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Working SKIES with watercolour pencils

This is a challenging area for watercolour pencils as they are designed to produce a line rather than a smooth even layer of colour.  In our case we are also using a rougher paper than would be ideal, so the suggestions I offer should, in fact, cover you in a wide range of situations.

First,   What sort of a sky do we want ?

The reference photo shows a cloudy white/grey sky.  If we opt for full cloud, then we don’t really need to worry about painting the sky as the paper will serve left dry and white.  On a bright cloudy day, the sky is still the brightest part of the scene and I often take a view and leave the sky area untouched with colour.  In the case of the tutorial that would be running away from the challenge.

So, we will go for ‘some’ blue sky which gives us an excuse to use stronger shadows - as if the sky had gaps in the cloud cover letting strong sunlight through.



If we stretch our paper it will open up a huge range of watercolour choices, as the paper can be seriously wetted and will not buckle.

Once paper is evenly damp, it will accept pigment and allow it to flow and spread smoothly.  If you know all about 1/ stretching paper and 2/ doing watercolour washes for skies, you may decide to take that route.  If you don’t know about 1 and 2, then we need to look at how we can get even colour down on to dryish paper with a surface grain and make the sky look realistic.

My own preferred route is to avoid trying to make all the sky area blue, and treat it as if the sky has white cloud cover with some patches of blue sky showing.  This can be very effective.

THE ALL DRY OPTION ( this technique can be used for wax pencils too )

We can take the ‘100%’ dry route and use a piece of thick white felt to pick up pigment from a palette of strong blue pencil material and rub it gently into the paper.  This will work best with a smooth paper like a hot pressed one.  It will not be so successful with a cold pressed grained surface paper.  To use this method , you will need a fairly strong blue. I usually go for Ultramarine ( a reddish blue ) but in Derwent you could also look at Oriental Blue which is a more green blue.  You will need to trial the method first on the paper surface of choice. The procedure which is explained fully on the Pencil Topics page on Clouds and Skies   The fully dry method with felt is described under the first section which covers wax type pencils.   

You can erase the edges of the blue  to manage the clouds.   This will give you a grainy result which can be very effective.  DO NOT be tempted to add any water to this blue sky area… it will ruin the effect and the area which has been wetted will come up a very much stronger blue and spoil the balance

WE MUST BEAR IN MIND that the sky is only a minor feature in this picture.  We could easily work the picture with white paper for the sky and no one would query it.  If we add colour, the colour needs to lie back and avoid attention. It just needs a small bit part in the production.   I think we need a very subdued and modest addition of colour.

I have two suggested options which make use of watercolour pencil techniques rather than pure watercolour ones.

1/ involves the working of a small patch of strong blue sky surrounded by white cloud

2/ involves the working of a small area of VERY pale blue such as would be seen through thin cloud


1/  Incorporating some small areas of strong blue into the sky area

You will remember that I decided that I would not stretch my paper, but add some modest areas of blue to enliven the white area that is sky.  If you have opted to stretch your paper first, then you will be able to do a traditional wash sky.  There are several examples in the Topics website showing this, so I will not repeat the method here.  If you want to review my previous notes they are linked here :   Skies  and  here:  Wash example

There is an example of the ‘area of blue’ technique shown in the Coventry Canal Step by Step here :  Coventry Canal 1  and the finish of the picture  2

So that you can see how to develop this method I have done a couple of practice sky portions below.  The bits and pieces all need to be readily to hand so that you can work quickly. and it will be easier for you as you won’t need to have a camera in the other hand at the same time !

A small dish with clean water,the same paper as you will use for your Venice masterwork, the sharpened watercolour pencil, a piece of rough paper to act as a small palette and a piece of crumpled kitchen paper.

Lay down a small area of clear water on the paper where your blue sky is to appear ( you can clearly see the grain of the paper in this photo ).

While the paper is still glossy, apply the damp brush tip to the blue pigment on the palette and gather up some strong watercolour on the brush

Just touch the tip of the brush on the wet paper ( there are three ‘touches’ here in my example on the left).  

The blue will spread out.

While the paper is still wet, you can introduce more pigment if you wish - but don’t go overboard.

Then quickly dab the edges with the kitchen paper where you want there to be a white cloud form.

Some brands of pencil will work better than others - some blues are very staining.  You can see that the Derwent Watercolour pencil colour can be removed quite well.

If you wish to have streaky blue then wet a strip of sky area and add colour in a line rather than a ‘dab’ of colour.


DON’T USE THE PENCIL.  It will be too strong.

It is all down to PRACTICE.  Try out the technique several times on scrap paper first.   You have no real control over the result - it will be different every time.  The more you practice the better you get, but I challenge you to repeat exactly what you have done before !!

Don’t forget that the colour becomes paler when it dries

This is the Staedtler version. The colour here is more staining and I have also added an extra dab of blue to strengthen the centre of the blue patch

These two examples have both had a little more colour added while the paper was wet and also had the edges adjusted with the pad of kitchen paper.

Some of your attempts will be more successful than others, and you need to remember all the time that you are showing the edge of a cloud against a blue sky

This sample has been reworked with a clean damp brush after it had dried to even out the blue and fade the edges more

I suggest that you do a number of trials first on any suitable paper ( not necessarily the same as your picture ) and when you have a feel for how your colour responds to a given level of wet on the paper, then you do a second trial on a piece of the same paper as your picture.

Finally, take a deep breath and try it on your working paper - with a pad of absorbent kitchen paper to hand - to use in emergencies.

Remember that if it doesn’t work out the first time, remove most of the colour you can by dabbing…..without disturbing the paper surface too much, and leave the area to dry.  You may be surprised how good the result looks.  

FIRST OF ALL,   The Colour Blue



IN A WORD,  YES    ! …..   BUT….

…… use whatever you have available.  If you use a different brand to mine, it will have different variations of colour and softness - your picture will look different, but the principles of working will be the same

and your end result will be YOUR version of the picture.

I think it will be useful at this point to repeat some basics about watercolour pencils

before we put colour to paper

Different manufacturers have different ideas about how much pigment to put in the pencils -

and also different ideas about exactly what Ultramarine Blue looks like ( and any other named colour for that matter)

Have a quick look at this chart which includes more than Ultramarine, but you will get the idea.  I will go into the individual samples in a minute but this is just an overall view of the chart.

The first line of each sample is the colour worked dry with first a light shading on to the paper and then a heavier shading ( which applies more pigment ).  The second line of each sample shows the impact of a damp brush with clean water

first thing you should notice is how different the wet and the dry samples are and how much stronger the colour is when it has been dissolved.   Some brands are much more pigmented and therefore the differences between dry and wet is more pronounced.  Often the darker colours go much stronger when wet (they have more pigment in them)

This is the TRAP that catches all those who try out watercolour pencils for the first time.

Before you start on a picture, you should have tested the colours on a piece of the paper you will be using. This will alert you to any major shift in colour intensity and guide you over the amount of dry pigment to apply to the paper

I have included an extra blue in the first set (Derwent Oriental Blue) and the Inktense sample is Sea Blue which is the nearest to Ultramarine in that set.  Inktense is a strong and permanent colour and more difficult to use for beginners so I do not recommend it for this tutorial

Let us have a look at the individual brands and consider what the samples tell us

First the Derwent Watercolour Pencils.

Derwent re-formulated the watercolour pencils a few years ago and the new colours are pretty much the same as the old ones but the ‘feel’ of the pencils is much softer and the pencils lay down more colour.  The old ones keep their points better as they are a harder pencil.  The old ones have a light turquoise colour to the pencil itself. The newer model has a dark blue barrel and a silver stripe below the colour on the end.  The Ultramarine sample on the right shows that the dry colour lay down turns into an acceptable wash. It is not too strong and there is not too great a leap in colour strength.

You still need to use care though

Derwent Inktense

The nearest to Ultramarine Blue is the Sea Blue.  Some Inktense colours come up very strong when wet, though the sample here is not too bad.  The problem with Inktense is that it is a VERY permanent colour after wetting and hard to remove from the paper.

I suggest that you need to have some experience before you use it.  Inktense is excellent for Silk painting and a number of other extreme media applications, just needs caution.

I have included a second sample of the Inktense Bright Blue so that you can see the variation

These samples have all been done on the Clairfontaine Etival 300gsm cold pressed paper - the smoother side.

Staedtler Karat Aquarelles

The least expensive of the colours in the trial.  The Karat pencils do not carry a name - just a number, but the numbers are identified on a box insert. There is no exact Ultramarine, but of the several blues available, the No 3 Blue is probably nearest to the colour we want.  It is a good sky blue.

The colour strength does not increase markedly when wet, but you do need to test other dark colours before use, as some can change in tone and hue when water is added

Faber - Castell  ‘Albrecht Durer’ Aquarelles

One of the oldest established pencil groups and probably one of the oldest formulations for watercolour pencils.

I believe these are nearest to traditional watercolour in handling.   The colour dry is virtually the same as the colour after water has been added with no major leap in strength.

120 colours in a full set, but quite expensive. A good brand.

Caran D’Ache  Supracolor Soft 2

Reliable in the way they handle, with little colour shift when wet.  Good Landscape colour range in the 120 full set of colours, but quite expensive to buy as they come from Switzerland.  Caran d’Ache are known for their updating of the coloured pencil ranges and their use of non fading pigments.

Supracolor is one of the older ranges.  Good pencils.

Caran D’Ache  Museum Aquarelles

Introduced in the last few years, these have high non fading qualities and high pigment levels. They are, as a result, more expensive than their sister brand.  Softer than Supracolor, they are a good choice if money is not a consideration

Caran D’Ache  Museum Aquarelles

Introduced in the last few years, these have high non fading qualities and high pigment levels. They are, as a result, more expensive than their sister brand.  Softer than Supracolor, they are a good choice if money is not a consideration

Conte Watercolour Pencils

You will notice that the Conte version of Ultramarine tends a lot more towards purple….  In fact not a long way away from many of the traditional watercolour Ultramarines.

The colour selection is smaller and the boxes may be harder to find in retailers

Bruynzeel Sakura Design Aquarelles

Originally a Dutch company, now part of the Japanese Sakura art media group.  Not so easily found, but I have included the trial sample of the Ultramarine blue for completeness.

This range is not so highly pigmented but that is not a totally bad thing as multiple layers of colour can build up strong final ones


You should be able to complete the tutorial picture with whatever watercolour pencils you have.

The exact colour name doesn’t matter - there can be greater variances between ‘Ultramarines’

(and any other named colours you select) than other similar colours available in your set.

DO A TEST CHART ( as in my trial ) of your colours so that you know where to go.

Your results can depend as much on the amount of colour you apply to the paper

as to the exact colour of the pencil you select


There are many other manufacturers producing watercolour pencils and several based in China that produce low priced pencils of this type.  I have not tested all of these, but those I have tested tend to have low pigment levels and sometimes to have a gritty feel - which is not surprising considering the low cost.

If you are going to put many hours work into a picture, you don’t want it to fail through poor quality materials.  HOWEVER, if you have another brand of pencils and you are happy with them and understand their qualities, by all means use them.

The SKY Area

We will look at the choice of colour for the blue of the sky


We will look at techniques suitable for showing blue sky with watercolour pencils.


I must remind you that a totally blue sky is not the same blue all over !

The next chance you get, look at a blue sky and compare the blue as you look to the horizon

with the blue that you see directly overhead.

The Sky overhead is a stronger blue than the much paler version seen horizontally.

There are also differences in the blue of a sky in the tropics and blue of the sky in Northern climates.

This is nothing to get excited about, and not a problem.

For our tutorial we will probably only be showing a small amount of blue in a cloudy sky

So the actual blue isn’t critical

WATERCOLOUR PENCIL PIGMENTS and how they respond to water

Some basic comparison information on some brands before we start

ULTRAMARINE BLUE  ( or the nearest equivalent )

What colour should we use for the sky ?

I usually go for Ultramarine Blue ( Care though, as this varies by manufacturer )

WHY?   Ultramarine is a strong blue so we only need a little. Ultramarine is on the purple/red side of the blue range and suits a sky seen between cloud edges.  Ultramarine Blue is a cold blue.

 Derwent have another option, the Oriental Blue, which tends to the green side of the blues. It is softer and warmer.  This is also a strongly pigmented blue. Try to avoid pale blues as they usually contain a higher level of filler and are more difficult to work for this technique.

Blues from these and other manufacturers are as shown below so that you can see how they vary.

2/  Working an area of very pale blue as might be seen through a thin layer of cloud

This would normally be a problem area for pencils.  Stronger colours have purer pigments, paler colours usually have the pigment mixed with a lot of filler which is white and does not respond as well to handling.  We therefore need to find a way to apply a VERY small amount of pigment to the paper in an EVEN way.    Another problem is that we have selected a grained surface paper.  It is much easier to get light layers of pale pigment on to a smooth paper surface.    There are two options here

First we can apply the colour in a very thin wash.  However the paper should not be allowed to buckle with too much water.  If we do not stretch our paper first this can be a difficulty.   

There is a second approach which works and uses the benefits and normal techniques for watercolour pencils ( dry pigment on paper and damp brush applied ).  For this we must use some means of removing most of the pigment that the pencil will naturally apply BEFORE we add water.

This sounds mad, I know, but I will show you how it works.

We use the aid of a blob of either blue/white Tac ,  a white kneadable eraser,  or a piece of tacky tape.

What we are aiming for is this sample below Not the sample on the right

Firstly in this example, I have applied a VERY light shading of Ultramarine (Derwent)  across the whole of the bottom of the paper area.

I have then dabbed the right hand half and lifted colour from the paper surface on the tacky blob. This both lifts colour and also presses some into the paper surface. The camera hardly shows any colour present on the right

I can now take a damp brush and soften the very small amount of blue pigment left, washing it out over a small area

And to demonstrate the effectiveness of this process, I have now damped down the pure colour on the left which was untouched b the lifting process.

When working areas of your sky with this method, keep a pad of kitchen paper handy to ensure all your edges of blue are blotted out to avoid any hard edges

These techniques should give you some options for your tutorial sky.   Your sky will be unique and practice before hand will give you a better chance of a successful result.

I had hoped to be able to post up my own versions of the sky on the three different combinations of paper and pencils I have laid out here, but there is no way this is going to happen until well into next week.  The notes above should give you something to get your teeth into whilst you wait, however, so you should be able to continue the testing of your own examples.

If my explanation misses anything, or need clarifying, please raise a query through the Group discussion Forum.

January 6th 2017

And I am left with this example worked on the Clairefontaine Etival Cold Pressed paper, with most of the pigment removed before wetting and then well dried off with a pad of kitchen paper immediately afterwards.  This level of colour may well be all that you need for your picture.

I have not used a great deal of water for the wetting of the paper, and as a result there was no appreciable distortion of the paper surface.  I should say that the blue in the example below is so delicate that I have had to enhance the photo so that you can see it in any detail !


The area of colour shown on the piece of paper above is approx 10 inches wide by 5 inches high

This is about one third of the actual paper surface.

We would not normally need to apply water to an area this great in regular W/C pencil techniques without the paper being stretched first.

In this case I didn’t stretch the paper.  

24 hours after the test, the paper has dried out thoroughly and there is a slight curve to the paper where the area was treated.   

In retrospect, I think it would have been better to have taped down the edges of the paper to hold it flat before applying water - no matter how little - to the paper surface.  If you use this method and you are using paper supplied in block form, you should be fine.

If you are using loose sheets, or paper on a spiral bound pad, I suggest that you secure the edges of your paper to a board whilst you do the sky.

I still don’t think stretching is absolutely necessary as we are using only a little water, but it is easier to take care, than worry about curing a problem later


1/ The first drawing is in Graphite pencil on an Arches 300gsm CP Fine grain  14 x 10 block  This drawing is about 10 x 7 taking most of the full size of the pad

For this I have used Faber Castell Albrecht Durer Aquarelle  Ultramarine 120   I have used an A4 image for this

2/ The second is on the smoother side of a sheet of Clairfontaine Etival Fine Grain  300 GSM CP paper ( approx 15 x 10 inches image )

For this I have used a Derwent Ultramarine 29 Watercolour pencil

3/ The third image is completed in fineliner pen on the rougher side of a similar sized sheet of Clairfontaine Etival 300gsm CP paper

The pencil here was a lower cost Staedtler Karat Cobalt Blue Aquarelle ( No 33)

I originally suggested two approaches for the skies here, and we need to be aware that - unless we are stretching the paper to prevent buckling - we need to keep the amount of water introduced to, or left on,  the paper, at a minimum.  

One way of keeping the paper fairly dry is to use a pad of kitchen paper to blot off excess water as we go, and then help to dry the paper as soon as the pigment has locked itself down on the paper surface.  This happens fairly quickly, but only practice will tell you how your paper is going to perform with your choice of pencil brand.  Blotting the paper quickly will also enable you to form white cloud edges into the blue you have just added.

If you choose to use the method of laying down dry colour very lightly, erasing, and then adding a small amount of water to the residual colour, blotting will have only a small benefit in enabling you to get more realistic cloud edges. The pigment locks down into the paper immediately water is added, so your end colour is pale, but the kitchen paper has little effect in making cloud edges  After some thought, I decided to use the second method for all three of my exercise sheets ( adding colour to water on the surface of the paper from a paper palette ) as this gave me more flexibility.

Second Method

Make a palette on a suitable piece of grained surfaced paper

(This is the Albrecht Durer Ultramarine)

Add clean water to a small irregular area with a medium to small brush ( This is a No 6)

Take some pigment from your paper palette  and add to the clean water on the paper

Quickly blot away the edges of your area of colour to form cloud edges

Don’t go too mad with your number of cloud ‘holes’ and don’t make the colour too strong.  The blue will lighten a touch when it dries anyway.

This sample is the Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer on the Arches 300gsm CP block of paper

Every time you carry out this method for a sky, your results will differ - the process is totally random.

The more you do it, the more you will get used to the paper and the pencil brand.  Every brand will react differently as the pigments will be different and they will probably have a finer / coarser grind so will spread on the paper in a different way.  Below I show samples two and three of this tutorial.  These have been done on Clairfontaine Etival CP 300gsm paper, but using the two different sides of the paper.  You will see how the different pencils and papers react differently

The first sample of these (below) is done with Derwent Watercolour pencils ( Ultramarine 29 ) on the smooth side of the paper.      The drawing out is in graphite and the image is the large sized one.

The rougher side of the Clairfontaine paper is closer in feel and look to the Arches CP, and although the paper itself is rated the same ( 300gsm) the feel of the paper is much softer.    For the third sample, I have used the lower cost Staedtler Karat pencils which do not have a specific Ultramarine Blue.  The nearest is 33 Cobalt Blue.

Once again I have applied clean water to irregular areas and added colour from a palette, blotting the edges away as speedily as I can.

The drawing in this case has been refined and a  0.3mm fineliner pen used to show a pen ( and in the future, hopefully wash ) effect.

The fact that I have ‘gone over a edge’

Is of no consequence as the roof edge is in shadow and will be quite dark when colour is added there

The colour lifts quite easily here

I now have three skies completed.    

Alternative ways of doing skies with pencil involve mixed media and a whole range of techniques which are not open for discussion here in a Watercolour Pencil tutorial.  

 HOWEVER, my own feeling is, of the many techniques I have tried over the years, that Pastel pencil skies, fixed and then with possible coloured pencil modifications, work,  Watercolour pencil as shown above, works.  

Pure watercolour technique skies from a pencil source but on stretched paper works ( and also allows for finely graded washes if that is what you want ). There are complications using wax pencil, but a rubbed in method works on the right sort of paper (after a fashion), and a Powder Blender will work if you are using the right type of paper.

I can only wish you all the very best of luck with your explorations of skies and I look forward to seeing some of your results before we set off on the much easier next step

11th January 2017