Wax vs. Oil-Based Pencils:
Which One is Right for You?

Is there a difference between wax or oil based pencils? Does it matter when it comes to coloured pencil painting?

Wax type pencils are quite soft when you lay down colour. Compared with wax type pencils, those made from a wax/oil mix can have a harder feel and keep a sharper point.

Coloured pencils are manufactured from a complex mix of pigment, to provide the colour, wax or oil compounds, to stick the pigment to the paper and help it glide on, and clays and/or fillers.

The latter provides the strength for the pencil core so that it holds together and is strong enough to sharpen. Don't get too hung up about the fillers - they are essential to modify the colour (this is where your paler shades come from) and also to give durability. 

  • If a pencil core is too soft, it will be likely to shatter or break when you sharpen it. 
  • Too hard a core resulting from a high filler content will cause difficulty laying down the colour on the paper. 

It is all a matter of delicate balance. 

A soft pencil can be produced using either waxes or oils (or both together) and the softness will be down to a higher percentage of the hydrocarbons. 

Pablo from Caran d'Ache

For example, Caran d'Ache use waxes and oils in their production line. 

I always understood that the Pablo brand was an oil-based pencil. They are medium hard, and well regarded. Another artist corrected me. They manufacture Pablo using a process that takes a blend of ingredients (pigments, gum binders and fillers) and later adds some wax. 

Caran d'Ache tell us...

The process is what we call the non direct process. Leads are made of powders (pigments, of course, talcum and clay) and binders (always 2 kind of binders - gums). The leads are first extruded, dried for 8 hours and then soaked in molten waxes for 24 hours (like chips).

This is the non direct way to impregnate the leads with wax. In this case, the content of waxes is less than 10% of the total weight of the lead.

The low level of wax in the final pencil means that there will be a medium hardness in the 'touch' as the pencil is applied to the paper. A further benefit is that this will be unlikely to produce a wax bloom in the final artwork.

Luminance oil based pencils

Luminance are soft, oil based pencils which are designed not to produce a bloom.

In this case Caran d'Ache tells us...

LUMINANCE is a mainly oil based and direct pencil. Leads are made of powders, waxes, and hydrogenated oil (solid, not liquid), and natural organic binder (gum). The leads are first extruded, then dried during 8 hours and then stay in stock during 2 months before being used to make the pencils.

Direct, in this case, mean that the waxes (and oil) are directly incorporate in the recipe. Leads are not soaked.

In this case, the content of waxes is less than 30% of the total weight of the lead

The higher percentage of waxes and oils gives the softer feel to the pencils, the higher oil content gives the protection against blooming.

What about other brands?

Frankly, I don’t know, as the manufacturers are not as forthcoming as the people in Geneva.

We know Prismacolor Premier are the most frequently quoted source of complaints about wax bloom. I assume, therefore, that they have a high wax content.

I believe Derwent Coloursoft also uses a high level of waxes, though I have not heard complaints about blooming - perhaps Derwent are not being used so much in hot conditions.

Derwent’s lightfast brand are oil based pencils, so this may indicate a trend.

I am not aware of complaints about bloom regarding other European manufacturers who mostly use a wax/oil blend.

An interesting additional note from our source at Caran d’Ache may aid those who want to understand the subject better...

Blooming appears when you put down heavy layers or the artwork is sensitive to humidity, but it can also be a problem of "bad" formulation. If you mix vinegar and oil, you know what happens ? They can separate.

Archaeologists have found roman coins which were made (2000 years ago) with a mixture of silver and bronze, and when you analyse these coins, you find that these 2 metals are now separate. The heart of the coin is pure silver and external part is pure bronze.

This is to illustrate the fact that if you mix 2 synthetic waxes which are chemically not compatible, one of these waxes can migrate after weeks or months or years.

I don't know the recipes of all our competitors, but when they talk about oil based pencils, I think that most of the end users consider that they use liquid oils (as the one they use in the salad). There is a chemical process which produces a reaction between hydrogen and oil and you get what we call hydrogenated oil, which is solid and looks like a wax. It is this product we also use in LUMINANCE, and the reason why I say that it an oil based pencil.

I don’t think it matters if they make a pencil with wax, hydrogenated oils or a mixture of the two.

The factor that is most important is the percentage of oils and waxes, which then affects the softness. A soft feeling pencil will lay down colour more easily (but it will also be used up quicker). It will also be harder to keep a fine point.

The harder coloured pencils from the Artists and Studio ranges produced by Derwent contain more clay and also keep a fine point to enable fine detailed work to be completed - therefore they are much loved by botanical artists.

When you test out a brand for the first time, you often find that strong colour is more difficult to achieve from lower-priced coloured pencils. This is because there is a higher level of filler than the more expensive pigments. I will not go into pigments at this stage otherwise I will get hung up on lightfastness - which is another area altogether.

Ten years ago, when Peter first set out to prepare these notes, he did a lot of reading and online research. However, information was then very limited - and it is not a lot better today for commercial security reasons.

In the meantime...

If you find a brand is subject to bloom, let me know (but I already know about Prismacolor).

Softer brands will lay down thicker layers of colour and bloom will be more likely (but not Luminance which is soft and designed to avoid bloom). The medium hardness of Pablo and Polychromos seems to be proof against wax bloom, probably because of the low level of wax used.

It is a tangled subject, not helped by a lack of information from some manufacturers.

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