There’s been a lot of discussion on this blog about the best pencils to use and the best colors to use. Most of the discussion has been about issues with fading. So I thought I’d start 2020 by sharing with you the Prismacolor colors I use and why I use them.
I’m very particular about the colors I use. As a portrait artist and an artist interested in selling my work, I want buyers to get the most for their money. The idea of selling a piece at any price and having it fade away in any length of time is not a pleasant idea.
Yes. I know there’s no way to make most things 100% permanent. Even granite wears away.
But I can select supplies to help my work last as long as possible. Consequently, I’m careful about the colors I choose. They must fit my subjects (landscapes and animals,) AND be as lightfast is humanly possible. It doesn’t matter what brand I use, every color must meet these two qualifications.
That usually means I work with a limited palette. That’s definitely the case with Prismacolor pencils.
The Prismacolor Colors I Use (and When I Use Them)
Prismacolor rates their pencils on a scale of 1 to 5 based on American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) D6901 standards. Each pencil is labeled with a Roman numeral to indicate its lightfast rating. Roman Numeral I equals 1, Roman Numeral II equals 2, Roman Numeral III equals 3, Roman Numeral IV equals 4, and Roman Numeral V equals 5.
I (1) is the highest rating. V (5) is the lowest.
I do not use Category III (3), IV (4) or V (5) colors for anything but fun stuff, sketching, blog illustrations, or anything else for which the drawing does not need to be archival.
But this is an entirely personal choice on my part. A lot of artists whose work I respect use every color available to them, so the final choice is yours.
Prismacolor Soft Core Colors Rated I (57 colors)
These are the most lightfast colors Prismacolor produces. They are rated as Excellent and “exhibit no appreciable color change after being exposed to the appropriate equivalence of 100 years of indoor museum lighting.” American Society of Testing and Materials., D6901 Standard
The important phrase is “indoor museum lighting.” It not only includes the type of lighting artwork is exposed to, but the framing materials used. Proper framing, including UV resistant glazing, helps preserve artwork.
It’s also important to let clients and buyers know they should not display artwork in direct sunlight for any length of time.
ASTM D6901 indicates that these colors can be used on artwork meant to be displayed outdoors, but I’m not sure I’d go that far. Any artwork displayed outdoors is more likely to fade more quickly than artwork in museum conditions.
Fifty-seven colors are Category I colors, but I don’t use all of them. My go-to colors are:
Artichoke, Beige, Bronze, Burnt Ochre, Chocolate, Dark Brown, Dark Umber, Goldenrod, Light Umber, Mineral Orange, Sandbar Brown, Sepia, Sienna Brown, Terra Cotta, and Yellow Ochre.
Greens & Blues
Dark Green, Green Ochre, Jade Green, Kelly Green, Parrot Green, Peacock Green, and Yellow Chartreuse. Powder Blue.
Black Cherry, Black Raspberry, and Crimson Lake.
Lemon Yellow, Nectar, and Spanish Orange.
I also have a full complement of cool greys, warm greys, and French Greys but don’t use them very much.
These colors are used with almost everything I draw. They produce natural looking landscapes and are perfect for drawing realistic scenes and animals.
I don’t use all of the Category I colors because they don’t fit my palette, but there are several new colors I hope to try this year. Some of the new earth tones are especially tantalizing.
Prismacolor Soft Core Colors Rated II (26 colors)
ASTM D6901 standards categorize these colors as Very Good, and suitable for fine art uses where the artwork will be displayed indoors. They are not suitable for any work displayed outdoors, or anywhere in which exposure to high levels of UV light is possible.
No direct sunlight, in other words.
There are 26 Category II colors, but my palette is currently limited to about half that number, as follows:
Beige Sienna, Chestnut, Cream, Ginger Root, Pumpkin Orange, and Sand.
Greens & Blues
Chartreuse, Grass Green, Kelp Green, Olive Green, and True Green. Indigo Blue, Mediterranean Blue, and Slate Grey.
Black Grape, Crimson Red, and Scarlet Lake.
As with Category I colors, there are some Category II colors I don’t use.
And as I add other brands of pencils to my stash, Category II colors will become fewer and fewer. Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils include several good matches for Prismacolor Category II pencils, so I now use those before reaching for any Category II Prismacolor. I can see the day coming when I no longer need Category II colors.
The yellows, greens, and blues are used as needed on landscapes and, less frequently, animal portraits.
The Bottom Line
I’ve discovered over the years that I can do almost everything I want to do with Prismacolor Category I colors. Those generally more muted colors are enough to draw most animals and landscapes.
The Category II colors are a nice supplement, but unless I’m drawing a still life (which doesn’t happen often,) or adding bright accents to a landscape or portrait, I don’t need them. Since most of my subjects don’t require bright colors, there’s simply no need for a lot of bright colors in my pencil box.
When combined with other brands such as Polychromos, Derwent and others, the Prismacolor Category I colors provide an excellent color base.
Does this mean you can’t use all of Prismacolor’s colors? No. Deciding which colors to use and which to avoid is as personal a choice as deciding which brands of pencils to use.
A complete list of Prismacolor Category I and II colors is available as a free, PDF download, so you can print it and take it with you on your next in-store shopping list. The list downloads automatically, so check your download file if it doesn’t open for you when you click on the link.