|Always at the top: Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle
Seeing how many colored pencils I’ve tried, many readers have asked me to name the “best” or at least my favorites. Since the hidden thought behind the question is often, “I want some good colored pencils; tell me what to buy,” I’m a little reluctant to answer. Beyond the basic factor of quality, the characteristics of my favorite pencils or what I consider to be the “best” are often idiosyncratic to the type of work I like to do – or just plain idiosyncratic. Like almost everything, art supplies are personal. What I’ve found to be the best for me might not be appropriate for someone else.
That said, I can think of almost nothing I enjoy more than talking about my favorite colored pencils (except maybe using them), especially on a dreary, rainy day. So, for your consideration (with the caveat of the first paragraph in mind), here are my top colored pencils. These are not ranked numerically. Instead, I’ve categorized them by pencil type (and couldn’t resist runners-up and honorable mentions). I’ve also included my reasons for choosing them. All in the top and contemporary runner-up listings are available open stock, which is a critical criterion. All contemporary selections are also considered artist quality, though I haven’t tested lightfastness myself.
Water-soluble colored pencils
Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle (above) – Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised by this choice; I seem to mention Museum Aquarelles any time I talk about my urban sketching process and how well these pencils meet my needs. These artist quality pencils have extremely soft, thick, heavily pigmented cores that make it much easier to apply a load of color efficiently and effectively in the field (discussed in my recent post about my minimalism challenge). If I had hours and hours to complete a drawing at the comfort of my desk, I might choose a different pencil (certainly a harder core would retain a point longer and require less frequent sharpening). But my No. 1 priority for any art material is whether it facilitates sketching on location. Museum Aquarelles fulfill that requirement better than any other pencil I’ve used.
|Watercolor (contemporary) runner-up: Cd'A Supracolor
Runner up (contemporary): Caran d’Ache Supracolor – Just one notch below Museum Aquarelles in price and quality, the Supracolor line is much wider, so when I need colors I can’t get in the Museum line, they are easily found among Supracolors. Not quite as soft or thick, Supracolors are what I would be using if I hadn’t discovered Museum Aquarelles.
Runner up (vintage): Sanford Prismacolor Watercolor – This vintage pencil is just as soft and creamy as its traditional, wax-based counterpart (see below) and nearly as pigmented as Cd’A Museum Aquarelles. Unlike traditional Prismacolors, however, I’ve only ever seen
them branded by Sanford. Apparently the largest
set produced was 36, but among them is a lovely brick red that is a daily-carry
to supplement my usual Museum Aquarelle assortment, which sadly lacks a good
brick red. (Unfortunately, these pencils are relatively difficult to find.)
|Watercolor (vintage) runner up: Sanford Prismacolor
Traditional colored pencils
|Traditional: Faber-Castell Polychromos
|Traditional (contemporary) runner-up: Cd'A Pablo
Faber-Castell Polychromos – Given how much I love the softness of Museum Aquarelles, oil-based Polychromos might seem a surprising choice in the traditional category: They are significantly harder than many artist quality colored pencils, such as Caran d’Ache Luminance and Derwent Lightfast. Since I rarely use traditional colored pencils in the field, my priority for this category is potentially more detailed work that I might do at my desk. These pencils retain their points well while still layering and blending beautifully. For the work I do, they strike the ideal balance between softness (for ease of application) and hardness (for detailed work). I also appreciate that oil-based pencils do not exhibit the hazy bloom that wax-based pencils sometimes do.
Runner up (contemporary): Caran d’Ache Pablo – Softer than Polychromos, oil-based Pablo pencils also strike a nice balance between too soft and too hard. I like using Pablos alongside Polychromos because the two competing product lines include different hues, so if I can’t find what I need in one line, it’s probably available in the other. (All other factors being equal, buying a set from each of two competing makers is a good general strategy if you are trying to acquire the widest range of hues. Lines within the same manufacturer will tend to have the same colors.)
|Traditional (vintage) runner-up: Prismacolor
I had difficulty choosing only one contemporary runner up. Derwent Lighfast is much softer than Pablo but is also delightful to use.
Runner up (vintage): US-made (1990s and earlier) Prismacolor – There’s a good reason why Eagle-, Sanford- and Berol-branded Prismacolor pencils are hoarded by colored pencil artists. Among the softest, their wax-based cores have a creamy consistency that layers and blends easily. The only problem is that they are now available only at vintage eBay prices. Their contemporary namesake, Prismacolor Premier, might look similar, but it has been made outside the US for many years, and the quality is unpredictable. While some people have had no problems, I experienced core breakage almost every time I sharpened; I ended up tossing the whole (thankfully small) set. The good news is that vintage sets are readily available on eBay. Although boxed mint sets are pricey, sets with a few pencils missing or a bit used can be found at prices close to contemporary sets. A similar favorite among vintage wax-based pencils is Design or Venus Spectracolor, but they are much harder to find and more expensive.
Honorable mention (also known as the Eye Candy category)
Contemporary: Tombow Irojiten – In the original “dictionary” boxed sets, these are among the loveliest colored pencils I’ve seen, including their presentation. Although they didn’t make my “top” list, they aren’t just a pretty face; Irojiten pencils are very pleasant to use, neither too soft nor too hard. In addition, the palette contains some unique hues not found in other sets.
Vintage: Eagle Magicolor – I would not choose these for use. But these fine ladies have aged beautifully. Their end caps alone make me swoon.
|Ladies in their lovely hats