Saturday, May 20, 2023

Review: Derwent Inktense Pencils (and New Colors)


Inktense: My complicated relationship. (An unfortunate consequence of buying all my Inktense open stock is the barcode sticker on each one. At least the adhesive allows easy peel-off.)

Derwent Inktense Pencils and I have a “complicated” relationship. We always have. Despite their being possibly my oldest water-soluble colored pencils – I’ve had most of them since my mixed-media collage days long before I began sketching – I have never reviewed them. I kept wanting to, or maybe I just felt like I “should” review them in the same way that I felt like I “should” love them. Whenever I thought about a review, I would use them for a while to refamiliarize myself with them, and then I would get annoyed or frustrated and put them away – and put off the review yet again. The last time that happened was a couple of years ago, and before that, in 2017 when I cataloged some complaints (but never got around to the review that time, either). And yet I could never reject them completely – and so the cycle would repeat at some point.

You see how complicated our relationship is?

Inktense end caps are a crap shoot.

My biggest problem is that I keep wanting Inktense to change. I keep wanting them to be soft without being waxy or crayony, and I don’t want them to be crumbly. I want the pigment to be strong and intense without being too strong and intense. I want them to have useful end caps that indicate the actual pigment color (or even hint at it). In short, I want them to be more like Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles. I know that’s unfair as well as pointless – why not just use Museum Aquarelles and forget about Inktense? Why keep going back?

Because there’s always something about Inktense that lures me back. To find out what that is, I decided to give Inktense a full, fair review (as fair as possible, anyway, from a reviewer who never claims to be objective). And to do that, I removed all Museum Aquarelles from my bag about a month ago and replaced them with a selection of Inktense. That way, I wouldn’t be tempted to reach for a Museum instead and constantly compare. My intention was to treat Inktense as if it were totally new to me (ha!).

First, a little more history: I have only ever purchased Inktense as open-stock singles in small batches. Many were purchased more than 12 years ago, and I’ve learned that some colors have deteriorated over time. I’ve also noticed that some feel softer than others, but softness can be affected by specific pigments as well as age.

When I compared my oldest pencils to my newest, I couldnt detect a consistent trend. Sometimes I thought newer pencils felt softer and less dry, but not consistently. Other than the fugitive issues brought up in the post linked in the previous paragraph, they seem to have held up reasonably well over time.

The first thing I did to begin my review process was to use my color journal to audition some hues for a limited palette – a CYMK primary triad and a secondary triad. Right off the bat, I was happy to have several dark purples to choose from, even among my less-than-complete set (but I tended to favor purples, pinks, reds and greens in my mixed-media collage days, so that’s not surprising). In addition to being important to my secondary triads, dark purple is a great basic shadow color. As has been well-documented by other reviewers, Inktense pencils are known to be fugitive, especially purples, pinks and reds (hues that tend to be fugitive in many media). If lightfastness is not a primary concern, however, then Inktense offers an excellent range.

My color journal page auditioning Inktense palette colors

My current palette of secondary, primary and special-purpose colors. Dark Purple (750) is especially useful. (The two pencils at the bottom show how the Derwent branding has changed over the years. Pink Flamingo is the current branding; Sun Yellow is the former.)

In fact, one reason I keep going back to Inktense, despite our “complications,” is its distinctive color range that is unfound in sets from other manufacturers. Back when I was looking for pinks and purples for cherry blossoms and their shadows, it didn’t occur to me to look in Inktense, but I should have – I would have had many more options. And now that Derwent has released 28 new colors (more on that later), bringing the total range to 100, Inktense’s range has far surpassed a certain Caran d’Ache collection that I’m not comparing Inktense to.

Now that those seductive colors are out of the way, I’ll get to pencil performance. To refamiliarize myself with them, I made a portrait in an odd mix of two reds and a dark green (inspired by both the Earthsworld model and Inktense’s vivid palette). I daresay they felt softer than I remembered (and also crumbly, which I do remember with annoyance). Activation with a relatively dry waterbrush made the already vibrant colors even more intense (downright garish, but the hues I achieved aren’t too far off from the model’s actual hair color).

4/20/23 Inktense pencils in Hahnemuhle sketchbook
(Earthsworld reference photo)

Next I did a sketch out the studio window to test a curious attribute that seems to be Derwent’s primary marketing angle: Unlike watercolor paints and most watercolor pencils, “Colour becomes permanent once dry leaving an ink-like stain. Inktense can be layered and keep colours vivid.”

4/23/23 Inktense in Hahnemuhle sketchbook. The foreground foliage has not yet been activated. I used a waterbrush to activate only the houses.

With my constant use of a spritzer, I have sometimes unintentionally reactivated some areas and ended up with a blurry mess. Inktense’s “permanent” attribute could be useful in this application. My intention here was to activate the rooftops and let them dry so that when I spritzed the foliage at the bottom of the composition, the previously activated areas would remain undisturbed. As you can see from the closeup below, the dark rooftop did reactivate and blur a bit.

Closeup of rooftop where previously unactivated particles have blurred with spritzing.

Finished sketch fully activated

While it’s true that Inktense moves much less than other watercolor pencils after drying completely, I would be hard-pressed to call it fully “permanent” (as in waterproof). To achieve as much permanence as possible, every particle of pigment must be activated and fully dissolved. If any unactivated particles remain, then when the second application of water hits it, it will dissolve (which I think was the case in my rooftop example).

This unique attribute could be useful, for example, if one were to carefully and fully activate an entire area of color, then glaze a transparent color over it, the previous color would likely remain intact and reasonably permanent.

But is this a truly unique attribute? In the test below, I first made a swatch of blue and activated it loosely (so that I knew some pigment particles would be unactivated). When dry, I drew a yellow swatch over it and activated that. The fully activated part of the blue swatch is clearly visible with a hard edge under the yellow glaze – a nice effect if desired. Some previously unactivated blue particles dissolved a bit into the yellow mix, making a green (also a nice effect, if desired).


But look what happens when I do the same test with Museum Aquarelles, below (oopsy, I’m comparing… oh, well). That’s a hard edge on the blue, too. So with a simple glaze without scrubbing, my guess is that most watercolor pencils can be somewhat “permanent.”

Museum Aquarelle

I pushed it further. After the yellow glaze had dried completely, I scrubbed the glazed area hard to see if I could make the blue Inktense layer budge. I couldn’t. When I did the same with the Museum Aquarelle swatches, both the blue and the yellow continued to redissolve, and the hard line softened significantly.

Museum Aquarelle


In general, with my usual street methods, I don’t notice much difference in Inktense’s solubility. It only surprises me when I try to continue blending some previously activated colors on the page, which I occasionally do, and some colors no longer move as much as others. If I used Inktense regularly and consistently, I could probably learn to anticipate this feature and change the way I work to take advantage of it instead of fight it. The glazing aspect definitely has potential.

On location, for the most part, Inktense has been behaving and performing acceptably with my typical methods. When spritzing tree blossoms and foliage, it doesn’t dissolve and disperse as fully and vibrantly as, ahem, “other pencils” I use (which, admittedly, are hard to beat in that regard), so I have to use more water. Used dry-in-wet, however, Inktense performs superbly (in other words, just as well as the “other pencils”).

4/25/23 Green Lake. Spritzing dry pigment is accetable, but it takes more spritzes to activate.

I like the dry-into-wet effect I get with Inktense when using Hahnemuhle 100% cotton paper.

Inktense also performed well with the “licked” sky technique, which I had talked about in a previous post.

After a month of testing, I am surprised to find myself saying that I would be OK with including Inktense in my overall range of pencils that I select from to take to the streets (along with “other pencils”). Expanding the color range beyond my usual Caran d’Ache palette is exciting to consider (though with the caveat about Inktense’s fugitive nature). Summer is coming (already here, according to our early heat wave) . . . it will be fun to explore some new primary triads that include Inktense (maybe even mix Inktense with Museum Aquarelles!). Ultimately, I think it’s the range of unusual, unique colors that lures me back every time.

I don’t expect to ever love Inktense the way I love Museum Aquarelles, but at least now we can be friends. Heck, we’re more than friends: I decided that we are certainly friendly enough for me to go all-in on those 28 new colors I mentioned. In fact, Pink Flamingo (405), which I used for pink dogwood trees, is one of the new colors.

28 new Inktense colors from Derwent

I bought the new colors from CultPens in the UK. Yes, I could have waited an indefinite number of months for Blick to stock them, but who’s got patience for that? Despite being across the pond (and despite its name), CultPens is a great shop for colored pencils and certain products that are difficult to get in the US (like the
Tombow Urban Sketching Kit I reviewed a while back). The shop makes it (overly) easy for customers like me by offering all the new Inktense colors contained in a free Derwent pencil roll. (Apparently the roll was a limited offer, because it doesn’t seem to be included anymore.)

CultPens made it so easy for me to hit "add to cart"!

I also appreciate CultPens’ customer service and nice touches like the cute paper clip on my packing slip. (A piece of candy was also included with my order, but it mysteriously disappeared before I could take this photo.)

Great customer service from across the pond.

Edited 6/3/23: (I have been meaning to amend this review with an annoyance about Inktense pencils that I was aware of at the time of the review but didn't mention. It has annoyed me enough times that it was worth updating with images.) When I’m applying heavy color to large, rough areas such as foliage, I often use the side of the pencil’s core. When I do this with Inktense pencils, the paint on the dark blue barrel rubs off on the paper. I have not encountered this issue with any other colored pencil. I can avoid the marks by keeping the point at a slightly more acute angle, but anything about a pencil that makes me have to be conscious of its angle is a drawback.

Inktense's blue barrel leaves tell-tale marks where I applied color aggressively with the side of the core.


  1. It is good to know that you have such a positive feeling about the Inktense pencils. I used to keep a tin of them next to me on the couch and used them when I was doing the Scavenger Hunts on Wet Canvas. Somehow they got moved and I have no idea where they are...or if they got mixed up with other wc pencils I have. I'll have to remember to check to see if Blick gets the new colors. I always liked them.

    1. Blick told me the new colors would be coming, but "it might be a few months." I couldn't wait! ;-)

  2. Recently purchased the 28 set from CultPens myself, with the wrap. Derwent Inktense are one of my favorite mediums to use, so versatile, they layer incredibly well dry, better than most any brands of pencil. And they’re just so much fun to use. I’m so excited that they finally decided to add more colors to the range.

    1. I was surprised to see the new colors come out because it had been so many years since anything new had happened to that line!

  3. I did search for my Inktense Pencils before I went out today. Found the box but about a third of them are missing. At least I had a nice, bright red to take with me.


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