This article looks at things to look out for when buying coloured pencils, and the different brands that are available in the market today.
When it comes to recommending art supplies, I suggest going with student grade first to learn with because they are more affordable. If you know you're serious, you can skip the student grade and go straight for the artist grade ones. Buying coloured pencils can get expensive, especially when you start to realise just how many colours there are out there to tempt you.
Here are some considerations on choosing coloured pencils.
Student vs Artist grade
Art supplies manufacturers generally have student and artist grade versions of coloured pencils. The main difference is the amount of pigment used. Pigment is what contributes to the colour. The pigment is held together with a binder, usually oil-based or wax-based, and enclosed in wood. Artist quality pencils have a high pigment to binder ratio so you need to use less to create an intense colour. Student quality pencils have lower pigment to binder ratio so to achieve the same intensity, oftentimes you have to use more of it. Sometimes, it can be quite frustrating to coax the intensity out of poor quality pencils.
Student quality coloured pencils are cheaper than artist grade. You get what you pay for. However, there are actually affordable coloured pencils that perform relatively well too, such as the Derwent Coloursoft.
Availability of open stock
Coloured pencils may be sold in sets or open stock. The latter means you can buy the pencils individually when any of your pencils get used up. It's best to go for brands that also sell their pencils in open stock because that will allow you to replace your pencils, or your favourite colours. It's not economical if the alternative to get the same colour is to buy a new set.
If you're just starting out, a set of 24-36 pencils should suffice. Number of colours can go up to over a hundred depending on the manufacturer.
For beginners, you can learn to blend colours with a limited number of pencils. Of course, the more pencils you get, the more expensive it gets. It's usually more economical to buy a set than individual pencils.Box sets would usually contain colours around the colour wheel which is a good starting point for mixing. If you have bought a brand with limited colours, it's fine to mix them with other brands but you probably want to use pencils that use the same binder.
There are three types of binders. It's important to note that all the pros and cons are in relative terms.
Wax-based ones use wax to bind pigments. They are slightly softer compared to oil-based pencils. Since they are softer, they are more prone to breakage and wear out quicker. Wax produces better coverage since they are soft and go onto paper easier. One disadvantage of wax-based pencils is when they are used heavily and with lots of layering, they are prone to create wax bloom, a coat of powdered layer that affects colour intensity. Wax bloom is more obvious with darker colours.
Here's a video that shows you how you can identify a wax bloom:
Oil-based pencils have a harder core. The binder used is usually some sort of vegetable oil. Since they are hard, they can last longer and are more durable in the sense that they are less prone to breakage. However, having a harder core means to you need to apply a bit more pigment to get the colour intensity. Some oil-based pencils can be quite soft too. Smearing can be a problem with such pencils. Either way, to protect coloured pencil artworks, either oil or waxed-based, it's best to use fixative.
Watersoluble-based are those pencils where you can dissolve the colours on paper with water. They used watersoluble binder, somewhat like the gum arabic binder used in watercolour cake pans. You can use them dry or wet which can create interesting effects and textures. Such pencils when dry are usually waterproof and will resist activation again with water.
Soft vs Hard
Soft pencils are great for coverage and are more opaque. Think of them like painting. Hard pencils are better at details but not so good for covering large areas because they are hard and pigment doesn't come off that easily.
As with any art supplies, you'll want to get one where the colours can last and not fade. This attribute is called lightfastness. Manufacturers may list their own lightfast rating, but to know how lightfast your pencils actually are, you need to test them yourself. And to do that, you just have to create some colour swatches, leave them facing sunlight for a few months, and check back again.
While pastel pencils look like coloured pencils, they actually perform like pastels and should not be considered as coloured pencils. Just like pastels, they leave behind lots of dust. They are in pencil form to make them cleaner and easier to use. They are usually hard pastels and when you apply them onto paper, you can even heard them scratch the paper, like chalk against the blackboard.
Which ones to choose?
Personally, I prefer oil-based coloured pencils because I don't have to deal with wax bloom. I have a set of Faber Castell Polychromos and I love the intensity of the colours. They are creamy and easy to apply.
However, coloured pencil choice is really personal and you might have to try them yourself to find the one most suitable for you.
I won't recommend the really cheap ones because they are usually so hard that you have to scrub them on the paper in order to get the colours to appear. Good coloured pencils should be easy to apply and the colours should appear vibrant.
Alright, let's look at the different brands of coloured pencils that are available in the market.
Caran d'Ache of Switzerland is known for their Luminance line of coloured pencils which is probably the best coloured pencils around. However, Luminance is also more expensive than other brands. Luckily Caran d'Ache also makes a range of pencils in other quality. Caran d'Ache is actually a relatively new company that was founded in 1915. They pride themselves to the quality of their products.
Luminance: These are top of the line wax-based coloured pencils. They have excellent lightfastness and are noted for their intensity. Check out the review by coloured pencil artist Lachri. Total colours: 80
Museum Aquarelle: These are the better grade watersoluble pencils and cost almost twice as much compared to Fancolor. Total colours: 76.
Pablo: These are one grade below Luminance. Total colours: 120.
Supracolor: These are one grade below the expensive Museum Aquarelle. Total colours: 120.
Fancolor: Watersoluble coloured pencils for beginners. Total colours: 40
Faber-Castell is one of Germany's oldest industrial company that was founded in 1761. Years of manufacturing art supplies have made the brand well known worldwide. They usually have special wooden box sets that make for very nice gifts.
Polychromos: These oil-based coloured pencils are their best. The pencils have very good lightfastness too. As with good quality pencils, they are creamy, intense and easy to apply. Total colours: 120.
Art Grip: These budget pencils come with triangular bodies and are available in both dry and watersoluble forms. Total colours: 60.
Albrecht Dürer: These are artist grade watersoluble pencils. Total colors: 120.
Prismacolor is also a very popular brand, up there with Caran d'Ache and Faber Castell when it comes to brand recognition.
Art Stix: Prismacolor markets these as pencils but they certainly do not look like pencils in their rectangular block form. They are whole sticks of pigments and you use them like you would pastels sticks.
Prismacolor Premier: These wax-based pencils have very favourable reviews however in recent years, there have been complaints regarding breakage. So do read more reviews to check if the problem has been rectified by Prismacolor. These are artist grade coloured pencils and come in 150 colours.
Verithin: These are hard core pencils with budget price tags. Many reviews say that they have a transparent quality to them and are nice to sketch with. The reason for the transparent quality is because the core is hard hence lay down less colour and allows the paper to show through. If you want sketching coloured pencils, this could be a good choice. Premier coloured pencils are for those who prefer opaque coverage. Total colours: 36
Prismacolor Watercolor Pencils: These budget friendly watersoluble pencils. They are soft, blend well and have the flexibility to be dissolved with water. Total colors: 36
Koh-I-Noor Hardmuth, or more commonly known as Koh-I-Nor, was founded in 1790 in Vienna. It seems they only have student grade coloured pencils but they are quite good.
Polycolor: These are oil-based hard coloured pencils. I personally have a set and love them for drawing. While they are not intense compared to the Polychromos from Faber Castell, the budget price still makes them worth buying. Total colours: 36.
Mondeluz Aquarelles: These are good watersoluble coloured pencils. Certainly not as intense compared to other brands but they are good for the price. Total colors: 36
Progresso: These are woodless coloured pencils. You get a whole stick of pigment so it's really quite worth the money. Total colours: 24.
Magic Pencils: These are fun pencils where each pencil has three colours. They come in normal pencil sizes and also the larger jumbo size. If you want to get them, I recommend the jumbo sized ones and make sure to get a set with pencil sharpener. Check out my my review for them.
Derwent is from The Cumberland Pencil Company that dates from a factory established in 1832. They have many brands of coloured pencils that it can get confusing. If you know what you're looking for, you have access to a huge variety of options.
Academy: As the name suggest, these are student grade coloured pencils. Total colours: 36
Graphitint: These are watersoluble graphite pencils tinted with colours. Since they are graphite, the colours are muted and are challenging to mix. The colours become more vibrant when water is added. Downside is the colours can fade with time so lightfastness is not that good. Total colours: 24.
Inktense: These watersoluble coloured pencils are among the most intense when compared to other brands. When water is added, it's almost like working with liquid ink because of the intensity. When you wet the paper and draw with them, it's like drawing with bright markers (without the bleed). Total colours: 72
Metallic Colored Pencil: These specialty watersoluble pencils are almost like Graphitint except they come in metalic colours. Unfortunately, they aren't exactly as shiny as metal or iridescent. Total colours: 12.
studio: These are coloured pencils at budget prices. They are hard and meant for details. Colours are not as intense compared to other brands but that's not surprising given it's affordable price tag. Total colours: 72.
Tombow is a Japanese company and they make a variety of drawing tools and stationery. Of particular interest are their watercolour sets called Irojiten that are very beautifully packaged.
Irojiten: These budget pencils come in many sets and are usually sold in packs of three where each pack has 10 pencils. These are hard pencils so they aren't as good when it comes to covering large areas. So they are better at details. A downside is the lack of intensity when compared to other brands. Another downside individual pencils are difficult to replace because there is no open stock.
I find myself gravitating to companies that produce both student and artist grade quality coloured pencils. My favourites are Faber Castell Polychromos, Caran d'Ache Luminance and Derwent Inktense. Both Polychromos and Luminance are both excellent brands whose pencils are creamy and easy to blend. It's just pure satisfaction when working with them. Derwent Inktense is a very interesting brand because of the intensity of the colours when wet. No other brand comes closed in terms of intensity. So even if you get watercoloured pencils with more natural colours, I would still recommend Inktense because they are fun to use.
Here are some recommendations depending on the type of work, arranged in order of my preference.
Coloured pencils are great for mixed media art. You can either use them for line art or for normal colouring and blending. Watersoluble pencils can give you a different look when wet. However not that if you're working with water medium like gouache or watercolour, sometimes you might not want watersoluble pencils because you want to retain the lines even when water is applied. Oil-based pencils don't repel water as much as wax-based ones.