Sunday, June 4, 2017

Cheap Colored Pencil Throwdown: U Brands and Sivo

6/1/17 colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook (U Brands on left
tomato, Sivo on right)
A few months ago when I was taking a colored pencil class and trying to sort out my preferences, I wrote an eight-part series of reviews of traditional colored pencils (including an introduction and conclusion). Of the six brands I reviewed, all were either high-end professional artist grade or middle-range of uncertain grade (meaning I couldn’t find information about whether the pigments were archival or otherwise “professional,” though they seem of high quality). Given my penchant for relatively expensive pencils (including my long-time favorite water-soluble colored pencil, the pricey Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles), you might have the impression that I only go for high-end price and quality.

You’d be wrong. While I prefer using colored pencils of high quality, I am not above buying inexpensive, presumed low-quality sets, especially if they come in a cute box or have some other novelty factor that I can’t resist, quality be damned. I always make test swatches to see the colors and feel how the cores apply, and if that testing confirms my suspicions that they are not worth using, I wait until the novelty wears off, and then I give them to some children I know.

Two purchases, however, felt good enough in application that I had to stop and look at them again. The set of U Brands pencils came from Costco – 48 pencils plus sharpener and canvas pouch for $8.79 (I couldn’t find it on Costco’s website, but the link goes to Amazon at a higher price). Hindustan’s Sivo Vivid colored pencils were from Amazon  a set of 36 for about $8. On a recent rainy morning, I thought it would be fun to put these two extremely inexpensive colored pencils head to head.

U Brands have a sense of humor!
What caught my eye about the Philippines-made U Brands pencils is that they have a sense of humor! Who can resist color names such as I Lava You, Not Too Jaded and Water You Up To? (If nothing else, they would be fun to keep by the phone in the kitchen.) They also have a nicely lacquered natural finish with dipped ends where the color names are stamped in silver.

OK, so they’re good for a chuckle, but how do they apply? Relatively soft – which is what made me give them a second look. Somewhat waxy and crayon-like, they don’t produce much dust or crumbs (a pet peeve of mine about soft colored pencils). The colors are surprisingly vivid – more so than some high-priced pencils I’ve tried. Interestingly, the set contains no less than 11 pinks and purples (hmm, I wonder what that says about the intended demographic . . . obviously one that includes me). The cores are disappointingly slender (which is typical of colored pencils intended for kids).

In my tomato sketch, the front (left) tomato was done with U Brands colors R U Red E, Dill With It, Olive You Lots and Atomic Orange (so much more fun than scarlet or dark cadmium orange). They cover the tooth of the Stillman & Birn Alpha paper with only a few layers and are easy to blend.

The factory sharpening on the U Brands pencils was strangely blunt, so I sharpened the ones I was using shortly after I started the sketch – and sadly, that’s where they ran into trouble. The wood would not sharpen cleanly with any of the portable hand sharpeners I usually use with colored pencils, and the core broke on two of them before I could get them sharp. I had the same mess in my electric Westcott iPoint Orbit. I got much better results with the sharpener that came with the set, but one core broke even with that. One sharpened to a nice point, but when I started to use it, the core snapped off inside the wood, as if it were already broken. Since most colored pencils I’ve used at any price point sharpen acceptably, it’s a deal breaker that these don’t. A pity – they have such nice soft cores (not to mention a sense of humor).

Plenty of pink in the Sivo Vivid set
India-made Sivo Vivid pencils are not as soft as U Brands, but they still have enough softness (with no dust at all) that I wanted to give them a try. The cores are more than 3mm in thickness, which is as thick as most of my “artist grade” pencils. In the sketch, I used the Sivo Vivid pencils on the right-side tomato. I used mainly three colors (no names or numbers on the pencils at all) – red, orange and dark green – but I wish there was something closer to olive (I added touches of yellow instead). With a wide range of pinks and lavenders for a set of 36 (hmmm, I’m seeing a trend), the set has a comparatively narrow range of greens, and the hues aren’t quite as vivid as the U Brands.

Since they are slightly harder than the U Brands, coverage of the Alpha tooth took a little more work. More significantly, they sharpen beautifully, both wood and core, with handheld sharpeners as well as the electric. (I’ve used several very inexpensive India-made graphite pencils of excellent writing quality and that sharpen beautifully, so I was hoping that these Sivo pencils would also sharpen well.)

I wouldn’t count on the pigments in either of these brands to be lightfast or “archival” (but let’s be honest – I’m not hanging any of my tomato still lifes in the Louvre, so archival quality is not a priority). While I probably wouldn’t choose either as my go-to colored pencil, I’d definitely pick the Sivo Vivid set over the U Brands for casual sketching (though the color range is limited).

As for the humorous U Brands, they are going in the kitchen for when I need a giggle.

Left: U Brands; right: Sivo Vivid


  1. Sometimes less expensive brands surprise us. Love the color names! Can you imagine having a job naming the people who name the new nail polish colors? lol

  2. Thanks for the in-depth review of the U brand pencils. I was going to give them to my Granddaughter (4 yrs. old) but since they don't sharpen well and break I can spare her the frustration. Thanks again and well done!


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