Your pencils are the tools of your trade and you should opt for the best quality that you can afford to buy. Where possible, choose artist quality pencils over student grade types. Artist grade pencils may be significantly more expensive and there’s a reason behind that. Artist, more expensive pencils, contain more pigment than their student counterparts. You’ll find that most cheap pencils are often not as saturated or as vibrant as the more expensive brands.
Using those more expensive pencils will make all the difference within you work as they handle a lot differently to the cheaper varieties. It might seem like a large, expensive investment but it really does make all the difference.
If you’re just starting and don’t know what pencils to try – purchase a few open stock. Open stock allows you to purchase each pencil from within a range individually, which is great if you only intend to work with a limited palette, or need to replace certain colours from within an established set. Alternatively, purchase a small set of the pencils which tickle your fancy. Most brands have a range of different sized sets so start off with a 12 or 24.
But what pencils are there to try?
I have trialled, tested and continue to use 4 main brands of coloured pencil and have outlined a few of their properties for you below. I continue to explore new brands as coloured pencils are just so addictive!
Faber Castell Polychromos
These are an absolute GEM of a pencil and always my go to. They’re an oil based pencil meaning the cores are extremely hard and they’re fantastic at getting all those details in. They sharpen extremely well to an incredibly fine point. There’s a range of 120 colours to choose from and all bar two are of high lightfastness rating (Light Magenta and Manganese Violet).
I have had little to no breakage with these pencils, even when dropping. The core of the pencil can take quite a bit of pressure before breakage occurs which makes them perfect for those which like to burnish with their colours as a form of blending.
The pigmentation of these pencils is very rich, especially when you apply that small amount of pressure. These pencils are also great for “glazing” and building colour slowly and you can achieve some really beautiful, semi-translucent tones.
The wood casing is of very high quality and hardly splinters. The only time I have ever incurred splintering was when I used a cheap hand held sharpener…the damage to the pencil was almost too much to bear!
Let’s talk about that white pencil…You may hear a lot of artists calling it “useless” but it does have it’s place, and no, that’s not in the bin. The white pencil makes a great blender and it DOES lay down colour on darker areas…just not as well as other white pencils. This pencil performs well over areas which have been blended with a solvent.
Caran d’Ache Luminance 6901
Ah, the cream of the crop, the Rolls Royce of pencils. These are my second go to pencils and are worth their weight in gold, especially when it comes to the colour choice. There are 76 beautiful colours to choose from, which may seem too few to many, but this set includes many soft, subtle natural shades which you just can’t find with other brands. The colours are perfect for wildlife and pet portrait work and I rarely think of them as a small set because of their fantastic range of neutrals. The lightfastness of these pencils is the highest you can find.
Being a softer cored pencil, the lay down is really buttery and creamy and they blend effortlessly with each other. They are a little harder to use for fine details as the pencil tip tends to break easily when pressure is applied, but they’re great for base layers, building tone and blending. They sharpen beautifully into super fine points.
The pigments produced from these pencils is exceptional either from a light layer or a firmer pressure. The colours seem really, pardon the pun, luminous, crisp and clear when laid down as a single block of colour or when glazing.
Caran d’Ache use a sustainable wood source for their casing and it’s extremely smooth and so nice to hold. These casings rarely splinter.
The white pencil of this set is my favourite. It’s incredibly opaque and lays down over darker colours with ease. I use the white pencil for my blending and burnishing and it makes a superb job. The only downside is adding in fine, white whiskers…as the core is so soft, it’s hard to keep that sharp point needed for those itty bitty details, but it’s easy to forgive as it’s such a fantastic asset to the set.
Caran d’Ache Pablo
These pencils are great “inbetweeny” for the Polychromos and Luminance. These have a range of 120 colours like the Polychromos, but they have a lot of those real earthy, neutral tones similar to the Luminance, whilst also housing a few really bright, vibrant colours which lend themselves perfectly to brightly coloured birds and wild pieces. The Pablos have one or two colours which are on the lower end of the lightfastness scale, but those are really bright, vibrant tones which aren’t really used if you’re going along the wildlife/pet portrait line of things.
The core of these pencils is somewhere in between the Luminance and Polychromos once again. The core can be sharpened into a super fine point and you can apply a fair amount of pressure before any breakage occurs. These pencils lay down quite smoothly and blend really well with each other. In my experience with them, it’s a little difficult to blend them with other pencils at first, but once you get the hang of it, it can be quite easy.
The pigmentation of the pencils is really vibrant and rich. Harder pressure produces really vibrant tones and light pressure produces softer, subtle shades which makes them perfect for block colour and glazing.
The casings of the Pablos are hexagonal and are a little more difficult to hold and not as nice as the Polychromos or Luminance. I much prefer a round barrel as it irritates my fingers less.
The white pencil in this set is another must have. It’s very opaque and covers really well over dark areas. This white however is not the best for blending and it’s not really smooth and buttery. This may just be my personal preference but I much prefer the Luminance white.
Prismacolors are a buttery soft wax pencil with a huge range of 150 colours. There are plenty of soft, neutral tones and a vast array of those really bright, bold colours which makes them perfect for any kinds of work. There have been quite a few grievances with Prismacolor over the years due to the fact that they changed manufacturer which resulted in a lower quality pencil. Despite this, these pencils are still widely used and favoured by professional artists.
The biggest issue I have with these pencils is the lightfastness. There are a lot of pencils in the set which are of a poor standard which makes it really difficult to use these pencils for work which is for resale or commission. The Prismacolors don’t list the lightfastness on the pencil like the other brands which makes it hard work trying to guess or having to look up which ones to avoid if you’re creating a piece that you want to last.
The core of these pencils is really soft and smooth and they’re the easiest to lay down onto paper as they just glide across the page and produce some really beautiful tones. As they are wax based, the cores are really delicate and adding pressure to the pencil almost instantly leads to breakage which makes them difficult to burnish with. The colours blend beautifully together and with other pencils.
The colours lay down really vibrant and rich both with light and firm pressure and they can be used for black colour and glazing. The only problem here being the wax bloom which occurs when applying multiple layers, but this can be removed by blending or introducing a little bit of solvent to break down that binder. (This also leads to really vibrant pigments!)
The casing break fairly easily and you can damage the core of the pencil really easily if you drop them. When sharpening, I find that a mechanical or hand crank sharpener works best and the wood casings rarely split. When using a handheld, it puts uneven pressure on the casings which causes them to break or splinter. As the core of these pencils aren’t bonded to the wood, when they’re dropped the cores often shatter or fall out completely. If this happens, pop them in the oven on a low temperature to melt the core and adhere it back together.
The white pencil is my absolute favourite and is really opaque and covers most dark colours. I find with the waxy build up that the white just glides over the darker colours and it’s actually really easy to lay down. If you want sharp, fine white hairs, it can be a little difficult to avoid that core breakage, but can be avoided by using light pressure and multiple strokes over the same area.
Why is lightfastness important?
This is extremely important, especially if you are wanting to sell your work in the way of originals or commissions. People want to buy something which is going to LAST. Customers aren’t going to be very happy if they’ve paid a hefty price and their beloved drawing fades within a year or two. That’s why it’s important to consider the lightfastness of your pencils and do your research or own testing on your pencils. As a rule of thumb, the more expensive brands are the most lightfast, but always make sure you check the manufacturers website for any details.