Why start with a big set of colored pencils?
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.
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 farther. 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 auctions that end soon. Eventually you may catch a bargain!
Color Versus 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 more blue 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.
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.
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 on 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 jumping in the deep end with a large full-range set, trying new colors and combinations in each piece.
Realistic drawing and painting has 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 as that 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.