Monday, November 4, 2019

Caran d’Ache Bicolors: Wish List Fulfilled!

Brand new Caran d'Ache water-soluble Bicolors!
Package back

What kinds of sketch materials and tools would be on your wish list? Not things that do exist, but things that haven’t yet been invented or manufactured? Nearly two years ago, I came up with such a list for myself, and I’m ecstatic that the No. 1 item on the list has been fulfilled: high-quality, double-sided, water-soluble colored pencils! Made by Caran d’Ache, no less! When I saw the new pencils promoted by CW Pencils recently, I could not buy them fast enough.

I love bicolor pencils, both for sentimental reasons (my first childhood memories of colored pencils are of bicolors) and practical reasons: A good set of compact bicolors would be especially handy as a portable sketch kit. Almost all bicolor pencils I’ve tried, however, have been lower-quality, novelty pencils, often intended for kids. And none have been water-soluble. I quote from my own blog:
Caran d’Ache’s red/blue Bicolor is the one exception – high quality and with the same water-soluble cores as its Supracolor collection. I wouldn’t need a huge color range – just the basics that would come in a standard 12-color box, but compressed into six sticks. How about it, Caran d’Ache?
It’s obvious that Caran d’Ache reads my blog and developed these pencils just for me. 😉 As far as I know, this is the only water-soluble bicolor pencil set ever to be made. It’s fitting that it should come from the company that first gave watercolor pencils to the world (in 1931; see my recent review of vintage Prismalos for more history).

Packaged in Caran d’Ache’s classic red-logo tin with a cardboard wrapper, the set of 10 pencils (20 colors) comes with a waterbrush. (I’ll probably review the waterbrush separately at some point.)
The classic Caran d'Ache pencil tin
The design of the Bicolor pencil itself is almost identical to Cd’A’s stand-alone red/blue editing pencil, which has been out for a long time. (Its existence is what made me hopeful that someday Cd’A would come out with a full set of bicolors.)
The new Bicolors (top) look similar to the red/blue editing pencil that has been around for a long time.

Although Caran d’Ache’s premium Museum Aquarelle is still my urban sketching favorite, the Swiss company’s Supracolor Soft line (previously known as Supracolor II) is a close second and is often better than the Museum line for detailed work. So I was thrilled to learn that the cores of the Bicolors are the same as Supracolors (according to CW Pencils’ product information). During swatch tests, the Bicolors felt a bit harder than Supracolors. The Bicolor cores are just a smidge thinner than the Supracolor cores. Perhaps the thinner core gives the perception of being harder when applied even if the core material is identical. It’s difficult to see the thickness difference in my head-on shot (below left), but I think the side view shows it better. Both samples were sharpened with the same sharpener. (In each image, the Bicolor is on the left; Supracolor on the right.)

From left: Bicolor and Supracolor

Of course, I had to know exactly which hues in the Supracolor line were among the Bicolor cores. Since the Bicolors don’t include color numbers or names, I had to do go through all my Supracolors to match them first by eye, then by swatching (a colored pencil geek’s work is never done). The chart below shows the colors that were the closest (usually identical) matches. The upper rows are the Bicolors; the lower rows are the Supracolors. For fun, I also tossed in the red/blue editing pencil, marked with an asterisk.

Comparison of Bicolors and Supracolors on Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper

Interestingly, I found the black Bicolor to be somewhat warmer than the standard Cd’A black (009). In fact, it is much closer to dark sepia (408), which is actually one of the limited edition colors from the 30th anniversary set. All others are standard Cd’A colors.

Up to this point, I was mostly convinced that the cores in the Bicolors and Supracolors were the same, despite the Bicolors feeling a bit harder. Then it was brought to my attention that on Caran d’Ache’s UK site, the Bicolor packaging is slightly different – labeled as Prismalo Bicolor! (Since Prismalos don’t appear in the U.S. market much, perhaps the name was taken off the packaging because buyers wouldn’t be familiar with it.) Here’s the image taken from that page:
Packaging for the European market.
Of course, I had no choice now but to test them against Prismalos also (what did I tell you about a colored pencil geek’s work?). Unfortunately, my set of 25 Prismalos doesn’t have exact matches for all the Bicolors, so I compared only the hues I had that matched fairly closely. Most of the color numbers differ from the Supracolors I matched.
Comparison of Bicolors and Prismalos on Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper

The pigment content looked comparable – in fact, I was surprised that the Prismalos looked so close to the Supracolor swatches. The Prismalos also feel the same as the Bicolors in their application and softness. Perhaps the strongest clue is the core size: The Bicolors and Prismalos look identical.

Left: Bicolor; right: Prismalo

Whenever I acquire new colored pencils, I always make swatch samples and test them first at home on various papers before taking them out on the street. (I consider field use to be the ultimate test for any art material; sometimes a disappointing or inappropriate product never goes further than my desk.) The Caran d’Ache Bicolors were a rare exception. I received them on a surprisingly brilliant (but cold) day, and within the hour, I took them out for a test sketch. The sketch below was the first time I put pencil points to paper.
10/26/19 Green Lake neighborhood (Caran d'Ache Bicolors in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook)
The colorful scene I happened to find in the Green Lake neighborhood turned out to be an especially effective test. I used the Bicolors in exactly the way I tend to use my daily-carry Museum Aquarelles: After heavily applying pigment for the trees, I spritzed the page to activate the color. (For the sky, I had grabbed my usual middle cobalt blue 660 out of habit, but I think the Bicolor blue 260 could also work.) Although I missed the ultra-soft, thick-core (and therefore faster) application of the Museum Aquarelles, I was delighted by the Bicolors’ rich hues when activated. Of course, the Museum Aquarelles have spoiled me with their pigment content, which can’t be matched by the Bicolors, but the latter adequately pass my urban sketching test.

Later at home I made the sketch of the maple leaves to test the Bicolors in a more traditional approach of repeated cycles of dry/wet pigment applications. Here’s where I found them more difficult to use than either Museum Aquarelles or Supracolors. Once an application of pigment was activated and dried, additional pigment did not seem to apply well. This behavior didn’t match with what I knew of Supracolors, so I was puzzled – but now that I see how close the core size and softness match with Prismalos, the sketch test is more evidence that the Bicolor cores are probably Prismalo cores, not Supracolor. (See my full review of Prismalos for more on my experiences with them.)

10/28/19 Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
If you have no need for portability, buying full-size, open-stock Supracolor pencils or even the set of 18 would be a much better value. (Prismalos should be less expensive than Supracolors, but since they seem to ship from European stores on Amazon, they are way overpriced.) And for my everyday urban sketching, Museum Aquarelles still meet my needs and habits better. 
For travel, however, sketch kit minimalism is always a priority. And the way I test such minimalism is my annual winter challenge, which I’m already thinking about. In past attempts to slim my portable kit, I’ve done well when I’ve used toned paper because I focused on values, and color was often unnecessary. But last winter when I used white paper, my color choices were constantly frustrating: Whatever color I wanted at the moment was the color I didn’t have. With these compact Caran d’Ache Bicolors, I could carry the full spectrum in a small, lightweight set. Heck, with my typical urban sketching palette, I bet I could get it down to six or seven sticks! That’s probably a third of the number of colored pencils I regularly carry now.

I’ll talk more about winter minimalism in a couple of months. For now, I’ll just say, thank you, Caran d’Ache, for reading my blog!

Edited 1/29/20: It has been confirmed: The Caran d’Ache Bicolors are a limited edition! Around the holidays, I was poking around on Caran d’Ache’s English-language site, and I noticed that the Bicolors were no longer listed. Likewise on the UK and other European versions of the Cd’A site. After rumors started circulating in the pencil community, I decided to check it out, and it’s true: CW Pencils was notified by its distributor that its current stock was the last of it. So if you want a set, don’t wait – CWP is apparently the only shop on earth with any left, and there will be no more afterwards!

Updated 11/11/21: Caran d'Ache has released a second limited edition set of bicolors – the Wonder Forest edition for the holidays!

I admit, this image is gratuitous eye candy.


  1. About the only thing I would improve would be to have all the warms on one end and cools on the other so you can flip the stack, but I get their reasoning. Thanks for being an innovator for product development. And an inspiration to many.

    1. The warm/cool idea would be fantastic! And very happy to know that I am an inspiration! :-)

  2. OMG! This is so exciting! I am ordering a set TODAY!

  3. Thank you for your most detailed review. I am a water pencil coloring newbie and I am trying to sample as many different brands as my meager budget will allow. This information will help me to make an informed decision. Again, thanks a bunch and happy creating! Jenna

    1. Thank you for your comment, Jenna! I appreciate knowing that you found the review helpful.

  4. Thanks for the great reviews. After comparing the price range of this set, I believe they are belonging to the prismalo serie. Also because I saw in a few websites labeled it as prismalo. lijiao


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