Have you seen the work of Marco Mazzoni? The arabesques of color balanced on darkness, the fleshiness, the decay and the longing–if anyone has pushed colored pencil to its limits, it’s him. Not to mention his sublime technique.
An artist is not defined by his or her tools, but they help. You could be an art student, a dilettante, or an artistic genius; working with colored pencils that you like can only give you more pleasure. And those pencils could be from Arteza, from Faber-Castell, or from Prismacolor. And they’re all good brands–each is simply suited for a different kind of person and different kind of artist. So, which is best suited for you?
How to Choose Colored Pencils – Buying Guide
Who best to talk about colored pencils than artists (which we are not)? So, this time, we reached out to Lindsay, the Frugal Crafter, who shared her tips, tools, and techniques with us.
The Frugal Crafter
An artist, writer, and craft designer, Lindsay loves sharing her talents and passion for art. She pens craft articles, posts free online videos, and teaches classes. She illustrates books, designs stamps, and can also juggle. She works in many media, including paint, glitter, and of course colored pencil.
You can take advantage of all the resources she posts on her website, The Frugal Crafter Blog. She's also got over a thousand videos on her Youtube channel, so you can check that out whenever your artistic bone starts to itch.
・The Frugal Crafter Blog: https://thefrugalcrafter.wordpress.com/
Oil-Based vs. Wax-Based vs.Watercolor Pencils
The pigment in a colored pencil needs to be held together by something. This something is called a binder. Binders can be wax, oil, a blend of wax and oil, or water-soluble. And depending on the binder, the pencil lays down colors differently.
Wax-Based Pencils: They’re Soft, Opaque, and Easy to Layer
Wax-based pencils are the softest. So they’re easy to blend–and a few layers can give you a creamy, 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 pencil. The first is something called wax bloom–Lindsay talks about this more below–where the wax binding forms a foggy layer on top of your artwork. But it’s easy enough to correct with a fixitive, so it’s more of a minor annoyance than anything.
The second weakness is the weakness of the cores. Because wax pencils are soft, the cores can be fragile. If you press down too hard on a wax-based pencil, you could break it. And even if it rolls off the desk and onto the floor, the core could shatter. And you’d need to sharpen your pencils more.
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.
Oil-Based Pencils: They’re a Bit Firmer, Lay Down Less Color, and Offer a Bit More Control
Wax-based pencils aren’t as brittle. So they’re a little easier to sharpen to a pinpoint for fine detailing. They also don’t break as easily.
Oil-based pencils are more transparent. They’re just as easy to layer, but it’s harder to get the smooth, buttery, melted-together look wax-based pencils will give you. But, in return, you get more control. If you like that 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 onto your work of art.
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 pencil. So 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. But she works over the course of two weeks on a painting and builds up layer upon layer. And she needs to use pencils that are not as waxy and not as firm, so we have absolutely opposite favorite pencils because of that. And there’s no right or wrong; it’s just subjective.
Watercolor Pencils: They Look and Blend Just Like Paint
This one’s a no-brainer. If you like the soft, dreamy look of watercolor, get watercolor pencils. Watercolor pencils utilize a water-soluble binder, which means the pigment will move around and act just like paint when you get it wet. The colors also grow more vibrant with water. However, when applied dry, the colors can look thin.
Watercolor pencils are the easiest to blend. Layer one color on top of another and add water; the two shades will melt into each other.
Watercolor pencils are also excellent if you’re sketching out before you do an acrylic painting or a watercolor painting because it 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 like 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.
If You’re Serious about Drawing, Get a Big Set with a Variety of Colors
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 the bigger the set, the better. And there’s a reason for this. Let’s say you were to buy a set of 24 to play around with. And 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. And unless you use those 24 colors at an alarming rate, they’re going to go to waste.
Also–and this is marginally related to set size–make sure the set has all the colors you need. When you draw Shanghai at midnight, for example, you’re going to need neon shades. And if you’re inspired by sweet lolita fashion, you’ll want pastel shades.
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 then the set of 24 portrait... And build your set slowly. And then 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, if you plan on working on colored paper, you’re going to have a difficult time getting them to stand out; if you’re working on white paper, they’re going to be beautiful.
Buy Open Stock to Replace Pencils You’ve Used up and Try out New Brands
Don’t you hate it when you open your case of colored pencils, and your favorite shade of blue’s only an inch long? Since it’s expensive to purchase a whole new set, see if you can buy just that one pencil. Many brick-and-mortar and online art supply stores sell individual pencils, also known as open stock.
Keep in mind, though, that certain colors or brands won’t be available, so you may need to be flexible and look for the shade nearest to what you had in mind. It’s also a good idea to check and see if a particular line offers open stock before making any purchases (most high-end brands do).
Open-stock pencils serve one more purpose. Ideally, you get to try before you buy, but many stores don’t let you test out colored pencils (and sampling is impossible when shopping online). So, if you’re interested in a particular set, see if you can purchase a few pencils from that set. And if you like how those pencils felt, then go for the whole set.
And then there’s 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.
Top 10 Best Colored Pencils to Buy Online
Now to introduce what we found to be the best colored pencils available online now. A lot of the brands Lindsay mentioned above also make an appearance, so keep your eyes peeled.
10. Colore Watercolor Pencils (72 Count)
An Inexpensive Watercolor Pencil Set For Beginners
If you want to try out watercolor pencils, but don’t want to dish out money for the big names, check out Colore. The pigment might not come out as rich, but it’s a decent set to start with. Once you get the hang of using watercolors, then you can upgrade to a fancier set.
The Colore set also comes with a water brush, which is essentially a paintbrush with a hollow handle that holds water. It’s ideal for older children who want to work with a larger color palette, art students on a budget, or casual artists new to using watercolors.
9. Faber-Castell Grip Colored EcoPencils (24 Count)
The Best School-Grade Pencil: Smooth, Rich Colors and an Easy-to-Grip Body
It’s a cheap Faber-Castell. For kids. The barrels are triangular, so they don’t roll anywhere. And if fine motor skills aren’t a thing yet for your kids, the little dots somehow make the pencils easier to grip. The pencils aren’t quite as pigmented and the colors aren’t quite as thick as Faber-Castell’s other lines, but they’re still vibrant, velvety, and much better than your usual school-grade pencils.
The core is sturdy. Kids often break colored pencils when they sharpen them–but Faber-Castell sharpens to a fine point with almost no struggle. It makes drawing and coloring a true pleasure.
8. Derwent Studio Colored Pencils (72 Count)
Best Set for Fine Details: Firm Cores that Hold a Point
Studio has the hardest cores out of all of Derwent’s pencils. They sharpen to a fine point, then keep it, making them perfect for fine details. But they won’t lay down a lot of color with a single stroke. However, the colors are rich enough to show up subtly on colored paper. But they are most vibrant when layered and layered to achieve subtle color and lighting shifts.
If you plan on doing larger works of art, this most likely can’t be your only set, since the pencils don’t cover large areas easily. But the colors blend well, and–all-in-all–they’re easy to work with.
7. Holbein Artists Colored Pencils (150 Count)
A Beautiful Pastel Range and Thick, Opaque Colors
Holbein cores aren’t quite as creamy as Prismacolors; they lay down a lot of color, but still sharpen to a fine point. (They also hold the point quite well.) Because the colors are so opaque, they can be hard to blend, especially if you’re heavy handed. There’s also a lovely range of pastels, so these would work well on top of colored paper or for adding detail to a painting.
There’s also two whites: a normal white and a soft white. The soft white is like butter; it goes on very thick and is perfect for adding shine and highlight. But there’s no open stock, and, at this price point, that’s really unfortunate.
5. Caran d’Ache Luminance (76 Count)
Creamy Cores that Don’t Saturate Your Paper, so You Can Add Layer upon Layer
The cores are creamy and the colors are vibrant, but these pencils don’t saturate your paper as quickly as, say, a Prismacolor. That means you can blend and build 7-9 layers before the paper starts rejecting the pigment. The shades run more towards deep, rich, or subdued colors, rather than anything bright and eye-popping. So people who like fluorescent colors or candy-like pastel shades might find the set lacking.
They are light-fast and perfect for work going on display. However, they’re soft enough that really sharp tips will break off–so, at this price point, you might want to reconsider if you work exclusively in an adult coloring book or a sketch book.
4. Derwent Colored Pencils, Inktense Ink Pencils (72 Count)
Thick, Breath-Taking Colors when Wet, a Little Splotchy when Dry
Dry, the pencils seem barely pigmented, and you can see the white of the page through the veil of color. The colors are bright, but they don’t go on smoothly, and there are blotches and bald spots. However, once you add water, the colors come alive. They layer easily–just apply the colors dry and blend with a wet brush.
In fact, the difference between the pencils wet and dry is so great, it would be a good idea to swatch everything out first with water. It also dries fairly quickly to a thick consistency, so you would either have to work fast or work in small sections.
3. Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Watercolor Pencils (60 Count)
Colors Dissolve with Water so You Can’t See Individual Pencil Strokes, but There’s No Bleeding
The colors are bright enough dry–but when wet, they’re even more lively and vibrant. And they dissolve as soon as you touch them with a wet brush so you can’t see the original strokes. However, the colors don’t bleed or bloom (unless you apply too much water), so it’s easy to control your painting. And once the pigment dries, it’s permanent.
The cores don’t break when you sharpen them. The color is also light-fast, so you can display your work for years. And if you haven’t got enough pocket money for the set of 60, you can always try for the set of 24 or 36 because it’s easy to blend to get the colors you need.
2. Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils (72 Count)
Soft, Creamy Cores Create Rich, Opaque Colors
Lindsay herself said it–you can’t beat Prismacolor (now) for the quality and the price. These pencils are known for their intense colors and buttery cores. They blend smoothly and go on thick. That why when Lindsay works on colored paper or wants to put a white highlight on a glass jar in a watercolor painting, she reaches straight for her Prismacolors–because she knows they’re going to stand out. They are also available for purchase individually.
But because Prismacolor Premier cores are extremely soft, they’re very delicate. They can shatter inside the wood if they roll off a table. If you sharpen them too much, the core can slide right out. You have to be careful, but the extra hassle is worth the thick, rich, vibrant colors.
1. Faber-Castell Polychromos (60 Count)
They’re Vibrant and Blendable, but Firm Enough to Be Sharpened for Fine Detailing
So Polychromos pencils have got a few things going for them. They’re oil-based. They’re not as brittle as Prismacolor, so you can stand to drop a few, and they’re easier to sharpen to a fine point. (And they stay sharp). They’re also light-fast. You need this if you hang up your work, especially in direct sunlight, or if you use colored pencils to design greeting cards.
In spite of how firm they are, the colors still come flowing out of them. They’re not quite as buttery and opaque as Prismacolor, but just as vibrant on white paper. And though Faber-Castell is pricey, they’re available in open stock.
Paper Affects How Your Pencils Lay down Color
Did you know paper has teeth? The “tooth” of a paper refers to how coarse 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.
Therefore, if you have a very waxy pencil, or if you’re planning on adding on layers and layers of color, make sure your paper is suitably rough.
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. So if you want to do a quick sketch, smooth paper’s 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 it’s all on one sheet so you could buy just one pad and have a lot of different options because each side of the paper’s a little different.
We don’t think you need to be Picasso to see and feel the difference between sets of colored pencils–just like you don’t need to be a critic to appreciate a great work of art. So even if you’re humble and think you’re never going to sell your work, display your work, or even let your work see the light of day, try getting some goods pencils just once and see how you like them. It doesn’t even have to be a full set–just a handful of open stocks will do.