Thursday, January 27, 2022

Review: Karst Woodless Artist Pencils

Karst Artist Pencils
I hate to admit it, but it happened again: I was seduced by beauty.

Since I’m feeling confessional, I might as well spill it all: The primary reason I was on the Karst site was not for the company’s unusual stone paper sketchbooks (such as the one I reviewed yesterday, which I was genuinely curious about). It was that Facebook’s darn algorithms knew that I would not resist clicking on an image of distinctively beautiful colored pencil packaging.

In addition to notebooks and planners, Karst offers two sets of pencils, one graphite and one colored, both of which are woodless. Since Karst’s stone paper is made without trees, the wood-free aspect of the pencils fits the company’s values. “With no grain direction in our stone paper, and because our pencils are the ideal hardness for our journals and pads, Karst Pencils simply glide across the page making shading effortless and cramp-free,” says the marketing copy for the set of 24 colored Artist Pencils.

My heart-shaped eyes squinted with skepticism: By definition, pencils of all kinds need some kind of friction to adhere to the page. Stone paper is “completely friction-free.” “Designed specifically for use with Karst paper, but suitable for all paper types”? My heart-shaped eyes overruled my skepticism, and I quickly put the pencils into my shopping cart (along with the stone paper journal).

Readers of this blog know that this will not be the first time I have succumbed to visually spectacular packaging and presentation, even while doubting the performance of the pencils. But really, can you blame me? Take a look below – design worthy of a museum gift shop. I’ll stop talking and simply let you ogle these Karst pencils (a few comments in the photo cutlines).

Outer box includes wisdom by Anni Albers.

Even my devil mug has heart eyes for this lovely display box!

I'm guessing that the pencils are made by Koh-i-Noor, as they look identical to Progresso woodless pencils.

Foam inside the lid keeps the pencils protected and in place when stored.

Beautifully rounded ends and simple branding. No color numbers or names.

I probably should have left them on my desk to admire instead of sketching with them. [Insert foreboding soundtrack here.] But why buy pencils if I’m not going to at least try them?

I picked out a triad of Karst colors that matched closely to CMYK – so far, so good. Since the pencils are “designed specifically for use with Karst paper,” I made my first sketch in the Karst notebook (below). The first strange behavior I noticed was in the initial mixing swatch. When I applied yellow first, other colors applied over it seemed to resist the yellow. As comparison, I made another swatch with a Prismacolor yellow first and applied Karst colors over it. In that case, the black and magenta Karst pencils resisted less. Resistance in a colored pencil might make an interesting effect, but not when trying to blend.

1/12/22 Karst woodless pencils in Karst Stone Paper journal

The small sketch above took the better part of an hour as I worked harder and harder to eke out more color. The more I applied, the less appeared. Among the hardest colored pencils I have used, they slip and slide on that “friction-free” stone paper (as I suspected they would). The woodless pencils may offer “5 times more pigment, and no unnecessary wood barrel,” but that pigment was not appearing on the page.

Based on my experience, I would tend to pair a hard colored pencil with a toothy paper, not “friction-free” paper, as a harder core can get into a textured paper’s nooks and crannies better. Since the Karst pencils are “suitable for all paper types,” I pulled out my Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook, which has a light tooth, and tried again (below). I was able to get a little more color in less time, but with no less frustration. Despite their beauty, the Karst woodless pencils are terrible to use with both smooth and slightly toothy papers.

1/18/22 Karst woodless pencils in Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook

1/18/22 Prismacolors in Karst Stone Paper journal 

To satisfy my curiosity, I tried one more test. With a very smooth paper, I find softer pencils, not harder, to be more pleasant. I already knew from using the two waterproof notebooks,
Field Notes Expedition and Karst Stone Paper, that soft graphite feels great and also makes a rich line on those ultra-smooth papers. Since the Karst woodless pencils are “designed specifically for use with Karst paper” (counter to my intuition), I went to the other extreme and used soft Prismacolors in the Karst notebook (left). As expected, the Prismacolors were much more pleasant, and I was able to get more color on the page in less than half an hour.

My assessment: Not only are Karst pencils unsuitable for Karst paper; they are wretched to use on any paper. While the woodless aspect of the pencils might be appealing, a much softer pencil would be so much better on that friction-free surface.

Regardless of their wretchedness, they are still lovely to behold. Will I learn from this lesson? Unlikely. 


  1. LOL But their presentation in the box is so lovely....

  2. I received them as gift. I used them on cheap Strathmore sketch paper, and they did glide. You have to press hard to get the pigment on the paper, but when you do, it's very pigmented and smooth. Blending isn't an option.


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