Questions about Lightfast Colored Pencils

Questions about Lightfast Colored Pencils

Just how important is it to use lightfast colored pencils?

There have always been discussions about lightfast colors among serious artists. Artists who create work for sale want their work to last beyond years or decades. They want it to last generations.

So do the collectors who spend big bucks to get original artwork.

No one wants to spend a lot of money on something that’s going to fade away in ten or twenty years (or less.)

Questions about Lightfast Colored Pencils

Given the number of people starting to use colored pencils every day and the number of new products coming to market, it’s not surprising to get questions. Questions like these:

When considering lightfastness in colored pencils, what number is considered light fast?

Is there any difference in the lightfastness of oil pencils in relationship to wax based pencils?

Do I have to use lightfast colored pencils?

Let’s take a look at each of these questions individually.

A Little Basic Information on Lightfastness

If a color does fade over time, it’s also referred to as fugitive. The color “runs away and hides” if exposed to light. Sometimes it may disappear altogether, and sometimes very quickly.

Most companies that produce art supplies for fine art or professional use test their products to see how they hold up under use. That includes tests for fading and durability, among other things.

Oil paints have included lightfast information for many years.

Lightfast Colored Pencils - Oil Paint Rating

Most reputable colored pencil manufacturers also now include such information on each pencil. This basic information is designed to let artists know which colors are lightfast and how lightfast they are.

Answers to Questions about Lightfast Colored Pencils


When considering lightfastness in colored pencils, what number is considered light fast?

Pencils are rated differently in the US than in Europe and other parts of the world, but all brands are tested in some form, and many companies provide color charts that include lightfast ratings.

Let’s look at two examples.

Prismacolor pencils are made by a US-based company, so they’re tested according to US standards. The ASTM D6901 standard, to be precise.

The results are divided into five categories, with the lowest number being the best and the highest being the worst. The categories are labeled with Roman numerals and look like this. I (1,) II (2,) III (3,) IV (4,) and V (5.)

Any color with a I ranking is said to be very lightfast. Colors with a V ranking are very poor. My personal sunlight tests show such colors fade within weeks when exposed to direct sunlight.

Unfortunately, the rating is not printed on the pencils.

Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils are made in Germany and are tested using the Blue Wool Scale, which is the European standard. The results are divided into eight categories, with the lowest numbers being the most likely to fade.

To further complicate matters, Faber-Castell and other companies combine categories into three. They rate their pencils on a star system. A color with one star is more likely to fade than two- or three-star colors.

Lightfast Colored Pencils - Faber-Castell Pencils

So the answer to this question depends on the pencils you use and where they’re made. Look for high numbers in non-US made pencils and low numbers in US-made pencils.

Is there any difference in the lightfastness of oil pencils in relationship to wax based pencils?

The qualities that make a color permanent is in the pigment itself, not in the binder (the substance than  holds the pigment in shape.)

So it doesn’t matter whether you use wax-based pencils (with a primarily wax binder) or oil-based pencils (with a primarily oil binder.) If the pigment fades, then it will fade regardless.

What makes the difference is that some companies replace fading pigments with more expensive pigments that are similar in color, but do not fade or don’t fade as quickly.

Those pencils are more expensive because the pigment itself is more costly. Not because of the binder used in making the pencil.

Do I have to use lightfast colored pencils?

No. You do not have to use lightfast colored pencils all of the time, or for every drawing. You don’t have to use them at all, if you really don’t want to.

Nor do you have to remove every fading color from your new set of pencils if you don’t want to. A lot of those fading colors can’t currently be replaced in any brand. Pinks and purples are notorious for fading, but if you really need to use them in your work, then you should use them.

So is there any time or place for using non-lightfast pencils?

Sure!

You can safely use fading colors if you don’t plan to sell the original. If it’s a practice piece, just for fun, or if you sell reproductions and keep the originals, it’s perfectly safe to use fading colors.

If you do give those pieces away (or even sell them,) make absolutely sure the new owners fully understand the precautions they need to take. What are those precautions?

  • Use UV resistant glazing with framing
  • Never exhibit the artwork in direct sunlight
  • Be aware of the interior lighting in the exhibit area, since some artificial lighting can also contain ultra-violet light.
Lightfast Colored Pencils - For Crafting

If you’re doing craft work (gift cards, etc.,) adult coloring books, or anything else of that nature, you don’t really need lightfast colors.

Even so, it is important to know enough about lightfast ratings to understand how they work and why they’re important.

That’s the best way by far to avoid potential problems.

7 Comments

  1. Stacey Mckernan

    Hi ! Ugh I’m so frustrated.. I color in a coloring book everyday (I’m agoraphobic, hard to leave house). I cant find a color pencil that holds the color. I have to layer & layer and then in awhile the white splotches come back. Any suggestions, I’ve tried prismacolor & Faber, still not happy.

    1. Stacey,

      Since I use both Prismacolor and Faber-Castell pencils and have never had any problems, my best guess is that the paper is the problem, not the pencils. You can get poor results with even the best pencils if you’re drawing on paper that’s not designed to take a lot of layers.

      I have two suggestions for you.

      First, try doing a coloring page with fewer layers. Use heavier pressure and see if you get better results.

      Second, get better paper (I’d suggest Stonehenge, Canson Mi-Teintes, or even any good drawing pad) and do some color swatches on that.

      Those two experiments will tell you if the paper is the problem. If that does turn out to be the problem, then you may need to buy coloring pages that you print yourself, and print them on better paper.

      I hope that helps.

      Thank you for your question, and best wishes!

  2. Sabine

    Hi, I can’t afford to use pencils like Lightfast and Luminance all the time. If I store my drawings in a dark drawer, can fugitive colours fade?

    Second question: What experience did you make with exhibiting artwork made with Polychromos, do they fade within few month/years? Maybe you know the results of Judith Crowns lightfastness tests, they are frightening me.

    1. Sabine,

      Thank you for reading this post, and for your questions.

      First Question
      I have heard reports of colors fading away to nothing or to very faded tints even when drawings are stored in darkness. I’ve never seen that myself, but have heard that it happens.

      You can use any pencils you have for any kind of art, but if you’re planning to sell the original drawings, then you should use the best pencils you can afford.

      If, on the other hand, you want to sell reproductions of your work and you want to keep your originals, then you have no worries. The inks used to make reproductions are usually archival, so even if the colors in the original fade, the colors in the reproductions will not fade.

      Second Question
      Your second question was about Polychromos pencils. Almost all of the Polychromos pencils are lightfast. There are only three rating levels with Polychromos. Three stars (***,) two stars (**) and one star (*). Three stars is best. What that means is that when artwork is displayed in ideal conditions, the top-rated colors will remain bright for 100 years or more.

      What are ideal conditions?

      No direct sunlight.
      Framing with UV resistant glazing
      Lighted by no-UV lighting.

      In other words, a high-end museum!

      You should be able to exhibit artwork made with Polychromos pencils without fading.

      I was not previously aware of Judith Crown’s lightfast testing, but upon looking at her testing, I realize I’ve done some of that type of testing myself, and with similar results, especially with fugitive colors like purples, pinks and oranges.

      You need to keep one thing in mind with tests like this, whether Judith did them, I did them, or you do them yourself.

      You will most likely NEVER expose your finished art to direct sunlight in very sunny climates (like Israel or the American Southwest) for extended periods of time. You should take these tests with a cautionary grain of salt. Stay away from the colors that fade badly, and use the others. That’s what I do. I mix Prismacolor pencils, Polychromos pencils, and whatever else I have on hand, but I always use only the most lightfast colors available.

      You should also be aware that Judith Crown’s tests were released in 2018. They were actually conducted several years before that. The top companies are always looking for ways to improve their products, so it’s very possible that some of these samples are already outdated with improvements in pigment blends and a number of other manufacturing details.

      So don’t be frightened by the test results. They are an extreme case. They have a purpose, but they are not a true representation of what happens with most colored pencil artwork.

      I think the best thing you can do is make art with the tools you have. Use the most lightfast colors you have, frame your work with the best materials you can afford, and don’t worry about it.

      That’s what I do, and I’ve had very few problems with fading colors.

  3. Sabine

    Thank you very much for answering, Carrie. It is very informative!
    Would YOU personally use a colour of Polychromos with three stars, that faded badly in Judiths test, for example scarlet red, Nr. 118. Anyway all red hues faded badly. It’s so confusing. In my opinion it shouldn’t be labeled with three stars…

    1. Sabine,

      I use Polychromos all the time. They’re one my two favorite brands of pencils. (Prismacolor is the other.) I don’t use any red colors very often because I do mostly animals and landscapes, but I’m confident in using any of the Polychromos colors. If I were to use only the colors I knew for certain wouldn’t fade, I’d be limited to the earth tones and few other colors.

      What we all need to do, however, is make decisions based on the best information we have available at the time and personal preference. If you’re not comfortable using the colors that faded in Judith Crown’s tests, then don’t use them. I know a lot of artists who use all the colors available in the Prismacolor line, but I’m not confident enough in many of the colors to use them for anything but sketching, practice, or highlighting, so I don’t use them.

      When all is said and done, that really is the bottom line.

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