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Fine Artist Color Pencils: How Do They Differ?

I am a trained fine artist. These series of articles share what mediums such as ink, pencil, or paint can do for your artwork.

How do color pencils differ and which kind is best?

How do color pencils differ and which kind is best?

Which Color Pencil Should You Use?

Thankfully, the world of color pencils is broad and includes some gorgeous hues. Color pencil grades can range from very hard to soft.

  • Staedtler Mars Noris is my favorite variety of hard thin lead range. Hard pencil grades work beautifully for detailed drawings.
  • Prismacolor Verithin pencils are another one to try in this range. These pencils hold a sharp line beautifully. They sharpen to a fine point, and the color is rich across both brands. However, I mostly use the Staedtler Mars Noris variety.
  • Derwent Colorsoft line is medium-soft with slightly less ability to blend compared to the Prismacolor Premier pencils and work well for beautiful lay down of rich color. There is also none of the graininess. Personally, I prefer the Derwent Colorsoft, but sometimes you may want more graininess/texture. In that case, go with the Prismacolor Premier.
  • Staedtler Mars CE series that has a triangular barrel is one grade harder. This is a nice compromise between the Derwent Colorsoft and the Prismacolor, which are super soft. These pencils are all wax-based and are good for most projects.

Note: The quality of your color pencil drawings also largely depends on the type of paper you use.

A good example of open stock pencils, usually found in all fine art stores and some arts and crafts stores.

A good example of open stock pencils, usually found in all fine art stores and some arts and crafts stores.

What Makes a Color Pencil a Color Pencil?

Color pencils are basically made out of three things:

  • Wood Casing: This is excluding the case of Kohni-Noor Progresso, which are woodless color pencils.
  • Finely-Ground Pigment: This can come in wax or oil form,
  • Binder: This is used to hold it all together. If they are woodless, it's mainly the vehicle (wax or oil) binder and pigment and because they are woodless, the outside of the pencil is shellacked.

Some color pencils sharpen very well with little effort and some do not. All pencils will sharpen beautifully with a new blade inserted in the pencil sharpener. People either forget or just don't feel like going to the trouble of replacing their blades in their sharpeners. Just think of it as an oil change for your pencil sharpener. The sharpener works best when it is maintained. You would not go without an oil change for your car, would you?

It is always good to have a set of neutrals.  Portraiture is still a very compelling form of art.  Nuanced colors are wonderful to work with.

It is always good to have a set of neutrals. Portraiture is still a very compelling form of art. Nuanced colors are wonderful to work with.

How Are Color Pencils Different?

The Prismacolor Premier is a lightweight pencil and because the color goes down very easily, this pencil is probably easier on somebody with arthritis or limited mobility in their hands. Your hands will tire less if you do not have to press as hard.

  • If you are using Prismacolors, keep them in a pencil holder as you work because they will roll and break. A roll-up or zip-up pencil case made out of some type of heavyweight material is ideal for these pencils.

The Kohni-Noor Progresso requires that you have to press harder, but I still have some pencils from a set that are twenty years old and still going strong.

The Staedtler Mars Noris barrel is hexagonal, very comfortable to use, and has a nice weight to it. The barrel is made of wood from environmentally sustainable forestry practices, and the design of the barrel keeps the pencils from rolling off of the table. As you can tell, rolling pencils really bother me. These are my favorite for fine detail work and the fact that they don't roll off the table.

The Staedtler Mars CE and the Ergosoft have a triangular barrel and because of this little ingenious design, these also do not roll off of your drawing surface.

If you will notice in this photo, these are the triangular shaped pencils by Staedtler-Mars, the CE series.  These sharpen beautifully and  are very good for detail work, but soft enough for large areas of color.

If you will notice in this photo, these are the triangular shaped pencils by Staedtler-Mars, the CE series. These sharpen beautifully and are very good for detail work, but soft enough for large areas of color.

Should I Buy a Set or Open Stock?

It's easy to fall in love with the wide-ranging hues in a large color pencil set. If you are a beginner, I would advise buying a set of 8 or 12 colors with yellows, reds, greens, blues, white, black, brown, and sepia (a light warm brown).

Then, buy a set of 8 or 12 neutrals. Choose warm and cool toned neutrals. Currently, I've got my eye on a 74-piece pencil set. I really don't need it, but it would be fun to have. Just keep this in mind as you look at different color pencil sets.

As you develop as an artist, you'll find that you have a certain palette of colors you are drawn to over and over again. I love all shades of blue, and I would like to have many shades of blue: from violet-blue to light sky blue and everything in between. You can get different shades of blue by using the basics pthalo blue or ultramarine blue and mix with varying shades of white or lightest cream to get interesting and beautiful effects.

Oil-Based Color Pencils

Oil-based color pencils are a different animal than the more familiar wax-based color pencils.

The Faber-Castell Polychromos is a favorite brand I have used. The color is super saturated like the Derwent Colorsoft and Prismacolor Premier, but it doesn't have the same graininess. This is an oil-based color pencil that is a sheer pleasure to work with. I would say save your money and buy these when you can.

  • One big advantage of oil-based pencils is there is no wax bloom. Wax bloom is a whitish layer that appears if you are layering on your colors. It sometimes occurs when too much pressure is applied to the paper. The amount of wax bloom that develops on your drawing depends on the quality of the wax-based pencils you are using and how you use them. It seems that the more pressure you exert using a wax-based color pencil, the more wax bloom develops.
  • You can get sets of the Faber Castell Polychromos for a fraction of their high in-store retail price on Amazon. This is an excellent brand that does not get enough press in my opinion. They have extremely rich colors and a beautiful nongrainy laydown. If you want to buy them as open-stock (selecting exactly which colors you want), they are reasonably priced—not all open stock pencils are. I have found they are less expensive than Prismacolor open stock and a better value.
  • They seem to last forever because of the harder leads. I am speaking from experience. Harder leads are easier to sharpen and don't crumble anywhere near as much. In the long run, for me, they are more economical.

Holbein is another oil-based pencil with excellent quality. I have not tried these but am going on reputation. Holbein is a professional-grade brand for oil paints, so I would not be surprised that the pencils would also be excellent. They are not sold as open stock, and in the States, you have to buy them online.

Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor is another oil-based pencil I do not have experience with but am listing this because I have used Rembrandt products and have not been disappointed. To me, the vehicle is not quite as important as color quality. In the world of color pencils, "vehicle" is what the color is mixed with, whether it be wax or oil. I have listed certain brands because I can vouch for them and the color saturation is generally excellent.

This is an example of an adult coloring book page done with Prismacolor Premier color pencils.  Note the vibrancy of the colors.  These pencils work well on smooth paper somewhat thick paper of adult coloring books.

This is an example of an adult coloring book page done with Prismacolor Premier color pencils. Note the vibrancy of the colors. These pencils work well on smooth paper somewhat thick paper of adult coloring books.

Which Pencil Is Right for Me?

There is no right answer here, but I would encourage you to experiment with paper because the type you use and how you apply color will dictate the mood of your drawing.

Color Pencils and Watercolors

  1. Try mixing your media.
  2. Take a creamy color pencil such as Prismacolor.
  3. Color/draw in your design on hot press watercolor paper.
  4. Go over it in a wash of watercolor.

I advise hotpress because the paper is smoother and easier to work with. The wax in the pencil will resist the water, and you can create a beautiful, bold design.

Pen and Color Pencils

Conversely, try pen and ink with the harder pencils I discussed earlier for more detailed, delicate drawings—such as a cityscape or botanical illustration. Try the illustration on bristol or vellum paper, which is much smoother than watercolor or heavyweight printmaking paper.

Most if not all good drawing, watercolor, printmaking, bristol, and vellum papers are acid-free but remember to check the label. This is important because you never know when that loose sketch you are doing can turn into a masterpiece, and you don't want the paper to disintegrate in a couple of years.

Comments

Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on April 23, 2018:

Thank-you again for reading my article and have a great day.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on April 22, 2018:

A very detailed article about fine artist colour pencils. You have explained the different features of the variety of colour pencils elaborately. It will certainly help many.

Thanks for sharing your wonderful suggestions!