Monday, November 11, 2019

Caran d’Ache Watercolor Pencil History Update

The incomplete and confusing history of Caran d'Ache watercolor pencils.

With a few exceptions, most of my vintage colored pencil collecting has been led by whim, curiosity and availability of affordable items on eBay – without specific targets. One notable exception has been Caran d’Ache’s water-soluble colored pencils. As my favorite maker of and the original creator of my favorite art material, Caran d’Ache is special to me, and therefore its history is interesting. The product history of Cd’A’s watercolor pencils is also short enough – the Swiss company developed the first one in 1931 – that I might actually have a chance of acquiring samples of all its products through various eras. Although I’m certain I don’t have samples of all variations through Caran d’Ache’s history (many questions remain unanswered), I think I now have a fairly good range.

Since I’ve already written about most of these pencils before, this post will serve as an update rather than a rehash of my previous speculations and theories. For the context, please see these posts:

  • Vintage Prismalo (possibly from the ‘30s; the oldest set in my collection)
  • Vintage Prismalo (probably from the ‘90s)
  • Contemporary Prismalo (100th anniversary edition, with historical comparison)
  • Contemporary Supracolor (in which I ponder at length about why Supracolors are called Supracolor “II” when there is no Supracolor “I”? It turns out there was a “I”! Read on.)

My latest acquisition is a set of Supracolor I (left, top row, in the photo above), which answers the question I had been asking for a long time. When I first acquired the “Water Soluble” set (center of top row), I was told that these pencils and Supracolor I (which I didn't own yet) were the same – only the names on the boxes and the barrels were different. In addition, Supracolor I and Water Soluble” both have the product code 3999. Now that I finally have some Supracolor I to make my own comparison, I have confirmed that the cores are, indeed, the same: The thin cores are very hard and contain little pigment. According to the Supracolor I tin (below), these pencils have “fine leads, ideal for detailed drawing,” while Supracolor II have “thick leads, ideal for shading.”
Bottom of the Supracolor I tin.
Although I could see from initial swatches that the very hard Supracolor I pencils would not be easy to use for coloring, I made a sample sketch of an apple on principle. As you can see, I had difficulty developing saturated hues, but as promised, the very hard cores remained sharp throughout the sketch and would be ideal for fine details.
11/6/19 vintage Supracolor I pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

According to Atelier Caran d’Ache: The Workshop Book, the Supracolor product line was introduced in 1988 (though the I and II designations are not specified). I wish I had a sample of Supracolor II from that era to see how it compares to a contemporary Supracolor II. In any case, a new question arises: When did Caran d’Ache stop producing the I line and why? Personally, when I need a colored pencil for sharp details, I reach for a hard traditional (wax- or oil-based) pencil so that all the fine marks I spend time making won’t accidentally wash away. Perhaps other artists concur, and Caran d’Ache saw no need to maintain the harder I line.

To add to the mystery of the set of Prismalo that I reviewed last year, I have acquired a few pencils that came in a random lot without a box which are labeled Prismalo I on the barrel. What?! Prismalo and Prismalo I!? (Can you be any more confusing, Caran d’Ache?) To my hand, Prismalo feels slightly softer than Prismalo I, but beyond that, there’s no difference. Both have the product number 999. Why the two names? When did Prismalo I disappear? And was there ever a Prismalo II (doubtful, but the question is cause for yet another sleepless night)?

Notice that all three tins – Supracolor I, Water Soluble and Prismalo – look identical, with an image of the Matterhorn, red flowers and the sans serif Caran d’Ache logo.

The blue box shown is another new mystery. Contained in this tin was a set of pencils with three sailboats on the barrel. Their cores are slightly softer than the others and contain a bit more pigment. What was this nameless line, and where did it fit within the Prismalo/Supracolor history?
The nameless, numberless "sailboat" pencils (and one random Prismalo that came in this used set).

Finally, also in a random lot, I acquired a single Swisscolor pencil, with a core similar to contemporary Swisscolors, which are dryer than Prismalo and Supracolor and lower in pigment (my guess is that they are student grade). The product history in the Atelier book is not helpful regarding the “sailboat” and Swisscolor pencils; they are not mentioned at all. Since the book seems to focus more on artist-quality products rather than student products, perhaps both belong in the latter category.

All the above-mentioned pencils are water-soluble. I also have a few unnamed pencils with two tulips on the barrel (product code 333) that are not water-soluble. A precursor to the contemporary Pablo, perhaps?

Shown below are specimens of all the vintage product lines or eras I own. The last two in the photo are contemporary Supracolor (now called Supracolor II Soft with the product code 3888) and Prismalo.
From top: 1930s Prismalo, 1980s Prismalo, Prismalo I, unnamed "sailboat," unnamed "water soluble," Supracolor I, vintage Swisscolor, unnamed "tulip" (not water-soluble), contemporary Supracolor II Soft, contemporary Prismalo.
The swatch comparison indicates that all the vintage pencils (top row) have about the same pigment level except the “sailboat” set, which is slightly higher in pigment and softer. For reference, the two swatches in the bottom row are from contemporary Prismalo and Supracolor II Soft pencils. (Whenever I compare contemporary pencils with their vintage counterparts, I am always grateful for advances in technology and manufacturing that enable me to have products now that are of much higher quality than their predecessors. I like collecting old pencils, but with few exceptions, I don’t prefer them to contemporary pencils.)
Swatches made on Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper
The Caran d’Ache watercolor pencil history described in this post is not exhaustive by any means. If anything, it just raises more questions. If you know more about Caran d’Ache colored pencil history or can solve the mysteries described, I’m all ears!

Supracolor I


  1. Hmm...those Supracolor I pencils sound interesting. I've always felt that modern watercolor pencils are too soft for drawing because I can't keep them sharp. Having a harder watercolor pencil may sacrifice the watercolor effects but it would improve them as a drawing pencil.

    Is it possible that some of the confusion in Caran d'ache naming conventions comes from the marketing department? So many of these companies seem to feel (at least in the past) that they needed different names to sell the products in the US vs Europe and Asia. Think of Pilot fountain pens that have different names in Europe vs US. This makes no sense in a modern age but the idea still hangs on. One thing is certain, you own more colored pencils than anyone :-)

    1. Almost all of the vintage watercolor pencils I've tried are very hard compared to contemporary ones. Yes, I absolutely think some of the confusion is just product naming, which drives me bananas. ;-) Those three identical box designs with different names were almost certainly a marketing thing. I do have a few colored pencils, don't I. ;-)

  2. You are as thorough with collecting Caran d'Ache colored pencils as I am with Prismacolors. I love it! Between the two of us, I think we could write a book.

    1. Ana, you're my inspiration for appreciation of vintage colored pencils!


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