Colored Pencil Comparison: Wax-Based or Oil-Based

A colored pencil comparison between wax-based and oil-based pencils is the topic for today’s post. It comes in response to the following reader question.

Hi Carrie,

Which pencils do you consider best, oil or wax based? I have never used any pencils other than Derwents Coloursoft which I believe are wax based. What are the Pros and Cons of each?

Colored Pencil Comparison: Wax-Based or Oil-Based

There can be a lot of confusion about the differences and some artists go so far as to discount the distinctions altogether. So what’s truth and what’s hype?

Colored Pencil Comparison: Wax-Based or Oil-Based

Colored pencils are manufactured much the same as oil paints, watercolors, and other mediums. Powdered pigments are mixed with a substance that helps them perform the way artists want them to perform.

With oil paints, that substance is called a vehicle and is usually linseed oil, safflower oil, or walnut oil, although there are other vehicles available. The vehicle makes the pigment brushable and influences how quickly it dries.

Colored pencils use a binder. The binder makes it possible to form powdered pigments into a thin “lead” that can be used in pencil form. It also makes the pigment transfer to paper easily and stick there.

All colored pencils use a combination of some form of wax and oil as the binder. Wax-based pencils have more wax than oil. Oil-based pencils have more oil than wax.

The amount of wax compared to oil affects the way the pencils behave, as does the type of wax used in the binder.

Colored Pencil Comparison: Which is Best?

I don’t really consider one type of pencil better than the other. They’re just different.

Wax-Based Pencils

Wax-based pencils are generally softer than oil-based pencils. They go onto paper more smoothly and blend extremely well by layering, burnishing, or with solvents.

Because they’re softer, they don’t hold a point very long and can be difficult to draw details with. I’ve used Prismacolor Soft Core pencils for decades and have been able to get wonderful detail, but it requires a lot of sharpening.

The pigment cores also are more apt to break if you use heavy pressure or sharpen them to too long a point. In addition, they can be susceptible to breakage if you drop them on a hard surface.

The light blue pencil at the bottom of the image has a nice tip, but is sharpened to too long a point if you tend to draw with heavy pressure. You’re quite likely to end up with something like the red pencil in the center!

Finally, wax-based pencils can produce wax bloom, a misty sort of film that happens when the wax in the pigment rises to the surface of the drawing. It can easily be wiped away, but it can also be a nuisance. Especially if you use a lot of pressure or dark colors.

Oil-Based Pencils

Oil-based pencils are generally harder than wax-based pencils. They hold a point longer and are excellent for drawing details. They’re not as likely to break while you’re drawing or if you drop them.

Oil-based pencils don’t produce wax bloom because they contain less wax.

They also erase or lift more easily if you make a mistake.

But they don’t always layer color as smoothly, so drawing even color requires either heavier pressure or more layers. I recommend more layers.

Using Wax- and Oil-Based Pencils Together

You can use both types together. That’s what I do.

Most of the time, I start with Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils (oil-based) and do as much layering as I can.

Toward the end of the process, I switch to Prismacolors(wax-based) where I need more color saturation.

But you don’t have to do it that way. You can intermix them at any point in a drawing.

Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils are among the best known oil-based colored pencils.

The Colored Pencil Comparison that Really Matters

The much more important comparison is the grade of the pencil; the quality.

Scholar or student-grade pencils contain more binder (whatever it may be,) less pigment, and sometimes inferior pigment. You can create good art with them and if you’re on a budget, it’s better to start with student-grade pencils than not start at all.

But don’t go cheap. Always buy the highest quality pencils your budget allows. Select wax-based or oil-based pencils based on your personal preferences and you’ll be ahead of the game.

Have a Question? Send me an email!

2 Replies to “Colored Pencil Comparison: Wax-Based or Oil-Based”

  1. Hi Carrie, you gave me some info I didn’t know. I thought all colored pencils created wax bloom. I didn’t know that the Polychromos did not. Thank you for the informative article. I enjoyed it as I do all of your articles.

    1. Gail,

      Oil-based colored pencils don’t create wax bloom, and not all wax-based pencils do. The amount of wax used in the binder and the type of wax is what causes wax bloom. I’ve heard that Prismacolors are about the worst for wax bloom and I can say from personal experience that it can really fog up a drawing.

      But I don’t have enough experience with other brands of wax-based pencils to know which ones do not cause wax bloom.

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