Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Colored Pencil Reviews: Intro

Left to right: Caran d'Ache Luminance, Derwent Coloursoft, Blick Studio

When friends and online acquaintances heard that I was taking a 10-week colored pencil class at Gage, naturally a few people were curious about the brand of pencils I preferred. Now that I’ve completed the class and have been reviewing what I learned, I thought it would be a good time to think about that question.

A few years ago when I began exploring water-soluble colored pencils, I tried a number of brands, and fairly quickly my favorite became clear to me – Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle (with Faber-Castell’s Albrecht Durer running a close second). But with traditional (non-water-soluble) colored pencils, which is what we used in class, no single brand has risen to the top of the heap. I like several brands for different reasons, and each has its share of pros and cons.

While encouraging us to use whatever brand we wanted, our instructor Suzanne favored and recommended the Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor line. I gave her favorite a fair shake by doing the first three or four assignments with the Lyra pencils exclusively. But the more I used them, the more I found them too hard and dry for my liking, so for the rest of the class assignments I tried other brands (often mixing several within the same drawing). Before taking the class, I had already used many brands of colored pencils, so I knew those fairly well. My classmates and I sometimes traded pencils, so I got to try out a few more brands that way. I keep thinking that by now I should have a clear favorite, but I don’t (which is disconcerting to a strong J on the Myers-Briggs like I am!).

I decided to write this review series to clarify the pros and cons of each brand for myself and help narrow down my favorites. In some cases I’ve purchased small sets and might like to have a broader range of colors, if I decide they are worth the investment. It is not my intention to be comprehensive*; so many different brands of colored pencils are on the market (especially now with adult coloring books going gangbusters) that I couldn’t possibly try them all (although, as you might guess from a glimpse of my desktop, I’ve made a valiant effort 😉). I’m also not going to discuss here any pencil I immediately found inferior or problematic (even listing them would be tedious – there are so many).

So my series will cover these six colored pencil lines that I’ve come to like for various reasons, and perhaps by the end I’ll decide on one or two that I really love and want to commit to:

(Most links in this series go to because that site has the most comprehensive collection of colored pencils that can be purchased open stock. As usual, they are not affiliate links; I purchased all pencils myself.)

A notable omission in the list above is the Prismacolor Premier line, which is among the most easily accessible colored pencils in the U.S., one of the least expensive, and certainly one of the most popular. Several years ago I tried the Prismacolor pencils that everyone raved about, including many famous fine artist colored pencil painters. While I had to agree with the popular view that Prismacolors are delightfully soft and creamy to apply, the cores in my pencils kept breaking as I used them, as if they were already broken inside the wood casing. It was incredibly frustrating to find that a single pencil was sharpened down to a nub after only a couple of small drawings because every time I sharpened it and started to use it, the core would break. Eventually I learned that while Prismacolor was a quality brand at one point, it experienced production issues later (obviously before I bought mine), and many people reported such breakage problems. I got so annoyed and frustrated that I tossed the whole box. (I didn’t even give them away – why pass on the annoyance?) Maybe I’ll try them again someday, but not without reassurance that the breakage issue is over.

For the sake of consistency, I used only three pencils for each test sketch in a Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook, and I sketched the same honeycrisp apple each time over the course of three days. (This is what happens when I get too many rainy days in a row. It might be a sign of cabin fever.) I spent roughly the same amount of time on each – about a half-hour – which made it easy to see how much color I could build up in multiple layers during the same length of time. Erasing tests were done with a Tombow Mono Zero.

The first review will be published tomorrow: Blick Studio.

* If you’re interested in a site with coverage of colored pencils that is as comprehensive as I know of, you’ll want to visit Whenever I have difficulty finding product information from the manufacturers’ own sites, I rely on Best Colored Pencils for reviews and especially information such as whether a pencil is wax- or oil-based. This basic product information is surprisingly and frustratingly lacking or difficult to dig up on many manufacturers’ sites!

Left to right: Caran d'Ache Pablo, Faber-Castell Polychromos, Spectrum Noir ColourBlend


  1. I think it was a great idea to try each other's pencils while you were taking the class. That way you didn't have to buy every brand to try them.

  2. I took a ("dry") colored pencil class some years ago. Didn't like using them. Thanks for the review and I followed the link over to your discussion of watercolor pencils.

  3. Good to see you doing this, though in many respects it's a fools errand :-) One of the things that has always bothered me about colored pencil discussions is the notion that you're looking for 'best', completely independent of the goal. As you seem to have found in your course, using pencils from different brands in a single piece seems to make more sense than looking for a single best.

    One example of this can be found in Karen Poole's book called Drawing Birds with Colored Pencils (2008). In it, she uses Prismacolor (yuck) as her base pencils but uses Prismacolor Verithin for small details. These harder, much cheaper pencils are a fantastic compliment to the softer wax-based pencils but you'd never include them in a list of "best." Anyways, good luck with your review series.

    1. You'll note that my goal is not to seek the "best"; it's to narrow down my choices -- my problem is I have too many. ;-) And interestingly, I have come to a conclusion very similar to the one you mention from Poole's book. Stay tuned!

      - Tina

    2. I wasn't really talking about your reviews (which I hadn't read when I wrote this). Rather, when I was looking into colored pencils I ran into roughly a gazillion debates about "best" which amounted to nonsense and that were mostly between people who had only used one of the brands being debated :-) Enjoying your reviews very much. I have to confess that I'm not a fan of colored pencils unless they're watercolor pencils, though.

    3. Oh, I see your point now. And I have to confess that as much as I love traditional colored pencils, I still use them only at my desk. In the field, you can't beat watercolor pencils. I like them better than both watercolor and pencils! :-)


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