Friday, May 1, 2020

Product Review: Castle Arts Colored Pencils (Urban Collection)

Castle Arts Urban Collection 

When the Castle Arts line of colored pencils passed my radar, the price made me a bit skeptical. Still, as I showed in my survey of wallet-friendly colored pencils, I am always happy to be surprised when I find quality better than expected for the price, so a set of 24 for $15 was a small risk to take to learn about these. What intrigued me more, however, were the “themes” these pencils are packaged in. Of course, I chose the Urban collection.

More on the themes in a bit; first, the pencils. Made in China for Castle Arts Supplies of Wyoming and the UK, they have a round, matte-finish black barrel. A rounded, glossy colored end cap matches the core color, and the color name and number are printed in silver. Lightfast information is not provided.

I don’t usually show my entire swatch chart in reviews because I’m not sure how accurately the colors will reproduce on my scanner or appear on this low-res blog platform. Since the palette selection is an important part of this “urban” set, however, I thought it was worth showing.

Other than Cornflower Blue and Purple Lake (next to each other in the third row), which are too similar for a set of 24, this urban palette is close to my own. For example, I always like to have three greens, including a dark bluish one for Pacific Northwest firs. The range of warm and cool grays and browns is useful, as is the Indian Red for brick. The only hue I might add is “heavy equipment yellow” (530 Gold Cadmium Yellow in the Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle range), and this urban palette would do very nicely for nearly everything I encounter around here. Nice choices, Castle Arts!

4/8/20 Castle Arts colored pencils in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook
I wish I could get more excited about the pencils themselves, however. Neither soft nor hard, they apply with a waxy feeling that I don’t care for. Although they blend well enough, if I’m looking for a budget-friendly pencil, I much prefer Blick Studio in the same price range (it’s in my wallet-friendly review), which offers lightfast ratings and is also available open stock (I couldn’t find Castle Arts offered individually online).

Now I’ll talk more about the themes, which are the part of these pencils I’m most enthusiastic about. Along with the Urban collection, subject-based themed sets of 24 are available in Seascape, Landscape, Botanical and Portrait. I think these subject-matter themes make so much sense, especially for beginners who are just getting started in putting together their palettes. A standard set of 24 colored pencils from most manufacturers will have a decent range to cover most subjects adequately but will never cover specialties well. A botanical sketcher, for example, will never find enough greens in a standard set.
A total of 10 themes are available.

In addition, five more themed sets are inspired by specific artists: Cezanne, Botticelli, Monet, Kandinsky and Van Gogh. These seem a little less useful, but perhaps if someone is attracted to a specific artist’s palette, the selected hues will be inspiring.

The drawback to these themed packs is that there’s bound to be plenty of overlap among them, so if you buy Urban and decide you want to branch out to Landscape or Botanical, you will likely have duplicates. Or perhaps the same problem if you are attracted to both Kandinsky and Van Gogh. All 120 colors in the Castle Arts collection can also be purchased as a single set.

Paints are often sold in themes, but the only other colored pencils I am aware of that are sold in such themes are Blick Studio (Landscape and Portrait) and Spectrum Noir (Naturals, Florals, Primaries, Essentials and Shades & Tones). I think more pencil manufacturers should consider packaging by subject matter. If I were just beginning, seeing the palettes put together in these themes could help me develop my own palette with a good base to start with.

Worth noting is that the Urban collection comes with a five-step tutorial on how to create an “urban illustration.” As a how-to for developing a multi-layered, colored pencil drawing, I found it more useful and visually informative than most such “how-to” fliers enclosed with pencils.

The tutorial is better than most I've seen included with pencils.

This is probably a snarky thing to say in a review, but I’ll say it anyway: If you have access to Castle Arts in a store, take a look at the palette range for a theme based on your subject interest (shown on the bottom of the tin). Then, if you like it, walk around the store with it and build your own palette from it – with better pencils.


  1. An excellent and well-rounded review, as always! I appreciate your subjective description of the way they feel while applying to paper. And, with your expertise, I don't think it snarky to make your final recommendation 😉

    1. Happy to know you found the review useful! :-) Thanks for reading!

  2. I like your advice at the end...and don't forget that heavy equipment yellow.

  3. These colors are not exclusive to the theme sets right? Like the 120 set is every color from the theme sets?

    1. That would be my guess, but I have not confirmed by comparing each color with the large set. I do know that some colors are duplicated from set to set.

    2. Yeah, I actually think so. I know for a fact the numbers match with the ones I have in my 72-set so I do not see why it wouldn't hold true for the 120-set. Kind of wish CA would have downloadable tutorials of these themes on its website so if you have a 72 or 120 set, you don't have to buy a separate themed set.


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