Monday, September 4, 2023

Back to School with Colored Pencils


Kid stuff!

Although I’ve had a sentimental connection to colored pencils since I was a young child, I admit that I didn’t use them much in elementary school. One vivid memory, however, stays with me: A girl in my first grade class apparently had a skin allergy to crayons. While the rest of us used crayons for all our projects requiring color, she had to bring her own colored pencils to use. Our crayons were bad, of course – waxy, low in coloring agents (hardly “pigments”), easily breaking – some no-name brand of lower quality than Crayola.

Her pencils, however, were even worse – with cores as hard as the wood surrounding the pale coloring agents. I remember feeling bad for her and the scratchy-looking, nearly invisible drawings she had to produce from those awful sticks. Later in the school year, she started wearing gloves so that she could use crayons with the rest of us.

With childhood memories of colored pencils like that, no wonder many people look askance at colored pencils as an art medium and even for casual hobby use. What a tragedy: The vast majority of the human population has probably never seen or touched a colored pencil that was of better quality than the ones my allergic classmate used.

The student-grade Swisscolor products in my Caran d’Ache Travel Kit and my comparison of other student-grade Cd’A colored pencils have put me into a back-to-school frame of mind. While many US elementary kids are probably taking Crayola colored pencils or (heaven forbid) RoseArt (which I haven’t touched in many decades but I have no reason to believe they have improved), I started wondering what children in other countries take to school.

I don’t have many colored pencils intended specifically for kids, and most of the ones I have were gifts, so my sampling here is limited. However, I have reviewed a few other low-end sets that could very well be taken to school without breaking the budget. In particular, the Sivo Vivid set in my wallet-friendly review is a great value.

In addition, I have reviewed some sets that are neither artist quality nor targeted to children but their per-pencil price range is so low (within the Crayola/RoseArt range but of much higher quality) that they could qualify as kids’ sets based on price. Several are discussed in my budget colored pencil showdown. However, I don’t consider these appropriate for the classroom because most come in humongous sets of 72 to 150 or even 300 that would simply be impractical for a kid to haul to school. (That’s just asking to be stolen, and storage would also be a problem.) They might be good sets for kids to use at home, though.

With that lengthy preamble, let’s get on with the pencils I selected for back-to-school:

A kind friend in the UK recently sent me a set of 12 Giotto Stilnovo colored pencils (the link goes to a set of 36 on Amazon; I couldn’t find a set of 12). Owned by the Italian brand Fila, the Giotto pencils are made in China. The price range and especially the space on the barrel to write the owner’s name make it clear that the Stilnovo line is intended for school-age kids.

Giotto Stilnovo bicolors and full-length pencils

A space for a name on each barrel

Interestingly, I already had a set of Giotto Stilnovo in bicolor form that I had purchased in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2018. A tiny art supply shop that catered to college students was a few doors down from our apartment. When I stopped in, I bought the set of 12 bicolors for €4,20 (a little more than $4) as a souvenir of this charming college town. (Perhaps it was weird to buy Italian-branded, Chinese-made pencils as a souvenir of Portugal, but by then, I had already bought some Portuguese-made pencils and other products.) The cores are the same in both full-length and bicolor pencils.

I don’t know how common Giotto pencils are in the rest of Europe (my friend in the UK says that Staedtler Noris and – gasp! – Crayola have cornered the budget-priced pencil market, at least in his country), but I imagined that they might be available at least in Italy. With low expectations, I picked out a primary triad and made the sketch below.

8/28/23 Giotto Stilnovo colored pencils in Field Notes Streetscapes sketchbook
(all reference photos by Earthsworld)

To my amazement, the Giotto Stilnovo pencils are softer and with more pigment that I would have expected from such a set – leaps and bounds better than Crayola at about the same price point. The Field Notes Streetscapes sketchbook paper’s mild tooth picked up the pigment easily, and the pencils are pleasant to use. If I had spent more than 25 minutes on this portrait, I think these pencils would have layered decently. If they are toting Giotto pencils in their backpacks, kids in some parts of Europe are doing well.

On the other side of the globe, we all know that those lucky Japanese kids are born taking for granted some of the world’s best stationery products, especially graphite pencils. Those brats have no idea how good they have it! But what kind of colored pencils are they using?

Strangely, the same Japanese companies that make premium graphite pencils are not living up to the same standards in the colored pencil market. For example, very disappointed by artist-grade Uni Mitsubishi colored pencils, I could hardly believe they bore the same name as my beloved Hi-Uni graphite pencils. In its defense, Mitsubishi does make excellent but extremely overpriced Pericia (also disguised as Posca) colored pencils, but none of these are priced for elementary kid consumption.

I was hard-pressed to find a kid-priced Japanese set in my collection, but then I remembered this one: From Mitsubishi, the pencils come in an adorable Hahatoco (“mother and child”) tin decorated with pups. Based on the design and information on the back, I’m going out on a limb and saying this set is intended for school-age kids.

Mitsubishi Hahatoco colored pencils

Back of tin

Inside are 12 Mitsubishi 880 colored pencils, which I’ve also seen in other packaging, such as this Uni Palette set. (Uni also makes the 888 line, which is slightly softer and marketed toward coloring book users, I think.)

Mitsubishi 880 pencils are inside.

I see it on Amazon for $40, but I’m quite sure kids in Japan are not paying that much, especially since the same pencils in the Uni Palette set are half the price (cute dogs notwithstanding). Even so, the Hahatoco set may not be in the same budget range as Giotto or Crayola. Despite that, I sketched with the Hahatoco set on perceived audience alone.

8/28/23 Mitsubishi 880 colored pencils in Streetscapes sketchbook

What a difference compared to Giotto (or Caran d’Ache Swisscolor, for that matter): Hard and with very low pigment, these pencils gave me quite a workout in the same 25 minutes on a portrait in the same Streetscapes sketchbook – and not in a good way. They are barely a notch above Crayola, if that. So maybe those lucky Japanese kids aren’t lucky in everything. I would like to get my hands on something that might be considered more equivalent to a student-priced set that kids can pick up at any grocery store (or, more likely in Japan, a ubiquitous convenience store). Anyone have suggestions on what brand that might be?

For my third sampling, I used a small set of Prismacolor Scholar pencils, a gift from another generous pencil friend. After searching for it online, I almost eliminated it from this post: I was surprised to see how expensive Scholars are for pencils intended for students. Those students might as well save up a few more dollars and buy Prismacolor Premier, which is revered by many professional artists (and is one of my favorites). Something seems off with Scholar’s pricing.

Prismacolor Scholar colored pencils

That said, these Mexico-made Scholars are easily the best of this bunch. Almost as soft and creamy as their big sister Premiers, they probably have a lower level of pigment, but I couldn’t see it in this sketch. I also forgot to be more critical because I found myself enjoying using them. I might have to spend more time with Scholars to see if they are worth the price. The question still remains, however: Why not just invest in a smaller set of Premiers instead of a large set of Scholars?

8/30/23 Prismacolor Scholar colored pencils in Streetscapes sketchbook

Any suggestions for other student-priced colored pencils I should consider? What are kids anywhere in the world taking to school?


  1. Time for Jolly Supersticks?

    1. Ooh, I see they come in watercolor pencils and bicolors, too!

  2. I don't think we used colored pencils much as kids. I know I did have a box of them but I don't remember using them. My parents knew Crayolas were our choice so we had lots of those in our stockings every Christmas.

    1. Compared to crayons, colored pencils were so hard and scratchy! Glad they have improved since then, or I wouldn't have anything to blog about! 😉

  3. From Singapore here. Growing up, we used Steadler Luna. My kid had the Giotto's as part of the standard set of art materials. Both were pretty decent, or at least hasn't put me off art :D. Another brand that is popular is Sakura - possibly the type of school grade Japanese brand you were looking for? Love the post and trip down memory lane!

    1. Interesting! Thanks for letting me know what kids in Singapore might be using! Staedtler and Sakura are both easily available here in the US too, but I've never seen Giotto here.

  4. Crayola are the absolute best colored pencils. Beautiful rich colors and the leads are a good medium--not so soft they just mash up like expensive pencils, yet not so hard they don't actually color. They blend beautifully too!

    1. Glad that you enjoy Crayolas because they certainly are a bargain!

  5. Hate to say it, but if those drawings are representative of what the other colored pencils do, I'm even happier with Crayola. The drawings have harsh scribbles with no soft shading or blending.

    1. What you are seeing in these portraits is more about my deliberately fast, messy technique than anything else. If I took the time to blend and shade carefully, I can get any colored pencil to look better. Did you look back at my Crayola post? When I spent a little more time, I was surprised by the result -- not too bad.

  6. It's great that you have some Bruynzeel pencils that were made in Holland. The Japanese company Sakura bought both Bruynzeel and Royal Talens at various points.

  7. I had no idea! All of my Bruynzeel pencils were made in Holland. Apart from some loose pencils I also have a tin with 50 pencils, bought in the 1990s, I think, and a plastic case with 12 mini pencils for kids, bought by my mum ca. 2000.

    I prefer the pencils in the Bruynzeel tin to the ones in the 30-pencil Caran d'Ache tin.

  8. How do the Caran d’Ache Swisscolor compare with the Prismacolor Scholars?

    1. I prefer Scholars -- softer and closer to Prismacolor Premiers. Swisscolors are harder and not close to Pablos or Supracolors (the artist-quality equivalents).


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