It was the mid 90s when I was first introduced to colored pencil. Here in the US Prismacolor has had a reputation for being the “best” colored pencil out there. For many years I think it really was. It is the only professional colored pencil that many art stores carry. They are available in large sets, up to 150 pencils, and can be purchased open stock (individually). That fact makes them quite convenient for many US colored pencil artists.
Prismacolor premier pencils are a wax based pencil. Their big claim to fame is how creamy they are to work with. It’s quite easy to blend nice soft skin tones and smooth textures with these pencils. Having 150 colors is quite nice too. They blend well with their own colorless blender (which burnishes to blend), and with the Mona Lisa Odorless paint thinner I personally prefer to blend with. On a side note, if you can’t get the Mona Lisa Odorless paint thinner, any odorless mineral spirits should work.
Grapes in Prismacolor by Lachri on Strathmore 300 series, medium textured paper
When I first started working with these pencils, the term “lightfast” was not something anyone I knew really talked about. The lightfast rating of a pencil determines how long it will take for a color to fade when exposed to light. As it turns out, the Prismacolor Premier has a lot of colors in the set that are unacceptable. This may not be an issue for someone just learning, but once you start selling your work, you really do have a moral obligation to your customers to be cautious with lightfast ratings. While each pencil is not individually marked, you can check out this chart (PDF) from Prismacolor giving you the ratings of each color.
Anything ranked a I or a II with the ASTM D6901 ratings are considered lightfast. Anything ranked with a higher number is not. The higher that number, the faster the pencil will fade. As you can see on that chart, a large portion of those colors are not lightfast, hence not ideal. While it seems like they have so many more colors than other brands, realistically, when you pull the non-lightfast colors from your set, you end up with less than you expected. If really want to use those colors, you can get a spray fixative that not only prevents wax bloom on your finished work, but many do protect against UV damage. You can also frame your work behind UV protecting glass. Keep in mind that the glass is quite expensive, so that really adds to how much it costs you to use these pencils.
Speaking of cost, one of the things that draws so many colored pencil artists to this pencil is the price. Of the professional pencils these are some of the least expensive to buy in the US. That sounds like a huge selling point, but realistically because of some of the quality control issues that these pencils suffer from, that lower price isn’t necessarily saving you any money.
Several years ago these pencils started being produced in Mexico. It was at that point that everything started going downhill. Now, to be clear, I am in no way saying that things produced in Mexico are low quality. Some of my favorite items are produced there. It was at the time of this move though that the complaints about these pencils started flooding in.
Prismacolor Premier pencils have a very soft and brittle lead. This isn’t something I would judge them negatively for, it’s just the nature of this pencil. Being so brittle though, they do require a quality wood casing to help prevent breakage.
Once the manufacturing of these pencils moved to Mexico, we started seeing severely warped wood casings, off centered lead, lead that falls out of the casing completely, and wood casings that split down the side of the pencil when sharpened. All of these things lead to a huge increase in the breakage of those brittle leads. It is not at all uncommon for an artist to burn through more than half a pencil just to get it sharpened for one use because the lead continuously breaks and falls out, or the wood casing keeps splitting. When the lead is off center, or the wood casing is warped, this adds uneven pressure to the lead inside the casing, which can cause the lead to break all the way inside that case. As you sharpen pencils like this, the broken bits of lead tend to fall right out of the pencil. Burning through pencils so fast because of these problems adds to the overall cost of using them, which means they really aren’t so much less expensive than other brands as they might appear at first glance.
I’ve purchased every sharpener made by Prismacolor themselves, and several sharpeners made by other companies. This problem is bigger when using a handheld sharpener. I found that when using an electric sharpener, there was far less breakage, both with the lead and the wood casing. With the Luminance by Caran d’Ache and Faber-Castell’s Polychromos I can sharpen my pencils with the cheapest of handheld sharpeners or the electric sharpeners and I have never had issue with breakage. The Prismacolor pencils certainly require more care when sharpening.
The thing that is so frustrating to me about this is that the company is well aware of the problem. Artists have been contacting them about this for years, yet nothing has been done other than offering a replacement pencil. Who has time to wait for a new pencil to be shipped to them when they’re in the middle of a project? The fact that their own website’s FAQ addresses what to do when the lead falls out of the pencil makes it quite clear that they know it is a problem. We know that they can make pencils that are a much higher quality because they used to.
Dachshund in Prismacolor Premier
These pencils layer and blend nicely, but you are somewhat limited in how much layering you can get done in comparison to working with Polychromos or Luminance. The Prismacolor Premier pencils leave quite a bit of wax bloom. This wax bloom can be wiped off with a rag to an extent, but it does make it difficult to add additional layers once that bloom starts becoming apparent. I have found that blending with the Mona Lisa Odorless paint thinner does help minimize the wax bloom by quite a bit, but it is still there. As wax bloom builds it’s also hard to add detail over it. Detail in general is a bit more difficult to get than with the Polychromos or Luminance pencils. They can get detail, but it’s not quite as sharp as with some other pencils.
Prismacolor Premier on Strathmore Bristol Vellum
Last year I completed this flamingo with Prismacolor. I had so much breakage in the pencils that I was spending more time sharpening than getting actual work done. Fighting with my pencils was a huge reason that I rarely worked in colored pencil anymore. My acrylic and oil paints, or even graphite pencils always did exactly what they were supposed to, so why would I spend much time with a medium that was such a drama queen?!
I started seeing that artists using other brands were getting sharper detail than I was able to get with the Prismacolor. After talking to an artist whose work was exactly what I wanted mine to look like, I went ahead and ordered my first set of Polychromos. I couldn’t believe the difference in working with a pencil that NEVER breaks! The detail I was able to get with these pencils because they sharpened to such a fine point, again with no breakage, moved me away from using Prismacolor for anything other than comparison videos.
There are a few tips that you can do to fix your broken pencils. If you have a pencil that continuously breaks, indicating that the lead is broken all the way inside the wood casing, you can heat the pencil by leaving it in the sun, using a hair dryer on it, or laying it on a heating pad. If you can get the lead to melt a bit, it will essentially heal the broken bits back together. I’ve tried the microwave method that many suggest, and while it worked, I wouldn’t recommend it because there is a metallic print on the pencils and you can cause a fire putting that in the microwave. I also ended up with a pencil that appears to have warts because the paint of the pencil casing bubbled.
Sharpening your Prismacolor pencils requires a bit of extra care. If you’re using a hand held sharpener, you want to hold the pencil in place with one hand and use your other hand to turn the sharpener. If you hold the sharpener in place and turn the pencil instead, that can lead to uneven pressure which causes more breakage. As I mentioned above, using an electric sharpener made a huge difference in the amount of breakage I got. I have been using the Derwent battery operated sharpener. I have a video showing you exactly how I like to sharpen my pencils here.
When you sharpen your pencils, it is better to use a setting that doesn’t sharpen the pencils to a long fine point. The lead is so soft and brittle that you’re more likely to have the tip break this way. Instead choose the setting that uses a shorter point.
For the way that I work, and the look that I am going for in my work, Prismacolor is just not the right choice for me. That is not to say that you can’t complete stunning work with these pencils, you absolutely can! While I may not love the pencils myself, I do still allow my students to use these in class because I feel that you can learn the techniques I use in my work with them.
Links to a few videos:
Basics to blending colored pencils primarily features prismacolor:
The video for the grapes is from my Prismacolor vs Polychromos video