Saturday, August 29, 2020

Product Review: Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz Watercolor Pencils (Woodcased and Clutch Leads)

Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz Watercolor Lead Set

Mechanical writing pencils have never appealed to me the way woodcased pencils do. I’ve been told the advantages – the leads don’t need to be sharpened, the points stay consistent (though that’s not necessarily an advantage to me), and the barrel itself doesn’t shorten continually as woodcased pencils do – but they have never been my thing. I do use larger clutches for messy drawing media such as charcoal, sanguine and chalk, but that’s mainly because they come between my hand and the messy stuff. Otherwise, I haven’t found much use for mechanical clutches, either. (Except for my rainbow-swirled Koh-i-Noor 5.6mm clutch with Magic leads – I do love those! But then, I can’t imagine not loving a rainbow-swirled anything.)

2mm colored Caran d'Ache leads: better than most
Colored leads for mechanical pencils and clutches have occasionally caught my attention, but when I’ve tried them, I was inevitably disappointed. They are made for writing and technical drawing, so the leads tend to be very hard and low in pigment. The two exceptions are the Koh-i-Noor Diamond Lead Holder Drawing Pencils and the Caran d’Ache 2mm colored leads (I reviewed both at the Well-Appointed Desk). Both are much softer than typical clutch leads and have good pigment, especially the Caran d’Ache leads, which are even water-soluble. Still, with only six and four colors respectively, neither set makes for very robust drawing and coloring.

When I first spied a set of Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz watercolor pencil leads, I had two nearly simultaneous reactions: excitement and skepticism. I’m always excited to learn about a new watercolor pencil from a brand that I’ve been at least somewhat happy with. But my general disappointment with colored leads made me doubtful that this Koh-i-Noor set would be satisfying to use. Still, it was a set of 24 colors – the only full color range of clutch leads I had ever seen – and water-soluble, to boot! My curiosity outweighing both excitement and skepticism, I clicked “add to cart.”

The Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth Mondeluz line wasn’t new to me; I already had a woodcased set of the Czech company’s watercolor pencils. It had been a while since I had used them, however. While I waited for the lead set to come, I pulled out my woodcased Mondeluz pencils to refresh my memory.

Although the soft pencils are dusty to apply, producing crumbs that must be blown away regularly, they have good pigment content and layer easily. I tested them first by sketching some delicious plums my friend Alice had dropped off. I hadn’t recalled being impressed one way or the other by the Mondeluz pencils when I had used them previously, but I really enjoyed making the plum sketch. The hues were rich, and applying multiple dry-wet-dry-wet cycles produced good results.
8/11/20 Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz woodcased watercolor pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
Encouraged, I took them out a few days later to try them in the field (yes, our upstairs deck counts as “in the field”). Using my water spritzer to activate the foreground tree, I didn’t get a vibrant burst of pigment (compare with the trees left dry in the background), so they don’t work quite as well with my fast-and-furious road technique. Still, I found them sufficiently soft for my methods. I looked forward to the Mondeluz clutch leads to arrive to see how similar they were to their woodcased brothers.
8/13/20 Mondeluz woodcased watercolor pencils in S&B Beta sketchbook
I’m not picky about colored pencil packaging. Fancy boxes, tins and cases don’t impress me much because I prefer to store and use pencils upright in jars and mugs. (The one exception is Tombow Irojiten, which has packaging as beautiful as any I’ve seen for a colored pencil! But I digress.) When my set of Koh-i-Noor leads arrived, however, I was deeply annoyed. Shipped all the way from the UK in a thin padded envelope, the flat tin was wrapped in polyethylene, but the unhinged lid can be removed completely. It must have loosened in transit, because when I opened the tin, the contents looked like this:
Here's what the set looked like when I first opened it -- a mess!
The shallow slots do not hold the leads in place, at least in shipment, and I question whether they would be held in place even in a relatively immobile retail setting. Miraculously, only one lead was broken. After replacing the leads in the tray, I gently tipped the closed tin vertically at my desk, and all the leads shifted out of their slots again. The tin must be stored perfectly horizontally at all times. Worst pencil tin ever!

The photo at the top of the post shows how the set looked after I put everything back in place. In addition to 24 3.8mm colored leads, the set includes two graphite leads, one Progresso woodless graphite pencil, a brush, a sanding block and three Versatil lead holders.

Three lead holders were exactly what I needed to make my now-standard primary triad apple test sketch. Unfortunately, they are among the worst lead holders I have ever used. That’s not saying much, since I don’t have many clutches and mechanicals, but they are still terrible – very heavy and unbalanced. I must find different 3.8mm clutches if I’m to continue using these leads, but so far, I’ve had no luck. (Please let me know if you’ve seen any!)

Still frowning about the bad tin and now the bad lead holders, I was ready to pan the whole set – but to my surprise, the leads are quite good. They layer and blend well, and the pigment is rich and vibrant. Waxy, crayony and less crumbly than the woodcased Mondeluz pencils, they are softer than their woodcased counterparts and thicker, too.
8/14/20 Mondeluz watercolor leads in S&B Beta sketchbook
Using a knife is faster and easier than the sanding block.
Sharpening the leads proved to be more tedious than I expected. No lead pointer was provided with the set (I unscrewed a lead holder to see if one might be inside as it sometimes is, but no), so I used the sanding block that was included. After quite a bit of sanding, I refreshed the points satisfactorily, but for the second sharpening, I just used a knife – much faster and easier.

More enthusiastic now, I wanted to give them a field test. Keeping in mind their softness and high-maintenance sharpening, I thought the leads would be best applied where large areas of coverage are needed but not details. I put three shades of green into the lead holders and took them out onto the front porch, along with my usual pencil palette. In the sketch below, only the trees and foliage were done with the Mondeluz leads. As I had found with the woodcased Mondeluz, water spritzing didn’t bring out brilliant hues as I always hope for, but the leads are so soft and thick – almost like pastel crayons – that they are quite compatible with my field-sketching methods. The only problem is that I don’t care much for these greens together (and you know how picky I am about greens).
8/23/20 Mondeluz watercolor leads in S&B Beta sketchbook
Now that I’ve satisfied my curiosity and found these leads more than acceptably useable, only one question remains: Why? Why use mechanical pencil leads instead of woodcased pencils? Unlike mechanical writing pencils, these soft colored leads must be sharpened to use them for any kind of detail. There’s also the bother of changing the leads (unless one happens to own 24 lead holders). For my purposes, they are best used exactly the way I used them for the front porch sketch: A few select colors for areas where softness is essential – and a sharp point is not.

Good leads but terrible lead holders.
A major drawback of this set is that replacement leads are available open stock, but only from Europe, making the shipping cost far higher than the leads. It’s unlikely I’ll use these leads enough to require replacements, especially if I have to use them with these awful clutches, but I enjoyed experimenting with them. They are somewhere between a woodcased colored pencil and a water-soluble crayon, like Caran d’Ache Neocolor II.

Which brings me to what I was going to end this review with: “Wouldn’t it be awesome if Caran d’Ache made some Museum Aquarelle leads” – until I found out that they did! At one point, anyway – this set apparently hasn’t been available for some time. I was told by a Creative Art Materials rep that the lead set was succeeded by the Museum Aquarelle pencil, which was introduced in 2013. 


  1. From your description of these they don't seem like they are worth the hassle. Just having three lead holders and all those colors would make me crazy! I would go for convenience any time.

    1. Yes, me too! But it was fun checking them out anyway. ;-)


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