Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Return to my All-Time Favorite Medium- Colored Pencil! Let's Discuss Faber-Castell, Derwent, Koh-I-Noor, and, of course, Prismacolor

colored pencil on paper, Pumibel 2013
I did not forget that I have promised some charcoal reviews, but I figured I would take a little detour to discuss colored pencils again. I have a much older post where I reviewed the Prismacolor Scholar line, and many readers have found that post very helpful, especially Amazon shoppers. That is not the only brand I use in my art, however, and it would be unfair to go another day without reviewing the other brands I use. After all, colored pencil is my main medium in a large percentage of my artwork. One look at my blog's gallery page or my DeviantArt gallery will prove this. I have been using them in my fine art for more than twenty years, not counting the stuff I did with Crayolas as a kid. I didn't even like colored pencil in those days, but that was because I had not yet discovered the artist grade varieties or the myriad of techniques possible with this medium.

Affiliate Disclaimer: For full transparency, you should know that many of my links in my posts are affiliate links. As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when readers purchase items using my affiliate links. This helps me fund the blog domain costs, and you will not be charged extra if you buy anything using my links. 

Today I will discuss Faber-Castell Polychromos,  Prismacolor Premier and Verithin,  Derwent Studio and Artist lines, and Koh-I-Noor Progresso woodless colored pencils. I own and use all of these brands, and I have extensive experience with them. So grab your coffee, tea, wine, or whatever now, and make yourself comfortable because this is going to be a long one (but extremely informative I promise!).

Faber-Castell Polychromo Colored Pencils

Many of my fellow colored pencil (CP) artists love Polychromos for their sturdy cores and smooth application, and after using them for a couple of years, I have to agree. I have a relatively small collection of this brand compared to my massive supply of Prismas, but that is because the Polychromos are more expensive. Let me throw out some basic specs for the brand before I go into detail:

  • Oil-based cores (I'll get to why this matters)
  • 120 colors matching other Faber-Castell lines (color charts available here)
  • Excellentl Lightfast ratings, vary by pigment
  • Sold in sets and open-stock
  • Price range per pencil: $1.71 to $2.85 (Jerry's, Dick Blick, maybe around $1.45 if you buy in bulk online)
What do I mean by "oil-based and why is it important? Well, all colored pencil cores contain pigment and binder, just like any other solid drawing medium including pastels, crayons, and compressed charcoal and graphite sticks. Even though most colored pencils have wood casings (some do not), the cores are still solid pieces. Common binders in dry media are clay, wax, and oil, and the type and amount of binder has a direct effect on the properties of the medium. 

One important benefit of oil based pencils is that you will never have to deal with "wax bloom", which is an unfortunate side effect of wax-based pencils. Wax bloom is the hazy white film that forms over colored pencil art that has not been spray-fixed. It is harmless- just wipe it off, but it is an annoyance nonetheless. 

Another great quality for harder core pencils is that they sharpen to needle points and are fantastic for rendering tiny details.

Oil-based colored pencils are not soft and oily to the touch like oil pastels. In fact, oil based pencils tend to have harder cores that lay down smooth, transparent layers of pigment. Polychromo pencils are a perfect example of these qualities. The color is not weaker, just more transparent, allowing you to build value and mix color through layering techniques. All colored pencils, regardless of binder type, are transparent media, so most color blending happens via layering. We do the same thing when using wet media, but it is called "glazing". Artists can render richer, more vibrant colors and greater depth and realism through glazing. The same is true when layering colors with colored pencils, and the result is more painterly, which is why many of us call our works CP "paintings" rather than "drawings".  I have included one of my pieces below to illustrate how one can create a painting using colored pencil.

one of my colored pencil paintings
I used a variety of colored pencil brands to complete this painting

Harder cores are best used in the initial stages of a CP piece. This is a similar concept to the "thick over thin" rule in oil painting. Pastel artists follow the same guideline, using their hardest pastels for the first layers and moving up to the softest pastels for the very top layers. However, The very qualities that make Polychromos so desirable also impose limitations on this brand. They are not suited to heavy layering beyond the first few layers when using most drawing papers. The hard cores will start flattening the tooth on your paper, and you may end up just scratching into lower layers if you keep up after that. Of course, this does not apply when using sanded papers or really rough watercolor or printmaking papers. The more texture your paper has, the more layers it will hold. 

Prismacolor Premier Soft Core Colored Pencils

This brand makes up the largest bulk of my CP collection, and I have used Prismas for more than twenty years. I discovered them in the early 90's, and they have been a studio staple ever since. I have already reviewed the Prismacolor Scholar line, which is a very affordable alternative to Premier if your budget is super tight or if you cannot find the Premier line in your area. Here's an outline of Prismacolor Premier specs:

  • Wax-based
  • 150 colors matching other Prismacolor lines (color info here)
  • Has colorless blender
  • Sold in sets and open-stock. 
  • Easiest artist-grade colored pencil to find in the U.S
  • Lightfastness varies by pigment, info available at the Prismacolor site
  • Average price per pencil: $1.20-$1.39 online (Jerry's and Dick Blick, cheaper in bulk, of course) 

I started out buying sets, but I found that I use certain colors faster and that some great colors are not available in smaller sets. The 60, 72, and 150 sets are pretty pricey, so I began to buy more open-stock pencils. I buy white (as well as the colorless blenders) in 12-packs because Prismacolor has the best white for the price. Painters keep more white on hand because of its versatility in mixing shades, and colored pencil art works the same way. You can use white to fill in white areas, lighten other shades, and burnish parts of the artwork to create shiny, smooth textures. You cannot get this effect using harder pencils alone. If you are drawing slick or metallic surfaces that reflect a lot of light, you will need softer wax-based pencils, and Prismas are among the best in that category. 

Prismas and other wax-based soft-core pencils are easier to blend physically on the paper. With harder cores you have to rely on glazing to make optical color blends, which certainly has its advantages. Wax based pencils are not opaque, so you can use them to glaze as long as you keep them nice and sharp and use a light touch when layering. 

One downside of creamy wax cores is that you may have some trouble sharpening them if you do not have a good sharpener. I recommend a very high quality electric sharpener with a good motor, but it is hard to find one for under $60. I have had great luck with my Desert Song Multi-functional  pencil sharpener, which I have reviewed in a previous post. No matter what anyone says, you don't want a needle sharp point on a softer colored pencil because it will break as soon as you put pressure on it. The point should taper just short of a needle tip and end in a flat tip. Here is what I mean:

closeup of sharpened prisma premier pencil
This is a sharp pencil tip that will not snap off immediately!
Prismacolor Chartreuse (PC989) sharpened with my Desert Song

The Dreaded Wax Bloom: You do get wax bloom with wax cores, and Prismas are known to be the worst for this, especially when you overwork areas with lots of layers and burnishing. Never fear- when wax bloom happens, you just wipe the artwork gently with a soft cloth and spray it with fixative. I mostly use a final fixative after the piece is complete, but sometimes I use workable fixative to add a little more "tooth" for layering beyond the natural tooth of the paper. The final fixative is a better choice for wax bloom, so don't spray until you are done- just wipe off any bloom that surfaces while you are working. 

Bottom Line for Prismas: If you have a strict budget for supplies and can buy only one brand of colored pencil, your best bet is to get the Prismacolors. Despite their tendency to bloom waxy, these are the most versatile pencils (you can use them for details and larger areas), they have a huge color range, and they are the most widely sold brand in the United States. You can find them in any store that sells arts and crafts, including Walmart and other big-box stores, office supply stores and sometimes even in hardware stores. Apologies to my overseas readers- I have no idea about the availability in other countries. I welcome your comments to enlighten me and other readers about this point. 

pic of my favorite colored pencils in bins
These are the ones I use mostly- I have more stashed away in boxes!

Prismacolor Verithin 

I will be brief for this line because while Verithins are worth adding to your supplies, they have very limited uses in my opinion. I have a 24-color set that I have yet to use up. I do use them frequently, but only for the tiniest details in my artworks. They were created specifically for this purpose, and this is probably why they come in a much smaller color range. Basically, the pencils contain thinner, harder cores than any other Prismacolor product. You can get a needle-sharp tip on these babies- I mean you really could hurt yourself with them, so be careful! The largest set I have seen contains 36 colors, and while you can find them in open-stock (Dick Blick has them), it won't be as easy as getting the Premier singletons. Still, if you come across a cheap set somewhere, go ahead and pick them up. Aside from details like eyelashes and whiskers, they are pretty handy for ATC/ACEOs and other small format works.

pic of one of my cat drawings in colored pencil
"Faces of Fluffer"
CP on bond  (each rectangle is ATC sized).
I used Prismacolor Premier and Verithin pencils

Derwent Colored Pencils

Oh man, I could write a book about all of the Derwent lines, but I will settle for giving this section a larger heading. I own the following Derwent lines:

  • Studio and Artists colored pencils
  • Derwent Colored Drawing pencils
  • Derwent Water Soluble (watercolor) Pencils
  • InkTense Water Soluble Pencils (pigmented ink core)
  • Metallic Water Soluble Pencils
Relax! I am not going to discuss all of them, just the non-water soluble pencils (in the first bullet). I have a whole post dedicated to the Colored Drawing Pencils. It is really weird that I don't own any pencils from the newer ColourSoft line since I am such a CP nut, but maybe I will try a few sometime soon to see how they stack up to Prismas. Just need to find some space...

Derwent Artist's and Derwent Studio Lines

These are two separate lines, but I am reviewing them together because the differences are small. Studio pencils have a thinner core than the Artist pencils. Artist has a thicker, round barrel, while Studio has a thinner hex-shaped barrel. On my pencils, the colors have the same names but different numbers. This may have changed as mine are a bit old. 

My Studio and artist pencils are at least a decade old, and most of them are used about half-way. Maybe that says a lot to some people, but not all of it is bad. Honestly, I do not use them as much as my other pencils and they are not my favorites. But to be fair, it's hard to use these up quickly due to the density and hardness of the cores. These are great pencils for details, especially the Studio line, and for laying down very light layers. You can use these just as you would Polychromos, but unlike the oil-based pencils, the Derwent colored pencils are subject to wax bloom. They are not as "bloomy" as Prismas, however. 

Specs for Artists Pencils:
Specs for Studio Pencils:
  • wax-based
  • 72 colors (color chart)
  • 3.7 mm core
  • Available in sets and open stock
Also- Derwent has colorless blender and burnisher pencils available separately. I have used the burnisher, but I prefer to use the Prisma colorless blender. 

I have linked the official color charts for each line, and you will notice that Derwent includes light-fast ratings with each color. They use a 1-8 scale, 1 being most fugitive and 8 being the slowest to fade in sunlight. 

pic of my Progresso colored pencils

Koh-I-Noor Progresso Woodless Colored Pencils 

Because of their price and packaging, I had been under the impression that the Progresso pencils were for kids. Actually, I still think they are, and they are certainly appropriate for children and budding artists, but that is no reason for a seasoned artist to turn up his or her nose to these babies. I was not too skeptical or proud to get a set, and I am so glad that I did! These are really special pencils, and I don't mean "bless its heart" special, either. Koh-I-Noor has a very unique item here, and I hope they never discontinue this line. 


  • long-lasting- no wood case, just a solid colored pencil core with some sort of micro coating to keep your hands clean
  • Thick, strong core, sharpens in standard size sharpener
  • Beautiful, bold color 
  • Great for details and shading large areas
  • oil-based (no wax bloom)
  • CHEAP- 24 color set around $15 and 12 color set about $8; Blick has open stock for 75 cents!

Okay, so this is starting to read like a sales pitch, but that is not my goal. These are sort of the "hidden gems" of the colored pencil world, and I am all about low-budget living, being a starving (well, raggedy- dressed, anyway) artist myself. But there is good and bad to every product, so here go the Cons:

  • Only 24 colors in the range (what's up with that Koh-I-Noor?)
  • Harder to blend (layering a must here)
  • They will break if you drop them on a hard floor or step on them
  • The white really sucks for burnishing
  • Assume they are not very lightfast. Why? because I have no clue, and you can only get the test results for free through the Colored Pencil Society of America (CPSA) if you are a member. I am not, so my cheap ass has to rely on the kindness of those who have this information and are willing to share it in the comments. 

As with other mediums, choosing a favorite colored pencil comes down to personal preference, technique, and art style. What I consider a "con" could be a huge "pro" for others. Personally, I believe in keeping a variety of pencils, but it has taken a long time for me to build my stash as the artist grade pencils are much more expensive than scholastic grade (Prang, Crayola, etc). You have to experiment with different brands on various surfaces to discover your favorites. Don't be too quick to discard or give away your "duds", though. You may find special uses for them in the future (I know I have!). 

cat paw photobomb in pic of colored pencils
Get it Fluffer! 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this review. You answered questions I had about these brands, especially the Koh-I-Noor and Derwent. Nice picture of the details on "Faces of Fluffer".