Thursday, April 6, 2017

Colored Pencil Conclusion: One is Not Enough

4/4/17 Faber-Castell Polychromos, Caran d'Ache Pablo, Stillman & Birn Alpha
Orange you happy to see something other than an apple?

As you might have gathered from yesterday’s post, my research didn’t result in a single favorite brand that rose to the top as my ideal colored pencil. I didn’t expect it to, and it wasn’t really my goal. My objective was to clarify the pros and cons of the brands I’d been using most recently, and working on these reviews definitely achieved that. More significant for my larger purposes is that I became more critical about how qualities of colored pencils affect a drawing.

The creamy softness of a colored pencil has always been one of the most important qualities to me – tactically, it feels better when applied, and I perceive that it spreads more easily (soft butter on toast spreads more easily than cold butter). What I didn’t realize until I started working with colored pencils intensively, though, is that a soft core flattens immediately, so the pigment is skimming the surface of the paper rather than getting into the valleys of the tooth. More of the paper shows through for quite a while until many layers are applied. (This is a useful quality when I want the paper’s surface to show, but I don’t often want that with colored pencil work.) A harder core can work into those valleys more easily and quickly on the first couple of passes with less paper showing through.

A high-quality soft pencil usually has richer, more intense hues (or maybe it just appears that way because more of the soft pigment is being applied at one time), and softer cores blend more evenly. A-ha – hard and soft pencils both have good qualities – using them together might be a strategic approach!

I did some experiments with this approach in mind, and the heirloom tomato shows the strategy that seems to be working best for me. Using the harder Faber-Castell Polychromos pencil, I made the contour drawing and took the first couple of passes of color, which covered quite a bit of the Stillman & Birn Alpha paper’s texture. Then using the same hues but slightly different shades of softer Caran d’Ache Pablo pencils, I gave the tomato a few more layers. Since the colors are just slightly different, the result is just a bit richer and more complex. The softer pencils also helped blend the tomato’s variegated tones and hues. As a final touch, I sharpened up the harder Polychromos and drew the details like the leafy parts at the top.  

I think this process would work just as well with any hard/soft pencil combo, not just Polychromos and Pablo. But going the other way – starting with softer pencils and finishing with harder – doesn’t work as well. The harder pencil core feels like it is sliding off the waxy, creamier surface, and it’s much more difficult to get through those waxy layers to the paper’s valleys without smashing down the tooth.

Now, if I were planning a trip to Gilligan’s Island (yes, I like to visit Gilligan whenever I need to pare down my sketch kit or simplify my options) and could take only one set of colored pencils, I’d probably choose Polychromos. Nicely balanced between soft and hard, it’s probably the most versatile of all the pencils I’ve tried – it has a full range of colors readily available open stock; and it’s good for both details and coverage. But pairing Polychromos with Pablo or another soft pencil seems to make the final colors more vibrant – and tactically, it just feels nicer. (Ultimately, I’m a hedonistic sketcher: If it doesn’t feel good doing it, why do it?)

Since this was an idiosyncratic review series based on my personal needs and responses to materials, it’s not necessarily intended to serve the public good. Ultimately, each sketcher has to do his or her own research to find the best materials for individual needs. But if what I learned was useful to you in any way, then that’s a bonus. In any case, thanks for coming along for the ride (and enduring daily apples)!

Pablo (left) combined with Polychromos: A good recipe.


  1. I agree! One is definitely not enough! I have entire sets of Faber Castell Albrecht Durer watercolor pencils and Ploychromos, and I love that the colors match. I keep switching back and forth. I have a dedicated pencil cases for each type. The polychromos are so velvety!! Recently I picked up a set of 24 Derwent Drawing pencils at an estate sale (new, unused, and still in the shrink wrap!) for $2.00!!! These feel wonderful and buttery! The colors are all very earthy and would be great for landscapes, animals, nature, and maybe even portraits. Im wondering if they are the same as the Derwent Coloursoft, just in earthy/flesh tones...?

    1. Oh, I bet those are the Derwent Drawing Pencils. . .with the fox on the box? If so, they are even SOFTER than Coloursoft! I LOVE those drawing pencils! In fact, the white one in that set is my go-to white pencil on toned paper!

  2. Thanks for doing this series of reviews, Tina. Great info.

  3. Loved this series - and as someone who is talentless but is starting to sketch anyhow I've really enjoyed seeing what can be done and how different pencils bring different qualities to the equation.

    1. I hope you'll give colored pencils a try! I find them to be sketcher-friendly. ;-)


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