Is there a media bias against colored pencils and colored pencil art?

Those who specialize in colored pencils no matter their style or subject matter have been asking themselves that question for years.

I’ve been a portrait artist specializing in horses for almost 40 years. My favorite mediums are oils and colored pencils. I’ve sold a lot of commissioned portraits in both, but did most with oils because a) that’s what people wanted; and, b) that’s the medium with which I was most confident.

The difficulty with colored pencil was in getting a quality of color that matched what I could do with oils. Once I learned how to do that and started doing more colored pencil work, more clients opted for colored pencil work. Since I charge the same for each medium, price was not a factor. Since I price portrait and framing individually, that didn’t seem to be a factor either.

But there is a difference. Most clients prefer oil paintings to colored pencil drawings even if they can’t readily tell them apart in a side by side comparison.

Is There A Market Bias?

In some respects, I suppose there is. There is the perception that any artwork that involves paint and/or canvas has got to be more permanent than any artwork that involves pencil and/or paper. Paint and canvas equal permanence. Pencil and paper, not so much. That is not a true statement across the board, but it is the way people often think.

I don’t know that it’s as prevalent now as it used to be, but there is also the notion in people’s heads that colored pencils aren’t fine art tools. After all, anything you use to color maps in grade school (does anyone else remember doing that?) can’t also be used for fine art, right?

But paints are used in grade school. Watercolors. Acrylics. Other types of paints. Graphite pencils are also common in grade school and lower. No one looks at fine art in any of those mediums and thinks grade school. Why does that seem to happen with colored pencils?

There are no doubt other reasons, too, but my gut instinct is that the bias has more to do with three primary factors than anything else.

The Cost of Colored Pencil Art

The most obvious of those factors is cost. People make all kinds of decisions based on cost. Art is no different.

Framing is a primary factor in the average cost of the average piece of colored pencil art. As a rule, most wet media paintings require only a frame (watercolor being the obvious exception). Some require no framing at all.

Colored pencil work, on the other hand, usually involves a back support of some kind, at least one mat and often two or three, glazing, and the frame. Each of those items increases the cost of framing. Add archival or museum quality materials and/or fancy mat cutting and high dollar frames and the price of the framing can easily exceed the price of the artwork.

There are ways to do colored pencil that allows you to frame finished art like oil paintings or acrylics. Work on a rigid support such as pastelbord or something else. When you finish, protect the artwork with a varnish that is safe for colored pencils. That artwork can be dropped into a frame and presented just like an oil painting. Cost to the artist is greatly reduced and, therefore, the end buyer pays less.

Is It the Medium or Is It the Genre?

Be careful about blaming the medium for poor sales in any genre without first taking time to see how that genre is selling as a whole. I love wildlife art. I can’t see how it wouldn’t always be popular, but there have been times when the market isn’t very good.

The same goes for representational art.

Everything enjoys periods of popularity and unpopularity. Remember 8-track tapes? They used to be all the rage.

If you see poor sales, be careful to look at all the factors. Lack of sales may have less to do with the medium than with the general condition of the market.

The Real Problem

Having said all that, though, the real problem is with public perception. That is, unfortunately, just a fact of artistic life.

The real solution is education, education, education.

I’m not talking about art schools. I’m talking about artists educating themselves on the history of colored pencil work, the quality of artwork created with archival materials, and, of course, happy clients. The word-of-mouth promotion of a satisfied client is worth a lot more than any amount of paid advertising.

The other thing I see that makes selling colored pencil work difficult is the attitude of a lot of artists. It’s not always blatant, but some artists consider colored pencil to be “something I do on the side”; a companion medium to their primary medium.

I struggled for a long time with the mental idea that no matter how good my colored pencil drawings were, they would never be as good as my oil paintings. That is not true, but it did affect my attitude toward the colored pencil pieces I made and marketed. Clients and customers can tell if you lack confidence in your work. If they sense that an artist thinks one type of work is more valuable/salable than another, they will shy away from the undervalued work, even if they really like it.

Conclusion

I don’t want to lay the blame at the foot of every artist who chooses colored pencils as their medium of choice, but a lot of artists do fall into the very trap they accuse potential art buyers of falling into.

If we treat our own creations as substandard, why should we fault others who follow our lead?