What is the best thing to outline a sketch with when you're going to use watercolour afterwards?

  1. Pencil
  2. Sharpie thick point
  3. Sharpie fine point
  4. Regular black pen
  5. Black colour pencil

3 Answers 3


As you gave sharpies as option, you seem to want see the drawing when finished with the water colour.

In that case, use whatever waterproof marker you happy to draw with, as the lines will be well visible, you need to draw in such a way that the lines are as you want them to be in the end result.

Pencil lines will work as well, if less obvious, as long as the pencil is waterproof, as most are.

On the other hand, if you want to lines to be almost invisible, a very light and thin pencil line or even pencil of which the lines will dissolve in water and disappear mostly or all in the paint you use later.

So from that you see it is a design decision.
Show or hide the lines, your choice.

  • I would highlight that if OP chooses pronounced contour lines applied with a waterproof marker, it's necessary to wait until the ink dries out completely, otherwise the water in the subsequently used brush may still dissolve enough pigment to leave smudge marks. Such ink-drying period could even amount to a day or two.
    – Levente
    Mar 13, 2021 at 4:40

Because watercolor layers are transparent and thin, any hard pencil marks will most likely be visible through the paint at the end.

I recommend using your pencil lightly when you are creating your initial sketch/map and erase at least partially afterward, if possible.
I also recommend you using a 9H pencil or some "H" pencil, they're light and not noticeable.

Get a pencil, use it lightly, don't make it too noticeable.
Hopes this helps! Good luck with your painting!

  • You don't NECESSARILY need to buy the "H" pencil if you don't want to, you can use a normal pencil, it doesn't really matter, it's just a matter of how light you see the pencil mark.
    – Isaac750
    Jan 29, 2021 at 20:06

Considering you didn't add additional requirements for the appearance of your intended piece, I'll take into consideration ease of use, practicality, and longevity.

  1. The most common method, as far as I know, and the best option for clear but non-intrusive outlines, is to use the pencil.
    Use any pencil on the harder range (2H and up), as these won't smudge as much once the watercolour is applied. 2H might be preferable, as it is still the easiest to correct and remove - the higher the ranking goes, the harder and fainter they are. This will work best if you are able to work with a light hand: you definitely don't want grooves in your paper, or to need to use your eraser too aggressively, as this will damage the (surface of the) paper and influence the absorption of the watercolour.
    You can always opt to erase as much of these lines as practically possible before applying watercolour.

enter image description here
John Ruskin, Ponte dei Pugni. Watercolour over pencil.

  1. / 3. Regular Sharpies, despite the claim, are not permanent. They don't appear to bleed, though, so maybe the discolouring can actually be beneficial, but since they don't seem to be artist grade, I'd steer away from them. I have never used a Sharpie, though, since they're not as omnipresent in Europe as they are in the States.
    My advice: if you're keen on using any kind of marker, test them out in advance, and take into consideration that they might lose or change colour, or buy archival markers.
  1. A "regular black pen" is quite vague: are you talking about ballpoints, rollerball pens, fountain pens? Ballpoints generally don't bleed (unless the paper is damp), and with practice you can get beautiful linework and shading. Rollerball pen inks are often water-based, and will run once the watercolour is applied.
    Naturally, you cannot (really) erase the lines of pens, and unless this is the look you're going for or your style, dark contours will change the appearance of your drawings a lot.
    If you want to use pens, use archival inks, or at least waterproof inks.

enter image description here
Arthur Rackham, The Pit and the Pendulum. Watercolour over ink.

  1. A black colour pencil will definitely smudge once you go over it with watercolour. The black pigment will mix with all watercolours, deadening all colour, while possibly remaining the most distinct feature. Furthermore, black pencil is harder or impossible to erase. There are better alternatives if you want the appearance of black pencil (like a softer pencil (on the B-spectrum) or charcoal).


  • Watercolour pencils contain pigments that act like watercolour when water is added, basically being dry watercolour in stick-form, so they will simply mix with your regular watercolours, and dissolve. In my experience they leave traces of lines every here and there, little specks of dry but encapsulated pigment.

  • Watercolour markers. Similar to the pencils, these are basically watercolours in stick-form.

  • Similar in appearance to graphite, charcoal was used for underdrawings by nineteenth century illustrators for their watercolour pieces.
    The trick is to use as little as possible, buff it into the paper (results with different kinds of paper may vary), and going over it with single, light layers, waiting each time for the layer to dry. You can add a little Arabic gum to seal those first layers in and fixate the charcoal.

enter image description here
Elizabeth Shippen Green, Giséle. Watercolour over charcoal.

To be sure, you can always test different methods in advance: use small pieces of the paper your intended work will be created on, draw fine lines with whatever you fancy, wait until these are completely dry, and add a layer of watercolour to see how they interact. You can seal of the first layer using an artist fixative or a mix of water and Arabic Gum.
Ultimately, this is a personal and creative choice, and dependent on the intended look.

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