Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Colored Pencil Review: Faber-Castell Polychromos

3/28/17 Faber-Castell Polychromos, Stillman & Birn Alpha
(If you missed the introduction to the series, please read that first for the methodology, as such, and my objective for these reviews.)

Years ago after my disappointing breakage debacle with Prismacolor pencils (described in the introduction), and after reading several books that warned about the waxy bloom that can appear from wax-based pencils, for a while I wanted to stay away from wax altogether, and my best option was Faber-Castell’s Polychromos. It is probably the colored pencil I have used the longest and most often (at least before my class and all of these recent experiments).

With nicely lacquered barrels that match the core colors, they are a standard size, so they can be sharpened easily in most of my sharpeners.

Manufactured in Germany, these oil-based pencils are decidedly harder than the previous four lines in my review series, yet they are still softer than the Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor pencils (which are also oil-based) that my instructor favors. As expected with harder pencils, they produce no dust or crumbles.

Erasing test
The erasing test was about the same as for the other pencils in this review series – perhaps just a touch better.

Sometimes I still wish they were softer; in fact, I think it was trying a few delightfully soft pencils that drove me to start looking around to see what other pencils were out there. But when I think objectively about the drawbacks of soft, wax-based pencils – inability to hold a point; a tendency to crumble; the possibility of a waxy bloom – I can’t really complain about Polychromos.

Of all the pencils I own, Polychromos probably comes closest to being an even balance between softness (for smooth application) and hardness (for point retention while detailing). My apple sketch shows that the hues blend nicely, and the multiple layers covered the Alpha’s toothy surface well. Although I always think softer pencils apply faster and simply feel nicer (that “buttery smoothness” that always seduces me in soft graphite pencils, too), the actual time it took me to make all the layers in this sketch was no more than it was for the softer pencils, and the coverage was slightly better. Polychromos pencils don’t feel quite as nice to use, but I certainly appreciate their firm points when making fine lines and details.

What’s not to love? Maybe I should have just stuck with these. (But wait – there’s still one more review coming.)

Edited 2/8/19: See my review of vintage Polychromos pencils.


  1. Hi, just wondering what your thoughts are on Faber-Castell Polychromos vs Derwent Lightfast or Cara d'Ache Luminance. I have a large collection of Polys so am familiar with how they work. I am curious know how they compare with Lightfast and Luminance. I briefly tried some Luminance pencils in a shop - they were surprisingly dry but the colors were very dense and opaque. I have not been able to try the Lightfast (only sold in sealed tins). I read a lot of review but there is not much on how they feel, what the drawing experience it like. And the color charts and swatch tests on the web aren't the same as seeing the colors and laydown in person. Could you comment on:

    Palette - I mostly draw landscapes and botanical art, plus some abstract stuff. A set with a good range of foliage greens, sky blues, sea greens and colors for flowers would be perfect.

    Feel - What is the feel of pencil while drawing? Are they hard or soft, do they feel chalky, dry, smooth or sticky? Do the colors go on smoothly evenly or can you get uneven buildup?

    Result - Is the result on paper waxy, glossy or matt? Are the colors transparent (like the Polys) or opaque?

    Many thanks!

    1. Great questions, Roland! I use Polychromos more than any of the others, and I find them to be harder than either Luminance or Lightfast. I was surprised to hear you describe Luminance as dry, because I perceive them as soft and waxy, almost like crayons. But Lightfast is even waxier than Luminance. Are you familiar with Prismacolors? If so, I'd say both Luminance and Lightfast are closer to Prismacolor in softness and application. Polychromos are unique among artist grade pencils for being as hard as they are, yet so highly pigmented.

      As for palette, I'm an urban sketcher, and I hardly do any landscapes or botanicals, so I'm not sure I would be very helpful, as I tend to select for more urban subjects! ;-) I have only a small selection of Lightfast, and some colors seem unique (unfound in other manufacturers' sets). Luminance has a solid range for natural subjects.

      I haven't used enough Lightfast colors to comment on opacity, but I definitely think Luminance is more opaque than Polychromos.

      One comment about Lightfast quality: I have a couple with off-center cores, and a friend reported that his set had several off-center cores. That's very disappointing, given the price, which is right up there with Luminance.

      I don't know if any of my comments are helpful, but as a strong fan of Polychromos, I must ask: Why do you want to switch? ;-) Personally, I think we're both better off with Polychromos, and they are a better value than Luminance or Derwent. When I need a softer pencil, I'm more likely to reach for vintage Prismacolors than either Luminance or Lightfast.

      Please note also that I am a huge fan of Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelles (watercolor pencils are my primary medium, not traditional), so my comments about Luminance do not apply to all Caran d'Ache colored pencils. In general, I'd say Cd'A makes the best watercolor pencils available, but I wouldn't say that about their wax-based pencils.

    2. Thanks! I don't want to switch, just curious to try something new :-) I like the way Polys look and feel. Some colors are a bit thin, but better paper might help. Some colors are too similar, I won't replace some when they are used up. But overall they are great pencils.

      The Luminance I tried definitely didn't feel like my Caran d'Ache NeoColor crayons, they were more like pastels. I heard they coat the points of new pencils to protect them from breakage, maybe that affected my little test? I'll just have to buy some Luminance and Lightfast pencils and see how I like them.

      As for watercolor pencils, I have a small old set of Faber Castells but I don't "get" them. It seems double the work to draw then paint over. When I want to draw I don't want to risk it getting water damaged, and when I want to use water, I'll use the paints. That's just me.

      Thanks again for your comments!

    3. Will look forward to hearing how you like the Luminance and Lightfast!

  2. Hola, una pregunta, que es mejor para dibujar realismo y anime: faber-castell polychromos o derwent lightfast?En los 2 casos hablo del paquete de 12 lapices...


    Hello, a question, which is better to draw realism and anime: faber-castell polychromos or derwent lightfast? In both cases I am talking about the pack of 12 pencils ...

    1. Hola! Polychromos are much harder and therefore it's easier to draw details. Lightfast are soft, so they layer in a different way. If you are only buying the set of 12, Polychromos will have a slightly wider color range.


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