application because then you get an even wash without any ghost lines left from scribbling. I find that this results in paler colors, and doesn't work as well over dark surfaces.

Mixed media techniques using water-soluble pastels

Examples of various techniques:

Top left: white and violet splatters flicked with a wet brush directly off the crayons.
Top right: thick layer of crayons over matte acrylic paint blended with fingers, and then scratched into with a palette knife.
Bottom: crayons applied over dark purple matte acrylic background in various ways – scribbles, thick application, dripping, activating colors with water.

Sometimes I use them as a base layer activated with water, acrylic medium, gesso, or gouache and then sketch over that with colored pencils or charcoal.

Other times I start off with a layer of watercolor, gouache, or acrylic paint, and draw with crayons on top of it. I've frequently used them to rework a watercolor painting that I've previously thought was unsalvageable!

I have also completed entire pages using only crayons and acrylic medium.

Which brand of watersoluble crayons to choose?

Popular brands include:

  • Caran D'Ache Neocolor II – artist grade, with mostly lightfast pigments
  • Lyra Aquacolor
  • Crayola Portfolio
  • Cretacolor Aqua Stic
  • Stabilo Woody
  • Jane Davenport Aquapastels
  • Vicki Boutin Art Crayons
  • Talens Art Creation water-soluble oil pastels
  • Mungyo water soluble oil pastels
  • Prima Marketing Art Philosophy water soluble oil pastels

Some of the brands on this list look quite similar (they have the same shape and size of crayons and packaging), so I suspect they're actually a white-label product from China that's only been repackaged by different brands.

These pastels are very soft and creamy (like lipstick), so they're packaged in plastic tubes:

  • Faber-Castell Gelatos
  • Marabu Art Crayons
  • Distress Crayons

Their softness makes them easier to blend with fingers and apply over acrylic mediums. The downside is the disposable plastic packaging, and you can't draw as precisely with them.

Some of these pastels are primarily wax-based, and others are primarily oil-based. They generally work in the same way. Oil-based may be a bit softer and more smudgy when dry. I’m not sure if the oil base is compatible with acrylic mediums, since I haven’t used any.

I've only tried Neocolor II and Stabilo Woody, and I'm very pleased with the color intensity, opacity, and ease of application. Check out comparisons and reviews on YouTube if you have trouble deciding which ones to get. If you want to see how they compare to Neocolor II, try searching for “BrandName vs Neocolor” or “BrandName Neocolor comparison”.

Here's a comparison of many different brands by Marta from Maremi Small Art YouTube channel:

Some brands sell crayons open stock.

Check out local or online art stores if they offer individual colors. I tend to only buy the colors I need. This is also convenient when you run out of your favorite color – just replace it with a new one. Get at least one light and one dark color to test.

There are also color-themed sets with limited palettes, which I think are more useful than the classic rainbow sets if you already know what you like.

Metallic crayons are not as glittery as metallic paint would be, so I personally wouldn’t bother with those.

Layering with crayons and other mediums

This is a result of testing wax-based pastels that I have (Neocolor II and Stabilo Woody). I don't know if everything holds true for oil-based ones and the creamy sticks.

  • They will work over any surface – rough, smooth, or slick – as long as it's not another type of oil or wax pastel.
  • Activating with water works on matte surfaces, but on glossy/slick ones a wet brush will just wipe them off. Blending with fingers works better instead.
  • Once you saturate the surface with wax/oil it's hard to put something else on top of it, including the crayons themselves. It's easier to work from light to dark and thin to thick. Make sure to put in the lightest highlights first, because it will be more difficult to add them later.
  • When they're activated with water, you can add more layers of crayon on top, because some of that binder dissolves and the surface becomes matte. But opacity is slightly decreased when you mix water in.
  • Most art supplies and pens will work over a light layer that's been activated with water. They might not work as well on a thick activated layer, and not at all if it hasn't been activated.
  • Activating with acrylic mediums and PVA glue neutralizes the binder and makes the layer waterproof, so you can add whatever you want over it.
  • When applying other paints over crayons (dry or activated), they will mix.

Alice in Wonderland mixed media art journal page
The base of this page are collaged book pages covered with red matte acrylic paint. I drew the face over it with crayons and blended with fingers, and black negative space is black crayon activated with water. Pebeo paint marker with a plastic tip had no trouble writing over it.

Tips on how to start using crayons/pastels in art journaling

If you don't know where to start, here are some very easy ideas:

  • Tint parts of the page by scribbling lightly with a crayon and activating with water or matte medium.
  • Write and doodle over magazine images.
  • Blend the edges of images into the background, or cover up areas you don't like.
  • Add color to stamped elements.
  • Rub a crayon on a wet rubber stamp. You can even make multi-color prints this way!
  • Create abstract applications of color by laying them on thick and blending with fingers.
  • Scratch letters or patterns into a thick layer of crayon with a knife. (You can reuse the leftover scraped stuff to paint with.)
  • Create drippy effects by spraying into the scribbles.
  • Rub a wet brush against a crayon while flicking splatters of color over your page.

Portrait studies with water-soluble pastels

So far I've only shared the fun aspects of this art supply, but if you want to get serious with water-soluble pastels, it's totally possible to make good art with them.

This has become my favorite medium for quick portrait studies! It's faster and cleaner than most mediums I've used in the past. Here's an example of a portrait drawing with Neocolor II pastels on toned paper:

Watersoluble pastel portrait study of a man

I usually use a stiff flat brush when blending pastels on an unprimed surface to really work them into the paper, and a Pentel waterbrush when I use them over acrylic paint or gesso.

I'll eventually do a proper video about this subject and share more practical tips and techniques for mixing skin tones with watersoluble pastels.

How to use water-soluble pastels on black and dark paper

Some artists insist on using these pastels like watercolor, and are disappointed when it doesn't work on dark paper. We have to adapt our technique and not think of them as "watercolor", because they're not.

Mixed media art journal page with tulips and mandala ornaments
White acrylic ink and watersoluble crayons over a black gesso background.

My tips for use on toned paper:

  • Use the paper color that will actually complement the subject. Lemon drawing on a black surface is not the best choice, tan paper would be much better. Tan works great for portraits, dark blue for a night scene, black for a black animal, etc.
  • Always use white as a base for intense highlights first, because it's the most opaque light crayon in the set. Then tint it with another layer of light color.
  • Blend only the first 1–2 layers with water to fill in the tooth of the paper.
  • After that you need to lay them on thick and not touch them with a brush anymore, or you will just start lifting them. When applied dry in a thick layer, they can smudge with a finger (dry or damp).
  • If the drawing looks bad, add another layer. It always helps! (See more on that below.)

I have a video process of a Neocolor II drawing over a medium gray background, which is one of my go-to surfaces. In the end the colors look bright and opaque, like gouache or acrylics!

Full-length narrated real-time recording is available as a premium video lesson on Gumroad for just $5!

When in doubt, apply more color!

I have a light hand so I often apply color in a layer that’s too thin, and wonder why the drawing looks bland. This is especially obvious with realistic subjects. After adding more color on top of my drawing, the difference is huge. I see other artists really dig into the paper when applying pastels, and their images look super rich and vibrant. I suppose if you like pale colors that won’t be a problem. But if you notice you’re not quite getting the results you want, the solution may just be to go over everything once more and press harder. The colors will blend easily that way too.

Here’s one drawing that I wasn’t quite happy with at the time but scanned it anyway, so I have both versions we can compare:

Watersoluble pastel portrait study of Halle Berry

I’ve found a perfume ad with Halle Berry with very unusual colored lighting that I really liked, so I wanted to practice that. Even though I blended the pastels with a wet brush, it was still so thin that the white of the paper showed through. After a couple of days I realized the reason it sucked was because it was unfinished. So I layered some more and while it's still not a terrific portrait, it's much better.

I could write a ton more, but I think this is enough to pique your curiosity if you haven't tried them yet.

I’ll share a few more examples in my main art gallery, so you can see what they can do:

Surreal portrait painted with watersoluble pastels
Neocolor II crayons over a gray acrylic background. View larger size image here

Video: Fantasy mixed media & landscapes sketchbook tour 2009–2023

This is a very special sketchbook tour. I started using this sketchbook back in 2009, and it's 2023 now... So this sketchbook is quite a journey from my very first watercolor urban sketches to various mixed media stuff that I'm doing right now.

Although it took me so long to complete it, I'm really fond of this sketchbook because some of my favorite drawings are inside.

Long video with explanations of inspiration & the techniques I used

Short video, no talking

Here are a few other mixed media sketchbook tour videos:

P.S. If you're wondering, this is a Winsor & Newton 170g spiral-bound sketchbook that I bought way back in 2005. Although they still have sketchbooks that look like this one, as far as I know the paper is not the same quality. This old sketchbook handled watercolor and ink fairly well, like a cellulose hot press sketchbook. The cartridge paper in the newer sketchbooks is not as good. Although I've enjoyed using this sketchbook (apart from the spiral) I can't recommend W&N sketchbooks in general.

Royal Talens Van Gogh Water Colour Pencils review

Watercolour pencils are one of my favourite mediums, and I’ve been using them for a very long time. But in recent years I relegated them to my sketchbook, because I was concerned about using non-lightfast mediums in work that I may exhibit, gift, or sell. The lightfastness of watercolour pencils I used (Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz and Derwent Inktense) varies greatly within a set, and typically the colours I use most often (like reds and purples) tend to fade a lot faster than others. I didn’t want to take any chances.

The most renowned artist-grade pencil brands that claim to be lightfast are Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle and Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer. Museum Aquarelle are eye-wateringly expensive. I don’t really trust Faber-Castell ratings anymore, as some independent tests showed considerable fading of some colours. (Guess which? Yes, the ones I use the most: reds and purples.)

Royal Talens Van Gogh Water Colour Pencils lightfast guarantee

Then I discovered a hidden gem, medium-priced artist-grade lightfast pencils: Royal Talens Van Gogh. Finding reviews for this brand is hard. Very few artists seem to know about them. I directly asked a few popular YouTube artists why they haven’t reviewed them yet, and they said they’ve never heard of them!

They’re also hard to find in art stores around the world. I’ve ordered mine from Amazon UK and I’ve seen them in other European Amazon stores, but none of the independent art supply stores where I usually shop. Even though these stores carry other Talens products, they don’t seem to import Van Gogh pencils. They're also available on, but reportedly they're being shipped from Japan? I don't know.

I’m satisfied with other Talens products (like their Van Gogh and Amsterdam paints), so I decided to trust the very few reviews I found that claimed it was a pretty good quality product for the price, and the independent blue wool lightfastness tests that confirmed the official ratings.

I’m writing this review because there are so few of them out there! If you’re able to get these pencils for a good price where you live, they definitely deserve to be shortlisted.

36 set of Royal Talens Van Gogh Water Colour Pencils

The box is a basic metal tin with a hinge. The pencils are laid on a plastic tray with a velvety finish. The velvety lint sticks to the pencil, and some of it got on my test paper, so that can be a bit irritating. Other than that, the box is decent quality, and all the pencils arrived in good shape. Some of them moved around the box a bit, which is common with shallow plastic trays.

The pencil barrels do not match the colour of the actual pigment. The swatch card that comes in the box is pretty accurate to dry pencil application, but there’s always a colour shift with watercolour pencils (see below).

I published a short video with a quick recap of my impressions, but my more in-depth thoughts follow in the rest of this article.

Color swatches

I swatched them on Canson Imagine 200gsm smooth mixed media paper. I don’t normally paint swatch charts this neat, but I wanted to make sure they all fit on one page.

Royal Talens Van Gogh Water Colour Pencils swatches

The dry to wet colour shift is not very pronounced in most colours. They do get a bit more vibrant, but not as dramatic as Inktense. The benefit of this is that if I go over a dissolved wash with a dry pencil (to fix, soften, or intensify color of an area) I can leave it dry, and it will match the layer below. Washes appear significantly more vibrant while they're wet, and as they dry again they’ll settle into a slightly duller shade, just like watercolour paint does. (This depends on each individual pigment, with some colours having a bigger drying shift than others.)

These pencils feel hard, similar to Polychromos. Inktense and Mondeluz are both a lot softer and a bit crumbly. Van Gogh pencils leave barely any crumbs. Some pencils feel harder than others. I noticed that vibrant colours (with higher pigment load) are quite a bit softer than the muted or pastel shades. With the muted/pastels, I really had to dig into the paper to fill the area. Usually pencils sets are more balanced, but this one is all over the place. I suppose this is where that cheaper price comes into play.

Dry and wet swatches of Royal Talens Van Gogh Water Colour Pencils

Even when my application was scribbly, my pencil strokes dissolved very easily. There are no visible marks on the smooth mixed media paper. On textured paper the marks are very faint. The pigment travels far on the vibrant pencils and covers the blank swatch area. The pale pencils like Naples yellow light, Naples yellow red, Lilac, and Cold grey light almost disappear under the brush and don’t travel at all into the surrounding areas. I don’t expect to be using these colours much.

I was curious to see how the pencil names compare to the Talens Van Gogh watercolour paints with the same name. Some of the name choices seemed weird right off the bat. For example Ultramarine looks nothing like the PB29 Ultramarine pigment, it’s more similar to Cobalt blue. They could’ve just named it “Sea blue”. (Faber-Castell Ultramarine also doesn’t resemble actual Ultramarine at all.)

Comparison of Van Gogh watercolour paints and pencils

None of the swatches look so alike in hue that I’d be convinced they contain the same pigments, but some of them are close enough. At least colour matching the pencils with paints won’t be that difficult.

There’s a bit too many blues, greens, and yellows for my liking, with a few near-duplicates. I love that there are 4 violets which is quite rare, but I’d like a saturated crimson red (like Permanent red deep which is available in the 60 piece set).

I'm missing 1 or 2 very dark chromatic colours (such as sepia or indigo blue), that I could use instead of black to apply very strong shadows. All the colours except for Ivory black shift lighter when diluted with water. Ivory black is the only one that becomes darker with water. The darkest pencil after Ivory black is Ultramarine violet! In all the other colour pencil sets I own the darkest shades are brown and blue, and I’m used to using them for deep shadows.

Not that I’m opposed to using black – I do use it a lot when I need actual black, but when I mix deep shadows on a portrait I avoid it because it “dirties” the colours. Speaking of Ivory black, it's definitely not the darkest, most intense black pencil I own, probably because it contains more filler than Stabilo All, Mondeluz, and Inktense. It's better for sharp lines than to fill in large areas.

White pencil is not included in the 36 set. I don't mind since I've found white watercolour pencils to be pretty useless. They turn transparent as soon as you touch them with water and I doubt Van Gogh's is an exception. (I use a white wax pastel or white gouache when I need strong highlights.)

On an unrelated note, even though it prominently says “Holland” on every pencil, the box states they are made in China. I was a bit disappointed to learn that, but it also explains why they're cheaper than their European-made competition. My older box of Van Gogh Sketch pencils doesn’t specify country of origin, which can either mean they used to be produced in the Netherlands, or they didn’t disclose they were produced elsewhere.

Using watercolour pencils in artwork

My first test of these pencils was a stained glass inspired coloring page I've drawn in my old Winsor & Newton A5 hot press sketchbook recently. The hard pencil point was quite useful for getting into the tiniest areas. I haven't sharpened any of the pencils as I was coloring it. All of the colors I used are very transparent, so the brush pen ink lines remained crisp. All the visible strokes on the robe and the dark violet side panels are caused by the brush, not the pencils. (This paper is very sensitive to lifting.)

Saint Death Cathedral Window ink and watercolor pencils drawing by Nela Dunato

My second test was a quick raven study loosely based on a reference photo, in a Clairefontaine Carnet de Voyage sketchbook.

Raven study drawing with watercolor pencils

You can see on the progress photos I took that my chicken scratch pencil marks dissolved without issues, even too well. I wanted the branch to retain some bark texture, but I lost most of it as soon as I touched it with a brush. Later I became more careful in order to preserve pencil texture. (Digging in the pencil tip also helps.)

It took 3-4 layers to get the raven dark enough because I started off too light. I'm used to working with Inktense, so I need to get used to applying heavier layers with Van Gogh. The background is bad because I didn't take my own advice (see below) on avoiding washed out colors and layering didn't help. (And because I improvised instead of sticking to the reference.)

I don't normally use watercolour pencils on their own.

After I switched to watercolour paint, I started using colour pencils to add details, intensify shadows, soften transitions, and fix watercolour mistakes. However, the paper that works best for watercolour usually has a strong texture that results in grainy pencil marks that are very difficult to blend. I don’t like the look of paper texture in my artworks. I prefer more organic textures created by the flow of paint, or those I intentionally make myself.

I can achieve a smoother look on hot press surfaces. But I already have so many cold press papers that weren’t cheap, and hot press paper is ridiculously difficult to find in Croatian stores. I realised watercolour pencils would work better on cold press, as I can blend them to get rid of the texture. So my plan for using these in artworks is over watercolour, to add fine details and deeper values where necessary. That may mean my expectation from these pencils is different from other people’s.

For someone who wants to complete an A4 or A3-sized painting with a strongly coloured background, these may not be soft enough. Getting the whole page covered will take a long time.

My final test before I start using them in earnest was a fantasy mixed media painting in my typical style. I drew a forest fairy in a Strathmore Mixed Media Visual Journal (190gsm, 100% cotton), which honestly I'm not a fan of because it has a grainy texture. So if they work on this paper, I'm sold. Click on the image to see it larger, and the closeup, in my gallery:

Fantasy fairy mixed media drawing with watercolour paint and Van Gogh watercolour pencils

First I filled in all the large areas with watercolour paint. I used Van Gogh and Roman Szmal paints that I colour-matched to the Van Gogh pencils. I found that these worked out pretty close:

  • Van Gogh Quinacridone purple blue paint and 568 Perm. violet medium pencil
  • Van Gogh Payne's gray + Burnt sienna paint mix and 403 Vandyke brown + 701 Ivory black pencils
  • Roman Szmal Perylene maroon paint and 348 Perm. red purple pencil
  • Roman Szmal Cobalt Teal + Van Gogh Viridian hue (Phthalo green) - I didn't use a pencil, but 661 Turqoise green is close

After the paint layer (see progress photo at this phase), I added shading and details with pencils, blended them with water, and then corrected, softened and deepened areas with dry and blended pencils. The hair got a few more layers of pencils and paint, but the skin is mostly shaded with pencils. Blending removed most of the grainy paper texture. I added highlights and wispy lines with white gouache. (I added some with a light gray pencil too, but these are quite faint.)

I loved using these pencils alongside watercolor. I got just the effect I needed, and being able to match them to the paints I already have is wonderful. I'm happy with this purchase.

I found that these pencils really shine on 100% cotton paper (or a 50% cotton blend) which is coarse, so it's easier to layer pencils on it than on softer cellulose papers. The pencil marks are easily dissolved with a synthetic brush. I'm usually bothered by the sandpaper-like feel of cotton paper, but this combination of materials works for me.

Review highlights


  • Probably the most affordable guaranteed lightfast pencils in Europe.
  • Very strong pigment load in the bright colours.
  • Decently balanced colour range in the 36 set that can work for portraits, botanical art, and landscapes.
  • Supposedly open stock, but I don’t know where to get them.
  • Many common colours are a close enough match to Talens Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Roman Szmal watercolour paint, which is great for combining mediums.
  • All but a few pastel colors are transparent enough to not cover up ink lines.


  • Hard to find in local and independent art supply stores.
  • Pastel and muted shades are way too pale, they don’t make sense for watercolour pencils. I’m guessing they’re matched to the regular coloured pencil set, but the two mediums require different approaches.
  • Huge variability in hardness among different pencils. (Saturated colors are softer, pastel and muted are harder.)
  • I’m missing a very dark indigo or sepia in this set for strong chromatic shadows.
  • Velvet tray lint.
  • Made in China.
  • Limited layering on certain papers, though this may be true for most watercolour pencils.

Are Van Gogh pencils artist grade or student grade?

Royal Talens Van Gogh pencils are artist grade. Talens calls them “fine art pencils” on the tin and the marketing literature, and they are tested and graded for lightfastness according to rigorous industry standards.

There’s a bit of confusion among artists, because Van Gogh is a line of student grade paint. Here’s the Royal Talens hierarchy of paint lines:

  1. Artist grade: Rembrandt (oil, watercolour, acrylic, pastel), Talens Gouache Extra Fine (gouache)
  2. Student grade: Van Gogh (oil, watercolour, acrylic, pastel)
  3. Children & budget grade: Talens Art Creation (oil, watercolour, gouache, acrylic, pastel)

Since there are no pencils in the Rembrandt line, their highest grade pencils are bumped into the Van Gogh range. This makes perfect sense from a marketing standpoint. The Rembrandt packaging looks as if it was designed a hundred years ago. It’s clearly aimed at traditional oil painters and watercolorists, and this demographic has little interest in colour pencils. The Van Gogh range keeps in step with contemporary trends (like metallic, dusk, and pastel watercolours), and is aimed at budget-conscious mixed media artists.

For pencils, the Royal Talens hierarchy looks like this:

  1. Van Gogh
  2. Bruynzeel Design
  3. Bruynzeel Expression
  4. Talens Art Creation

Some pencil reviewers incorrectly place Van Gogh on a rung below Bruynzeel Design. The price is similar, but Bruynzeel Design has nicer packaging, and they’re a softer core that’s pleasant to use. Sounds great, right?

However, the individual pencil lightfastness of Bruynzeel Design Aquarel varies drastically. I went through their catalogue and counted 17 pencils with the lowest “0” designation (fugitive), 7 pencils with marginal lightfastness (+), 14 pencils with good lightfastness (++), 9 pencils with excellent lightfastness (+++), and one pencil (Burnt Ochre) without a rating. Anything below good (++) is not considered archival, and that accounts for half of their entire range. They can't be considered a higher grade than Van Gogh.

Avoid the washed out look with watercolour pencils

When using watercolour paint or markers, we can layer as much as our paper allows. We tend to work from light to dark: starting with large areas of light tones, and then adding deeper and darker shadows on top of them. This is not the way to work with watersoluble pencils and pastels.

Because pencils and pastels have a lot of binder that holds the core together, that binder can fill up the tooth of the paper faster than watercolour paint can. This means that after a while, we can’t add any more layers because of the wax buildup. The pencil “skates” across the surface. (Smooth papers fill up faster than textured ones.)

I saw a video portrait demo by an artist using these same pencils, and he used the “light to dark” approach: filling the entire areas of skin and hair with light values first, blending them with water, and then adding darker and darker shadows with each layer. In the end, when the artist wasn’t able to add any more layers, the portrait still looked washed out. The darkest pencils didn’t leave strong enough marks to get that contrast.

What’s the solution? Apply the entire range of values from the very first layer.

When I draw with pencils and crayons, I first add the shadows and highlights, and then blend them with midtones. The whole drawing has a good amount of contrast from the very start, and each subsequent layer allows me to deepen the shadows further. I’m not “wasting paper tooth” on colours that won’t even be visible in the final drawing.

It’s fine to mix in a bit of the same colour across the entire area to tie the drawing together, but I tend to do that more towards the end, when I’m sure I’ve got enough contrast.

Let me show you an example I did on Canson XL watercolour paper (smoother side):

Layering watercolour pencils: light to dark, and dark to light

The left sample was quite challenging. I didn’t mess it up on purpose, it looks patchy because I couldn’t even control my pencils anymore, they were just sliding over the wax buildup.

The right column is how I normally work. The colours are richer, and the transitions are smoother. The amount of layers applied in both samples is the same.

Alternatives to Van Gogh pencils?

In most watercolour pencils brands, the lightfastness ratings vary by pencil. This means that if you consider lightfastness of your art supplies important, you wouldn’t be able to use many pencils from a set in professional artwork. (In general, watercolour pencils are less lightfast than regular colour pencils.)

As I’ve already mentioned, the only other watercolour pencil brand whose entire range is archival is Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle. It’s also the most expensive.

Watercolour pencil brands that have variable individual lightfastness ratings (or whose self-proclaimed ratings have been deemed unreliable by independent testing), include:

  • Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer – incorrect ratings (3-star colors also fade)
  • Caran d’Ache Supracolor – variable ratings
  • Derwent Watercolour – variable ratings
  • Derwent Inktense – variable ratings
  • Prismacolor Premier Watercolor – variable ratings
  • Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz – variable ratings, possibly incorrect (mine faded very badly)
  • Arteza Expert Watercolor Pencils – incorrect ratings (independent testing results are pretty bad)
  • Cretacolor Marino – incorrect ratings (mine faded very badly despite being labeled LFI and LFII)
  • Bruynzeel Design Aquarel – variable ratings
  • Winsor & Newton Studio Collection – incorrect ratings (independent testing results are pretty bad)

I’m sure there are more brands, but these are the ones that I’m familiar with.

Many of the brands listed are available open stock, so you can check individual ratings and purchase only the archival pencils. That way you won't end up with a bunch of pencils you can't use in your fine art or commissions, so you may actually save money. Some brands list ratings directly on the pencils, but others don't, so you'll need to find their official chart online.

If lightfastness is not important to you, Van Gogh pencils may not be the best choice. Especially if you need a set you can use on its own, that can easily cover larger areas.

  • If you want the most vibrant colours and don't intend to use the pencils dry, Inktense pencils are super saturated and quite soft. They're less prone to lifting than other watercolor pencils, but they don't dry completely waterproof. They have a huge dry to wet shift, more than any other watercolor pencil I've tried.
  • If you don’t want to spend a lot of money, Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz are as pigmented as expensive brands and very enjoyable to use. You can also use them dry.
  • Some watercolor pencils come in woodless form (Koh-i-Noor Progresso, Arteza Woodless, Cretacolor Monolith, Derwent Aquatone). You're getting a lot of usable product, and it's easier to apply color to large areas. You can still sharpen them to get a fine point, and save the shavings to use as paint. But keep in mind that these are quite harder than their wood-encased counterparts, so I don't enjoy using them.

Coloring Bliss channel on YouTube has a comparison video of 26 brands of watercolor pencils. It sadly doesn't include Van Gogh pencils, but it does include most of the brands I listed as alternatives, and quite a few more budget brands. (Her top choices are Albrecht Dürer and Inktense.)

If you do like combining pencils and watercolour paint, I think these are a great set because of their ability to draw fine details and stay sharp for a long time, which is exactly what I need.

I hope this review has been useful!

Note: Some links contain affiliate codes. I may earn a small commission if you buy anything from Amazon, at no additional cost to you.

Video: Messy mixed media sketchbook tour 2020–2022

I used this Fabriano sketchbook as a place to experiment with mixed media techniques. This was originally my planner/to-do list, so every page had writing on it that I covered up with paint or collaged scraps of paper. I'm really pleased with some of the pages!

I shared a video of this sketchbook earlier when it was still half-way done: Anti-perfectionist recycled art journal in progress.

Long video with explanations of the techniques I used

Short video, no talking

Here are a few other mixed media sketchbook tour videos:

Video: Watercolor sketchbook tour – Urban sketching & landscapes

I used this Hahnemühle watercolor sketchbook from 2019 to 2022, mainly as a travel sketchbook for urban sketching, seascapes, and landscapes. Places featured in this sketchbook include: Malta, Chicago, Bled, Bohinj, Rastoke, Zagreb, as well as my current hometown Rijeka and former hometown Njivice.

There's also some doodles, technique tests and experiments.

Scans of some of the pages from this sketchbook are in my gallery.

Long video with explanations of the techniques I used

Short video, no talking

Here are a few other sketchbook tour videos with landscapes, urban sketches and nature subjects:

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