Saturday, August 8, 2020

Product Review: Arteza Professional Watercolor Pencils

Arteza Professional Watercolor Pencils
If you spend any time on Facebook, Amazon or other sites where “algorithms” follow you around and know you like art materials, you will certainly be familiar with Arteza products. I started noticing the bombardment of ads years ago – large sets of colored pencils, markers and other seductive products for already low prices that would be offered as special deals that were ridiculously inexpensive. I know better – I am usually skeptical of and tend to avoid products that couldn’t possibly be good for the price – but what can I say? They caught me at a weak moment. I grabbed a set of 72 wax-based colored pencils (see end of review for comments on those) and 72 watercolor pencils for about 22 bucks each (I got mine on Amazon, where the price of the set of 72 I’m reviewing here seems to be about $40 at the moment; wait a while if you want it, and you’ll likely see a hot deal at some point. Arteza’s site seems to offer weekly deals of their own).

Nearly three years later, I am only just now getting around to reviewing Arteza Professional Watercolor Pencils. I kept thinking I should review them, especially because followers occasionally ask me about them, and obviously they are so heavily promoted that potential buyers are curious. And yet, I admit I kept putting it off because I simply couldn’t get excited. If they were excellent, I would have written the review long ago. And if they were terrible, I would have written the review even sooner to keep readers from wasting money. But they are neither here nor there within that vast middle zone of mediocrity.

First, a note on product branding: Arteza’s website calls these pencils “Professional.” But my tin and the pencil barrel itself are labeled “Expert.” I don’t know if this is a name change or just confusing branding, but as far as I can tell, there’s only one line of watercolor pencils. To add to the confusion, my sets of wax-based and watercolor pencils purchased three years ago look nearly identical with colorful abstract designs on the tin lids. Current product images show different tin designs with easily identifiable birds, fish and other animals, probably to waylay this confusion.

The pencil body itself is attractive for such an inexpensive product (made in China). The hexagonal barrel matches the core color. Branding, color number and color name are printed in silver foil. Some reviewers have complained of off-center cores, but I found only a couple in my set.

Thick cores
Each pencil also includes a lightfast rating of one to four crosses. I admit that this surprised and impressed me, since most low-cost colored pencils make no attempt at lightfastness (let alone identifying the degree). I was also initially confused when I saw the ratings. Typically, the greater number of stars (or whatever symbol) a color has, the higher the lightfast rating. And yet that would mean that Noir has a lower rating than Flamingo? And Fuchsia – which is usually among the most fugitive of colors – has the highest four-cross rating. I couldn’t find an explanation of the rating system on Arteza’s site (a significant omission for a company that went to the trouble of rating each pencil), so I did some Googling. It turns out that Arteza’s rating system is counter-intuitive – the fewer crosses, the higher the rating – causing much customer confusion.

The lightfast ratings would indicate that Arteza intends the Professional/Expert line to be intended for artists. However, I have not been able to find the pencils sold open stock, which would be a serious hindrance for anyone working on a large piece.

Lightfast rating of 1 to 4 crosses
Of the 72 colors in the set, many are too similar to be functionally different. For example, Peony, Plum, Flamingo and Fruit Punch (which are also among the most fugitive) are all very slightly varying shades of hot pink. Now, I have nothing against hot pink, but I don’t need four.

A good set if you like pink!
It was time to put the pedal to the metal. Shortly after purchasing the set, I made test swatches and noted that the application was soft, waxy in a crayon-like way and a bit crumbly. While some colors activated vibrantly, others did not. Most colors stayed true to their dry state after activation. My first test sketch of the banana and tomato left me with the impression that the pencils were basic and nothing exceptional.

1/5/18 Arteza watercolor pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta
To refresh my memory, I recently made the sketch of the apple, this time using my now-traditional primary triad test method. (Note the selection of Crimson 78 and Lemon 4 for the red and yellow, which are quite similar to the Process Red and Canary Yellow discussed a couple of weeks ago. I hadn’t yet read the Lindenberger book at that time, but I had remembered that the more vibrant triads I had discovered during last winter’s triad mixing madness included reds and yellows like these, so I chose them for that reason. Indeed, the resulting mix is rich and vibrant.)

5/29/20 Arteza watercolor pencils in S&B Beta sketchbook
This time I noted that while the initial application and water activation were satisfactory, subsequent layers did not apply or blend as well. I’ve experienced this behavior with some water-soluble pencils that I suspect may have less pigment than pencils that blend flawlessly, regardless of the number of layers. (I describe this observation in detail in this post – scroll down to the “Unexpected Insight” – because it has a significant impact on learning to use watercolor pencils. This characteristic of lower-pigment pencils makes layering difficult and frustrating, which impedes learning.)

Finally, I took the Arteza watercolor pencils on location. (In this case, “on location” meant as far as the front porch.) Still lives in the comfort of my studio are one thing. But to give a watercolor pencil the full shakedown, I must use it in exactly the same way I use watercolor pencils in the field every day. That means firm pressure, fast application, and, if foliage is sketched, spritzing with a sprayer to activate.

The sketch below of the scene across the street was the result. Though not nearly as soft as my beloved Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles (ahh, every watercolor pencil in the world must curse Museum Aquarelles, since they so unfairly prejudice me!), they aren’t too far from Caran d’Ache Supracolors in softness. They were easy to apply in my usual speedy, aggressive manner. As is often my method, I spritzed the foreground tree to bring it forward and left the background trees unactivated. It’s an easy way to see the difference between dry and activated pigments. I didn’t see the spectacular explosion of hues I’m used to, but the result is acceptable.

8/2/20 From our front porch 
My biggest disappointment occurred when I was fussing with my kitchen chair on the porch and accidentally dropped the four pencils used for this sketch onto our concrete porch floor. The tips shattered. In the years that I’ve been sketching, I’ve dropped many Museum Aquarelles, Supracolors and Faber-Castell Albrecht Durers onto concrete sidewalks, and while some have chipped, few have broken as badly as these.

Overall, I’m not displeased with the Artezas’ performance. They’re OK, especially for the remarkable price. They aren’t bad. I’ve certainly used worse. (Greg, a native Minnesotan, would say that my ringing endorsement expresses the kind of roaring, passionate enthusiasm that Midwesterners are parodied for.) 

Arteza Professional (non-watercolor) Colored Pencils (Warning: Excitement ahead!)

Will I also review the wax-based Arteza set? I must admit I’m even less excited about those than I am the watercolor pencils. In case I don’t get around to it for a long while, I’ll mention the most noteworthy points about them now:
  • The palette is identical to the watercolor set, so if you like perfectly matched sets of soluble and insoluble pencils, the Artezas would meet that need.
  • Their softness and crayony application are also similar to the watercolor pencils.
  • Although they are not supposed to be water-soluble, they are, in fact, more than slightly water-soluble! Most traditional colored pencils can be made to release a bit of pigment if a wet brush is scrubbed through a swatch, but typically not enough to be considered soluble. In fact, insolubility is an important attribute of traditional colored pencils for many artists. While researching the Arteza lightfastness question, however, I stumbled upon a review that mentioned that the traditional pencils are somewhat water-soluble, which naturally piqued my curiosity.

    I made a few test swatches below with a couple of randomly selected colors, and indeed, the wax-based Arteza pencils are nearly as water-soluble as their watercolor counterparts! For comparison, I also made swatches of Faber-Castell Polychromos, Caran d’Ache Pablo and Prismacolor (all of which are non-watercolor pencils) and scrubbed a waterbrush aggressively through them, which forced traces of pigment out. Yay, the caffeine has finally kicked in! This is the most exciting thing I can say about Arteza pencils: The traditional pencils and watercolor pencils are nearly the same! This discovery made me regret I had waited so long to review these!


  1. Funny how there is really not any difference. I've been seeing the Arteza watercolor brushes advertised so much and have been tempted...but I've resisted so far.

  2. I am disappointed that the Arteza non-watercolor pencils are pretty water soluble.

  3. On the matter of the crosses used for the lightfastness rating, I'm more familiar with the ASTM I - IV ratings, where ASTM I is the most lightfast and ASTM IV is the crappiest. So this method Arteza uses is more a FINALLY! moment for me--no more "translating" in my head. ^_^

    1. Oh, I hadn't thought of that! I'm used to the other system that is backwards for you! ;-)

  4. Thanks Tina. I've been looking at these but I haven't purchased them. I loved the comment about spritzing the foreground tree. You should write a book on tips like that.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the tip! I am thinking about writing a book someday... but right now I'm having too much fun just sketching. ;-)

    2. A book of posts like this - would make a great book.

      I'm finding that using watercolor pencils instead of watercolor paints is forcing me to learn how to draw (and practice drawing).

    3. This is my bias, but I think learning to draw is a good thing, no matter what medium you use! ;-)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...