Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Derwent Aquatone Woodless Watercolour Pencil Review

 A thought happened to me one day while I was window shopping at my local art supply store, standing in front of the open stock section, that I perhaps should buy one of each of every open stock stuff this shop has, test them and review them. Derwent Aquatone woodless watercolour pencil is one of them, though I have since splurged on tins of coloured pencils and a box of pastels, all of which I have yet to test and write a review. This is the first of the bunch!

Since I am buying only one of these to test, I know that whatever picture I will paint to accompany the review is going to be monochromatic, so I chose burnt umber, because I think that it’s a good neutral dark earth tone and I can have the option of making a picture with a full range of values with it, which I can’t do with a lighter colour. I’ve heard that ultramarine blue and some other blue colours are popular favourites among artists when painting with only one colour (there’s a reason that ultramarine blue is always there whenever you buy sets of colours), but I’m biased against ultramarine for some yet-at-this-time inexplicable reason (it shall be a subject of a future post…one day) and I don’t think blue scans as well or as easy to look at in a monochromatic painting as brown.

Technical Information:
The Aquatone pencil comes pre-sharpened and is of the length and diameter of your average pencil, but the biggest difference is that it’s all made up of usable material wrapped in paper (to protect your hands and material from each other), which you peel off as you use it up, as opposed to a lead encased in wood barrel like a typical pencil or colour pencil. Derwent’s slogan of it is ‘paint in a stick’, and according to the official website (, it has four times more usable material. I can’t remember how much I bought mine for, but according to a popular online art supplier,, each Aquatone pencil sells for USD$2.03 while a Derwent watercolour pencil sells for USD$ 1.79. So yes, it’s slightly more expensive, but considering how you can use all of it, it’s going to be a lot cheaper in the long run!

When I hold my Aquatone like how I would a normal pencil, with my fingers around the wrapped bit, it is almost as hard as a normal pencil - it gives a bit more yield. The material itself feels one of those watercolour pans made into a pencil form. It certainly feels softer and denser than the Derwent watercolour pencil lead.

I used it dry by scribbling a bit of it on a page of my sketchbook, alongside a non-watersoluble colour pencil in burnt umber for comparison, and found it to perform exactly like the colour pencil. So yes, you can definitely use it dry by itself or in conjunction with other colour pencils as to create dry colour pencil works! It can of course also be used in conjunction with other watercolour pencils and/or with watercolour paints.
Aquatone is available in 24 colours and comes in open stock, tin sets of 12 and 24, as opposed to Derwent’s watercolour pencils range, which has 72. I think the biggest strength of Aquatone, due to its sheer relative volume, is for covering large areas quickly and economically. You can use the side of the pencil to cover a large area on watercolour paper and use a wet brush to turn it into a watercolour wash.

This bit of an experiment was done after I did the test painting. At #1, I dipped the tip of my Aquatone pencil in water and made some strokes from right to left, which leads me to #2, where I pressed down really hard and did a little scumbling strokes, which formed a little mound of watercolour paste, just like when you dip a wet brush into watercolour pans and swirled the brush around to pick up colour and the watercolour in the pan will be damp and become paste-like. In #3, I used a brush dipped in water into the bit of that pool and dragged across the paper. As the pencil was so dampened, it leaves no pencil-like strokes as seen in #1 or #4, so in this way you can simulate the “real” watercolour look. If only I discovered this technique as I was doing my test painting! I was angsty about it when I was painting because I wanted to get rid of the pencil strokes so badly (nothing wrong with pencil marks, just personal preference) that I used the tip of the brush and went against the grain of the paper, which eventually only resulted in the surface of the paper scratched off. Had I known that I could pull this off, I would have a bit of an easier time! With #4, I wet an area of the paper and drew on it with Aquatone. It’s a fascinating sight to see as the pigment ‘blooms’ and eventually spreads to the edge of the wet area. #5 is a ‘palette’ I scribbled while I was painting for dipping a small brush in and worked on the more detailed areas.

When you sharpen the pencil, wipe clean the blade of your sharpener and keep the shavings in an empty watercolour pan or a pill box to use as watercolour, and you can do the same when you’ve used the pencil so much that only a stub remains.

Test painting:
I decided to do a piece inspired by Tibetan shamanistic ritual masks, with Thai decorative elements along the eyebrows, around the third eye and below the mouth. The reason for the disparity in the quality of the pictures of progress shots and the finished piece is because I took a photo of the progress shots and scanned the finished piece.
I drew this on a cold pressed watercolour pad, as you can see it is rather ‘toothy’, which means it has a bit of a rough surface with ‘hills’ and ‘valleys’ on the paper. I used a kiddie grade peach toned colour pencil to draw in the design because I thought it was a light enough colour that won’t show through significantly (I darkened the colour of this shot digitally because it was very faint in the photo).
I lay down the first layer of colours. Notice how the colour goes on very richly and skips the ‘valleys’ of the paper, creating this stippling effect. I made relatively sparse vertical hatching strokes and used light to medium pressure to all areas except for the edges of the irises and nostrils.

After the first layer of wash, I made another layer of hatching strokes, this time going the other way. I tried to lay the colour down sparingly and build up layers of colour, instead laying it down thickly to increase intensity, because this method gives me the best control and precision.
I saved the decorative elements area last because they have a lot of small details and require exact precision, so I scribbled a palette onto a piece of scrap paper and used a very small watercolour brush to lift colour from that pool to draw over the designs.
This took me about 3-4 layers, I think.

To summarize:
Aquatone is a very useful item to have in your collection, for its performance, versatility and by just how much usable material there is (all of it!). This is especially great if you don’t want to buy lots of sets of paints and pencils, because it can be colour pencil, watercolour pencil and watercolour all in one stick! I thoroughly enjoyed it and will certainly get a full set one day.

There is another fantastic, detailed and extremely useful hub on Aquatone by Robert Sloan, which I highly recommend. Link below:

No comments: