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Why Start With a Big Set of Colored Pencils?

Robert A. Sloan is a San Francisco-based science fiction writer, art writer, art teacher, artist, artisan, and Renaissance man.

An assortment of colored pencil sets.

An assortment of colored pencil sets.

Are Large Sets of Cheap Pencils Better Than Small Sets of Good Ones?

No. Always buy high-quality art supplies, even as a beginner. Cheap pencils don't give the same results. It's too discouraging when something easy with Prismacolors won't work with children's pencils—it seems like it's your lack of talent when it's actually how the materials are formulated.

Artist-grade brands of colored pencils are lightfast and often label specific colors as lightfast. Your work won't be as likely to fade in only a few years. They are easier to use because, with a higher pigment ratio to binder, you don't need as many strokes to get full saturation. It took me decades to get skilled enough to get full saturation with a children's set, and it's still way too much work for the results if I have anything else handy.

Where Can I Find Affordable Colored Pencils?

If you can only afford a small set, then search for bargains in other ways like buying your colored pencils online. The price difference between online art supply companies like Dick Blick and physical stores is huge—because the stores have more overhead.

Rent, employee salaries, electricity, and store fixtures cost so much that stores always sell at retail price, Online companies pay much less and pass on their savings. Just for waiting some days to get your pencils, you can usually buy twice as many artist-grade colored pencils online and the online company may have a better selection of brands.

Coupons, either on the website or delivered to your inbox, can bring the price down even further. Sign up for and watch seasonal sale catalogs at the major companies for bargains. Compare your shipping cost to what you spend in gas to get to the art store, and it starts looking even more favorable.

You can also look into buying new or used sets on eBay. People change hobbies or don't like the medium. Older sets turn up on eBay sometimes in their old packaging when sellers buy inventory from stores that close. Prismacolor is the most common artist-grade brand to turn up cheap on eBay. Check the online supply companies for a price comparison and keep searching for auctions that end soon. Eventually, you may catch a bargain!

Color vs. Monochrome Drawing

Many art courses and traditional art schools suggest that beginners need to stick with limited palettes. Often art teachers want students to use only monochrome or two-color harmonies.

Yet inside many artists I've known, including students, is the same urge I have—to get all the colors there are. It starts with a 64-color box of Crayolas, and it just doesn't quit. The spectrum array of all the special colors, the olive greens, sea greens, salmon pinks, and deep blue-violet that's a little bluer than violet-blue calls to something primal in many people. It's why so many pastel companies and colored pencil manufacturers arrange their products in spectrum array followed by a muted echo in browns and grays, all the neutrals arranged in a secondary spectrum.

The obvious problem is that a raw beginner faced with dozens or hundreds of colors may not grasp what to do with any of them beyond simple description. Olive green for olives. That sand color for sand or for that box that it comes close to matching. That's one natural reaction to a big range of colors, hunting down the best match in the box rather than mixing to create it.

I disagree with the common wisdom that beginners ought to start with a short range of colors, especially for colored pencil realism. My reasons come from experience. Playing with all the colors builds joy. It's self-rewarding. Arranging them, again and again, reminds a beginner of color theory. Spectrum harmony is natural, and other orders, like light to dark values, also emerge as the beginner sorts the pencils.

My Experience With Colored Pencils

What I experienced in 1971 with my first set of Prismacolor colored pencils was a breakthrough that made the difference between drawings I hated and drawings I took pride in. I had been struggling with sets of 12, 24, or 36 colors, constantly unable to find the exact colors I wanted. I tried landscapes and reef scenes but couldn't find enough blues or greens. I hated colored pencils because the lines were faint, it was hard to get a solid color, and I could never find the colors I wanted.

Then I got a set of 72 Prismacolors in my junior year of high school.

I wore down most of the blues on my first colored pencil painting, a reef scene with sharks and coral. I also mixed those blues more than I ever had any of my smaller sets because even with twice as many blues, important new ones like Indigo Blue, Periwinkle, and Aqua . . . I didn't have a full range of values. I found out what happened when I attenuated the Indigo Blue up from solid dark saturation to soft very light layering, then went over that hard with True Blue and faded it out just past the palest Indigo, then did it again with Non-Photo Blue and Aqua.

I needed nine or ten blues to reach all the values I wanted and to gradually shade it greener as it went lighter. I wound up adding a few greens to the aqua too. I mixed colors till I had three or four layers on that first reef background. Those mixtures were easier with analogous colors and similar hues with value steps coming up. I could guess more easily what I'd get in a mixture of Apple Green, Goldenrod, and Olive Green with a bit of Dark Green in the shadows, than if I was trying to mix that hue with only Apple Green and Dark Brown.

I've been using Prismacolors ever since. Of course, some pencils wore down faster than others. I got warned that I'd have colors I never used. Instead, I just found out that some colors get used more often over large areas than others.

None of those pencils went unused. Very dark colors and pale colors wear down fast. Blues and greens go fast because I'm fond of landscapes and seascapes. You might have a different pattern if your favorite subjects are different, but you'll find a use for every color in the set.

You Can Never Have Too Many Colors

As soon as you start to draw, you will need more colors that don't exist yet.

Your olive green is too dark. You need another patch of olive green that's more yellow, and the shadow has to be darker and more green. But because you have Olive Green, and a choice of Yellow Ochre, Goldenrod, Dark Green, and Grass Green to modify it along with brown, it starts to get a lot easier to match that exact leaf tip that's turning yellowish, the pine needles that are in shadow and that weird color on your dog's red collar where the green bush reflects into the shadow.

Mixing becomes intuitive. Try different things. Try using the red that comes closest to the dog collar and then going over it with a blue that looks like shadows on white and a little of the green from the bush. Or try doing dark green under the red. There are always many different mixtures that create the effects you want.

As you read more about color theory and try different combinations, you will develop favorites. Eventually, it'll become possible to create a full range of colors for realism from a 12-color set, but that comes easier with years of practice.

When to teach color theory and color mixing is a matter of debate about the process of teaching—nothing more. Individuals learn in different ways. Some people benefit most from that classical approach of teaching pure value first and then adding colors gradually one at a time till each is mastered. Others will learn faster by jumping into the deep end with a large full-range set, trying new colors and combinations in each piece.

Realistic drawing and painting have a large set of complex skills. They all need to be learned. Line, form, value, hue, proportion, balance, composition, shading, any beginner would be overwhelmed trying to do them all at once. Perhaps the monochrome approach just simplifies things to the point that there's one thing you don't need to worry about.

But in starting from color first, there's a valuable resource in most of the good colored pencil painting books available. Excellent line drawings and specific instructions are provided for numerous projects where the author, a professional artist, has developed a good composition and done an accurate line drawing leaving the piece open as color practice for the student. These are fun.

You can have as much fun picking up a coloring book of tropical fish or botanicals and a big set of Prismacolors to experiment with shading, color mixing, modeling, and value. While that doesn't resemble classical art instruction in realism, it's one of the important steps on your journey. Color is held out as a great reward for learning to draw well in the Academe approach, but it can be the first step if you're in love with color, and that's what makes you want to draw.

It doesn't matter so much what order you learn these skills because you learn them all eventually.

But there is a way to have all your colors and some monochrome artistic discipline too. Start with a large set, but do specific exercises and drawings in monochrome using different dark pencils. Find out the subtle difference between an Indigo Blue monochrome drawing, a Sepia monochrome drawing, and a Dark Green monochrome or a Tuscan Red monochrome.

Do an abstract with plenty of shading themed on each of the primary and secondary colors, only using that color group from your big set. Close your eyes and choose four pencils at random out of a jar, then create something using only those colors.

Setting limits on color within one drawing or painting is a fun challenge. I'll go into color theory more in later articles, and each of these ideas for exercises will be developed further into something that you can show off in your sketchbook or pull out and hang in your room.

Learning color is a combination of reading, watching, and doing. Studying other artists' color mixtures can give new ideas for how to handle pencils you're long familiar with. Reading color theory can give new ideas for ways to approach familiar subjects. Most of all, drawing and coloring those drawings is the best way to teach yourself color at every level. If a big set makes you want to do that more often, go for it!

The richest, most complex colored pencil paintings I've ever done always begin with a light pencil sketch and then a monochrome or near-monochrome drawing in one or more dark colors. From there I build on them, mix combinations and work toward the light, leaving the brightest whites untouched. I might go over pure white areas in white pencil at the start to give them texture without color. It all comes together. Every color exercise can make all your later work richer and more complex.

Another trait of most artists I've ever known is that no matter how skilled they become, there's always something cool they've never tried. Some of the joy of art is constant discovery. Artists never stop learning. If we go through everything that we could study, we'll think of things no one's tried because they're there. Add just one more pigment and everyone's inventing again.

If that's the urge that strikes whenever you see a large spectrum array of colors like the bright lacquered barrels of a big set of colored pencils, then don't lose that joy. Indulge it as often as you can. Even setting it aside for a monochrome experiment is still more play, you can try a different color for the next one.

Art that's passionate gains something beyond technical expertise. Your passion reaches everyone that sees your colored pencil art and remains tangible long after you've finished. You have this within you for being human, with eyes to see and hands that cry out for tools. Enjoy your colored pencils, and everyone who sees your work will feel your joy.


MatthewIceArt on September 06, 2020:

Hello Im wondering if i should buy the 120 set of Arteza pencils or the 150 set of prismacolors because i already have a set of 72 arteza pencils but prismacolors seem to expensive

AmyLynn on January 05, 2019:

I sort of looked down my nose at coloured pencils when I was given an Adult colouring book because as a kid, I hated crayons, and thought pencils would have the same problem - impossible to make something opaque, skipping all over a page, grrr :0) I doubt I knew what opaque meant at age 4, but I knew they were a bummer, somehow assumed the same for coloured pencils. So I bought gel pens after talking to a bunch of the happiest book colouring campers ever, who kindly suggested a brand of gel pens.

I bought them for my Mom. She's not someone who would usually sit and color... then suddenly my 68 year old constantly busy Mom was dx'd with early onset Alzheimer's. So I'm hoping to keep her be creative. She likes to color with me, so I'm always looking for new stuff, info... she lost her fave book (it was gorgeous. she has a gift, cat mandalas were like the stained glass she did decades ago and more) so I'm hanging on to everything, trying to figure out *how* people produce such beautiful art with pencils, and happily ended up here. That was way longer than intended, sorry! And thank you so much. I enjoyed this very much.

Levy Tate from California, USA on November 03, 2013:

A big fan of coloured pencils here! Thanks for writing this hub -- it's too awesome! Voted up ;-)

Marie Hurt from New Orleans, LA on February 18, 2013:

You make me want to go out and buy all the colors I can find. I think kids have the right instincts. They always go for the biggest box of crayons because they know what will work.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on February 18, 2013:

I'm no class-A artist--I'm really just learning, but I've been using Prismacolors for fun...even for coloring book use in those computer-drawn fancy design books...for quite a few years, now...I love them...they draw so smoothy; creamy, almost.

As for 'limited palettes,' bah--I want the full range of colors...I love color; lots of it.

This was a very interesting article. Voted so,up and shared.

Pamela Dapples from Arizona. on February 18, 2013:

I'm not sure if my comment vanished or went through when I flipped to your profile to see if you are still active on Hubpages. This is a great article. I really enjoyed it. Voted up, useful, interesting and sharing. I like to try different mediums, but I always come back to Prismacolor and chalk pastels.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on October 15, 2009:

Thanks, Dant! I do too. Certain specific colors like Derwent's Water Green are inspirational, they can suggest subjects to me or interesting treatments of subjects. The bigger the range, the easier it is for me to find or mix exactly what I want.

Dant on October 15, 2009:

I also love the names of the colors that each pencil comes in. Having so many variations of color make you feel like there are no limits apart from your imagination.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on May 20, 2009:

Cam, thank you for your comment! I'm so glad it helped. Crayolas may be high quality for children's pencils but they just can't do what the artist grade pencils can. If you want something soft with a good large range, try Derwent Coloursoft with the 72 color set, or of course look for Prismacolors on sale! Any of the super-soft brands have enormous advantages over those with hard leads and cover much easier when you don't want the strokes to show.

I mention Coloursoft because for some mysterious reason, the prices on the big sets seem very cheap compared to other comparable brands. I bought the big set and the quality is stunning, they really are a genuine bargain. But a set of 120 or 132 is so much more adaptable to any subject you want that it may be better to look for a coupon and try to get the giant set.

Try eBay too, sometimes you can find big sets of Prismacolors at a discount price. I would suggest looking everywhere for the best price on a big set rather than just paying retail on it, I have gotten most of mine at about half retail.

Cam Anju from Stoughton, Wisconsin on May 20, 2009:

This was amazing to read! I love color but am so frustrated with my crayola pencils.. the 24 of them I have are hard to work with.. but I do my best! I can't wait to get and to try Prisma colors!

Great Hub, looking forward to reading more! :)

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on December 15, 2008:

Oh wow! Of course it's all right to mention brands. You just mentioned one I'm drooling at getting someday, my biggest set of watercolor pencils is 72 Aqua Monoliths. That sounds like a beautiful combination, Prussian Blue and Naples Ochre. It'd be deep and rich, varying between greenish and bluish, a little muted but not in a bad way.

You're tempting me... there are always some perfect combinations in every set. Over the years I've been working on purchasing full range sets of all the major artist brands. I don't have full range Caran d'Ache because of price, and haven't gotten the Design Bruynzeel ones yet or a few of the smaller ranges but I am dreaming of doing it in a few months.

Not soon but eventually... right now I need to build up my oil pastels range first because of a website I'm doing: http://www.explore-oil-pastels-with-robert-sloan.c... -- I am testing brands and exploring all the major artist brands, though I may not go for full range in all of them since I'm not sure if I like the texture of the one that has the largest range or whether to accumulate it gradually a few at a time.

Unlike colored pencils, oil pastels are sometimes cheaper in open stock than in sets. It's odd but true. Happily, sets of CP are a real bargain!

Eliza on December 15, 2008:

I've been enjoying this article a lot because I'm another 'color nut', as you call it. I got a 120 color watercolor pencil set (the Albrecht Dürer range by Faber-Castell, if I'm allowed to mention brands here) only recently, and I love them SO much, it's hard to stop playing with them at all. And of course it's amazing to see what these colors do upon adding water! I'm a huge fan of seascapes and landscapes too, and currently my favourite mixture for a really good sea green is preussian blue and dark naples ochre - two colors I've never had in any set before, and now they're on the best way towards becoming two of my favourites. Yay for more colors! And yay for watercolor pencils, they're probably my all-time favourite art material.

A colorful salute from another fan!

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on June 21, 2008:

You're right. Some people don't really get color mixing easily with a big set. I did, and it's a matter of differences between people. Some small sets are very well chosen for mixability, more than other small sets.

Derwent Colourfast or Inktense come in good six-color ranges arranged for the best mixability. I was happy to find that the Prismacolor Premier 12 color set has good mixability and some colors that aren't usually part of spectrum-brights 12 color sets, like Cream and Indigo, that are the ones I use constantly.

Watercolors rock for learning basic color theory. I found tons of good online articles on color mixing for them, and that does apply to colored pencils too.

Prismacolor's landscape set is a great one for getting used to the Weird But Useful colors. Thanks for mentioning that! Some of them looked at first like I'd never use them in a million years even when I got my first set, but wound up being colors I wear down to stubs very fast, like Cream for burnishing. Some of color mixing in colored pencils is counter intuitive and goes beyond the pure hues of the color wheel and creating neutrals by mixing complements. On my most recent colored pencil painting, I wound up needing to use Peach and Jasmine together to get a light off-white exactly right on a reflection on silver.

I will do another Hub on color mixing with large sets of colored pencils, since this is a meaty topic I have put decades of practice into. It's fun and can be easier than trying to mix exact hues with only a small number of spectrum brights, but there are some tricks to it that I think I picked up without instruction over the years -- plus of course all the new information from Masterful Color.

Loni L Ice from Lawrence, KS on June 21, 2008:

Funny, I didn't really learn to do color mixing until I started getting into six-color watercolor sets. NOW I can see what you mean when you're talking about color mixing, but that didn't used to be the case.

From my point of view, if you're not understanding color mixing with a small set, go to a larger set, or even a different brand. Cheap Crayola colored pencils don't work for everyone to learn on. However, if the large set seems overwhelming, go with a smaller set. The set of colored pencils I learned to color blend on was Prismacolor's landscaping set. I didn't understand why it had some colors in it, but that made me curious, so I found out what those weird colors did when mixed with all the greens and browns.

The upshot, I suppose, is that sometimes people (like yours truly) can find a big set so intimidating to work with that we can't see the underlying principle for the trees. However, alongside that statement, it would be nice if the art world let everyone learn in the fashion that best suited them, and had more of an air of experimentation overall.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on June 19, 2008:

Way cool! I'm going to be posting more hubs on Colored Pencil Realism topics, this is just the beginning. So you're another color nut! Very happy to meet you! 132-pencil salute and all that!

SweetiePie from Southern California, USA on June 19, 2008:

I agree, I agree, I agree! Color is wonderful and I never saw why people were afraid to use it.