Monday, August 8, 2022

Review: Caran d’Ache Neocolor II (Beya Rebaï Limited Edition Sets)


Limited-edition Beya Rabaï sets of Neocolor II

A few months ago when I was loosely sketching some tulips with Caran d’Ache Neocolor II crayons, I realized that I had not yet written a review of these water-soluble wax pastels. I suppose it’s because I don’t use them on location unless the location happens to be my own backyard. They are more fiddly to hold and look for in my bag compared to pencils, and I’d rather be seated at a table so that I can spread them out easily. In addition, the soft, chunky sticks are better used with a sketchbook larger than I like to carry. It means that I don’t use them often, even though I do love them. In fact, they are probably one of my oldest art materials that I still use, going all the way back to my abstract, mixed-media collage days more than 12 years ago.

(Please note that in this review I’m referring to water-soluble Neocolor II, not non-soluble Neocolor I, which I began playing with earlier this year. I wish Caran d’Ache would come up with more distinctive product names to distinguish between these lines! I bet there’s a lot of confusion at stores.)

Cold set and warm set

With that long history, it’s funny how I seem to “rediscover” Neocolor IIs every year or so. A product review is long overdue. What prompted me to finally write one was the recent release of two limited edition sets in collaboration with the French illustrator Beya Rebaï. According to Caran d’Ache’s website, “The artist and Caran d’Ache have joined forces to dream up two assortments of 10 Neocolor® II Aquarelle pastels. One in cold shades, playing on a range of blues, greens and pinks. The other in warmer tones with a range of yellows, oranges and umber. Two original palettes consisting of the artist’s favourite colours.”

I adore this wrapping paper and stickers from Papeterie! 

If I’d had a normal amount of patience, I would have waited to get the sets at Blick. Lacking that, I opted to order them from Germany before they were available in the US. (Surprisingly, though, I paid about the same as I would have at Blick for the products and even the shipping because the latter has gone through the roof lately [except when Blick occasionally offers free shipping deals]). The benefit of ordering from Papeterie in Berlin is that the sets came wrapped in lovely Cd’A-branded paper and adorable stickers! (Yes, I’m a Caran d’Ache fan, but I also appreciate shops that give customers a nice hand-wrapped touch like that.)

Sleeve slides off to reveal the classic red Caran d'Ache tin.

While the tin sleeves indicate that they are limited editions, the tins themselves are the same iconic red used to hold the Wonder Forest Bicolor set and other products in Caran d’Ache’s “professional” product line (Supracolor, Pablo, Neocolor I, Neocolor II, gouache, Fibralo markers, Fibralo brush tip markers). I always find it amusing that even when the tin contains brush markers or gouache, the white icon on it represents hexagonal pencils – likely alluding to Caran d’Ache bringing the first water-soluble colored pencils to the world in the form of the Prismalo line in 1931.

So what’s special about these Beya Rebaï sets? Are the colors themselves new or different from the regular Neocolor II line? No – they appear in standard Neocolor II sets and can be purchased open stock. As is my habit with most of my higher-end colored pencils, I have acquired lots of Neocolor IIs open stock over the years, but I’d never purchased a set of any size. These were a good excuse to finally have some tinned sets.

I was also attracted to Beya Rebaï’s selected palettes, both “cold” and warm. All those pastel peaches and pale blues – they are not part of my usual palette all, nor are they much of an urban sketching palette (except maybe in Italy’s Cinque Terre or Positano!). In addition, I was intrigued that the cool set included a pink and a red-orange that I would have put into the warm set. Clearly, they are intended as lovely complements to the cooler hues. I thought it would be fun and challenging to use a palette so different from my own.

Swatches in Stillman & Birn Beta

Swatches in Stillman & Birn Nova

The top swatches were made in a Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook. I also made swatches in a black S&B Nova sketchbook to see how opaque the colors are. I love the way the paler colors pop on black. As expected, however, they tend to become less intense and dull on the dark background when activated with water. Although richly pigmented, compared to Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils, they don’t dissolve as easily and require a bit more scrubbing.

These limited-edition sets also come with access to two 30-minute online videos of Rebaï demo-ing a few techniques using Neocolor IIs and explaining inspiration for her palettes.

5/12/22 No wimpiness allowed.

One thing I love about Neocolor wax pastels (both insoluble and water-soluble) is that they demand boldness. Unlike colored pencils, which can be used very delicately, it’s almost impossible to lay down lipsticky, crayony, water-soluble wax pastels and be timid about it. You can’t be wimpy with these bad boys, even if you want to. Even after years of using colored pencils, I can still succumb to wimpiness. Putting Neocolors in my hand is a good shove in the bold direction that I can always use. They also encourage looseness, which is another benefit to me.

On the first overcast morning after our heatwave broke, it was cool enough to sketch from my car. As I mentioned, the Neocolors are a bit cumbersome to handle while standing, so using my mobile studio was a convenient solution. Driving around Northgate after an errand, seeing nothing that seemed appropriate for those cotton candy-like, summery tints, I realized that it’s just a matter of seeing the palette as a range of cools and warms instead of specific hues. A-ha – color temperature to the rescue! It immediately became less intimidating to use an unfamiliar palette that someone else had picked out for me.

The Neocolor IIs are in plastic bags to keep them
from sliding down into the Sendak pockets. Not ideal,
but tolerable in my mobile studio.

But how’s this for weird? I happened to pull into Northgate Plaza, a typically blah strip mall, and the Rockler Woodworking store had a peach and blue color scheme! So my first sketch with the palette turned out to be a no-brainer (though I forgot to note which colors I used, I think they were mostly English Red ([063], Saumon Rose [071], Light Blue [161], Prussian Blue [159] and Dark Green [229]). I thought my A5-size Hahnemühle sketchbook would be a bit cramped for these chunky sticks, but I made it work. 

8/2/22 Neocolor II in Hahnemuhle sketchbook, Northgate Plaza (which serendipitously coordinates well with the palette)

The sun came out in the afternoon, so I took the Neocolor IIs to Evergreen Washelli cemetery (
8/2/22 Neocolor II in Hahnemuhle sketchbook
I showed this sketch yesterday and wrote about what I learned about the interesting shape of this monument). I love that bright yellow (called Chinese Green [730]) for the sunny side of blue-green foliage made with a combination of Malachite Green (180) and Dark Green (229). The monument is off-white, which is something I would typically leave paper white. With this palette, however, I tried Sahara Yellow (521) for the sunny side and a mix of one of the peaches and one of the blues (I forgot to note which) for the shaded side. It’s fun and challenging to push myself to use unfamiliar hues and mixes this way.

Standing in a cemetery path to sketch this, however, I found the wax pastels clumsy to use, as I expected. The tins are altogether unwieldy while standing, and the crayons are too short to fit in the slots of my Sendak. I carried them in Ziploc bags, which required tedious fumbling. (If I decide to use these more in the field, I’d definitely need to come up with a better carrying and usage solution.)

Intrigued by the palette but still experimenting with how to approach it, this thought suddenly popped into my head: What kinds of primary triads could I find? Clearly, I wouldn’t find a CMYK in there, but with a stretch of interpretation, there’s certainly one (or more) triads to be found. Below are two I mixed. In both cases, for yellow, I used Chinese Green (730), and for red, Vermillion (060). The only variable is the blue – Malachite Green (180) in the top trio and Prussian Blue (159) in the lower.

Two primary triads from the Rebaï palette

Neither triad mixes a violet, but the grays/browns that result from the red/blue mixtures are interesting neutrals. I preferred the green that came out of the top combo, so I decided to focus on that triad for my next sketch. Sipping an iced latte at Green Lake’s Retreat Coffee, where I had a table to make handling the Neocolors easier, I looked up and saw an intriguing shadow and composition across the street (below). This odd triad is hardly recognizable as a primary one, but once again, I let color temperature be my guide. The buildings were slightly warmer than the street shadows, and I like the contrast against the bright yet cool trees.

I know that some sketchers enjoy using color “recipes” that other artists develop, and many seem to find this easier than working out their own palettes. I suppose my recent explorations of the CMYK-based triad is the closest I’ve come to a “recipe,” but that still requires interpreting hues that can vary widely. In general, I’ve spent so much time exploring and honing my own idiosyncratic palette that it’s actually strange and more challenging to use a store-bought palette – but fun to explore, nonetheless.

From my previous experiences using Neocolor IIs combined with Museum Aquarelle pencils, I’ve discovered that they don’t necessarily mix as well as I had imagined, even though they are similarly high in pigment. If pencils are applied first, wax pastels will layer over them easily, but not vice versa. Neocolor IIs leave behind enough of a waxy surface that pencils seem to slip and slide over it. I do appreciate how easy and efficient it is to color large areas quickly with the Neocolors, and pencils can be used for finer details. It just takes a bit of planning so that they don’t fight each other.

8/3/22 Green Lake (Neocolor II in Hahnemuhle sketchbook)

Neocolors are easy to use when I have a cafe table!

As much as I still love Neocolor IIs (and surely intend to keep using them in studio), I don’t love them more than my Museum Aquarelles and the convenient versatility of pencils, at least for sketching on location. I’m unlikely to keep them in my daily-carry bag. Beya Rebaï’s intriguing palette, on the other hand, is worth further exploration – but not with Neocolors. What am I up to? I’m sure you can guess. 😉 Stay tuned!


  1. I love how they have a set of warm and a set of cool colors! I agree with you that working with crayons in a tin is difficult when standing...and they don't fit well into your bag...but the color combinations are fun!

    1. The warm/cool sets are genius... they made me buy both tins! ;-)

  2. You are not helping me resisting to the temptation of getting these nice little boxes! I already have the 40 set and there is about 50% of doubles compared to the content of these 10 crayon sets.

    1. If you already have the set of 40, the main benefit of these tins is the geek factor! ;-) But they are also very pretty!


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