Saturday, April 19, 2014

Product Review: Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle Pencils

A few years ago, I invested in went hog wild on a fairly substantial collection of colored pencils – wax-based, oil-based and especially water-soluble. I’ve always had a penchant for dry, unmessy, colorful media, and colored pencils filled the bill perfectly. Seeing all those colors lined up in a box (or, as they are in my studio, displayed in large mugs and vases like bouquets) makes me feel the way I imagine some women feel about jewelry. (A box from Tiffany’s? Meh. But a bag from Daniel Smith? That would definitely bring a sparkle to my eye.) 

The 12 colors in the set (applied to Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook).
Unfortunately, after studying a few books on colored pencil techniques and trying my hand at using them for a while, I realized they weren’t my medium of choice. All the small, careful strokes needed to “paint” with colored pencils tried my patience, not to mention my hand and wrist’s ability to withstand repetitive motions. I also realized that, as portable as they are, colored pencils aren’t ideal for urban sketching. Although I know some urban sketchers who do unbelievably beautiful work on location with colored pencils (Alissa Duke springs immediately to mind), the time it takes to do it well just isn’t for me. So although I still like to play with colored pencils on a rainy day like today, use them in museums, and use water-soluble ones in life drawing sessions, I don’t otherwise pick them up much.
Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils applied dry to dry paper, then
washed with water. (Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook)

Yet, like a woman who collects way more jewelry than she could ever wear, I still find colored pencils somehow coming into my possession. Even though watercolor has been my urban sketching color medium of choice since the beginning, I don’t feel at all compelled to collect and accumulate paint tubes. (In fact, I’m always trying to reduce the number of paints I use.) But there’s something about colored pencils. . .

All of that comes as a way to explain how a box of 12 Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle water-soluble pencils came into my home the other day, especially since they are probably the most expensive water-soluble pencils I’ve seen to date. Roz Stendahl mentioned them on her blog a while back, which made me perk up because I hadn’t heard of them before. Anyway, I won’t bother to pretend to have an excuse (but at least I bought the smallest assortment available). Now, on to the product review. . .

Museum pencils applied to wet paper. (Lanaquarelle 140 lb. paper)
The first thing I noticed about the Museum pencils is that, in their dry state, they are definitely the softest, creamiest, most concentrated colored pencils I have ever applied to paper. The marketing brochure that came with them didn’t say much, but my guess is that they contain more pigment and less binder than most other colored pencils. It takes very little water and few brush strokes to activate them on paper, and once wet, they look as much like wet watercolor paint as any initially dry medium I’ve seen.

For comparison, I did some sample swatches of Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer pencils and Caran d’Ache Supracolor II pencils, which are both excellent pencils but less expensive than the Museum line. Once activated with water, all three pencils have strong, rich colors that look a lot like wet watercolor paint. I think the main difference I could find was that the Museum pencils were much softer to apply – almost like oil-based crayons.

Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer 
Caran d'Ache Supracolor II
I tried applying them dry and then brushing them with water (which made colors blend beautifully). I also tried wetting the paper completely first, then applied the pencil to the wet paper, and that’s when they really seemed to glide effortlessly with vibrant color. But as soon as I hit a spot on the paper that was nearly dry, the pencils skidded to an unpleasant, unpigmented stop (very unlike completely dry paper, where the pencils went on smoothly). I’m not skilled enough to control them on varying degrees of paper wetness, but I’m sure someone else knows how to take advantage of these qualities.

Are they worth the extra cost? Probably not the way I use them. But I’m thrilled to have shiny, new jewels to wear take with me to my next life drawing session. And as their name implies, they will be in my bag the next time I want to sketch in an art museum (and don’t want to be reprimanded by a guard like last time, when I thought I could get away with markers).

11/4/18 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelles in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
Updated 12/17/18: When I wrote this review nearly five years ago, I had been playing with water-soluble colored pencils for a while, but my drawing experience with them was minimal. I had not yet begun using them for urban sketching. Since then, I’ve learned so much about how to use watercolor pencils to get the best effects, and the more I use Museum Aquarelles, the more I appreciate their qualities. I ended this post questioning whether they are worth their premium price. Today, I would answer that they have proven time and time again to be worth every penny. Please see this post for more reasons why these pencils continue to be my all-time favorites. Shown at right is a more recent sketch that I think is a better example of the pencils’ potential than the ones in my original post.

My jewelry collection.


  1. Nice review, Tina. I've never seen these 'museum' pencils. My Faber-Castell WC pencils are a favorite for my sketching. I find the WC pencils that where you can eliminate their lines are great substitutes for watercolors, though mixing is much easier with true watercolors. Like you, I have a hard time working them on wet paper but mostly I just scribble color and then use a waterbrush to dissolve the pigments and move them around.

    Cheers --- Larry

  2. Good review! I love the way you have all the pencils in smiley cups. LOL I use inktense pencils once in a while. I'll have to check these out.

  3. It’s DEC 2032 and I’m going back in time to pick these Museum up as the economic conditions and strife in the world have caused factory shut downs throughout Europe. Maybe I’ll grab some cream cheese while I’m around


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