Cathleen Lengyel > Scribbles > Tools > Colored Pencils > Colored Pencils – What’s Best?

Colored Pencils – What’s Best?

Colored Pencils
Colored Pencils
There are many different brands of colored pencils out there, but are they all the same? Although I am currently not an artist experienced with colored pencils, but I have been learning a great deal about this medium.  I want to begin working with color.  During my research I have come across several highly experienced artists who have incredible tutorials and an abundance of information on the medium. One of the very first things I learned is that all colored pencils are NOT the same.  This is especially true when you are dealing with “Artist Quality,” non-artist quality and off name brands.  Today I want to briefly cover the differences, what they mean and why cheaper brands will lead to nothing but frustration.
DID YOU KNOW: Works done in colored pencils are frequently referred to as “paintings?”


The first important difference between all colored pencils is a factor called “lightfastness.” All colored pencils (and the individual colors) fall under a scale determining their lightfast qualities.  Lightfastness refers to the amount of time the colors will stay true without fading or degrading when exposed to light particularly UV rays of sunlight. There are two scales used for colored pencils.  They are the Blue Wool Scale and the ASTM D 6901 scale.  The highest quality pencils will have color that lasts one hundred plus years with little to no deterioration. In the Blue Wool scale, pencils are rated between 0 and 8.  Zero is the worst quality and eight is the best. In the ASTM D 6901 scale pencils are rated between 1 and 5.  One is the highest quality and five is the worst. Each individual pencil will be marked with either a number or stars to denote the level of lightfastness of the color. Most off brands and even some known brands such as Crayola have not been tested for lightfastness.  

Wax Based

Most colored pencils fall into the category of being wax based pencils.  What this means is the pigments are blended with wax as one of the binders to create the pencil.   Wax based pencils are usually much cheaper than oil based.  They also tend to be softer and more brittle.  The softness of the core can make it more difficult to sharpen the pencils to a point for fine details. A downfall to using wax based pencils is something called “wax bloom.”  Wax bloom usually occurs when applying multiple layers, especially with darker colors. Wax bloom is a noticeable cloudy haze that appears over the top layer of your work. Prismacolor pencils used to be an excellent (and affordable) choice for colored pencil artists.  However, the quality of these pencils have gone down over recent years.  Numerous artists have complained about the cores not being centered which leads to breakage when dropping or sharpening.  

Oil Based

Some artist quality pencils are oil based.  The pigments are blended with vegetable oil as the binder. Oil based pencils will have a harder core than the wax based.  The hard core allows the pencils to be sharpened to a finer point for detailing.  Less layers may be required to reach the desired level of color.  Like the wax based, oil based layer well and can even be used in combination with wax based pencils.  Because these pencils are oil based, there is no wax bloom when applying multiple layers.  They also tend to have a more intense pigment. Some excellent choices for oil based colored pencils are:
  • Faber Castell Polychromos
  • Caran D’ache Pablo
  • Spectrum Noir (wax & oil hybrid)
  • Koh-i-noor Polycolor
  • Caran d’Ache Luminance

Layering and Blending

When working with colored pencils it is not merely coloring an area with a single color and moving on.  Much like graphite, you work in layers.  Using gentle pressure you build up layers of color to reach your desired effect.  During the layering process you will more than likely be blending in more than one color. Side Note:  I have tried to layer with several different “off” brands as well as Crayola colored pencils and quickly realized how bad they were.  Immediately when I began to layer one color over another, the previous layer would begin to scrape off or the new layer would not adhere to the previous layer.  Cheaper brands will bring nothing but frustration, trust me. Blending can be done in several different ways. White/Gray pencils:  You can use your white or light gray pencils over the top of your colors to blend/burnish them together. This method will effect the final color of the area you are working on. Colorless Blender:  A colorless blender is a pencil made with no pigment, only the binder.  It can be worked over your layers to blend/burnish the colors without effecting the final color. Odorless Mineral Spirits:  This method requires the use of a paint brush.  You use very little OMS on the brush (even blot the brush off on a paper towel) and then gently brushing over the area, smoothing the layered colors together.  Because you only need a tiny bit on the brush, the area should dry quickly.  Never work over the area with pencil until it has fully dried.
Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits
Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits
The reason colored pencil works are referred to as paintings is because they are done in a series of layers.
These are just a few of the basics of colored pencils.  Which ones are right for you?  It’s an individual preference.  If you want your work to stand the test of time, or you plan to sell your artwork, you should make the investment into lightfast artist quality pencils.  This is another case of you usually get what you pay for.   Maybe purchase a couple open stock colored pencils in different brands and try them out.  My hope is to get a set of Faber Castell Polychormos in the future. Until then, I am going to give Blick Studio Artists’ Colored Pencils a try.  I recently stumbled across them and I’ve been doing some research.  It seems of the artists who have tried them they are ranked “as good” or “better” than Prismacolor and “as good” as Faber Castell Polychromos.  This intrigues me.  The cost of a full set of 72 plus a set of 12 grays costs less than half of polychromos!  They can also be purchased individually and blend well with odorless mineral spirits.  I was able to purchase the full set plus the grays as an early Christmas present so I will try them out and let everyone know the results.  I did find that Blick Art gives a lightfast rating chart on their website for each color as well. NOTE: What I have learned about Blick Studio Artists’ Colored Pencils is that they are made in the Kohinoor Factory in the Czech Republic.  They are labeled under two names, Blick Studio Artist Colored Pencils and Utrecht Colored Pencils.  They are also oil based, not wax based. There were 10 pencils in the set that rated poor lightfast qualities, so I found the closest colors in Faber Castell open stock.  The first thing I did was create color swatches of all the colors.  What I can say from that experience is WOW!  They Blick Studio colors lay down incredibly nice and the pigments are vibrant!  Making the color swatches of the Faber Castell pencils I have to admit felt quite the same as the Blick Studio pencils.  They also seem to blend well together.  I have a couple graphite works to finish up and then I am going to jump right in on trying out these new pencils! Want to get more in-depth information?  A great place to start is with Lisa Clough at  Lachri Fine Art You can also follow her YouTube Channel: Lachri Fine Art Suggested videos:  Prismacolor vs Polychromos  and How to use Odorless Mineral Spirits to blend Colored Pencil I hope this was helpful. Until next time, Keep Creating and Have FUN!  
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