Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Crayola Challenge


Mini-sized pencils, jumbo-sized aggravation.

Sarah Renae Clark is a popular, entertaining YouTuber who reviews lots of colored pencils and also designs coloring books. (If you think I have a lot of colored pencils, you should view this video in which she claims to have purchased every colored pencil she could get her hands on “to find the best colored pencils in the world.” More than 4,000 pencils! I’m not worthy!) I also appreciate that she talks about nurturing the creative learning process.

I recently came across a video in which she challenged herself “to see if I can draw a realistic colored pencil drawing with cheap Crayola colored pencils.” (In another video, she puts Crayolas head-to-head with Caran d’Ache Luminance!) Using a solvent to help blend the nearly non-existent pigment (my opinion, not hers) in the kids’ Crayolas, she manages to make an impressive piece of art with the worst colored pencils I’ve ever used.

What I found most interesting was that she said exactly what I’ve been saying about the importance of using the highest quality art materials you can afford (scroll to the end of that post), even if you are a beginner (in fact, I would say, especially if you are a beginner). Sarah points out that when you use low-quality products, you are constantly fighting with the materials instead of learning and supporting your creative growth. Using the Crayolas, she mentions that she’s not enjoying it, and if making art is not enjoyable, it’s much harder to keep practicing and improve skills.

I happen to have a fairly recently acquired set of Crayola colored pencils – 64 mini-sized “bright, bold colors.” I never intended to use this set – I bought it because I love mini-size pencils, and the box is nostalgic, of course. In solidarity with Sarah and our similar perspectives on crappy art materials, I decided to make a sketch with Crayola colored pencils, too.

12/22/22 Crayola colored pencils in Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook
(Earthsworld reference photo)

Unlike Sarah, however, I limited my self-torture to a typical small portrait made in my usual messy, crosshatchy way rather than solvent-blended, multiple layers. Choosing a Zorn palette from the Crayolas (poor Zorn is again rolling over in his grave), I couldn’t stand more than 35 minutes with these pencils. Although I’m not unhappy with the results, I certainly found no pleasure eking pigment out of those little sticks, which was like squeezing juice from a stone.

Knowing that Crayolas are hard, I chose a Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook with a lightly toothy surface that did at least some of the work of picking up and retaining pigment. I kept the points sharp. Instead of trying to blend, I used a rougher, optical-mixing method (which I prefer anyway). Toward the end, I was scrubbing pretty hard to make the pigments show up, and I could already feel the points sliding on the waxy buildup.

As both Sarah and I found, it’s not impossible to get decent results from bad materials, but it will take much longer, be more frustrating and be less fun. She and I know how it feels to use good materials, and we have enough experience with colored pencils to know when we’re fighting them. Someone with less experience, however, might think their frustration was their own faulty execution or lack of skill and become discouraged or give up. The latter, I think, would be the worst possible outcome of using low-quality materials.

I certainly wouldn’t expect a beginner to invest in a set of Luminance or Museum Aquarelle when they aren’t even sure they will like colored pencils, but using very inexpensive materials can be a false economy if they end up being a frustrating waste. Sarah recommends starting out with a good quality, mid-range set and upgrading gradually later; I concur.

Another point Sarah makes is paper (in her Luminance vs. Crayola video): “If you want to get good results with cheap pencils, you can’t rely on cheap paper, too,” she says, and credits her decent results to her paper choice. I certainly don’t have it in me to make another sketch with Crayolas on bad paper just to prove a point, so I’ll take her word for it that my results could only be worse. As I have learned myself, the right surface can make a huge difference in how a pencil feels and performs and certainly in the results.

This isn’t the first time I took part in self-torture; several years ago, I did a similar exercise using watercolor pencils I had previously rejected. 


  1. I thought for a long time that I hated colored pencils because I took art classes as a kid that had Crayola and the EVEN WORSE Roseart pencils, and the upgrade was prismacolors that break... it was your blog that convinced me to give them another chance!

    I had a similar experience with cheap smelly oil pastels. You don't have to go too expensive to get really good oil pastels, they're an underrated material in my opinion.

    1. Ohhh.... RoseArt!! Definitely even worse than Crayola! I haven't used them in many decades and hope never to again! I'm very happy that you gave colored pencils another chance! :-) So many better options now!

  2. It's natural not to invest a lot of money at the beginning of a new adventure, but it pays to do some research and find out if an affordable mid-range is available.

  3. Call me the outlier, but I love Crayola colored pencils if only because they were a gift that got me interested in exploring art supplies and making art. It's been a really slow process thanks to a lack of time. Intro drawing class this week. (Don't worry. I won't use the Crayola pencils. The instructor focuses on using pen!) Found you thanks to Ana and some of her Link Love.

    1. Any art material that gets you interested in making art is a good thing! :-) I'm happy that you found my blog! Happy sketching!


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