|Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer|
|Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle|
|Caran d'Ache Supracolor|
A key attribute of my favorite medium – water-soluble colored pencils – is that they can be used dry like traditional colored pencils or activated with water for very different effects. Once a sketch is in process, I can choose which areas, if any, to activate (though making the choice is often a dilemma). I’ve always appreciated the versatility of one medium with multiple talents.
While writing my recent review of Faber-Castell’s Albrecht Dürer pencils, however, the dual capabilities of water-soluble colored pencils raised intriguing questions. If a watercolor pencil performs well when activated, can we assume it will perform as well in dry-only applications? And can dry watercolor pencils be as effective as traditional wax- or oil-based colored pencils? In other words, are water-soluble pencils as versatile as they seem to be?
To answer these compelling questions, I donned a lab coat and attempted to be as scientific as possible in comparing my three most-often-used watercolor pencil brands: Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle (my all-time favorite for urban sketching), Caran d’Ache Supracolor and the previously mentioned Albrecht Dürer. (Even though I use Museum Aquarelle most often, it has the narrowest range of colors, so the other two brands provide useful supplements.)
To eliminate as many variables as possible, I used a Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook (which has a smooth texture similar to Bristol) for all sketches. Because it’s usually possible to continue applying more and more pigment to intensify the hues and values as long as the paper’s tooth hasn’t been completely covered, which would take more time but look more vibrant, I spent exactly 45 minutes on each test sketch. I used the traditional method of colored pencil application that I learned from Suzanne Brooker in her Gage class two years ago: multiple layers of lightly applied pigment in each layer.
I changed the angle of the pear with each test so that I would be challenged by a fresh perspective each time (different highlight, reflection and shadow placements), which would presumably reduce a learning advantage on subsequent sketches. (I’m not sure if that’s important, but I was trying to be as scientific as possible.) I used five colors for each sketch – red, orange, yellow, light green, dark green – and tried to find hues in each brand that were as similar as possible to the other brands. I made no more than two sketches a day to decrease any boredom factor.
As a control (yes – every experiment must have a control), I made a fourth sketch on the same paper with Faber-Castell Polychromos oil-based (not water-soluble) pencil with all the same conditions as the other three sketches.
In the sketch I made for my Albrecht Dürer review, I used Stillman & Birn Alpha paper, which I thought was too toothy, so for this test when I used the smoother Epsilon, I was interested in whether the difference in paper would give me better results or at least feel better in application. The smooth paper’s texture is less apparent, but I still found the Dürer pigment difficult and unpleasant to apply in multiple layers. If I knew I was using only traditional methods without water activation, I would not choose this pencil.
You’ve heard me say many times that Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle is my favorite water-soluble pencil, so perhaps this is where my bias comes through (when it comes to art, science goes only so far). After experiencing the challenges of the Dürer pencils, the Museum Aquarelles felt extraordinarily smooth and easy to apply. The resulting colors look more intense and vibrant to me, and even as I applied each layer, I could see that the pencils strokes were leaving more pigment behind.
As far as my subjective impression of how the pencils applied, the Supracolors fell somewhere between the Dürers and the Museums. They weren’t as smooth and pleasant to use as the Museums, but also not as unsatisfying as the Dürers. In terms of color intensity, the Supracolor sketch looks similar to the Dürer.
Interestingly, I found the Polychromos pencils to be the most pleasant of all to use. Although they are the hardest of the tested cores, they are also very smooth and continue to be so on subsequent layers. (All pencils felt fine when applied to paper, but on subsequent layers, the Dürers felt “sticky.”) Less of the paper’s texture is visible, partly because of the harder core, but also because I was able to apply more pigment. Color intensity looks similar to the Museum test.
Final Impressions and Key Takeaway
Regardless of pencil used, at the end of each 45-minute sketch, I felt that the paper could still accept more pigment. However, the Dürer sketch seemed nearer to pigment capacity than the other three. Something about that pencil makes it harder to apply multiple layers. It was the direct opposite of Polychromos, which was the easiest to apply and seemed able to accumulate more pigment than the other three.
Supracolor didn’t impress me one way or the other. I would happily use it either dry or wet, but since it is not as soft as Museum (which makes the latter ideal for urban sketching and other fast, demanding circumstances), it is not as versatile.
Here’s my key takeaway (Spoiler alert: It’s another lesson in art material economy): The Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles are by far the most expensive pencils in this comparison (and among the most expensive colored pencils currently available). Nearly five years ago when I wrote a review of them (long before I learned to use them properly), I questioned whether they were worth the premium price, especially for the ways I was using watercolor pencils at the time. But the more I use them, the more I learn to value their qualities, and this test is no exception. Although all watercolor pencils, in theory, can be used both wet and dry, and all artist-grade watercolor pencils work beautifully with water, my testing has convinced me that not all watercolor pencils – even high-quality, artist-grade ones – work well dry.
At first glance, Museum Aquarelles seem pricey, but since I’ve found them to be excellent, wet or dry, and they also serve my idiosyncratic urban sketching needs, they are a terrific value, indeed. If I could have only one brand of colored pencil (heaven forbid that day!), Museum Aquarelles would serve me well. As is often the case, the less expensive choice can represent a false economy.