Do I Need a Full Set of Colored Pencils?

Do I Need a Full Set of Colored Pencils?

When I started thinking about getting into colored pencils, I didn’t give much thought to whether or not I needed a full set of colored pencils.

The fact of the matter is that I believed I absolutely, positively HAD to buy the full set. It was just the way things were.

Since then, I’ve come to see the error of my youthful ways.

So Do I Need a Full Set of Colored Pencils or Not?

The plain and simple truth is that most of us are capable of making great art with just one color. Don’t believe me? Ever seen phenomenal graphite and charcoal drawings?

It’s possible with create great colored pencil work with a handful of pencils.

Do I Need a Full Set of Colored Pencils?

Why Wouldn’t I Want a Full Set of Colored Pencils?

Cost is the biggest reason most of us don’t buy full sets. The initial investment is substantial if you want higher quality pencils. My full set of Faber-Castell Polychromos cost $161 and change when I bought them several years ago. The full set of Caran d’Ache Pablo pencils I bought more recently cost even more. Both purchases were huge amounts of money at the time.

However, I strongly recommend you start out with the best tools you can—beginning with pencils and paper—so the only option is to buy smaller sets or get a few pencils as open stock.

You will pay more for each pencil that way, but ten Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils at $2.65 each (Dick Blick’s current price) is a lot easier on the budget than that full set. You can also buy the colors that fit best into your usual color palette.

If you want to try more than one kind of pencil, buy five or six of the types you most want to try. If you like them, great! But if they don’t meet expectations, you don’t have a full set lying around unused and a big hole in your finances.

But What Can I Do With Just a Few Pencils?

Are you ready for a surprise? Here are a few suggestions.

Sketching—Even before I started using colored pencils exclusively, I used them for sketching. Whether from life, from photos, or from memory, sketching is a great way to practice drawing, and colored pencils are great for sketching.

This sketch is only one color.

Even if your colors don’t match your subject, they can make for fun and instructive sketching. I sketched this foal with blue pencils for a long-since forgotten reason, but it turned out delightfully well.

Plein Aire Drawing—Drawing on location is perfect work for only a few pencils.

My field kit doesn’t contain a full set of anything except for Koh-I-Nor Woodless and there are only 24 colors in that set.

Yet with layering of colors and close attention to value, it is possible to draw anything.

Portraits & Other Finished Drawings—You can even do finished work with only a few colored pencils.

One of the illustrations in the post on how color theory influences art is a gray, rainy landscape. I used a very limited palette combined with gray paper to convey the look of that landscape.

And this portrait was drawn with no more than a dozen pencils, and probably not that many.

So whenever someone considering working with colored pencils asks me, “Do I need a full set of colored pencils?”, I now tell them they don’t. The truth is that you just don’t need every color in the rainbow to make great colored pencil art.

Just a few pencils can serve you quite well.

Want to See How to Draw a Dog with a Limited Palette?

Sometime ago, I wrote on the subject of drawing with a limited palette for EmptyEasel. In this two-part series, I demonstrated how to do a limited palette colored pencil drawing of a Toy Poodle. The series includes tips on using impressed lines to create details and how to correct mistakes.

If you’re interested in learning more about drawing with a limited palette, here are the links to those articles.

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  1. sally gewin

    you have been a huge help i use colored pencils quite often when making my greeting cards i also use water color pencils and the more pencils i have the more i like them however, i loved your sketches with only one or afew pencils and i am going to try sketching with just 1 pencil my teacher is working with us on shading thanks so much

    1. Sally,

      I’m delighted to have written something helpful.

      Yes, indeed! Try drawing with one or two colors and practice shading. No matter what type of art you’re doing, learning how to draw a full value range is vital!

      Thank you for reading and happy penciling!


  2. Richard Steffens

    I don’t have what I’d call a ‘full’ set of colored pencils but I have quite a few. I have about 36 different colors in Prismacolor Premier pencils, a set of 24 Staedtlers and a small set [8] of Crayola metal colors. Oh! I also occasionally still use my 48 Cra-Z-Art colored pencils too. These are fairly low quality, kids pencils but they’re what I started out with when I got back into drawing about 6-7 years ago after quite a long hiatus of not drawing. I guess it took me getting disabled about 10 yrs. ago to get interested in doing hobbies [again]. But you’re right— you can make nice drawings with just a few colored pencils. I forgot to list that I also have a 12 pc. set of Prismacolor Col-Erase pencils. I discovered these one day at our local Walmart and I actually really like them for certain projects. The erasers work pretty darn good & the colors come through quite nicely on paper. I even bought another set of them to give to my 12 yr. old granddaughter who has shown me that she might become an artist. She draws fairly well & is quite creative much like her “PaPa”. Gotta love her!

  3. Decades ago, I started out buying a full set of Prismacolors. As colors get used up, I purchase more from open stock as needed. Also, I tend to use certain colors more frequently, so keep extra ones of those on hand. Actually I have drawers and containers full of hundreds of colored pencils . . . . maybe I’m a colored pencil hoarder?! LOL.

    1. Robin,

      I started out as you did and have also purchased open stock of the colors I use most often. That’s one of the reasons I’m reluctant to try any new pencil that isn’t available as open stock and it’s why I do most of my shopping with Dick Blick!

      A lot of artists have huge collections of pencils of all types and brands, so you’re not alone!


  4. Pamela

    About 18 months ago, I started to colour with an adult book and Derwent student pencils and have become hooked. Following many of your wise words I have learned much and 24 colours have opened a new world. Now sets of Coloursoft and Artist have followed. Gifts, maybe Inktence could be tried……. Finding something simple can change everything. Thank you for your explanations.

  5. Alison Philpott

    I totally agree with you in that I don’t “need” a complete set. But there’s this little voice in my mind that says “yes but what if….” I’ve managed to squash that voice for many years until recently. I’ve been dreaming about Caran d’ache Luminance for a long time. Talk about expensive. Then I came into some inheritance money. Still couldn’t justify the cost….then they went on sale…. with free shipping. I caved. Gracing my coffee table is a complete set of Luminance. Now I’d better start using them instead of just oggling them with a sort of guilty pleasure feeling! Ha ha.

    1. Alison,

      Laughing out loud at your oggling comment. I know exactly what you mean. Those full sets look so pretty when you open the box, it seems a shame to disturb them!

      Let us know what you think of them after using them for a few drawings.

  6. Terry

    My first color pencil assignment in a scientific illustration class was of a cougar skull. Not knowing if I’d like the medium, I didn’t want to buy a whole set of color pencils. As I was formerly a pro photographer, I took a well-lit photo of skull to Blick’s. There a very knowledgeable employee helped me pick out 6 colors that worked perfectly for the assignment!

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