Monday, March 26, 2018

Product Review: Caran d’Ache Supracolor 30th Anniversary Set

Caran d'Ache's 30th anniversary limited edition box of Supracolor pencils

Before I discovered Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils (my long-time favorite), Caran d’Ache’s slightly lower-end Supracolor II line was one of my go-to water-soluble colored pencil brands. Supracolors deliver rich pigment and a soft point. They are a useful counterpoint to Faber Castell’s comparable Albrecht Durer pencils, which are a bit harder but have equally good pigment. Each brand has many unique colors, so whenever I have difficulty finding a certain hue in one brand, I can usually find it in the other. Years ago I invested in a complete set of each, and they continue to serve me well. (Despite my preference for Museum Aquarelles, that line has a relatively narrow color range that tends toward muted, natural hues, and sometimes they just aren’t the right hues. For example, the only color close to pink in the Museum range is too peachy for cherry blossoms, so the pencil I carry this time of year is a Supracolor in a true pink.)

Now, I know I’ve said that most people – especially a mostly urban sketcher like me –  probably don’t need more than 36 or even 24 colors (if they are the right colors). So adding 30 more hues to the 120-color Supracolor set I own didn’t make any sense. Nonetheless, when I saw CW Pencil Enterprise’s recent promotion of a 30th anniversary limited edition set of Supracolors, you can imagine how my colored pencil senses tingled. I mulled it over for a few days, and then CWP announced it was celebrating its own (third) anniversary by offering a generous discount coupon. Helloooo, new Supracolors!

In addition to a tingle, this pencil set gives me a timely reason to do a full review of Supracolors. Although I’ve been using them for many years (beginning with mixed media work long before I began sketching), and although I showed a limited-palette experiment with them a while back, I’ve never given them a proper review.

(Before I go on, I must pause here a moment to quibble about product nomenclature. Why are the Supracolors called “II”? The obvious answer is that a Supracolor I line also exists, but I’ve never seen it. To further complicate matters, Caran d’Ache has Neocolor I and Neocolor II lines of wax pastels, with the II line being water-soluble. Logically, I might infer that the Supracolor I line consists of colored pencils that are not water-soluble – but as far as I know, C d’A’s non-water-soluble counterpart to Supracolor is Pablo. Need more confusion? While the pencil itself is branded “Supracolor II Soft,” the anniversary box and other boxes say only “Supracolor Soft.” Was there once a Supracolor I line of harder pencils? Are they eventually going to drop the II altogether, as the box has already hinted? These matters keep me up at night.)

First, let me get the “limited edition 30th anniversary” stuff out of the way. As I mentioned in my recent review of vintage Prismalo pencils, Caran d’Ache introduced the world to water-soluble colored pencils in 1931. This 30th anniversary celebration is for its Supracolor Soft line specifically: “It has already been 30 years since Supracolor Soft began unleashing the creativity of artists, drawing enthusiasts and all those who love colour,” says the enclosed brochure. “To celebrate three decades of style, quality, creativity and sharing, Caran d’Ache is enriching the Supracolor Soft colour palette with 30 brand new colours in addition to the 120 existing shades.”

The commemorative tin box is the typical kind that colored pencil sets come in with the lid showing examples of art. I wish this anniversary edition had a more interesting image of something symbolic of Switzerland or 1988 (the Matterhorn traditionally appeared on the older Prismalo boxes).

In addition to the removable bow tie band around the tin and the anniversary proclamation inside the lid, each pencil is stamped with “limited edition” on its reverse. The front indicates the branding.

"Limited Edition" is stamped on the back of each pencil along with its color name and number.

Supracolor’s branding has changed in recent years. The top pencil (photo below) is from my original set, which is probably 10 years old. The middle pencil was part of a small sample set I received from ArtSnacks a little over a year ago. The branding on the bottom pencil, which is from the anniversary set, is identical to the middle pencil. (Thankfully the limited-edition pencils lack the unsightly bar code on the back.) All the renditions I own have beautifully varnished hexagonal barrels and rounded, painted ends to match the barrels. In addition to both a color name and number on the pencil, stars indicate the pigment’s lightfast rating.

Branding changes (from top): my original set; open stock pencil from ArtSnacks; 30th anniversary limited edition

Reverse of pencils in same order as previous photo

OK, enough fancy stuff; let’s get to the important part: the colors and how they perform. As far as I know (and I’ll admit it: I go down the colored pencil Google hole regularly), this addition to the Supracolor line gives it the largest color range of watercolor pencils currently available. (Holbein and Prismacolor each have 150 colors, but they are traditional wax-based colored pencils, not water-soluble.)

Shown below are Caran d’Ache’s color swatches and my own.

From the 30th anniversary box brochure
My swatches swiped with a waterbrush on 98-pound Canson mixed-media paper

 Of the two new reds in the anniversary collection, Red Lake Safflower and Crimson Alizarin, the former is not different enough from the standard Indian Red to get excited about. However, Crimson Alizarin is a useful cooler addition that I use frequently in Faber-Castell’s Durer line, so I’m happy to see it here now. (I used both new reds in my apple sketch.)

Comparison of reds

 I’m of the mind that one can never have enough greens for urban sketching. Although the standard selection of Supracolor greens is adequate for most of my needs, I was pleased that none of the greens in the new set is close to anything I already have. Overall, except Crimson Alizarin, the 30 new colors are all hues I can’t honestly say I’ve missed, but almost all of them are true additions and not duplicates of others.

Comparison of greens

I wonder what “limited edition” means in the C d’A world? In addition to the tin box set I have, the new colors are also being offered as part of two other anniversary sets that include some standard colors or other types of colored pencils. I can understand if “limited” means the colors will no longer be available once the celebration is over and these sets are gone, but the important question is whether the new colors are also available open stock. I hope so, but I haven’t seen them yet.

As for performance, the anniversary pencils apply as creamily as their 120 predecessors and activate easily and completely with water. The apple sketch was made on Stillman & Birn’s beefy 180-pound Beta paper, which I knew would take multiple applications of pigment and water, so I did a lot blending and also applied final details with dry points. Because the core is so soft and loses its point almost immediately, this is where I might have used the Albrecht Durers instead. Still, for this small sketch, the Supracolors were fine.

3/22/18 Sketched in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook with
limited edition colors
(Incidentally, if you’re wondering why I always use an apple for sketch samples in my colored pencil reviews, it’s because the Honey Crisp variety that Greg prefers has a beautifully irregular red and yellow pattern that requires blending of hues as well as keeping some color patches distinct. In addition, the stem and other delicate details are a good test of how well a pencil keeps its point.)

Before I discovered the Museum line, I would have been perfectly happy to use Supracolors for the rest of my life (along with Albrecht Durers for missing hues and when I need a harder core for details). Of course, once you try Museums, you get spoiled for the amazing pigment content that explodes with rich color when water is applied. But as I said earlier, the Museum line is missing several hues I have certain needs for, so I can’t live by Museum alone.

In hindsight, if I were to follow my own advice and buy colored pencils only by open stock, I might have chosen a solid urban sketching palette of 25 or 30 colors from the Museum line and then filled in specific missing hues from Supracolor’s vast collection (both of these standard Caran d’Ache lines are, thankfully, available open stock). I’d probably also fill in other missing colors with careful choices from Faber-Castell. I’d be pretty happy with a total of maybe 35 colors that would serve me well in just about any sketching circumstance.

But hindsight is always 20/20. In my myopic reality, 150 Caran d’Ache colors are exactly what I need (especially 30 new ones).


  1. You are such a pencil groupie!!! Good review. I don't know how you can keep them straight.

  2. Hello, I loved your article, very well written and with deep research. Marvelous! About the name "SUPRACOLOR II SOFT", this USED TO BE the Prismalo II SOFT, until about 30 years ago. But, eventually, they changed the label to "Supracolor" for soft core watercolor pencils, and left the label "Prismalo" to hard core watercolor pencils. But in order to the old users could make the link between their once favorite Prismalo II SOFT and the "new" Supracolor, they kept the designation "II Soft". I still have a Prismalo II Soft 30 pencils box in my possession to this day (albeit quite used, with tiny pencils left) and my family have been a grand fan and user of Caran D'Ache and since 1975, so I believe this piece of information to be pretty accurate. Hope to bring some peace to the inquiring minds.

    1. Thanks very much for that info, Tris! It makes a lot of sense in the evolution of the Prismalo/Supracolor product lines.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...