In this article, I want to address four frequently asked questions about colored pencils from my students.
Frequently Asked Questions About Colored Pencils
1. What are the best/top brands for colored pencils?
There really isn’t an easy answer to this question. There are just too many brands of pencils on the market and so many ways to use them. The brands most often named by artists who make at least part of their living from art are Caran d’Ache Luminance, Derwent (a number of different lines in the Derwent collection,) Faber-Castell Polychromos, and Prismacolor
Before you chose a brand, though, there is a more important question to ask and I can answer that question specifically.
Colored Pencil Grades
The grade of the pencils you use is, in most cases, more important than the brand you prefer. Grade refers to the quality of the pencil. The higher grade, the better the quality.
Colored pencils come in three basic grades. Scholastic, student, and artist/professional.
Most elementary school students use scholastic pencils. They’re the type of pencil you’re most likely to find at discount stores.
Student grade pencils are middle grade pencils. They’re higher quality than scholastic pencils, but not as good as professional grade pencils. A lot of people who are trying colored pencils or just getting started use student grade pencils because they can be significantly less expensive than the best pencils, but are better than scholastic pencils.
The top-of-the-line pencils are artist or professional grade pencils. They handle better and, in most cases, lay down better color and last longer, but they’re also more expensive.
The same manufacturing processes and pigments are used to make all the pencils in all of these grades. The difference is in the ratio of pigment to filler. In the scholastic pencils, there’s less pigment and more filler. In artist grade or professional pencils, there’s very little filler, and more pigment. The student grade pencils are between those two extremes.
Buy the best pencils you can afford. The higher the grade, the better the drawing results. I used cheaper pencils first because of the cost and almost gave up on the medium before upgrading my pencils.
TIP: Learning colored pencil is difficult enough; don’t make it more difficult by using low-quality materials.
2. What is the Difference Between Wax-Based and Oil-Based Pencils?
All colored pencils requires binder of some sort that holds the pigment together and allows it to be formed into the pigment core (commonly known as the “lead” of the pencil.) The ingredients in the binder vary from company to company, but the basic components are wax and a vegetable oil.
Wax-based pencils are called that because the binder is primarily wax, with some oil and other ingredients added. They’re generally softer, lay down color more quickly, and blend more easily than oil-based pencils. But they also tend to be more fragile, and often need more frequent sharpening.
Wax-based pencils can produce something called wax bloom. This happens with all wax-based colored pencils if you apply enough color, but it’s most obvious with dark colors. Wax bloom causes a drawing to look cloudy. It’s easy to remove by lightly wiping the drawing with paper towel. Oil-based pencils do not contain enough wax to cause wax bloom.
Oil-based pencils use a binder of that’s mostly vegetable oil or some similar form of oil, with was and other ingredients added. They are harder, dryer, and hold a point much longer. They may not lay down color quite as heavily as a wax-based pencil, but they’re great for detail drawing.
You can produce stunning artwork with both types. They also work very well together.
3. Does it matter how I hold my pencil?
Yes. Here’s how.
The closer to the tip you hold the pencil, the more pressure you can exert on the paper. Usually, you’re holding the pencil upright, so the tip is the only part of the pigment core that touches the paper, as shown below. You can fill in the paper’s tooth better this way, you have more control over the amount of pressure you use, and you can draw finer detail holding the pencil this way.
When you hold a pencil at the middle or closer to the end, it’s more difficult to exert a lot of pressure on the paper, because you hold the pencil in a more horizontal position.
If the pencil is well-sharpened, you can add color with the side of the exposed pigment core. You can still vary the amount of pressure you use, but not to the same extent. It’s also more difficult to work on detail holding the pencil like this.
When you hold a pencil at the very end, you have very little control over the amount of pressure you can use. You’re also drawing with the side of the exposed pigment core, so you can’t draw a lot of detail.
Holding the pencil by the end is best for laying down layers of color over larger areas. If you want to draw with very light pressure but have a naturally heavy hand, try holding the pencil very lightly and near the end of the pencil.
4. How many pencils do I need to get started?
Most artists like to have as many pencils as they can get their hands on. For one thing, there are all those lovely, luscious colors!
A lot of us also like to keep different brands around because even though all the manufacturers use basically the same pigments, no two companies use the same blend of pigments. So there is a range of colors available to the artist who is able to buy some of every brand that’s not available to the artist who wants to stick with one brand.
But how many pencils do you need to start?
The simple answer is that you don’t really need very many.
I recently purchased a set of Koh-I-Nor woodless pencils that contains 24 colors. That’s the largest set they offer, but many other colors are available as open stock.
Those 24 colors are more than enough to draw almost anything I want to draw. Yes, it takes more layering and mixing of colors to get the colors and values I need for some drawings, but it is possible.
Learning how to mix and blend colors is an important part of learning colored pencil, so rather than buy the largest set you can afford, I recommend you buy a middle-sized set. With wood-encased pencils, that’s usually somewhere between 24 and 48 pencils (numbers vary by manufacturer). Once you’ve mastered blending and mixing colors, then you can add colors—or brands—to your collection.
If you really want to test yourself, try the smallest set available!
Those are Just a Few of the More Frequently Asked Questions About Colored Pencils
There are many other questions. Do you have one I haven’t touched on? I’m always happy to answer questions, so send me an email with your question.
You are good, very informative. Thank you for this. This is the first time I saw your info when I Googled, “Does one need a fixative or other spray, preservative to protect the completed- and/or workable fixative during color pencil work? I’m new at this medium; however, I’m an artist and have work in oil-based color pencils, along with oil pastels (some soft pastels), oil paint (Now must use water-based oils), watercolor, some acrylic, and some sculptures. Thanks for your reply and your work, expertise. (This is the less trafficed of my emails, do not give to many.)
This is a great overview of relevant questions on colored pencils, it answered quite a few of my own questions! Thanks a lot!
You’re quite welcome, Paul. I’m glad to have been able to help you!