Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Budget Colored Pencil Showdown (Brutfuner, Arteza, Schpirerr Farben)


From top: Brutfuner square, Brutfuner round, Schpirerr Farben, Arteza Expert

In the early days of my colored pencil obsession, I bought plenty of low-priced sets. Even then, I had suspected that huge sets (often 72 to 120) for less than $30 couldn’t possibly be of high quality, but I had to find out for myself. Eventually I realized I was right, though some were of decent enough quality that their price made them a good value.

Although I’m still occasionally tempted (and still occasionally succumb, especially when bunnies are involved), I’ve gotten much better at resisting in recent years. Such was the case with the Brutfuner sets, which appear regularly on my Amazon Wall of Temptation, and yet I had resisted, even after reading strongly favorable reviews of them. After a recent discussion about Brutfruner with a blog reader, she generously broke up her sets to send me samples of both the round- and the square-barreled types!

The square-barreled Brutfuner (top) won't fit in a standard sharpener.
I don't like holding them much, but I love the way the barrels look and line up!

Without seeing and swatching the full color ranges, I didn’t think it would be fair to write reviews based on a few samples, but then I got an idea: I thought it would be interesting to compare the Brutfuners to other sets in a similar price range on a few key factors, like how they layer and blend and, of course, how they feel. Amazingly, though, I was hard-pressed to find any colored pencils as low priced as the Brutfuners – they are truly in a price range of their own – 180 for $32 for the round and 120 for under $25 for the square. (Incidentally, I learned from reviews that the same pencils are available under various brand names, including Kalour and Soucolor, both of which I’ve seen on Amazon, and all in the same price range).

Though they aren’t quite as low priced, I do own at least two sets that would qualify as “budget”: Arteza Expert and Schpirerr Farben. When I bought them several years ago, they were both in the range of 72 for $22 to $26 (slightly higher now). Although I reviewed the Arteza Professional Watercolor set a couple of years ago and commented on an interesting anomaly of the wax-based set, I never did write a review of Arteza Expert. The Schpirerr Farben set is another one that I had never gotten around to reviewing. Thus, these four pencils – Brutfuner with round barrels, Brutfuner with square barrels, Arteza Expert and Schpirerr Farben – made for a good showdown. (Negative points for Schpirerr Farben for being the only colored pencil with a name that I have to look at each time before I can spell it.)

The square Brutfuner includes color name in Chinese
only. Schpirerr has no color name; number only.
The other two include both color names and numbers

I didn’t include Arrtx Colored Pencils here (though they are squarely in the same price range) because I did write a full review only a few months ago. I admit, however, that they were in the back of my mind as I made my tests, since I had used them recently enough to remember what they are like.

Since my friend had given me Brutfuner samples in CMYK primary triad colors, I picked out the same (or as close as I could find) in the other brands. In an uncharacteristically systematic way, I made a tidy grid and sketched the houses through my studio window four times, one right after the other. I spent 15 minutes on each sketch, which includes some areas of light coverage and others of multiple layers and heavy coverage. (After the first one, it was fun to watch this familiar view reduced to geometric, nearly abstract shapes.)

Tests made in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook

In terms of softness, all four fall into that vast and squishy middle ground somewhere between Prismacolor (soft) and Polychromos (hard), but slightly closer to the softer end of the spectrum. Only the Arteza are billed as wax-based; the others all say they are oil-based.

(An aside: Lately I have noticed that marketing descriptions for non-soluble colored pencils favor pointing out that the pencils are “oily” or oil based. All colored pencils are made of binding materials including a mixture of oil and wax, so although the specific ratio of oil to wax may vary, they all contain both. When I think of my own favorite pencil brands, they include both “wax based” and “oil based,” and there’s no clear case of one type being better than another. Have these marketing departments decided that being oil-based is somehow more cool?)

Using the two Brutfuners side by side, the square-barreled samples feel a smidge softer than the round ones, and yet I can hardly believe that the manufacturer would bother to make two different formulas for two similarly priced sets. The core in the square barreled pencil looks ever-so-slightly larger, too (which could account for the softer sensation). (In fact, I know it is larger, because I measured with my new calipers! Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what those measurements are because using non-digital calipers apparently requires an engineering degree that I haven’t quite yet earned. I’m still reading the instruction manual, and every time I do, I need either coffee or a nap.)

It’s worth mentioning that although I love the esthetics of the matte-finish, square-barreled Brutfuners, which is a distinctive and relatively unusual shape among colored pencils, they will not fit in a standard-hole sharpener (which could be a deal-breaker for a casual-use set).  

For the price, both types of Brutfuners have surprisingly good pigment content, and blendability and layering are also good. In fact, by comparison, I was even less impressed by Arteza than I was several years ago when I first got the set and again when I used it during my Arteza watercolor pencil review. The Artezas have less pigment than the Brutfuners and do not spread evenly during the not-recommended messy method seen in the grassy area below the houses. (It’s not recommended as a coloring method, but I tend to color foliage this way in the field, and it teaches me different characteristics about pencils.)

The biggest surprise was Schpirerr Farben. I was still new to colored pencils when I first got them, and I’m not sure I gave them a fair trial back then; I hardly recall using them. In this brief test, however, I was impressed by their pigment content, which is higher than the others in this comparison. The Schpirerr Farbens are also easier to blend and feel the most “oil based” and the least “waxy.” 


The Brutfuners, round and square, are by far the best value if having the largest number of colors possible is a priority. For my money, though, I prefer to have fewer colors with higher pigment content and other, possibly idiosyncratic qualities such as “feel.” I don’t recommend Arteza at all, especially now that I’ve discovered my personal dark horse, Schpirerr Farben.

Although I didn’t include Arrtx in this comparison, I’ll include it in these summary comments: Though a good value, the Arrtx color range is limited (particularly in the lack of yellows) and includes many similar hues. Like Arrtx, Schpirerr includes some colors that are so similar that they might as well be eliminated. Considering all factors, though, Schpirerr still gets my vote as an excellent budget-priced set. (I noticed that Schpirerr Farben is now available in a set of 96 with both color name and number on the barrel.)

Edited 8/17/22: I forgot to link to the post I wrote several years ago of a couple of other low-cost sets.


  1. Interesting comparison. While I don't think I'll give up my Polychromos anytime soon, it seems that "cheap" has become better than the old days :-)

    1. "Cheap" has definitely improved from the old days! I'm definitely not giving up my Polychromos or Caran d'Ache, but I often get asked for recommendations from people who want to try colored pencils. I certainly would not recommend a high-end set to someone who doesn't even know if they would like colored pencils, so it's good to have a low-cost set I can recommend.

  2. Amazon sells Schipper Farben in France. The $42 set becomes a... €102 set. Better import it than getting imported for you !
    It's interesting to see there are budget sets that take customers seriously enough their product is decent.

    1. They are good pencils, but for €102, you have many better options, I'm sure!

  3. Love the comparison. The square picture looks SO much better than the round, it almost makes me suspicious ;-). You chose a good subject for a comparison test. Better, in my opinion, than doing apples. Anne HwH

    1. Suspicious? What -- you think my testing is anything less than purely objective and scientific? ;-)

  4. Hi! Color range aside, are Arrtx better pencils than the brutfuner square? Or are they on the same level? Especially on smooth paper (amazon coloring books), I can't find any comparison online! I know that the brutfuner square are loved by many coloring book artists but I don't know if the Arrtx are better, and if so worth buying even if they have fewer colors, or if they are the same, then I'll just buy the brutfuner square set... Thank you

    1. I think Arrtx and Brutfuner (square and round) are about the same general level of quality, but I somehow have an easier time layering with Arrtx. That might be a subjective thing about the way I work. They are all a great value if you want a large set of colors with good pigment for the price.


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