Coloured Pencil Brand Differences

Differences between coloured pencil brands

It's not easy picking the best coloured pencil brand. There are so many options! Whether you're new to art or a pro, the right brand can really improve your work.

In this article, we'll cover:

  • How different brands compare
  • What to look for when choosing
  • Tips to help you decide

By the end, you'll know how to pick the perfect coloured pencils for YOUR art.

Let's get started!

Test before you invest

If you can, try different coloured pencils before committing to one brand. 

You don't need to buy complete sets to do this...

  • Ask an artist friend if you can borrow pencils from different sets, to try out. 
  • Order a few pencils online as open stock in colours you will use frequently. 
  • Order a comparison pack containing similar colours from different brands. 
  • Visit a local art store, if you have one, and use their scribble pad and test pencils.

Another option is to enrol in a coloured pencil course, where the instructor provides a wide variety of pencils for you to play with. 

A good selection to audition might include Prismacolor, Faber Castell Polychromos and Caran d'Ache Luminance. These vary in price range, softness and colour ranges.

You can learn more about each of these brands and many more on my pencil brands page. 

How to test your pencil selection

Now you are equipped with a small selection of either borrowed or purchased pencils it's time to test them. 

Use a cartridge paper for your test. It should have a smooth surface for detail, but also some tooth for the pencil pigment to grip onto. 

  • Draw some lines to see how thin you can go. 
  • Layer different colours on top of each other to see how translucent they are.
  • Try blending colours together to see if they transition smoothly.
  • While you're at it, blend different brands together to see what happens. 

There are three main types of coloured pencil

Non-Soluble Colored Pencils (Dry Point)

Not all pencils in this category are "wax" pencils, although that is a general term used, as is "pencil crayon". Some brands use:

• Wax only

• Oil only

• A mixture of wax and oil

Manufacturers don't always disclose their formulas.

Wax and oil-based pencils, are generally used the same way and can be mixed together.

The main difference is in the hardness of the pencil core. 

  • Wax - softer pencils: More colour, faster application
  • Oil-based - harder pencils: Keep their point better, easier to sharpen, better for fine details

Watercolour pencils

Water soluble or watercolour pencils are also known as Aquarelles, which is a French word. 

This versatile option can be used dry, as in the non-soluble versions above, or dissolved to give watercolour effects. 

Some manufacturers offer the same colour range in both dry and watercolour pencils.

You could economise by just buying the watercolour version but they can feel different when applying them to the paper so try them both to see which you prefer. 

Pastel pencils

Pastel pencils contain a chalky pigment which is quite different from what we have previously discussed. The pencil core is similar to hard stick pastels (such as Carré or Conté) only in a more convenient, less messy form. 

Both sticks and pastel pencils can be used in the same piece of art, with the sticks applied first and then detail added with the pencils. 

It is even possible to layer coloured pencils over pastel as in this tutorial. 

Questions to ask yourself

The following questions apply to all coloured pencils, particularly those that don't dissolve in water.

How easy are they to sharpen?

How easily can you achieve a good point without the colour core breaking?

Quality pencils have a wood surround well-bonded to the core. Ensure your hand sharpener has a sharp blade before testing.

We have a whole page dedicated to sharpening pencils. 

How smoothly does the colour go down on paper?

Consider the hardness that suits your style.

Botanical artists prefer hard cores for fine detail, while impressionistic artists favor softer cores for abundant colour.

Note that softer pencils require more frequent sharpening and replacement.

How fine a line can the pencil achieve and maintain?

Softer pencils make clearer marks but lose their point more quickly.

Does the pencil produce even shading?

This is important for layering colours in your artwork.

How good is the layering performance?

How well do the pencils handle when applying one colour over another?

Does the second layer blend with or cover the first? Transparent or semi-transparent colours allow for visual blending, while opaque pigments cover earlier layers.

Some cheaper brands may have a higher proportion of opaque colours or fillers.

Check this page for more about layering coloured pencils. 

How about the lightfastness rating?

Check if the pencils are marked with a lightfastness rating (e.g., stars or LF1/LF2).

This indicates how well the pigments resist fading in strong sunlight. If not on the pencil, check the manufacturer's website or the product packaging for this information.

Questions about watercolour pencils

Watercolour pencils, though similar to wax pencils, are typically marked with a paintbrush symbol to indicate their solubility.

How easily does the pigment disolve?

To test their effectiveness, draw a line and pass a damp brush over it.

While you may not completely blend out the line, you should see a good wash of dissolved colour on the paper.

An evenly shaded block of colour should dissolve more thoroughly, providing excellent watercolour that can be thinned to a very light wash.

Can I apply the wet brush to the pencil point?

It's important to dissolve the color on the paper rather than applying water directly to the pencil point.

Wetting the point can damage the pencil core, leading to breakage and premature replacement.

How permanent is the colour?

To check the color's permanence, try lifting it off the paper with a clean brush and absorbent paper. Some pigments can be lifted when wet but become permanent once dry (e.g., Derwent Inktense).

A note about pastel pencils

We will look at these in more detail in the pastel pencil section.

Pastel pencils handle very differently to the two types above. The colour they lay down is in a fragile surface which can be blended on the paper. For this reason a different type of paper is used which has a softer and rougher surface that will hold on to the pigment. A gritty paper can also be used - like a sandpaper.

Here you will be looking for a chalky pencil that can be sharpened to a fine point with a craft knife. They should have a smooth and finely ground core of pigment, which is strong enough to keep a reliable point.   

You will use up pastel pencils more quickly, so it is useful to know how easy it is to find individual replacement pencils. 

There is not a lot of difference between pastel pencil brands from the main manufacturers. They will all work together - the main difference will be in the softness of the pastel. 

The rule is to reserve your softest pastel until the later stages of the picture as hard will not easily go over soft pastel.  Generally, harder pastels give you sharper and better points, softer are easier to use.

In conclusion

In addition to all that, one more general factor needs to be taken into account which applies to all Coloured Pencils.

If you are keen on art and looking for a brand that will  support your requirements over a long period, it can pay you to buy a good set to get the benefit of the full range and have the added benefit of a box or tin for ease of access and storage. 

Remember, if you buy a set of 12 pencils, the set may well include a number of basic bright colours (red, yellow, blue, green, white and black and possibly violet). You may not use all of these bright colours very often.  Buy a similar set of 24 pencils and you will have the same set of 6 or 7 brights, but instead of being left with what I would regard as a very small handful of 5 useful colours from the 12 box, you will have around 18 useful colours in the box of 24.

Before you buy a set of quality pencils costing over £1.50 each, though, check on the availability and prices for single replacement pencils.  It is no good having to buy another set just to replace a couple of worn down pencils.

The most economical way to buy, if you are a specialist in one type of subject, is to get just the colours you need as single pencils. Store them in colour sets in pencil rolls, or separate cases which will hold 120 colours at a single opening.

I have a metal box of 120 Polychromos in three layers, where the bottom layer of reds, violets and yellows is hardly touched after five years.  The top layers of greens, blues and greys are now in their third or fourth life.A full set of one brand can usually be supplemented by additional colours from another similar make.I

t is quite possible to use a full set of Caran d’Ache Pablo together with a selection of reds and yellows (and other colours) from the Faber-Castell Polychromos range (or vice versa, using greens and browns from Pablo with your Polychromos set).

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