Wednesday, July 5, 2017

How Many Colored Pencils Do You Really Need?

The short answer is: as many as possible.

The more reasonable and pragmatic answer requires more thought, and I’ve been giving it that ever since I started writing my review of Blackwing Colors colored pencils, which is a set of 12. I’ll get back to the basic 12 soon, but first, let’s go big.

I confess that I’ve succumbed to more large (sometimes largest available) sets of colored pencils than anyone ever really needs, for any purpose. I find myself doing the math and realizing that, per pencil, a box of 120 is almost always a better price than a box of 24 or 36 or even 72. But if the pencils turn out to be flawed, then the good price isn’t a good value. I don’t recommend this strategy unless you’re familiar with the pencil’s quality. (I’m much better at dispensing good judgment than following it.)

One issue is that an assortment may say it contains 72 colors, but many of those colors will be so similar that they might as well be the same (see below for one example). If it’s a color you use often, then it’s not a bad value – just slightly misleading marketing. In any case, you got fewer colors than you thought.
Marco Renoir colored pencils seem like a good value, but many of the reds
 and the blues in the set of 72 are very similar.
The largest sets of most brands contain 120 pencils (Prismacolor and Holbein each offer a whopping 150 in their largest sets; so far, I haven’t succumbed to either), and if they are artist grade pencils like Caran d’Ache and Faber-Castell, most will be unique colors. But many might be colors I typically wouldn’t use, such as subtly varying flesh tones for portraits or a range of floral pastels. (Take a look at the Amazon photo for that Holbein set – one whole tray is full of pastel tints that look gorgeous, but I know I would have no use for them.)

In my experience, assuming that I already know a pencil is of good quality, a set of 36 or 48 is the sweet spot – usually a good value in terms of price per pencil and having all the colors I’d probably ever need for an urban sketch or a still life. Ideally that pencil line will offer open stock, so if there are some subtle or esoteric colors (like construction site yellow or old Europe verdigris) that aren’t found in the set, I can supplement it.

I’d certainly want at least 36 or 48 colors on my desk, but as an urban sketcher with a portable “studio,” that’s way too many to carry day to day. When I first started making the full transition from watercolors to colored pencils last fall, I worked hard to pare my daily-carry selection down to about two dozen (though I kept slipping one or two more in). By the time I discovered the Tran Portfolio pencil case and took it to Italy this past spring, I was committed to the Tran’s 25 pencil slots – no more, no less. I’ve found that to be a very workable quantity for the type of location sketching I do. I change out a few colors now and then if a location I’m planning to sketch requires it, but for the most part, that carefully selected palette serves me well.
My current daily-carry palette of 25 colors.

So, for me, 25 pencils are all I really need – if they are the right 25 pencils. (However, I could not have purchased those 25 in a set; my current selection comes from three lines.)

Occasionally the minimalist in me likes to think about the materials I’d take to Gilligan’s Island (here’s a post about which Field Notes I’d take to the island, and another about the most compact sketch kit possible), so that’s how I framed a question to myself: Twenty-five pencils are meeting my needs well for day-to-day location sketching, but how many would I take if the Skipper demanded only the bare essentials? Could I get by with as few as 12?

A few of my novelty colored pencils -- fun and pretty,
but generally of poor quality.
And that brings me back to my original 12-pencil set question. The smallest set most colored pencils come in is 12. Sometimes no more than 12 are offered, especially in the case of novelty pencils and those intended for kids. (As I confessed in that Blackwing review, I am a sucker for such colored pencils – the kind that come in pretty boxes, have clever jokes written on them, or offer two colors on one stick. I always try coloring with them, and they are almost always disappointing in terms of core quality, but I can’t resist anyway.) However, a set of 12 higher quality colored pencils can be a smart way to try an unfamiliar brand. If the basic colors apply and blend well, sharpen smoothly and exhibit other strong qualities, then I might (probably would) buy a larger set.

The annoying part about even high-quality 12-color sets is that they are not the right 12 colors. Just as an example, let’s look at a set of high-end Caran d’Ache Pablo colored pencils (that link goes to Blick’s site where you can see a photo; my review of Pablos is here). The smallest set of 12 contains orange, raw umber, scarlet, purple, violet, ultramarine, cobalt blue, grass green, lemon yellow, gray, white and black. Faber-Castell Polychromos (my product review is here) is similar except it has two shades of green. These basic assortments are typical of almost every box of 12 pencils I’ve seen, whether “artist grade” or novelty.

I suppose that range covers the rainbow adequately, and it’s good for tomatoes, apples and most other produce. Also, I’m always up for a primary palette challenge, so it’s good for that. But with only one yellow and often only one red, that single primary palette would get old fast. If they are high-quality pencils that blend well, then brown, black and even gray are unnecessary. And then there’s that ubiquitous white. I know colored pencil artists use white for burnishing to allow more layers of pigment and subtle hue differences to come through. But that’s a fairly advanced technique in which you’d still want more colors to work with than the other 11 in the box. Does someone buying a basic set of 12 really need white? (I remember being a young child with a box of colored pencils when I first asked myself: It doesn’t show on paper – what’s the point? Indeed!) 

If I were designing an ideal set of 12 colored pencils, I would start with the traditional painter’s palette: a warm and a cool of each primary – red, yellow and blue. These would give me enough variety in warm and cool secondary combinations that I could cover quite a bit of ground before they got old. Since I really enjoy using the secondary triad that I started experimenting with in my colored pencil class and that I used in Italy, I would include a warm and a cool green, a violet (not always easy to mix), and a burnt (cool) orange (warm orange is easy enough to mix). I bet those 10 pencils would cover just about anything I’d encounter in nature (including still lives) and the urban environment. For the last two colors, I’d want the warm gray that I find myself using often for shadows and (at least here in Seattle) the sky, plus indigo or a dark cool gray.

Caran d'Ache Pablo selection
Pablo mixes

Faber-Castell Polychromos selection
Polychromos mixes

Now if Caran d’Ache or Faber-Castell put those colors in a set of 12, that would be an excellent starter box that could then be supplemented with a few open stock colors as needed. Just for fun, I put together a set of each brand based on my suggested palette. I mixed the basic triads to see what other hues I could blend from each set of 12. I think I could be pretty happy with either. Indeed, my everyday-carry palette of 25 in the Tran Portfolio is based on a similar dozen with the addition of a few more greens and some local or seasonal hues.

However, as was the case when I was selecting those 25, I like some colors better in Caran d’Ache and others better in Faber-Castell. Ideally, I’d probably pick and choose from each brand to come up with my box of the perfect 12.

And then the following week, I’d probably change my mind and start swapping out some colors. Plus it’s useful to have a full range of colors in both a softer core pencil and a harder core. (I bet Ginger and Mrs. Howell would have difficulty paring down to 12 pencils, too.) 

Hence, the short answer: I need as many as possible.

As many as possible. (No, these aren't all of them.)


  1. Your photo of your extensive collection really made me smile. I think the companies need to think like an artist more when they design the sets. You are right that there should be a warm and a cool of each primary. The sets, even the ones of watercolor pencils never really have the colors you want.

    1. Glad my pencils made you smile -- I bet your eyeballs popped out like my devil mug! ;-)

  2. I do use the white pencil! I use colored pencils mostly on toned paper and almost never on white paper.
    I wish that color pencils came in themed sets like pastels and some markers do - sets for landscape or portraits, darks or brights, etc.

    1. Oh, good point, Susan -- and I have plans for using more toned paper as soon as those S&B books are out! And I'll have plenty of white pencils to use in them, since every box I've ever bought has had one in it! ;-)

      Blick colored pencils come in themes like landscape (which I have) and a few others. I agree -- themes based on subject matter makes a lot of sense for colored pencils.

  3. Daniel Smith store is going to start carrying Caran d’Ache! There is a special demo about them on Aug 6! I'm thinking of switching to watercolor pencils in similar colors to what I carry now - which would be about 20.

    1. Switching to wc pencils! Really?? But you love watercolor paint!

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  5. Luckily my palette has only 12 pans. I do have to tie my hands when i see brushes though :p

  6. Of course you need enough colored pencils to fill all your cool cups, plus some more for when you get a new cup. The box I carry with me to draw with, though, has 19 of them :-)

    1. 19? Hmmm, that's pretty good, Larry! I might be able to pare down to 19 -- but then what would I put in the 6 open slots? ;-)

  7. x=n+1, where x is number of coloured pencils needed, and n is the number of coloured pencils owned... there are many much worse compulsions!

  8. Hello I have a set of 35 blick color pencils. I wanted to know what colors should I keep in a travel bag that can make every color from the fewest pencils.

    1. Mixing with colored pencils is not as easy as mixing with paints, so it's difficult to say, but if you have a warm and cool of each primary plus several greens (I like having a yellow-green, bluish-green, and dark pine green for all the evergreen trees in my area), plus warm and cool gray, that would be a useful selection. And seasonal colors for your region -- certain flower or foliage colors, etc. And heavy equipment yellow if you like that sort of thing! ;-)


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