Whether you enjoy shading in adult coloring books or creating your own masterpieces from scratch, a good set of colored pencils can help you express yourself in a very fulfilling, and not super messy, way. There are a lot of sets available, but many are low-quality ones. These might be fine for kids, but even a beginner hobbyist shouldn't settle for something that is frustrating to work with.
That's why we researched the best colored pencils out there for adult coloring book aficionados, crafters, and professional artists with some help from artist Lauren Weirich. Our favorites are Faber-Castell's Polychromos pencils for their durability, vibrancy, and blendability. See what else made the cut, and get some tips on how to choose your own match in our buying guide!
Choosing the wrong pencils for you can lead to frustration and difficulty getting the effects you want in your drawings. Consider the types of binders, size of sets, and what paper you want to use. Let's look at these in detail!
Wax-based pencils are the most common by far, and if you've used colored pencils before, they were likely wax-based. Prismacolor and Derwent are two of the more well-known artists' brands, but a lot of cheap sets are wax.
They’re soft, creamy, and easy to blend, and a few layers can give you a smooth work of art where colors meld into each other. One swipe will also lay down a lot of color. This is helpful if, for example, you’re looking for an opaque pencil to add detailing on top of a painting.
There are a couple of weaknesses to wax-based pencils, however. The first is something called "wax bloom," where the wax binding forms a foggy layer on top of your artwork. But it’s easy enough to correct with a fixative, so it’s more of a minor annoyance than anything.
My preference is wax-based. It's mainly because I prefer to work on a toned or colored paper—or to work on top of a watercolor with my colored pencils. And wax-based are slightly more opaque, so if you’re working on brown paper, the pencil’s going to show up better than an oil-based pencil.
But if your pencil’s really waxy and if you were to overlayer your work, you would get this thing called “bloom.” That’s when the wax separates from the pigment and rises to the top of the paper. When that happens, you can spray it with a fixative.
That will dissolve the bloom so it looks normal, or you can wipe it off with a tissue, but when you do that, it almost buffs the paper and you get a shiny spot. So that’s very frustrating for artists who like to work slow and in lots of layers.
But, in return, you get more control. If you like a look where shadows are detailed in fine, closely-pressed together lines, or if you’re looking to draw the individual streaks on a feathery bird, that may be easier to achieve with an oil-based pencil. Finally, because they lay down less color, you can add more distinct layers to your work of art.
An oil-based pencil is more transparent. It’s going to show up better on white paper—like on a pure watercolor paper or a gessoed paper—because the light will pass through the veil of color a little bit more easily. And a lot of people have been partial to oil-based pencils because they’re light-fast, meaning they’re not going to fade as easily.
Artists that spend weeks on colored pencils paintings would prefer a firmer core because the softer your pencil is, the fewer layers you can put down. So if you’re someone who likes to work in seven or eight or nine layers, you’re going to saturate your paper too quickly with a Prismacolor or other soft pencils. You’d want to use a Derwent Studio or a Polychromos, which are a little bit harder and build your layers up.
I have a friend who’s a very talented colored pencil artist. Her name is Lisa Clough from Lachri Fine Arts, and she does these gorgeous photo-realistic paintings. She works over the course of two weeks on a painting and builds up layer upon layer, so she needs to use pencils that are not as waxy and not as firm. Because of that, we have absolutely opposite favorite pencils. There’s no right or wrong; it’s just subjective.
Oil- or wax-based pencils are a dry medium, so you couldn’t mix yellow and blue to make green as easily as you could with a watercolor. With watercolor, you can just color a layer of yellow, color a layer of blue, use a wet brush, and you’ve got a perfect green. If you were doing that with the oil-based pencils, you’d have to keep layering and layering to get a decent color.
Watercolor pencils are also excellent if you’re sketching out before you do an acrylic painting or a watercolor painting because they will dissolve with both acrylic and watercolors, and you won’t see your lines. That’s something you wouldn’t want to do with an oil- or wax-based pencil because they would act as a barrier between your paint and the paper or the canvas.
Also, if I were traveling, and I couldn’t bring many pencils, I would bring a small set of watercolor pencils because they’re more versatile than oil-based or wax-based pencils.
Let’s start off with an exception to the rule: you can squeak by with a smaller set of watercolor pencils. That’s because they’re easy to blend when wet, so you can make a lot of your own colors. Lindsay says that a set of 24 should do the trick.
However, it is more difficult to blend dry media, so for oil- and wax-based, the bigger the set, the better. Let’s say you were to buy a set of 24 to play around with. You really liked the colored pencils, so you decided to buy a set of 72.
Chances are that the 24 colors that were included with your first set are duplicated in your second set, so unless you use those 24 colors at an alarming rate, they’re going to go to waste. Getting the colors you need right off the bat can prevent this.
Crafter's Companion has a line of pencils called Spectrum Noir and Spectrum Aqua, and I like them because of the way they sell their sets. They don’t have open stock, which is unfortunate, but they sell their sets in packs of 12 or 24, and they don’t duplicate colors anywhere.
So you could start off with the set of 24 florals, because that’s what you like to paint most, or you may start off with the set of 24 primaries. If you love the pencils, you can buy the set of 24 landscapes, and that’s not going to duplicate anything you have, and so on.
If you used up a color, you could swatch that color out and take it to an art supply store and match it with another line that’s close enough. Also, if you like to work on colored paper, make sure you choose a wax- or oil-based set that has a lot of pastels in it because those will stand out.
There are some inexpensive brands out now that have surfaced, and their colored pencils are excellent, but they have no pastels. So even if you get that set of 72, you’re going to have a difficult time getting them to stand out if you plan on working on colored paper; if you’re working on white paper, they’re going to be beautiful.
And then there are brands where I bought a few pencils and I realized I didn’t like them, and it saved me a costly mistake. But I would recommend getting a handful—a few colors that you know you’re going to use a lot so they don’t go to waste. That way, you get a little bit of variety so you can see how their dark colors look on paper, how their whites look on paper, how opaque they are, and you can go from there.
Here are our favorite colored pencils, including wax, oil, and watercolor types. We also chose a variety of set sizes and price points as well, but we made sure to go for quality as a priority.
*Please note that these products were chosen after extensive research by mybest writers. The choices are not necessarily affiliated with or recommended by Lindsay unless explicitly stated so.
Polychromos Colored Pencil Set
Premier Colored Pencils
Karat Aquarell Watercolor Pencils
Expert Colored Pencils
Inktense Ink Pencils
Progresso Woodless Colored Pencil Set
Rembrant Polycolor Art Pencils
Metallic Colored EcoPencils
Best Oil-Based Pencils: Vibrant and Blendable, but Stay Sharp
Best Wax-Based Pencils: Soft, Creamy Cores Create Rich, Opaque Colors
Best Watercolor Pencils: Blend Smoothly, and Bright Wet or Dry
Best Budget-Friendly Set for Beginners or Hobbyists
Best for Building Layer Upon Layer
Best to Get Thick, Breathtaking Colors When Wet
Best for Making Wide Strokes and Shading
Best Set for Adult Coloring Books
Best for Smooth Blending and Crisp Edges
Best for Drawing on Dark Paper
|Base||Oil||Wax||Watercolor||Wax||Wax and oil blend||Water-soluble wax||Oil||Oil||Oil||Not provided|
|Base||Wax and oil blend|
The “tooth” of a paper refers to how rough the surface of it is. The more tooth your paper has, the more it can bite down on and hold onto pigment. And the more pigment a paper can take, the more layers you can add on to your work.
But the rougher the paper, the longer it’s going to take you to complete your work because it’s going to take longer to fill in all those little dips and grooves in the paper. If you want to do a quick sketch, smooth paper is fine. If you want to spend more time on your painting, you need a rougher paper that’s going to hold the pencil.
Canson Mi-Teints is nice because it has a rough side and a smoother side. I like the smoother side for colored pencil, but it’s rougher than a sketchbook. And if you did want to do a lot of layers, there’s a rougher side that you could build up more on. And since it’s all on one sheet, you could buy just one pad and have a lot of different options because each side of the paper’s a little different.
Have some burning questions about colored pencils? See if you can satisfy your curiosity here.
They're made in about the same way as graphite pencils, and it's really fascinating to watch! Check out this video from the popular show How It's Made.
First, the core is mixed up. Pigment, binder, and any other ingredients like extenders or adhesives are blended into a doughy substance. This is sent through an extruder to make the core, and those are then cut and dried.
The wood is cut into slats, and a groove carved into them. The pencil core then gets sandwiched between two slats and glued together. Finally, these proto-pencils are trimmed into the right shape, usually round or hexagonal, and the outside is painted or numbers are applied.
Wax-based writing implements have been in use since at least the age of the ancient Greeks, and colored pencils for writing were commonly used during the 1800s. Many companies, like Lyra, Derwent, Staedtler and Faber trace their roots back to these beginnings.
The first artist-quality colored pencils with the modern core form were produced by Faber-Castell in the early twentieth century. Watercolor pencils came about in the 1930s.
Erasing should be thought of as removing a mark from the surface of your paper, and by this definition, all colored pencils are erasable to a point. If you have rough, thick paper, an eraser can abrade the surface enough to remove most marks.
However, wax and oil won't just dissolve. The more pigment a pencil lays down, the harder it will be to erase. Wax bloom is also difficult to remove. You can mop up watercolor pencils by wetting marks and lifting color off with a paper towel. And cheaper pencils are often more erasable, since they lay down less pigment to begin with.
Make sure you use the right eraser, too. Start with a soft kneaded eraser, which will not damage your paper. Only if that doesn't work should you proceed with more abrasive types.
You didn't think we'd stop at just colored pencils, did you? Here are some more tools you can use to express yourself.
Want to look at some popular colored pencils or regular graphite pencils to stock your studio? Check out buyers' favorites on Amazon.
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