The coloured pencil core content

Have you ever wondered what makes your favourite coloured pencils work? The secret lies in the pencil core, where a delicate balance of wax and oil helps bind pigments to paper.

But here's the interesting part: not all pencils are created equal.

While some manufacturers prefer oil-based formulas, others prefer the traditional wax route. So, what's the difference, and how do these two approaches impact your artistic creations?

Let's explore the world of wax and oil to discover the truth behind these colourful tools.

The main wax brands, such as Derwent (UK) and Prismacolor (USA), tend to be softer to the touch. However, they have a drawback: very heavy layering can cause a grey wax bloom to appear on the picture surface, obscuring its sharpness. This issue is more common in hot and humid climates and doesn't affect oil-based pencils.

Fortunately, wax bloom can be removed, and there are protective sprays available in the USA. However, these sprays are not commonly found in the UK, as European-made pencils are less prone to this problem.

If you're looking for a soft pencil that avoids wax bloom, consider Caran d'Ache's Luminance pencils from Switzerland.

These pencils are fully lightfast, have a high pigment level, and are manufactured to prevent wax bloom. Although they're more expensive than others, with a recommended price of £270 for the 72-set in the UK, you can find them online for around £170 or less.

What is inside a wax/oil based pencil core?

The pigment in a pencil colour strip is similar to that found in other art mediums.

It can come from traditional natural sources, such as ground earth, or from chemical sources, like Phthalocyanine or Quinacridone, often derived from oil processing and organic compounds.

A coloured pencil core typically contains gums and clays for strength, fillers to adjust the colour for pastel shades, and waxes and oils that enable smooth colour application and adhesion to paper. 

When selecting wax-type, non-soluble pencils, opt for transparent colours that layer well, allowing for greater depth and accuracy of colour. This enables coloured pencil artists to achieve a painterly result with precise colouring.

What is inside a watercolour pencil core?

The natural pigments in soluble (Aquarelle) pencils can be used similarly to those in artists' watercolour paints. Many will lift from the paper or react together to form a granulating mixture, creating a dappled leather or stone effect on the paper surface.

In contrast, modern organic pigments can be more permanent and staining, reacting like student-quality watercolours. Faber-Castell's 'Albrecht Durer' Aquarelles behave like watercolours, with many colours lifting from the paper if not left to dry and set for too long.

Derwent Inktense have pencil cores similar to inks. They become permanent once wet and can be used for silk painting. For this, it's recommended to use natural fabric and a fabric medium to prevent colour bleeding.

Highly pigmented Inktense blocks are also available.

Competitive exhibitions worldwide generally accept watersoluble coloured pencils, but only when used in their dry state. If you dissolve the pencil core with water, they're classified as Mixed Media and aren't eligible.

Pricing of coloured pencils

Colored pencil prices vary based on quality. High-quality artist pencils typically start at £2 each, with top brands reaching over £3.00 per pencil. Student-quality sets can be found for around £1 per pencil, and imported sets from Eastern Asia can cost as little as 50p per pencil.

However, price is no longer a reliable indicator of quality in the lower price ranges. Good student pencils can be found for 50p, and poor quality ones can be found for £1.50. To ensure quality, choose well-known brands with a reputation to uphold and buy from a source that allows returns of faulty goods.

Single pencils from quality brands, often referred to as 'Open Stock,' can be purchased for around £2. These are ideal for restocking your most-used colors.

If you're paying below £1.50 per pencil, it's likely you're getting a student-range pencil with more clay or binder and less pigment. While there's nothing wrong with this, artist-quality pencils will provide the most reliable results.

When looking for a full set, such as Polychromos, which has an RRP of around £200 for 120 pencils, you may be able to find deals for £150 or less. However, prices of European-manufactured pencils have risen significantly in recent years due to currency fluctuations. For example, a box of Polychromos that cost around £100 ten years ago now costs around £140.

Coloured pencils tend to be much cheaper in the USA due to the larger and more competitive market. If you have relatives in the USA, consider having them order and mail the pencils to their address for you to collect during your visit.

However, be cautious when buying mail order from the USA for direct delivery to the UK, as shipping can result in a compulsory VAT bill, Import Duty, and high shipping charges. Additionally, resolving issues with damaged or faulty goods is easier when dealing with a retailer in your own country.

Cautionary Note: When considering old designs that have been replaced, be cautious of old pigment formulations. While these deals may seem cheap, they might not be the best value if the old pencil core formula is poor.

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