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How to draw with a water-soluble pencil

A little while ago someone gave me a water-soluble pencil which then lingered in my pencil case. Until recently my work was more precise than this pencil would allow. I needed pencils that would give fine lines and not shift with water.

Now, having finished my big painting, I am ready to create more fluid works, and the pencil is just perfect! [Yet another example of why you never throw anything out!] I have been playing with it, creating oyster shell drawings, and I want to share with you some of my thoughts. The best way for me is to show you “How to draw an oyster shell”.

Firstly, a little about the pencil and other tools.

It is a Derwent Graphitone 2B light. The B indicates that it is the range of pencils that  give a dense bold line. 2 is at one end of the scale, 8 is at the other creating the densest black lines and shadows. The other range of pencils is the H range. They are hard and excellent for fine lines and delicate tones.

The pencil is a stick of pure graphite held together with some sort of water-soluble binder. There is no wood around the graphite, although some brands to have wood. Instead the paper/plastic wrapper has sections that peel off as you need to sharpen further down the pencil. Neat! I am able to sharpen the Graphitone pencil to a reasonable point. I am saving the sharpenings because I want to play with them sometime, perhaps mixing them with water.

I have also discovered 2 of my watercolour paint brushes are excellent to use with it. The first is a rigger, a type of brush has long bristles that allow the paint to be dragged along in a smooth line. The other is a 6 mm square brush. I rarely use it for painting, but it was just perfect for this work. Its flat edge allowed me to either make a ragged line by using the flat top or drag the wash out from the line. Both brushes are sable and held the water for a good length of time.

So, to the drawing.

This was the shell I was using as my model.


Can you see why I am captivated by oyster shells? The shape, the lines, the colours, the laminations, the way the shadows disappear. And you don’t have to be really precise to draw them.

My first lines are made on dry watercolour paper. They outline the shell and give me visual markers for other things I need to take note of. At this stage it is only a line drawing, but I am already looking for where lines meet and reappear, where the darks and lights are. They are important because they build the 3D impression. even the smallest sliver of reflected light will add to the realism.


Then I begin to add in some of the darkest areas. I move around the painting, often leaving one part to work on another. I am only drawing in the broad, but my mind is taking in the detail as well, remembering places to come back to. All the time I am conscious about the marks I am making. They need to mean something, to add to the drawing and not just be meaningless scribbles. This photo also shows the pencil I am using.


Now is a time to assess, to sit back to see what has been going on.

It is ready for some water. Sometimes I moved the brush along the line, to work the graphite into the paper. Sometimes I have dragged the graphite out from the line because I want to get some shadow in there while keeping the white edge. Thats the edge of the layer above, where it is catching the light. Sometimes there is enough graphite still on the brush to make a wash away from the line, hinting at the curve of the shell. I am still moving around the drawing, not working too long in one area.


I also discovered that I can rub a wet brush onto the pencil and gather graphite that way. I use that as another form of wash. I keep going, making pencil lines then using either of the 2 brushes to move the graphite around. Making lines, breaking up the lines, adding graphite to deepen tone, adding water to move the graphite around. Playing!

You will notice that I hadn’t done anything to the end of the shell. It has a different texture, smoother with more tonal areas. That needed more water and less line work. The square brush was great for here too. I used it to dab more graphite into washes.


It seemed to be getting close to the finish. I added the shadows at the side. Here I noticed a few things. Firstly, the darkest part of the shadow was right under the shell, but it wasn’t a continuous line. The side of the shell, while in shadow, was not uniformly dark. The layers of the shell created layers of light and shadow. And there is reflected light in there too.

I wanted to keep that reflected light right at the bottom of the shell, but I wasn’t happy with that end. It was too square and just looked wrong. I couldn’t do anything much about the shape, as that was a fault of the original drawing. [Maybe if I had begun work on it earlier I could have changed it in some way….] However, I could break up the lines and add more complexity to the wash area.


So this is the finished work. I did add some finer lines with a 2H pencil. You can see them at the edge of some of the tonal work, hinting at a layer of shell.

What do I think? I am very happy with it. It was fun to do. While I love botanic drawing and painting I have enjoyed allowing myself to play. And of course it is through play that we learn. I know so much more about the water-soluble pencil. I know that I really liked using it, but I know that it has limitations.

As for oyster shells…..I know that I love them and will continue to be fascinated by them for a number of drawings to come! And then I will explore muscle shells 🙂

[The drawing is available for sale in my Etsy store. Click here to have a look. If you would like to buy it, or any of my other works, but don’t want to go through Etsy, contact me directly.]