Monday, January 14, 2019

Wallet-Friendly Watercolor Pencils

1/8/19 Caran d'Ache Swisscolor pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

From my own frustrating experiences, I’ve come to learn that the oft-repeated advice about art supplies is both smart and economical: Always buy the highest-quality materials you can afford. During my first couple of years of sketching, I paid my dues by ignoring that wisdom and struggled mightily trying to use watercolor on low-quality or inappropriate papers – which made it much harder to learn. Just a couple of months ago in the middle of reviewing some watercolor pencils, I was once again reminded of an early experience that recalled that advice (scroll to the end of that review if you want to cut to the chase).

Frustration and impeded learning are the worst results of using inferior products, but there’s a financial side to the issue, too. Although it seems economical to buy inexpensive materials when you’re just starting out and not sure if you even want to continue with the medium, it can be a false economy. If you use the product for only a short time before you realize how inferior they are, the cost of those materials, no matter how low, is wasted. I have learned this lesson repeatedly myself.

I have good intentions in doing my share of lecturing on this subject. However, I’ve lately started thinking that I may have discouraged some readers who aren’t willing or able to make the investment that some art materials require. I am certainly aware that some products I use and love are expensive (Or as someone once said to me, “Four bucks for one pencil?! You gotta be kidding!”).

I thought more about this issue when I wrote a recent review in which I deliberately used watercolor pencils that had given me problems in the past. In that comparison, I wasn’t thinking primarily of inexpensive products – just ones that I didn’t like for various reasons. That post was mainly to satisfy my own curiosity about whether having more experience with using colored pencils would make a difference (and it did).

In this review, I’m taking the question in a more practical and perhaps more helpful direction: Are any watercolor pencils worth using if they are inexpensive (and therefore probably of lower quality)? If cost (or perhaps commitment level to a medium) is a concern, which would I recommend?

The three pencils that I’m reviewing here are all pencils that I can recommend, though sometimes with caveats. Before I get into reviewing each, I’ll make a few general statements about product quality:
Although these inexpensive bicolor pencils bear Faber-Castell's name, they
were made in India, and the quality is not up to F-C's standards.

  • In general, if a water-soluble pencil line is made by a major manufacturer known for making high-end art products – Caran d’Ache, Derwent, Faber-Castell and Staedtler all come to mind – then it’s likely that even their low-end products are of reasonably good quality (especially if they are made in the company’s original country; check the fine print on the back of the box). In some cases, even though a maker’s student-grade line is significantly less expensive than its artist-quality line, it may not necessarily be inexpensive compared to lesser-known brands. The products I would stay away from are ones that are made by unknown brands that come in sets of 72 colors for $10 (Amazon offers lots of products in this range).
  • One quality you will always sacrifice if you opt for the less-expensive line is lightfastness. As a sketchbook filler and not a gallery exhibitor, I have less concern for archival quality and lightfast pigments than many people do. But it’s something to be aware of if you intend to frame your art and expose it to light or sell work.
  • Sometimes a product made by a reputable manufacturer will use a less-expensive wood or make the pencil’s exterior less pretty and finished, but the core may still contain reasonably good pigments. I try not to judge a pencil by its exterior (though it’s difficult, given how easily seduced I am by thick lacquer, a glossy end cap and the scent of incense cedar).
  • Not surprisingly, student-grade pencils are not sold open stock. I suppose the theory is that if you’ve used a single color so much that you need to replace it, it’s time to invest in professional quality pencils. 

Faber-Castell Goldfaber Aqua

I’m keeping comments here brief because I’ve already written a full review of Goldfaber Aqua, which is Faber-Castell’s student-grade line. Although lightfastness is not rated on the Goldfabers, the pigments appear remarkably similar to the German company’s Albrecht Dürer artist-quality line (which I compare it with in that review; swatch comparisons are also shown). They also activate in a similar way, at least in swatches. In the photo comparing the two points, it’s obvious that a different wood is used in the Goldfaber, and the core is also slightly smaller.

Left: Goldfaber; right: Albrecht Durer

Color numbers printed on Goldfaber pencils match Faber-Castell’s other pencil color numbers. This is a nice benefit if you are trying to find similar colors from the artist-grade line. It’s unusual to find student-grade products with color numbers.

In terms of use, the biggest difference between them is that the Goldfabers are more difficult to blend and build strong hues with (which are important factors for beginners to consider). At about half the price of the Dürer pencils, however, Goldfaber Aqua, which is made in Germany, is a good value.

1/8/19 Faber-Castell Goldfaber pencils in S & B Beta sketchbook

Staedtler Triangular

The least-expensive pencil in this review, the Staedtler Triangular Watercolor Pencil was one of the brands I had problems with before I knew what I was doing, but later with experience, I didn’t think it was as bad as before. It’s a very hard pencil, but that quality can be put to good use on details and coarser paper. Based on the price, packaging and barrel shape, this pencil is clearly intended for children.

Left: Triangular; right: Karat Aquarell

The caveat with the Triangular is that the cores lack strength and can break easily. Compared to artist-grade Staedtler Karat Aquarell (which is a favorite among harder watercolor pencils), the wood is different. In my swatch tests, the Triangulars dissolve adequately, but with slightly less pigment visible.

Made in Indonesia, this would be a good pencil to try if you really aren’t sure you want to use watercolor pencils. It would give you a quick taste at a very low investment. But if you already know you want to use colored pencils and are looking for an economical option, skip this one.

Swatches made in S & B Beta sketchbook

11/25/18 Staedtler Triangular pencils made in S & B Beta sketchbook

Caran d’Ache Swisscolor

Caran d’Ache’s product lines continue to perplex me (you can read about the teeth-gnashing I’ve done in my review of the company’s Prismalo). Up until I ran across Swisscolor, I had thought that Fancolor was the Swiss manufacturer’s student-grade watercolor pencil product. Yet based on the (admittedly adorable) cartoons on the back of the Swisscolor’s box and its price range (similar to Fancolor’s), I now believe Swisscolor is Caran d’Ache’s student line. Why make more than one water-soluble colored pencil in the same price range? I don’t get it. (And why do I care? It’s what geeks do.)

Looks like a student-grade product to me.

Left to right: Swisscolor, Supracolor, Museum Aquarelle
L to R: Swisscolor, Supracolor, Museum Aquarelle

When placed next to a Supracolor and a Museum Aquarelle (both Caran d’Ache artist grade pencils), the Swisscolor’s wood looks very similar and is probably the same. All Caran d’Ache’s contemporary colored pencils look to be made of the same wood. However, the Swisscolor has a thinner core, and the opposite end is unfinished. (Although rounded, the Fancolor’s end is uncapped.)

In my comparison of swatches, the Swisscolors dissolve well but show slightly less pigment than Supracolors. The Swisscolors do not have names or numbers printed on the pencils, so it’s more difficult to find hues that match with the artist-grade line.
Swatches made in S & B Beta sketchbook
In my sketch of the avocado (top of page), it took a while to build pigments to strong hues, and I had a bit of difficulty applying successive dry/wet layers (again, these are important factors to consider if you are new to watercolor pencils). They blended reasonably well with some work.

About a third of the price of Supracolor and a fourth of Museum Aquarelle, the Swiss-made Swisscolor is still not what I would call an inexpensive colored pencil, but it is an excellent value.

Of the three pencils evaluated in this review, both the Swisscolor (if you prefer softer pencils) and the Goldfaber (slightly harder) are good starter sets for someone who doesn’t want to make the full commitment of artist-grade watercolor pencils. If further commitment were made later, either set could be upgraded gradually by buying artist-grade pencils individually.


  1. In Europe Stabilo Aquacolor is a popular, inexpensive and surprisingly good brand. Its pigment density is good, leads are soft although fairly thin, the colour selections of 24 and 36 colour sets are sensible and the 24 colour cardboard-packed set costs only about ten euros or slightly over ten US dollars. On the quality scale they are on the same level as Caran d'Ache's Fancolor and Swisscolor (at the moment it looks like red-tin Swisscolor is replacing the Fancolor).

    Metal tins are pretty hard to find, especially the 36 set.

    Heikki (ManedWolf in WetCanvas)

    1. Thank you, Heikki, for this good suggestion! A friend sent me some Aquacolors, and I agree that they seem like they are of decent quality and a good value. I am interested in your comment about Swisscolor replacing Fancolor... in the US, both Swisscolor and Fancolor are easily available. I would agree that we don't need both -- Fancolor is slightly softer, but it is otherwise the same as Swisscolor, as far as I can tell.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...