Coloured pencil test and comparison of brands

by Peter Weatherill

Peter's intention with this colour pencil test was to work a series of identical small pictures with a restricted range of colours. Then to describe how best to compare the results to find the most suitable brand of coloured pencils for his own needs. He selected five brands and seven colours which were fairly similar across the brands. These were...

  • White (to blend)
  • Bright scarlet red
  • Darker orange red
  • Light mid blue
  • Darker green blue
  • Light yellow
  • Yellow ochre

He developed a simple landscape scene to reveal how well the selected pencils blended to produce a wide range of colours then started with a description of working the first picture. If you are interested, his first test was completed using Caran d'Ache Luminance wax pencils and I have posted that original pencil test lower down at the foot of this page. 

The problem was..

After a couple of false starts it proved impossible to find the time to complete the pencil test.

The first need was to identify and lay out the choice of pencils from the selected brands. Then to select a suitable picture to use as the test piece, and then do the test - working all the test pieces in a single exercise taking notes and tabulating results. 

The reason for working all the tests together is to ensure that the same conditions and pencil pressures are employed across all the selected brands.  If you do a pencil test on different days you cannot be sure your testing is comparable. 

Peter identified the brands, and worked the first picture, but the scene was too complex and the first test took too long. He could not find the time required to do one full five brand test exercise in one day. Since then there have been new brands appear on the market and if the pencil test was undertaken again, different brands would have been tested.

We need to approach the comparative testing in a simpler way. 

So how can you do your own pencil test?

Start by considering the following points...

  • What type of pencil art you want to do?
  • Will your pencil decision depend on the cost?
  • Which brands and ranges do you want to test?
  • Where will you source the comparative brands to avoid having to buy full sets?

After finding the answers to the above questions you can move on to your own coloured pencil test. 

What kind of pencil art do you want to do?

What type of art do you like to do?

If you are a 'Colourist' and like working pre-printed images in books, then your finished work will be unlikely to suffer strong light which would make it fade. Therefore, lightfastness of the pencil pigments will not be an issue. You will be looking for a low cost pencil set with a wide range of colours, which sharpen well, and transfer colour to the page easily. Spending a lot of money on a high end set could be a waste. 

If you are a 'crafter', your area of interest could  be the making of cards and small gift pictures. Your concern here will probably be for pencils that give good colour and are hard enough to hold a fine point.

You will possibly be looking for a wide range of colours to be able to use with only a small amount of colour layering and blending.  The finished work may well have a short life so lightfastness may not be an issue. 

If you are a total art 'beginner' you will be looking for good quality art set, at a good price, with an adequate range of colours. Those starting out with their pencil art do not usually know exactly what their needs are at the outset and it is not sensible to spend large amounts of money on high end pencils until you are familiar with the options and what you intend to do.  A small/medium set from a good manufacturer’s mid price brand should get you going and become familiar with the techniques of blending and layering.  You can add additional pencils or buy a second larger set once you know what your needs are.  It will supplement what you have.

If you are an experienced artist just coming to coloured pencils you will already know what your preferred subject matter is likely to be. You will have some knowledge of the way colours blend and mix so will know about the darkening effect of mixing colours across the colour wheel, and seeking to mix some colours from primaries or near primaries. You will be needing reliable pigment levels, transparency in colours, and a good pencil point and handling.

You will also be considering the need for your finished work to be as lightfast as possible.

Two options present themselves here. You can go for a high end set from a leading maker (Faber Castell ; Caran d’Ache ; Derwent ; there are many more). This will give you up to 150 colours of good quality. Or you can choose a mid price range set for your pencil test

Some brands offer a mix of lightfastness (LF) in the sets and mark the pencils to denote those LF levels. Some sets are sold with all the pencils of high or maximum LF levels at a premium price.

If you are tending to work in a fairly restricted colour range (animal studies, landscapes, botanical studies) then you may not use some of the colours in the larger full sets.

I have a set of 120 Faber Castell Polychromos in three layers. The bottom layer of reds, violets, mauves and pinks has hardly ever been used in the 10 years I have owned the box. The top layer of greens and browns is on its third life.

If this is you, then a medium sized set of a top range would possibly suit you, and you can then go on to buy an empty 120 pencil case and complete your set with single pencils from a specialist retailer at a later date.

Pencils4artists.co.uk is a UK based Internet and shop retailer based in Dartmouth and an example of a firm that will supply a very wide range of brands in both sets and also in single pencils at a fair price. They also sell special comparative sets with a range of brands in the box so that you can do your own pencil test with a choice of colours. A fairly unique service. 

Mid price and low price sets on the Internet 

There are coloured pencils on sale at a very wide range of prices.  Most of them look very similar.

If you are on a budget and just starting out, you don’t want to pay out too much money until you know what your needs are. You do want to buy a set that will work for you and not prove a bad buy.

If you run a search on Amazon you will be offered a wide selection of brands in large sets at low prices. ARE THEY ANY GOOD?

The quick answer is that some are very good, some are adequate and some not worth sending for.

The majority are manufactured in Asia and some are branded up for the leading manufacturers to...

  • sell as student ranges
  • sell as ‘own brand’ by national retailers,
  • sell direct through internet outlets. 

Price is about the only guide you can go by, but that sometimes lets you down.

The main snag with cheaper pencils is that they usually only come in sets so you cannot easily replace a single worn down colour.

But first let's get an idea what a pencil costs before we look at the pencil test process. 

The main international brands sell at around £2 to £3 (UK) per pencil and a set of 120 Faber Castell Polychromos cost around £215 in February 2019. 

Some are more expensive - Derwent Lightfast are around £100 for a box of 36 - and Caran d’Ache Luminance lightfast are usually priced around £200 for the set of 76 (though I have seen them as low as £160).

So now you know what the top end cost, let us view the February 2019 options in the lower cost area.

Arteza : Heavily promoted on the Internet at around £35 for a set of 72. Reasonable quality compared with the top brands, and good for the price. currently only sold in sets.

Atmoko ( Amazon ) : £15 for 72 pencils in a box. Only sold in sets.

Staedtler Karat Aquarelles ( can be used wet or dry ) set of 60 for £55. excellent hard pointed pencil. can be obtained in singles but not easily, highly recommended, but if used dry they don’t layer and blend as well as wax pencils do

Art Spectrum : 124 pencil range in a collection of 7 boxes for £65. only in boxes - no singles. reasonable quality and good for the price ,if a little inconvenient to get replacements for used pencils as you need to buy a box of 24 mixed colours to get one replaced pencil.

These quotes are all UK prices. For our USA based readers, your prices will be of the order of

  • :Faber Castell Polychromos : 120 / 180$ :
  • Caran d’Ache Pablo wax : 120 /250$,
  • Spectrum Noir Colourblend 124 / 70$ :
  • Marco Raffine 72 / 30$ :
  • Prismacolor 150 / 100$

Prismacolor wax type pencils are Mexican made for the USA ( Sandford Group ) and are a very big seller in the USA, but hard to get elsewhere.

To do a pencil test, you will need a handful of colours of each of the brands that appear to be suitable. 

You can buy single pencils from many good on-line art materials retailers. But a very good and low cost approach is to ask artist friends who have coloured pencils if you can borrow some, to see which you find the best for your own picture making. (Also have a look at the ‘Pencil Brands’ Topic, in this section, for an idea of the differences between brands).

Doing a pencil test to see which brand is best for you

So now you know what they cost and assuming you have some samples, borrowed or bought, how do you compare to see which brand is best for you?

Start with similar colours in each brand.  

You will be looking for two reds, two blues, and two yellows similar to those shown in the photo below. If you look closely you will see that one of the yellows has an orange bias and the other looks more greenish. The first is known as a warm colour and the second a cool colour. The two reds and two blues follow suit, with one warm and one cool. A colour wheel will prove useful in deciding which are which, so you may wish to have one to hand.

These primary colours are basic to any colour mixing.  We use white for blending and for enabling paler tints.  If you only have three primary colours, along with white, this will still work. Try to have very similar colours from each brand to get a good comparison.   

For your pencil test chart you can use cartridge paper rather than an expensive surface.

First of all draw up a set of rectangular boxes to fill with colour. Label each line of boxes before you start so you can identify the colours afterwards.

Keep your reds together and similarly your blues and yellows. A suggested plan is shown below, but you will draw up your own to suit the number of pencils you are comparing.

The first column will allow you to successfully add extra layers of the same colour to see how the colour intensifies.

  • Layer one fills the whole box
  • layer two is applied on top, but leaving a section at the beginning with just one layer.
  • layer three covers only the last section of the box.  

The second column has a base colour and then a second colour on top of the right hand side. This creates a new mixed colour. 

You can either do another pencil test in the third column using a different overlapping colour, or you can draw some lines to see if the pencil brand is capable of producing fine lines.

What will this pencil test chart tell you?

Ensure you make notes on or beside your pencil test chart so you know which brands and colours you used. 

Also record how you felt about each pencil brand.

For example Peter noted...

  • Polychromos colour went down smoothly. Pablo felt as if more pigment was going down for the same pressure.
  • The Pablo point kept sharp, the Polychromos lost its’ point more quickly.
  • I used both the lemon yellow (Light Cadmium Yellow) on the first red sample and canary yellow on the second of the Polychromos samples.
  • I used lemon yellow and golden yellow Pablo on the Pablo Red
  • Both samples would need five or six layers on this paper to get reasonable coverage without blending.
  • I ran a line of Lyra clear wax blender across the sample’s bases and it made a substantial difference to colour intensity.
  • You do need a good level of original pigment to do an effective blend. Overall I didn’t find any surprises using these pencil brands which I make use of frequently.

Evaluate the results of your pencil test

The simple test shown above will tell you all you need to know about the basic handling of the pencils and you will be able to compare three or four competitive brands to see which works best for you. 

Hopefully you will be able to identify which pencil offers the right level of hardness in the point and puts down the level of colour you require. .

  • Botanical artists tend to want hard pencils to put down fine layers of colour.
  • Landscape artists often look for strong colour in a medium hardness pencil.
  • You might be looking for a soft pencil for strong, quick, colour

In addition to your own pencil test, it is always an advantage to check out the Internet for brand tests and comparisons and individual coloured pencil test results. 

In the beginning, this site was pretty well the only place you could get information and it carried pages of detailed pencil test comparisons. Now YouTube has hundreds of examples of what is good, bad, or indifferent in products. Keep in mind that many overstate the quality of the products they show, perhaps because they are trying to sell them.

There is one source on the Internet which is highly respected and recommended, and that is the ART GEAR GUIDE which is driven by Ivor Harrison.  His pencil tests are very fair and his reports are very useful.  

There is little point in our setting out to do individual tests when perfectly good ones are already being done.  I read Ivor’s tests and usually agree with them.  I think you will also find them useful.

Should you wish to read Peter's original comparative pencil test and follow that sort of test through yourself, then please read on.

The notes below were written in 2017, and only relate to the first test where Peter used the Luminance pencils. I hope you find this helpful.

Comparative testing of coloured pencils - wax based

Completed November 2017 by Peter Weatherill

I need to compare the pencils on the same paper and select the same image. I need to work in a similar manner with the same pressures on the point.I need to keep good notes as I go.

For this test I used a new 300gsm Hot Pressed Botanical paper in the style of the old Fabriano 5 paper and marketed by R.K.Burt in the UK. This is made in the UK by St Cuthbert’s Mill. It is surface sized and 50% cotton.

For the image, I went for a simple picture of a seaside hut which gives me some colour choices. I could have used the little welsh miner pottery figure used in my paper tests but that had a limited colour range and I wanted to open out the colour selection here.

The choice of picture also enables me to test out some handling techniques like scraffito, erasing and multi layering.

I restricted the colours used to 6 more or less primary colours. These are not the same as those found in most small sets of coloured pencils - manufacturers have an odd idea of what colours a small basic set should comprise and using the small sets would not produce a comparable result. My pencils are taken from sets of 72 or more.

NOTE : Most of the brands I compared have some colours in the sets which are of poor lightfast quality and will fade in direct sunlight.

I avoided the colours where poor lightfastness is usually found (pale pinks, blues and mauves). Check the manufacturers colour charts on line, where you can usually see the lightfastness ratings either as a number (1 to 9 ) or a star rating ( up to 3 stars - sometimes up to 5 stars). The higher the number scored, the better.

A set with a large range of pencils (100 or more) will usually give you more options to avoid poor lightfast colours. smaller sets will limit your choices.

Bearing in mind that Luminance pencils are ALL lightfast, this means that the relatively smaller set of Luminance - 76 - is more effective in competition with the others, with all 76 colours usable.

I consider 100 of the Prismacolor pencils lightfast, 100 of the 120 Polychromos pencils, 106 of the 120 Pablo, and on Derwent’s reckoning, 59 colours of their 72 Procolour are lightfast with the remaining 13 scoring 3 or less on their lightfastness scale.

Here are the reference photo and the simplified sketch I will use for comparing the pencils

I believe it should be possible to do the test with the following colours - two reds, two blues and two yellows and a white for blending. I will not use black.   

My first idea was to only select from the 24/30 sized sets but the colour choices would have been so varied, the final pictures would not be comparable and the test would only be on feel and performance.  Better to also include the  ‘end result’ in the comparison. 

You will note there is quite a lot of green in the picture, but no green pencils used. There is a reason for this. 

Aquarelle and pastel pencils blend colour easily, and it is relatively simple to work a full picture with just 6 ‘primaries. 

Wax pencils lay down specific colours in layers which are either blended with a white or clear wax blender, or optically blended by the viewer’s eye.  To get a good range of greens with wax pencils without using a green pencil will be difficult, but I hope not impossible.  A good result will be an excellent reflection on the standard of the pencils used.   The list of actual colours is given below with the pencil test result

There will be a close up of each worked example with notes,

You will observe that the drawing above omits the collection of old machinery on the right. This is a pencil test exercise, not an artwork!   However, I have included a few dark posts in the foreground and moved the top of the roof up a fraction to break the skyline …..   just to keep my compositional eye happy.


I am starting off with Caran d’Ache Luminance. These lightfast pencils with a high wax content have a soft touch and handle smoothly on the 300gsm hot pressed surface.

The colours used in this pencil test were as follows...

  • White 001
  • Permanent Red 061
  • Russet 065
  • Middle Cobalt Blue 660
  • Prussian Blue 159
  • Bismuth Yellow 810
  • Yellow Ochre 04

The building

I start with several light layers of permanent red to the roof, then adding a layer of russet and some Prussian blue to the edges to darken for shadow. I apply white to the shadowed wall (the lighter wall is left the white of the paper) and then lightly work some cobalt blue into the white. It needs a second layer of white to even it out as some lines still show even though I have worked with a very light touch.

With a very sharp point I complete the wheel over the door, and apply Prussian blue to the door edges to enable me to get a dark shadow when the red goes on top.

To complete the door, I work Permanent red over the door in three thin layers working across each other to keep the strokes even. I then burnish the red with the white pencil which presses the colour into the paper, and finally work a top layer of the light red back over the door surface. This gives an even and strong red finish.

The green areas

I now go to look at the green areas, and start with the foreground grass as I need to get a measure over how the green will develop from the colours I am using. I work light layers alternately of the Prussian blue and the Yellow ochre keeping the shading from being regular.

I leave the shadowed area beside the hut with little or none of the dark yellow so that it shows nearly blue. The left hand side of the grass in the image above shows this.

I continue to work very light layers over the whole foreground grass and then burnish with white (see middle section of grass). 

Finally I work back over the waxy surface with my dark blue and yellow again (see right hand side).

The posts

The posts are dark red over dark blue ( three layers ), The background hillside is mostly the lighter yellow and the lighter Cobalt blue. The water has a base of white to protect the paper surface and a thin layer of light blue with a further white layer over. Finally the road consists of light layers of a combination of all six colours worked in succession and is not burnished so that the grain of the paper still shows.

Conclusion

Luminance pencils are soft, waxy, well pigmented and are very ready to leave a mark on the paper.  Light layers of colour can be more difficult than with a harder pencil.  They layer well and also burnish and blend using a lighter shade of colour or white.

In my view, these pencils are best in a top layer of colour if there is a choice.  The lightfastness is comforting as you don’t need to worry about the stability of any of the colours.  A nice pencil and in my view worth the extra cost.  A good result.

Even though this test was never completed, I still thought it worth including the work I DID do on this page. I hope it proves of use to you. 

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