Coloured Pencil Brands

This section contains reviews of the coloured pencil brands which you will find in the art materials catalogues, on dealers shelves or web sites. We look at how they perform and what they cost.

Two essential areas are  looked at - what goes into a pencil and how durable you can expect the colour to be, or its lightfastness. 

Comparison of colours is always difficult with so many variations on colours with the same name.  Finding an equivalent colour in another brand is always a problem and there have been many attempts at solving this over the years.

This section is NOT comprehensive.  The data here has been put together over an eleven year span, and all the tested brands have been compared on similar paper in a similar way.  During that time many new brands have appeared and manufacturer’s ranges have changed, so that it could well be that an item you are looking for has not yet been added.

 The pencil brands are listed in alphabetical order, and not in order of preference, quality or availability. Hopefully this will enable you to go straight to the brand you are looking for.   

You may like to check out our page explaining a Lightfastness test which will help you avoid pencil brands and colours that quickly fade and ruin your artwork results.

We have also put together a page that may help you with comparing different brands of pencil

Quick Pencil Brands list

Quick introduction to each brand

WAX TYPE ( Non Soluble ) Pencils

The softest pencils are the wax based prismacolor and Coloursoft along with Caran d’Ache Luminance which is a wax/oil mixture.

In Summary

Prismacolor has the largest colour range.  They originate in the USA (now made in Mexico). Wax enables the pencils to have a soft and creamy feel, but there are snags with wax, and we will look at that later  (see the topic on wax bloom).

Derwent’s Coloursoft is the most readily available in the UK as it is made here. Not quite so soft are Derwent’s Procolour and in 2018 Derwent Lightfast.

Prismacolor is easily found in the USA but much more difficult to source elsewhere, 

The Swiss made, Caran d’Ache Luminance oil based pencil, is also very  soft and is the most expensive (sometimes described as the ‘Rolls Royce of CP’).  This is manufactured by an entirely different process as described below.

Soft wax coloured pencils

Prismacolor

The Prismacolor Premier pencil brand range has a number of unique colours. While most have a good stability in strong light (see the notes on Lightfastness)  the paler colours do have several which have a high liability to fading.  Prismacolor did bring out a lightfast range in the USA which was withdrawn several years ago. You may still find stocks in some retailers, but replacements will be difficult.

As with any product that does not sell profitably, the accountants have the final say and may decide to withdraw a brand or even close down complete production facilities, as they did with Sanford Karisma in the UK. 

If you find Karisma, they are no longer made, but the colours and the feel are exactly the same as Prismacolor. Some UK internet suppliers specialise in seeking out old stocks of Karisma and may have some colours available to keep enthusiasts of the brand going.  Some of those pencils are labelled ‘Berol Karisma’ and those are the ones I am discussing. 

I did hear of a coloured pencil brand on sale a couple of years ago in East Asia labelled Karisma, but these came to nothing. They may have been an attempt by Sandford to market a low cost Prismacolor.

Berol Karisma pencils have the same colour range and feel of the older Prismacolor range - they just look different.

Prismacolor  Premier Wax pencils are not generally marketed by UK retailers, and have limited availability through UK Internet suppliers.  Individual pencils (Open Stock) are not easy to find, but one or two internet retailers were stocking them in 2018.

Prismacolor have a soft feel of wax.  There were new colours added in 2012 and the range now extends to around 150 colours.

There were problems over production standards and quality control when manufacture moved from the USA to Mexico. See the Prismacolor page for more information.

This pencil brand is the largest seller in the largest coloured pencil market (the USA), It is the brand that is featured in most American books on coloured pencil techniques.

If you are outside the USA and using a different brand, but wish to use American books as a guide, you may wish to read the section in this site on colour comparisons to be able to identify the nearest match to named Prismacolor shades.   

Some books offer comparison tables and some tutors are getting wise to the need to suggest alternatives to Prismacolor. My view is that provided you use a good brand you can get a very similar result with your own pencils without worrying about exact colour matches of pencil colour.

Derwent Coloursoft

Coloursoft from Derwent have 72 colours with a fair spread, which should accommodate most artists. 

As with most of the Derwent pencil brand, there is a good selection of the natural shades, with plenty of reds, browns and greens but relatively few blues.

They are manufactured in the UK and have very good availability in retailers and Internet suppliers.  Keep an eye out for special deals.

Coloursoft are a good smooth pencil with excellent handling qualities.

The standard set of 72 is, in most cases more than enough choice of colours, though in 2013 a supplementary range of Coloursoft ‘Fashion’ colours was added for a time, which were sold as single pencils or small sets.  These took the total colour range to 84. I do not know if the extra colours are still available.

Luminance from Caran d'Ache

This pencil brand contains a blend of waxes and oils.

They are very soft due to the special wax content, These are a fully lightfast pencil targeted at the  top end of the market with a price to match. They are a very good pencil.

If you wish to understand why manufacturers use either wax, oil or a mixture of both, please read the topic here on Wax or Oil.

Basically, thick layers of wax pencil can suffer from wax bloom - a grey powdery coating which can develop in hot humid climates. Oil based pencils do not suffer from this problem and Luminance are formulated to be both soft and NOT suffer from wax bloom.

Luminance are also lightfast, so the risk of colours fading in strong light is greatly reduced. 

The colours have a good range of natural shades and several colours come in doublets and triplets with two or three variants (lighter or darker) of the same colour. The downside is the fact that although there are 76 ‘colours’ in the full set, the actual unique colour range is less. 

The Luminance white is excellent as it is both soft and opaque and will add those finishing touches very well, whatever the original pencil brand. For this reason it makes sense to buy at least the white if you find a supplier.

Luminance as a brand is expensive to buy (due to the fact that they are manufactured in Geneva, Switzerland), but they are still an excellent choice for the serious coloured pencil user. An excellent soft pencil.

Medium grade artist quality wax pencils

Faber-Castell POLYCHROMOS, Caran d’Ache PABLO, Derwent PROCOLOUR, Derwent LIGHTFAST,  Lyra POLYCOLOR and Talens VAN GOGH are considered to be middle of the road in hardness. These are mainly oil based pencils (or some are oil and wax). 

Faber Castell Polychromos

Polychromos are readily available in the UK from a wide variety of outlets.

There are 120 colours with a strong field in reds, yellows and oranges along with a series of 12 greys..  

They are a very satisfactory choice, as not only is the colour range a tried and tested one, the individual pencils are readily available in the UK, to replace your most used colours. 

NOTE, if you order over the Internet from some retailers, they may supply a minimum of 5 single pencils, though they generally need not all be of the same colour.

Manufactured in several countries, the main production is in Germany - Polychromos are a very good oil based pencil.

Caran D'Ache Pablo

Caran d’Ache Pablo is similar in feel to the Faber Castell brand. It also contains 120 colours, but a greater variety of greens and browns and fewer reds. This colour range is more suitable for a landscape artist and the reduced range of reds and purples can create difficulties for those who wish to concentrate on floral subjects. 

Possibly slightly softer than Polychromos, they are an equally good choice for the buyer of a full set  and although they can be dearer than the Faber-Castell pencil brand, they are still competitive.   

A low wax content pencil made with a special process, Pablo is readily available as single pencils over the Internet.

They work very well in a set of mixed brands with Polychromos.

Derwent Procolour

Derwent Procolour appeared on the market in the summer of 2017. 

This is a middle hardness of wax type pencil, filling in the gap in Derwent’s range between the harder Artist and Studio ranges and the softer Coloursoft so they produce a wide range of over 100 good colours between them.

They are capable of a fine durable point for detailed work.

Lightfastness is a subject that often comes up with the Derwent pencils as they have released a larger than average number of sets with poor lightfastness and the Procolour pencils are no exception.  It is possible, however, to produce an excellent merged set with Coloursoft omitting all the low rated LF colours from both ranges.

Derwent Lightfast

Derwent Lightfast appeared in June 2018 as half of what would be an eventual set of 100 lightfast colours to ASTMS 6901 LF1. 

This pencil brand is highly pigmented and soft and creamy to the feel.

They are expensive, at between £2.50 and £3 per pencil at that price range and quality they compete with Caran D'Ache Luminance.  Luminance currently sell at around £2.90 a pencil in sets, but the Luminance range includes some ASTMS 6901 LF2 colours which are ‘lightfast’ but not as good as LF1.

Lyra Polycolor and Talens Van Gogh

Lyra Polycolor and  Talens Van Gogh are good, but not easily found and will therefore be more difficult to replace individual colours. 

The colour range in these last two is smaller.  I see that Polycolor are now listed by Great Art on their website and as as singles as well as in boxed sets. That improvement in their availability makes them more attractive as an option. 

Many of the Polycolor colour selection are similar to the Faber-Castell range, but the pencils are thinner, slightly softer and are less expensive. One or two colours are unique.

Van Gogh wax-type pencils are hard to find, but very good and also lightfast to the USA standard ASTMS 6901.  I haven’t seen them on sale in the UK for a year or so, but I know they are still manufactured. The maker, Talens, is part of the Sakura goup. 

( September 2018 - only the Van Gogh Watercolour pencils appear to be on sale in the UK ).  They advertise that they are ‘lightfast’, but see the individual Van Gogh page later in this section.

Other mid range pencil brands

Bruynzeel are made by the same Dutch subsidiary of the Sakura Group as Van Gogh, and are a good pencil. They tend to come in fancy boxes which are not necessary, but make a nice gift.

Cretacolor also now market a wax type pencil ( Karmina) in a small range that are good value. I don’t think they are available as single pencils, but that may change.

Koh i noor are also available in the UK in sets and European made. They are lower cost but good.

Hard wax pencils

Derwent Artists and Studio pencils

These have a higher content of clays which produce a harder point.  Good colours, not all lightfast.  A lot of botanical artists are great fans.

Availability is patchy but if you have a local supplier, you may find the option acceptable.  Your main source these days will be through the Internet.  I note that some Internet suppliers are selling these boxes of Artists pencils at very attractive prices.   

A good hard pencil they produce a good sharp point for fine detail.

You need to be aware that only a quarter of the pencils are graded 6 or above on the blue wool scale and can therefore be considered lightfast.  If you intend to buy a box, I suggest you check out the full colour chart on the Derwent website and note down the low lightfast colours so that you can - if you need to - use them with caution. There is a suspicion that the new Procolour may eventually prove to be a replacement, but that would be a shame as there is a need for a good quality hard colour pencil.

Spectrum Noir

A brand you may see advertised in the craft press and on TV craft channels is ‘Spectrum Noir’.  These come as small sets which add up to a wide range of colours, but single pencils are not readily available, so replacement involves buying another set.

They are available as both soluble and non soluble ranges. The pencils have now been tested here (2015/16 ) and are of reasonable student quality which might be anticipated by their relatively low price.

They are clearly manufactured for papercraft use.  I do not recommend them.  There is no information on lightfastness. For very little more cost, you can acquire a good quality student pencil from a leading pencil brand manufacturer and be able to replace individual pencils as they wear out. The overall cost will be much less in the long run.

Arteza and other Internet sale brands

Arteza is one of a range of new names in brands appearing on the market over the last few years. They are mostly manufactured in Asia to be marketed over the internet.  Over all there are good and indifferent brands in this class and price is not necessarily any guide, as the price is set by the seller.

Most of these come as sets only and the market for them appears to be craft rather than fine art.  However, there are good student quality pencils here.  Have a look at The Art Gear Guide for comments on testing by Ivor Harrison in the UK.

WATERCOLOUR ( Aquarelle ) Pencils

There are a bigger selection of manufacturers in this field overall. But only a short list who produce a good quality pencil brand and have them readily available in stores and Mail Order Outlets.

Most good Aquarelle pencils are fairly soft (with one or two exceptions) and not greatly different in the way they feel.  Mostly any differences will be in pigment levels ( how strong the colour you achieve).

I will list them here, first of all in order of availability. Note there are some harder pencils in this category and I will pinpoint those as I go down the list. There are also (as at 2018) many imported new brands from East Asian sources, sold at low prices.  These come in a wide range of qualities and price is no guide.

The most readily available brand in the UK is Derwent, with INKTENSE and ‘WATERCOLOUR’,  then Caran d’Ache with SUPRACOLOR SOFT,  and since 2013, MUSEUM and finally Faber Castell with ALBRECHT DURER.  There are two Albrecht Durer ranges - the smaller set are branded Albrecht Durer Magnus and are softer, larger pencils, and all lightfast. The original Albrecht Durer are standard sized and come in sets of up to 120. All these are available as single pencils.

There are some other good brands available and I will cover those in the detail below.

These are all good makers and your choice will be based on your own needs, the price and how easy it is to find them.

Derwent Inktense

These are one of the the easiest to find.

They have vibrant colours that are permanent after introducing water to the dry colour, but have a smaller colour range than the other two manufacturers listed here  (72 colours). I find the colours very strong and they need careful management and understanding. 

Very good for impressionistic work and artwork on fabrics.  It is suggested that you use a fabric medium or aloe vera gel instead of water for wetting the pigment, but see various YouTube videos showing the process.

The Inktense colours are similar to inks. The strong colours can be used with experience, to make very thin washes on paper and are then comparable to other brands of watercolour pencil in strength.

You will find a marked difference between the colour dry and the same colour when wet - particularly in the darker colours. 

Dry colour from the pencil can be erased. Once it has been wet, it is permanent on the paper.

  • Advantage - Good strong colours that dissolve well. 
  • Disadvanatage - They need skilled handling and I do not recommend them for beginners

Derwent Watercolour pencils

There have been several variations of these pencils over the years getting progressively softer. 

Years ago they had grey barrels to the pencils.  These are a much harder and older formula and if you are given a box I would suggest you try one of the newer versions before you spend time getting acquainted with the old ones.

The next vintage was the turquoise barrel design which was softer but still had had some very low lightfast colours. It had a medium hard core but had excellent handling qualities.   

The newest design (with darker blue barrels) was introduced in the Summer of 2009 and are now universal in retailers and mail order outlets. These are softer in feel and include more lightfast pigments.

There were early complaints about the cores being too soft for use in very hot conditions. If you are going to use soft pencils in hot climates, a cold box is suggested - not a bad idea for any brand of wax or oil based coloured pencil anyway!

I first used the newest Derwent Watercolour range for a demonstration at the 2009 NEC ‘Art Materials Live show’ and found them very workable. I have added them to my landscape options since, and use them frequently.

They have much stronger colours than the older formula and include a good set of greens for landscapes.

The colour core is a little softer than the  Caran d’Ache Supracolor. I have used these Derwent Watercolour pencils a fair bit over the years and have got to like them and the colour range - which includes a number of good colours that suit my style.

  • Advantage - readily available and a good pencil brand
  • Disadvantage -  a smaller range of colours than some of the competition

Caran d'Ache Supracolor

This pencil brand has 120 colours  (the same range as Pablo) and the majority have no colour shift when they are wet. The colour you put down dry is the same colour after adding water.

They have a soft feel and work well as a dry point pencil too. 

The Supracolor box colour range suits my style and offers the biggest colour range for landscapes. In 2018 an Anniversary set of an extra 30 colours was released ( these tins are still on sale in 2019 ) and that fills several gaps in the colour range with extra reds and several good greys and sepias.   This takes the full range to 150.

  • Advantage : Good colour range and minimal colour shift when wet
  • Disadvantage - They do tend to be more expensive than the other brands listed here.

Caran d'Ache Museum

This pencil brand was a new introduction of aquarelle in 2013 from Caran d’Ache, using a name previously used for sets of woodless watercolour pigment held in a special holder. 

The new Museum Aquarelle pencils are wood cased, and sold in the UK in sets of 20 Landscape or 20 marine colours. A Full range of the 76 colours is available as sets and as single pencils.

They follow the principle of the Luminance brand in providing a top quality lightfast pencil, sold at a premium price.

It is notable that they have a larger core than many other brands, so you do get good value for your pencil money.

I have tested them fully and the results are posted on the Caran d’Ache page.

  • Advantage - Soft and lightfast, handle well, stronger in pigment than Supracolor soft, and not as strong as Derwent Inktense. 
  • Disadvantage? - They are expensive, but in my view worth the money if you are into serious art

Faber Castell Albrecht Durer

This pencil brand also has 120 colours.

They have the nearest similarity to artists watercolours in the way they behave as wet colour on the paper and have a drier touch than some of the more recently formulated aquarelles. 

They are not to my own choice as I find they can have a dragging feel in use, but they do have some advantages for watercolourists who like to use colours that granulate or lift from the paper.

A good selection of reds and yellows to suit botanical work.  Probably the oldest formulation of all the watercolour pencils available.

  • Advantage - most similar to traditional watercolour pigments
  • Disadvantage? - a drier feel on to the paper than the other  brands listed above  

Albrecht Durer Magnus

The new line of Albrecht Durer Magnus watercolour pencils introduced in 2017 are softer and smoother and I was told that the 24 colour range was to be expanded in 2018.I have yet to see this.

These are bulky pencils which will not fit your power sharpener and will probably need sharpening with a craft knife ( which I do anyway ).

The 24 set comes complete with a good brush and the colour range will provide an excellent colour range in mixtures and blends. All the colours are lightfast.

Possibly these will take over in due course from the older Albrecht Durer line.You don’t need so many colours if you are using watercolour pencils as you can use traditional watercolour techniques.  24 is a small set though

Other brands to consider

Lyra make an aquarelle pencil and whilst these have not been easy to find in the past, I see that they have been listed on the Great Art on-line catalogue listings in 2018.  See the Lyra page for more info.

They are softer and smoother than Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Aquarelles, with many very similar/same colours.

Staedtler KARAT are  an excellent quality pencil brand for the low price. They have a harder feel than the other brands listed here, but take a fine durable point and dissolve well.   

One or two of the darker Staedtler colours have a colour shift when wet. Check your colours on a trial sheet of paper and test the colour samples wet to identify those which will need more care over in use.

They are very well priced for a very good ‘student’ quality pencil.  Capable of a fine hard point for detail but the colour dissolves well.

Karat make a good pencil choice for beginners as - despite the snag of one or two of the darker colours coming up a different shade when wet, Staedtler offer a box of 60 different colours for the price of 30 of the other brands….. around £50 from Amazon.

These make a good starter pencil and can be used both as a dry point pencil and as a watercolour pencil.

I have a box of 60 Staedtler Karat Aquarelles which I use regularly for making up washes for under painting, and if I am going away, the  box of 60 karat is the all purpose box I take, rather than the 120 of another brand. 

They are capable of fine work, and they are not as permanent on the paper as Inktense, so corrections can be made by lifting off excess colour.

The 60 colour range is good, and I use the 36 box for teaching courses and workshops.  The only snag with using these is that there are rarely single pencils available on sale to replace worn down ones. They can be found, but the beginner has usually graduated to artist quality pencils before a replacement is needed.

Well worth looking at for a beginner and people who try these out often go on to buy other brands.

Cretacolor Marino have appeared on the UK scene in the last year or so.  They are sold as a boxed set and the range extends to a set of 36 colours which is adequate for those starting out. 

The pigments are reliable and there is little colour shift between dry and wet on the paper. They are lightfast to ASTMS 4303 ( the testing standard for material content ), so offer an excellent choice at a reasonable price. 

The Pigments are not excessively strong so what you put down on the paper is generally what you get when you have used a brush to wet the dry colour (a long way from the strength of pigment in the Derwent Inktense ).  If you are looking to buy a starting out set with no surprises and can find a Marino stockist with an acceptable price, then this is a good option.

Koh-i-noor.  The Czech company Hardtmuth produce a range of good pencil products including the Mondeluz aquarelle.  Priced at under £1 a pencil in sets up to 72 in size.  I have tested their Pastel pencils (excellent) but not yet the aquarelles.

Woodless aquarelles NEOCOLOR 2 from Caran d’Ache and CRETACOLOR Monolith are very good for covering large surfaces as they are crayon style pencils with no wood.  Of these, Neocolor 2 has by far the greater colour range.

Spectrum Noir You may have seen my comments about Spectrum Noir in the Wax pencil review. This pencil brand also market a watercolour version which I have not handled ( 2017 ) but I would expect them to be a reasonable student quality pencil marketed for papercraft use. They are not available as single pencils and I know nothing about their lightfastness.

I have not tested Daler Rowney watercolour pencils and have only seen an occasional sealed box in some shops. They still appear in Internet listings ( Sept 2018 ) I believe they are manufactured in Europe by one of the main pencil manufacturers using Daler Rowney pigments. 

I have no other information and have not seen them recently.  Daler Rowney have not replied to my enquiries for information.

Winsor & Newton have marketed a small set of up to 24 colours in 2019. These are made in Vietnam but the colour range matches the W & N Cotman colours, and reports indicate they make a good starter set

A note from Peter

In my store cupboard, I currently have over 5,000 pencils from a wide variety of makers, more than I could possibly use in three lifetimes !

ALL the reviews on the associated Brand pages were done by me - unless it says differently.

I have prepared this section as a guide to those new to the coloured pencil world, so that you can avoid buying expensive and unsuitable pencils, for the lack of information.

Opinions offered here are entirely my own.  The reviews are not sponsored by the manufacturers. 

I have a friend in the UK who undertakes regular tests on new coloured pencil products and publishes them over the internet under the name THE ART GEAR GUIDE.   Ivor Harrison does realistic tests, is a skilled artist and is not in the employment of any manufacturer. Where he and I have both tested a product, we usually come to a very similar conclusion, so I see no point in trying to re-invent the wheel.

You might like these