top of page

Pencil, Ink and Pastel​

Magic Marks


Incorporating pencil ink and pastel with water based media can add tremendously to the interest and character of your work. This article examines the different products available and how best to include them in your work.

Pencil Ink and Pastel – Ink Lines

Artist quality ink comes in a great range of permanent, lightfast colors. It is fantastic stuff for threading a unifying line through your paintings. Ink can also add a loose feathery texture to your work. A quick ink line sprayed immediately with a fine mist of water will produce a sinewy, weathered patina unobtainable by other means.

I prefer the pigment based inks but, if you like powerful, vibrant colors, have a look at some of the artist quality dye based inks. These colors can be brushed on similar to a wash of watercolor. Once dry they are permanent and insoluble, so it pays to plan carefully before you start. Their intensity and transparency can’t be matched with watercolor.

Colored inks can be mixed together or diluted with water for a huge variety of tones and colors. Little plastic sauce containers, available from Asian grocery suppliers make good containers for mixing inks. Don’t use your palette, when the ink dries it’s there forever.

If you are after a black ink, try the Chinese ink stick. The ink stick is ground on a special stone with water to produce a rich black ink.  The beauty of this type of ink is the way it bleeds and feathers compared to normal inks.

Colored pigment inks to use with watercolor


Ink comes in a large range of colors. Always check the bottle to see how light fast the color is.

Plain dip in pen


The best type of pen is one with a plain old dip in nib – no reservoir or chisel shaped tip.

Pigment Ink line sprayed with water while still wet.


A light spray of water on a fresh ink line will give you these beautiful spidery marks.

Chinese Ink Stick


Chinese ink stick and grind stone makes a deep, rich black ink that bleeds and feathers beautifully. The tone can be adjusted from jet black to soft grey by varying the amount of water.

The ragged, spidery ink lines in this sketch of a camel, not only tie the painting together, but add an unkempt softness to the animal. The sprayed ink ranges from fine lines to large soft shapes.


A piece of paper towel is handy to adjust the tone and intensity of the marks as they dry. A combination of fine sharp lines and soft, spidery lines around the camel’s ears and chin add to the quizzical confused atmosphere of the painting.




The soft bleeding lines of Chinese ink and Burnt Sienna Pigment ink add to the dirty weathered patina of this old machinery. Burnt Sienna pigment ink takes on the appearance of ancient rust stains. A limited palette of watercolor washes were allowed to dry before the ink lines were added. It is the accidental nature of sprayed ink marks that add to the worn and battered character of this painting.

A small amount of Cadmium Yellow neutralises (or desaturates) the color giving us a slightly darker tone of the blue/grey we are after. 

Charcoal Pencils

My favorite pencil is a simple black charcoal pencil. It can be sharpened to a fine point, is permanent and lightfast and will produce a great variety of different marks. Charcoal pencils are also available in white and, on dark areas of your painting, do a similar job to the black pencil.

Black and White charcoal pencils were used to animate this painting with loose, frantic lines

I use the charcoal pencil for initial drawing and as a drawing tool throughout the painting process.

Inktense Pencils and Blocks.

Inktense pencils, made by Derwent, are similar to a watercolor pencil only a softer, more waxy consistency. They are water soluble and can draw over wet or dry paper, board or canvas. Derwent also make Inktense blocks which do a similar job to the pencils only on a larger scale.

I have been hooked on Derwent’s Inktense products for a few years now. They come in a range of colors and the solid, ink like, pigment will draw on wet or dry surfaces. They are water soluble, but, after having been wet, dry to an insoluble mark similar to ink.  Inktense Blocks are a solid chunk of the colored pigment used in their Inktense pencils.


This is the 24 pack of Derwent Inktense Blocks. They are also available in a tin of 72.

The Inktense Blocks open up a whole new way of painting with this interesting pigment. The blocks can be applied like a pastel, or used similar to a pan of watercolor paint. Stroking with a damp brush will lift off a surprising amount of pigment. This can be mixed with other colors on a palette or applied straight to your painting.


The other great thing about these pigments is that they can be mixed with white gouache to produce a great variety of opaque, pastel colors.

The painting below was done entirely with Inktense blocks and some white gouache. I started with washes of browns and greys lifted straight from the blocks with a rough 1/2 inch bristle brush. The initial washes were dropped onto wet paper, then, as the paper dried out, more definite marks of green, indigo and red were applied.

Some of the marks in this painting were made directly with the blocks, some were made with the block pigment mixed on a brush and some of the finer lines were made by putting the inktense solution in a pen.


To load a pen with a solution of Inktense pigment and gouache requires a fairly runny mixture and a brush to transfer it from the palette to the pen. Wiping the brush on the cake of baby soap in the background makes the mixture flow better.


Inktense line applied with a pen

The blue and brown lines in this detail are solutions of Inktense pigment applied with a pen. Some of the paler brown lines were made by dipping the loaded pen in water to dilute the mixture.



Pastels and Pastel Pencils

Pastel adds a contrasting opaque chalky mark to the transparent washes of watercolor. Pastels don’t mix with one another. For this reason you need a broad range of colors to allow them to blend seamlessly into your paintings.

Hard and soft pastels to combine with watercolor.


Fortunately, pastels come in a huge range of colors and each color in a range of tones, making it easy to blend them into other mediums.

Pastel pencils do a similar job to charcoal pencils. They are great as an initial drawing tool and they can also add some fantastic marks to your work as it progresses. They come in every imaginable color, but I tend to stick to a few simple earth colors – greys and browns. I always choose colors that are permanent and lightfast. Most of the earth colors fall into this category.

Pastel pencil marks


Brown and Grey pastel pencils make permanent, lightfast marks that add a spontaneous character to your paintings.

Hard and soft pastels can add interesting textural marks to you work. They are best used in the final stages of a painting as they dissolve when washed over with water. Pastel marks can be worked over with a damp brush to ease them back into the painting.

Pastel being applied over watercolor


Hard pastel of a similar color to the underlying wash makes an interesting texture on the roofs in this painting



Author: John Lovett

bottom of page