Saturday, July 1, 2017

Product Review: Blackwing Colors

Box of 12 Blackwing Colors colored pencils
About a year ago when Blackwing released Colors, I had mixed feelings. Part of me was thrilled that the well-known graphite pencil manufacturer had finally come out with a set of colored pencils. I’d been a fan of the original, soft-core graphite Blackwing for several years, and I knew it was a very high-quality pencil, so any colored pencil bearing the Blackwing logo was likely to be good.

Another part of me, though, was skeptical. Whenever I see a boxed set of 12 colored pencils and no larger sets or open stock, I smell “novelty colored pencils,” which are not known to be of high quality (and I know this because I have purchased more than my share of such sets! I’m a sucker for a clever gimmick or cute packaging!). Blackwing has a very loyal (some would say cultish) following; would the company put out colored pencils just to jump on the burgeoning adult coloring book bandwagon? I brooded for all of two seconds before buying a box of Blackwing Colors.

Speaking of the box, I don’t usually talk about the packaging of colored pencils I review because most of them come in standard flat tins. The Blackwing Colors box, however, bears mentioning. It’s a matte black cardboard box, and the front has a window. When you open the windowed “door,” the pencils are protected by a transparent plastic cover. Unfortunately, the plastic cover has to be discarded, or the pencils are cumbersome to use, but otherwise it all looks very cool when you first open the set (they are Blackwing, after all). And the “door” snaps shut with a magnetic closure!
The windowed door closes magnetically.

Swatching the 12 colors, I was pleased by how soft the wax-based cores are. (A hallmark of novelty pencils is dry, hard cores.) As soft as Caran d’Ache Pablo (but not as soft as Luminance), they glide on pleasantly without producing crumbs. I’ve been sharpening them in my electric Bostitch with no problem at all.

Because of their softness, it took me longer than usual to build up color in my sketch of the heirloom tomato. (Yes, that’s the same tomato you saw twice earlier this week! I deferred my salad one more day because I just couldn’t resist drawing it yet again. The green side that I had sketched initially was now almost yellow-orange because it had ripened on my desk. Yes, it was delicious, too!) I used the same Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook that I used on the first two sketches, but with the Blackwing Colors it took almost twice as long to fill all the nooks and crannies in the paper’s tooth. Still, once I was done, I liked the richness of the colors and how well they blended.
6/29/17 Blackwing Colors, Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook
8/17/16 Blackwing Colors, Field Notes notebook
On the less toothy 60-pound Finch Opaque Smooth Field Notes paper, it was a bit easier to build pigment for the Bing cherries, but the colors also don’t look as rich because I used fewer layers. Even though it takes more work and time, I still prefer using paper with a bit (but not too much) of tooth. It seems contradictory: I work hard to cover up all the nooks and crannies in the paper’s tooth with multiple layers of pigment, but when just a little of the paper shows through, it results in a sparkle.

Although I don’t know if they are artist quality in terms of being lightfast and archival (with hues like pink and metallic silver in the assortment, I suspect they are not), Blackwing Colors appear and feel as high quality as most mid- to upper-range pencils I’ve used. (At $19.95 for 12, they’re in the same price range, too.)

The big drawback, though, is the very limited color range. It’s a typical set of colors I see often in sets of 12 (well, except that silver, which is an interesting oddball, but I don’t have much use for silver. I bet Blackwing put it in there just because they knew it would look great with the pencils silver end caps and lettering!). The five pencils I used on the tomato worked for that subject, but I had a harder time coming up with the right mix for the red-black Bings.

Pretty silver end caps and lettering on the pencils.
An equally significant problem is that the pencils are not available open stock. You might be able to see from the photo of the boxed pencils that my orange is down by half an inch – and that was just from the one tomato drawing. The soft cores need sharpening often, and once that orange is gone, I can’t replace it without buying a new box. (Of course, I have a gazillion other orange pencils from other brands, but that’s beside the point.)

With those two issues, I can’t in good conscience recommend these pencils in any serious, art-material-review kind of way. But what the heck – they’re colored pencils from Blackwing! They’ll probably stay in their windowed box most of the time, just looking cool, and I’m OK with that. 

(The limited color range in this Blackwing set really got me thinking about how many pencil colors one really needs – and which colors I would choose if I were designing my own box of 12. I’m still noodling . . . stay tuned!)

Updated 9/12/17: I just learned about a site that sells Blackwing Colors colored pencils individually! If you want some, order fast – I’ve heard that selling these pencils open stock is against the manufacturer’s policy, so they may be gone soon.


  1. I did a color fastness test on the colors- the pink and light blue faded within a month, other colors showed a shift in 2 months. Decidedly not artist grade.

    1. Yup -- that's what I suspected. Considering that, they performed much better than I expected!

      - Tina

  2. Good, honest review. I'm with you...I want open stock in the pencils I use, because I use some up so much faster.

  3. I look forward to your choices for a set of 12! Great tomato by-the-way!


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