Thursday, February 3, 2022

Tinted Graphite Comparison: Derwent, Staedtler, Spectrum Noir


Three brands of tinted graphite: Staedtler, Derwent, Spectrum Noir

Within the vast arena of water-soluble pencils is an interesting, hybrid animal: “tinted graphite.” Last fall, I made a few observations on this pencil segment when I came upon a Cretacolor AquaGraph. All the various manufacturers of tinted graphite pencils describe them similarly: a blend of graphite with unnamed coloring agents (pigment or, more likely, dyes). The graphite component generally imparts a subdued, muted tone to the hues.

I’ve owned a set of Derwent Graphitint pencils for so long that it was the very first product I reviewed on this blog (sorry that it isnt a very good review . . . apparently it didnt occur to me to show images of the product back then)! A while back, I acquired a set of Spectrum Noir ColourTint pencils that I hadn’t gotten around to reviewing. Then just recently I got Staedtler’s offering in the tinted graphite category (that link goes to Amazon, but I got mine on eBay, where lower-cost shipping options may be available). I thought it would be fun to compare these three sets. (I’m not including Cretacolor AquaGraph or Caran d’Ache Technalo RGB because they each come in only three colors.)

Derwent Graphitint

Staedtler Tinted Graphite

Spectrum Noir ColourTint

The back end is the only place where the color
is indicated on the Staedtler pencils!

Pricewise, all three are in the same relative range, with Staedtler being the lowest and Derwent the highest. Appearance-wise, none stands out as exceptional. They all have a basic, neutral-colored barrel with a colored end cap to indicate the hue. It’s worth mentioning that Staedtler’s design is especially annoying: The uniform gray barrel indicates the color only on the very end (image at left). Since the pencil tips all look similarly grayish and barely indistinguishable, you have to turn the pencil all the way around and look at its back end to identify its color. What an idiotic, impractical design for colored pencils!

While I’m complaining about the Staedtlers, I’ll also mention that they have neither a color number nor name on the barrel. On the barcode side, an article number appears, part of which is probably a color number – but why not stamp it prominently on the front so that it is useful to the user? To its credit, Derwent stamps both a color number and name on the barrel. Spectrum Noir offers only a color name.

Making the swatches together on the same page (Canson XL 140-pound watercolor paper) was illuminating. The three sets vary widely in their relative ratio between graphite and color. The softest of the three, Derwent’s Graphitint has vibrant, distinct hues when dry. Unfortunately, the washes, while staying true to their dry form in hue, are pale and disappointing.

Swatches made on Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper

Staedtler is the most surprising. Dry, all the colors look similar – like 12 shades of gray that would be difficult to distinguish in dim light. They look the most graphite-like of the three sets. When activated with water, however, they show their true colors, which are rich, intense and completely different from their dry state. They are the hardest of the three, which is the only predictable characteristic, since every Staedtler pencil I’ve used (colored or graphite) tends to be harder than its counterparts from other brands.

Spectrum Noir’s ColourTint is the most disappointing overall. It’s worth noting that these pencils are apparently sold in small palettes of color ranges. I chose the Primary set, and I’ve also seen a Nature set (there may be others). The 12 hues look the most like a “regular” set of colored pencils, even in their dry state. I don’t see much of the dark gray graphite component that is apparent in the other two sets compared here, especially in hues like Leaf Green and Maize. The most disappointing aspect is in the washes when activated – even paler than Derwent and not overly exciting.

These tinted graphite palettes are particularly suited to natural subjects and landscapes, especially on gray, overcast days. It was easy to choose a grayish morning to make three back-to-back sketches of the same scene through my studio window. I’ve made a few notes in the cutlines.

1/29/22 Derwent GraphiTint in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook. I like the dark, cool Slate Green in this set, which is useful for trees in these parts.

1/29/22 Staedtler Tinted Graphite in S&B Beta sketchbook. A useful neutral palette.

1/29/22 Spectrum Noir ColourTint in S&B Beta sketchbook. This is the only set that includes a yellow, which enabled me to color the yellow house appropriately. The Primary set includes three greens, but none was useful for this view. 

Derwent’s palette has enough vibrant, natural hues to be useful, but with wimpy washes, I don’t see a reason to choose Graphitint over any other water-soluble colored pencil set with a wide color range. Spectrum Noir ColourTint has nothing outstanding to recommend it, either (frankly, I’d skip it).

Despite my complaints about the frustrating design and inadequate barrel information, the Staedtlers are my favorite of the three tinted graphite sets – strong washes that appear unexpectedly from neutral hues when dry. It’s a unique product in that way.

In my test sketches above, I activated almost everything to get a sense of the hues, but the Staedtlers’ unique properties gave me an idea. I thought it would be fun to make a mostly monochrome sketch and selectively activate only those parts that need an unexpected hit of color. The sketch below, made the next day when it was rainy and even grayer than before, is the result. The activated areas stand out with contrast to the neutral tones of the dry pencil – an interesting result for a very blah day.

1/30/22 Staedtler in S&B Beta sketchbook. Two neutral dry tones brightened with selective activation.


  1. Interesting review of the 3 brands. I really like the slate green in the Derwent set.

    1. Yes, a useful color, despite the wimpy wash!

    2. I agree with the Staedtler review as I have those and LOVE the colors when activated. I just really want more colors...a pink and yellow. Thinking maybe I should get one of the other sets just to have these colors but use mine for the majority since they're so great. Also thinking about painting the colors on a slip of paper and taping it to the barrel of the pencil to make life easier. :)


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