Frequently Asked Questions About Colored Pencils

In this article, I want to address four frequently asked questions about colored pencils from my students.

4 Frequently Asked Questions About Colored Pencils

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
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.

Adding Jade Green to the Distant Trees

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.

Adding Dark Green Colored Pencil to a Green Under Drawing

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.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools

Today, I want to share some of the colored pencil blending tools I use most often.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you may have read about some of these in different posts. But a recent reader question prompts me now to talk about them in a single post.

That reader asked about my favorite blending tools. Yes, of all the colored pencil blending tools available and all those I’ve used, I do have a few that I reach for repeatedly.

So I’ll tell you what they are and why I like them so much.

Colored Pencil Blending Tools

As I describe in The Only Blending Methods You’ll Ever Need for Colored Pencil, there are really only three main categories of blending:

Pencil blending is what you do when you layer one color over another.

Dry blending is any method of blending that happens after you’ve layered color, and that doesn’t involve solvent. Colorless blenders, blending stumps, and scraps of paper fall into this category.

Solvent blending is any blending method that requires a solvent. The solvent could be odorless mineral spirits, turpentine*, rubbing alcohol*, or rubber cement thinner*. Anything that dissolves the binder in colored pencil can be put into the solvent blending category.

I’ll list at least one in each of these three categories, and tell you not only why I like it, but how and when I use it.

The Colored Pencil Blending Tools I Reach For Most Often

Colored Pencils

The pencils themselves are my blending tool of choice. I use them every time I draw.

Why?

I love layering color and that’s the easiest—and most easily used—method of blending colored pencils on the market today. You don’t need smelly solvents (or any other kind.) You don’t need special tools or materials. Just pencils and paper.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools

Whenever I draw, I’m blending, whether I’m adding more layers of the same color to make darker values, or adding other colors to make new colors, it’s all blending.

Colored pencils are also great for burnishing, which is a form of blending in which you press down as hard as you can on the paper.

But the best part is that they require no additional storage containers or special treatment!

Bristle Brushes

A good, stiff bristle brush is also an excellent tool for blending colored pencils. Whenever you blend with solvent, you need a brush, and I get the best results with bristle brushes because I can use a little more pressure.

Well-worn bristle brushes are my absolute favorite. These two are just a couple from a jar full of worn out oil painting brushes I’ve kept on a shelf for years.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools

TIP: If you happen to have old oil painting brushes lying around, don’t throw them away. Wash and rinse them thoroughly, let them dry, then put them in your colored pencil toolbox!

Yes, bristle brushes are perfect for blending with solvent, but that’s not my favorite way of using them.

When you draw sanded pastel paper (which I highly recommend you try at least once,) you create a lot of pigment dust. You can sweep that dust into the trash if you want, but there’s a much better option.

Blend it into the tooth of the paper with a bristle brush. The results can be quite pleasing.

Granted, this method of blending works best on sanded papers.

Colorless Blenders

For regular drawing paper, my favorite dry blending tool is what’s known as colorless blenders or blending pencils. Prismacolor colorless blenders are shown below, but many other brands also have blending pencils.

Colorless blenders are pencils without the pigment. Prismacolor colorless blenders are a wax-binder core. Lyra’s Splender Blender is an oil-based blending pencil.

But in both cases, you can blend with them without putting additional color on the paper.

You can use any brand of blender on any brand of pencils. Lyra’s Splender Blender is oil-based and I used it on Prismacolor pencils until I used it up. It worked fine.

But in most cases, the blenders do work best on the pencils for which they were designed.

Solvents

I don’t really have a single favorite tool for blending with solvents other than my trusty bristle brush and a sable or two, so let me share my favorite solvent.

As I write this, I have Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits on my drawing table. I also have a small jar of rubbing alcohol. Both blend colored pencils quite well, though the Gamsol does produce a more thorough blend.

It’s difficult to say which I like better. Both are good, but suited for different types of blending.

Gamsol, for example, works on Stonehenge, Canson Mi-Teintes, watercolor paper (but not with watercolor pencils,) and sanded art paper.

Rubbing alcohol doesn’t have much of an impact on sanded art paper, and even on smoother papers, it’s better for smoothing out surface color, then deep blending multiple layers. What I refer to as “gentle blending.”

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools.

Do I use other tools to blend colored pencils? Absolutely!

Paper towel and bath tissue are great for soft blends on smooth papers like Bristol or Stonehenge. Sable brushes work quite well with solvents when I can blend an area without exerting a lot of pressure.

Don’t tell anybody, but I even sometimes use a finger tip. This is not recommended because of skin oils.

And there are many blending tools I’ve never tried.

But that, my friend, is an topic of another day!

Faber-Castell Polychromos Pencils Compared to Caran d’ache Luminance Pencils

Let’s see how Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils compared to Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils when used side-by-side. Since both brands are on the expensive side, this is valuable information if you’re considering either one.

Like most artists, I have a long list of items on my To Be Purchased list. Top on that list are colored pencils.

Faber-Castell Polychromos Pencils Compared to Caran d'ache Luminance Pencils

Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils are among my most desired colored pencils. I’ve wanted to try these oil-based colored pencils since first learning of them years ago.

Caran d’ache Luminance pencils are also high on my list and my curiosity was first sparked by this video review.

But neither set is inexpensive, so which to choose first?

Faber-Castell Polychromos Pencils Compared to Caran d’ache Luminance Pencils

The following review comparing these pencils provides a basis on which to make a decision. The review is provided by Emmy Kalia on YouTube. Emmy’s YouTube channel and her web site feature tutorials in colored pencils and graphite with a special focus on human subjects. Some of her most interesting videos are about drawing hair and skin tones.

Here’s Emmy.

My Thoughts on Emmy’s Comparison

As I mentioned above, this video is very interesting, as well as being informative.

I’m most interested in the ability to draw with an eraser after laying down color with both pencils. I’ve found some ways to lift color with Prismacolor, but it’s nowhere near as easy as Emmy makes it look in this video.

Drawing with a knife—a process known as sgrafitto—is also intriguing. I’ve done a little of this with Prismacolor pencils but have never been very happy with the results. Perhaps I’m just using the wrong pencils!

But what about choosing which pencils to buy first?

My heart was still set on a set of Polychromos after watching this video. I’ve been wanting those for years and finally got a full set in 2017.

But I’m once again drawn by the prospect of being able to draw light over dark and you can’t do that with Polychromos. So Luminace are still on my To Be Purchased list.

If you’ve used either of these pencils, share your thoughts on why you would—or wouldn’t recommend them to another artist.

More Information

Caran d’ache Luminance Pencils web site.

Faber-Castell web site.

Emmy Kalia’s on YouTube Channel

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers - Hand-held Sharpener

Let’s talk about those necessary accessories that help us get the most out of our pencils: colored pencil sharpeners and erasers.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers

There are lots of sharpeners and erasers on the market. I haven’t used all of them, or even most of them, so the best I can do is tell you the which sharpeners and erasers I’ve used and what I thought of them.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers

Let’s begin with sharpeners.

Colored Pencil Sharpeners

Reader Question:

What is your favorite sharpener for colored pencils?

Carrie’s Answer:

Of all the sharpeners I’ve used, I’m not sure I have a favorite. All of them have worked well for some applications, and haven’t worked at all for others. I haven’t found a sharpener that works great for everything.

Hand-Held Sharpeners

The first sharpeners I ever used were hand-held sharpeners. You know the kind. They’re a dollar or less at your favorite super store or grocery store, they come in bright colors, and are made of plastic.

Sometimes they come with a container to hold shavings; sometimes they don’t.

My first sharpeners didn’t have a container for shavings, so I had to carry one. Usually a small, empty wide-mouth jar. The sharpeners were usually small enough to fit into the wide-mouth jar.

Back then, they worked extremely well. Prismacolor pencils were still made with a solid wood casing that could withstand sharpening without breaking or cracking. I never once considered a different sharpener, especially since I was doing a lot of work out of the studio. Usually at horse shows.

The bonus was that if I happened lose or break a sharpener, it was no big deal. I just went and bought another!

Mechanical Sharpeners

I currently use an old-fashioned crank sharpener by Apsco. The kind that used to be in every classroom in every public school. I like this sharpener because it’s solid, is designed to take pencils of different sizes, and it sharpens like a dream.

It’s easy to clean, too. Just turn the shaving container a quarter turn, slide it off the blades, and empty it.

To keep the blades sharp and functioning properly, I sharpen lead pencils once in a while to remove wax and other colored pencil debris.

Electric Sharpeners

A few years ago, I had a battery operated, which made it ideal for working away from the studio. I used that Stanley Bostitch Model BPS10 everywhere.  It fit into the laptop carrier I used to tote art supplies, and it was quiet enough to use almost anywhere I wanted to draw.

It used four AA batteries and had a good-sized, easy-to-empty shavings tray.

Amazingly, it is still available for only $10.99 directly from Bostitch.

I also used a Panasonic Auto-Stop KP-310. The power cord was long enough to also make this compact sharpener good for drawing away from home if I was going to be in a place with access to electricity.

It sharpened extremely well, and had an auto-stop function, so it didn’t sharpen pencils beyond an ideal point.

But perhaps the best thing about this sharpener was the suction cup feet on the bottom. They kept the sharpener from moving backward when I used it. No need to steady the sharpener with one hand.

This sharpener is no longer available new, but I did find several listings at Amazon and eBay.  If you’re looking for a good, reliable, and inexpensive electric sharpener, this is a good place to begin.

Colored Pencil Erasers

Reader Question:

What is the best eraser for colored pencils?

Carrie’s Answer:

There isn’t a good eraser for colored pencils. Colored pencils are either wax-based or oil-based, so most “normal erasers” tend to smear the color around rather than remove it.

Some companies make colored pencils that can be erased, but these are not recommended for fine art use, or for any art you want to last. However, if you use them for sketching, you can use almost any standard eraser on them.

Here are some erasers I’ve tried…. for better or worse.

Click Erasers

What I refer to as click erasers are similar to mechanical pencils. The eraser is a long, round “tube” and fits into a plastic, pencil-like holder. The eraser is “advanced” by clicking a mechanism at the top of the barrel, hence my name for them.

Here are my click erasers.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers - Click Erasers

The lighter blue one is a Pentel Clic Eraser ZE22. The darker pencil is a very old Faber-Castell Jet Eraser.

Refills come in various hardnesses. It’s helpful to have more than one eraser, each with a different hardness of eraser refill.

These erasers are stiff enough to sharpen with a blade if you want to make a very fine point. You can also shape them with an emery board or sand paper.

Kneaded Eraser

Kneaded erasers are pliable, which means you can shape them into various forms, roll them into points, or tear off pieces for small work.

I’ve used kneaded erasers, but they’re better suited to graphite than colored pencil.  They work wonders for graphite, but aren’t very effective for colored pencils.

Electric Erasers

My husband has a couple of old electric erasers that work extremely well with my colored pencils. He worked on one drawing that I thought was hopeless and was able to remove enough color to allow me to finish the drawing.

I’ve used them once or twice myself, but confess that I’m not comfortable with them. There’s just too much risk of scuffing the paper. They could be extremely useful with enough practice, but I work with such a light drawing hand that I see no reason to spend the time to get proficient with an electric eraser.

If you’re more daring with electric tools, you might try an electric eraser, though. A lot of colored pencil artists swear by them.

My Favorite Erasing Tools Aren’t Erasers

When I really want to remove color, I don’t reach for an eraser.

Instead, I use mounting putty (shown below,) or transparent tape.

Mounting putty is a lot like a kneaded eraser, but it’s sticky enough to remove wax- or oil-based colored pencils. You can’t lift all of the color, but you’ll be able to remove enough to work over it.

The real beauty of mounting putty is that you can shape it, clean it by kneading it, and reuse it for a long time.

Transparent tape is very good at lifting color, and it’s very easy to use. Just tear off a piece, press it lightly to the color you want to lighten, and lift carefully.

The only real disadvantages to using tape to erase is that you can tear the paper if you’re not careful, and it can leave the paper feeling a little bit slick. My suggestion is to use it as a last resort, and use it sparingly.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers - Tape

For tips on using mounting putty and tape, read 2 Neat Tricks for Erasing or “Lifting” Color from Colored Pencil Drawings on EmptyEasel.

Conclusion

There you have it. My favorite colored pencil sharpeners and erasers.

As I said before, these aren’t the only sharpeners and erasers available, but they are the ones with which I have experience. They may be ideal for you, but if not, I at least hope I’ve given you a good place to begin looking!

Derwent Watercolor Pencils – My Review

I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about Derwent watercolor pencils. After using the Derwent watercolor pencils for a few months, it’s time for a review.

Derwent Watercolor Pencils Review

About Derwent Watercolor Pencils

I purchased a set of 12 colors, along with a pad of Canson L’Aquarelle 140 lb hot press watercolor paper at Hobby Lobby. The pencils retailed at $25.99 and the paper at $24.99, but I used a 40% coupon on both items.

TIP: If you shop regularly at Hobby Lobby, go online and print their 40% off coupon. You can use it only once and it applies only to the most expensive item you buy (not the entire purchase,) but it’s a great way to get new supplies and a good deal.

Since I did most of my work on the watercolor paper, I’ll share my thoughts on that, as well.

Derwent Watercolor Pencils - Set of 12

Derwent Watercolor Pencils: My Review

Derwent packages their tins with a shrink wrap cover inside the tin, so you can remove the tin’s lid and see the pencils before you buy them. A very helpful feature if you buy retail from a brick-and-mortar store.

The pencils are stamped in easy-to-read silver, with color names and color numbers clearly visible. They come pre-sharpened, and with the approximate colors on the end of the pencil.

Approximate because they aren’t all 100% accurate. It’s a good idea to make color swatches to see the actual color once you buy the pencils.

Derwent Watercolor Pencils in the Tin

Most of the pencils in my set were in excellent shape and ready to use. Only the Burnt Ochre broke when I sharpened it the first time, but that gave me an opportunity to test Derwent’s customer support process. My understanding before buying these pencils that the Derwent company is very quality conscious and is quick to replace defective stock.

I found that to be true. I emailed the company and told them about the set I’d purchased and the pencil with the broken pigment core.

True to expectation, they emailed me back within a few days and offered to replace the pencil if I wished. I could still use the pencil—yes, even the broken pigment core—so I didn’t ask for a replacement, but it’s good know they were so willing to help me.

Lightfast Ratings

Derwent is a British company, so they use the Blue Wool Scale for lightfast testing.

Two identical dye samples are created. One sample is placed in darkness and one in the equivalent of sunlight for three months. A standard test card is also put in the same lighting conditions and the samples are then compared.

Fading is rated on a scale of 0 to 8, with 0 being the poorest and 8 the highest. A rating of 8 signifies a color that doesn’t fade at all and can be considered permanent.

Of the twelve colors in the 12-pencil set, four have an “8” rating, one is rated “7”, two are rated “6,” and the other five are 5 or below. Most professional artists either don’t use any color rated 5 or less for fine art or they don’t sell the originals. Fading colors can be used to create artwork if all you plan to do is sell reproductions.

However, these ratings are all for dry pigment. They apply only if you don’t use water to activate the color.

Since the purpose of watercolor pencils is to use them wet, I set up my own lightfast test.

My Lightfast Test

I made a swatch of color for each of the pencils. Each swatch is labeled with the color name, the number, and the Blue Wool rating (in parentheses.) At the bottom of the page is information on the pencil, the paper, and the test I started the test.

This swatch shows the dry color.

Derwent Watercolor Pencils - Lightfast Test Dry

Next, I activated half of each swatch with water.

This also gives you a good idea of how will the strokes disappear with a minimum of blending. I have found that strokes disappear entirely with a few more strokes of a wet brush, or if you use more water.

Derwent Watercolor Pencils - Lightfast Test Wet

When the samples were dry, I covered the center portion with a piece of opaque paper and taped it in a south-facing window.

4-Week Results

This is the result after four weeks. Dry pencil on the right, water-activated on the left. The only color that appeared to have faded at all was the Imperial Purple (rated 4,) and the fading wasn’t obvious. The fact of the matter is that the ball point pen I used to label the test faded far worse than the colors.

Derwent Watercolor Pencil Test 4 Weeks

8-Week Results

The 8-week check looked like this. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t see much difference. That was encouraging, to say the least.

Back into the window for the test sheet.

Derwent Watercolor Pencil Test 8 Weeks

12-Week Results

I checked them again at the 12-week mark and this is what I found.

Derwent Watercolor Pencil Test 12 Weeks

There does appear to be some dulling of the color, but it’s not significant.

However, I need to make two points about my test.

One, it’s in no way scientific or conclusive. We had a lot of gray days this spring, so the exposure of the colors may not have been as strong as it could have been.

Two, I didn’t use very much water to activate the color. The more water you use, the more likely the colors are to become fugitive.

However, given my results, I’d have no difficulties using all of these colors (except maybe the 4-rated and less colors) for fine art if I didn’t plan to sell the original work.

Drawing with Derwent Watercolor Pencils

From the first stroke to the last, these pencils were a delight to use, even on a paper that I was previously unfamiliar with. Color goes on with ease, even with light pressure. They have a soft almost creamy feel when used dry. Not quite as soft as Prismacolor, but much softer than Faber-Castell Polychromos, for example.

They’re also fun to use when you apply color wet. I did a lot of work by wetting a brush, stroking the brush across the sharpened pencil, then brushing the color onto wet or dry paper.

Remember I mentioned that broken pigment core? I wasn’t too upset because pieces of pigment core can be dissolved in warm water to create liquid pigment. It’s a great way to blend colors before putting them on paper.

I’ve drawn several pieces on different types of paper. I’ve also used them wet and dry, and tried several different ways to use them wet. As I prepare this post for publication, I’m working on a sky and cloud study for a tutorial, so you can see how they perform in action.

What Do I Think of the Derwent Watercolor Pencils?

I’m a little disappointed so many of them are fugitive. The pencils are so easy to use dry and wet that it’s a shame five of them are too fugitive for my liking.

But that is the only strike I have against them.

Colors lay-down very smooth, the pencils are highly pigmented. The earth tones, blues, and greens are perfect for landscape and animal art, even in just the 12-pencil set.

Time will tell on the fade rate, but I have no objections to using all the colors for sketching and studies, and will be using the lightfast colors for finished pieces.

So if you want to try watercolor pencils, but don’t have a lot of money to spend, you can hardly go wrong with a small set of these.

And What about the Canson L’Aquarelle Paper?

I didn’t forget!

Most of the work I did with Derwent Watercolour Pencils was on Canson L’Aquarelle Watercolor Paper. I was as pleased with the paper as with the pencils. It’s very much like Stonehenge Aqua in feel, and performs pretty much the same way, too.

I bought 140lb hot press because it’s smoother than cold press watercolor paper, so is more suited to colored pencils. The 9×12 inch pad contains 25 sheets, so it’s about a dollar a sheet. I cut the sheets in half for my small works.

It would also be ideal for ACEO art, since it’s heavy enough to withstand the use of water.

The only thing I haven’t yet tried with it is dry drawing. As soft to the touch and smooth as it is, I have no doubts it will perform well for that application as well.

Are Prismacolors Right for You?

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about Prismacolor pencils over the last several years. Some artists love them; some hate them. After all the debating, you have only one question. Are Prismacolors right for you or not?

Are Prismacolors Right for You

Last week, I shared reasons you might want to try colored pencils.

This week, it seems appropriate to answer some of the more common questions about Prismacolor pencils, and give you tips for deciding whether or not Prismacolor pencils are right for you.

A Little Bit of History

I started using Prismacolors back in the 1990s, when they were Berol Prismacolor. There was no better pencil so widely available (in the US at least) at reasonable prices. They were a high-quality pencil and problems like breaking leads, split casings, and off-center pigment cores were unheard of.

At least I never heard of them.

I had no problems with the pencils. They were perfect for the work I was doing, which was almost exclusively horse portraits.

Sometime since then, Prismacolor changed hands. Berol sold the brand to Sanford, which subsequently sold the brand to Newell-Rubbermaid. Manufacturing changed location and artists began having problems shortly afterward.

I used Prismacolor throughout all those changes, and to be honest, I had very few problems with them. One batch of Indigo Blue pencils were so gritty I couldn’t use them. Some pencils did break during sharpening or drawing, and there were a few that broke so much, they were useless.

I did discover (or maybe started noticing is a better way to say it) that quite a few pencils had off-center pigment cores, and I learned still later that sharpening problems often result from off-center cores.

More recently, I started finding pencils that were warped. Fortunately, I usually buy open stock from a local suppler, and learned how to check for warped pencils, so that problem was solved.

But overall, I’ve had relatively few problems with Prismacolor pencils.

Then came the spring of 2017.

The Case of the Fugitive Pencils

Early in 2017, I started hearing a word that aroused concern. Lightfastness. Specifically, the poor lightfast ratings of many Prismacolor colors.

I believe I mentioned that I was using colored pencils almost exclusively for portraits, right? Portraits people were paying a good amount of money for.

I’d also started doing landscapes, which I hoped to sell.

So it was discouraging to discover some of my favorite blues and greens, as well as a number of other colors, were fugitive. They faded over time, even in the best conditions.

How permanent were all those portraits I’d created? Would I start hearing from clients about disappearing portraits? It still gives me a twinge of concern thinking those thoughts!

So I went through my pencils, and sorted out all the fugitive colors. The pile of safe colors was almost the same size as the pile of fugitive colors, but I confess I erred on the side of caution. I threw out everything rated III, IV, or V.

I still use the other colors and I still love the way they go onto paper and the effects I can get. But I miss colors like Sky Blue Light, Light Cerulean Blue, and Limepeel.

But I refuse to use them for anything except sketching and filling in my monthly habit tracker.

All of That to Say This….

What does that mean to you?

It means that what I’m about to say is being said from the standpoint of personal experience. Nothing more, nothing less.

You want to know if it’s safe to use Prismacolor pencils or not, and I’m here to tell you it is.

Depending on what you want to do with your art.

Are Prismacolors Right for You?

So how can you know if Prismacolors are good deal or not?

You Color for Fun and Relaxation

If adult coloring books are your thing, are Prismacolors right for you? Absolutely. Go ahead and invest in that full set of Prismacolor pencils.

I don’t do very much in the adult coloring book line—I don’t have much time, to be honest—but I have read plenty of articles about the subject written by artists who do. Almost to the artist, they recommend Prismacolor because of the smooth color lay down, wide variety of colors, reasonable cost, and availability.

Are Prismacolors Right for You - Adult Coloring Pages

I recommend Prismacolors, too, and for all the same reasons.

In fact, when I doodle with a coloring page, I often use those fugitive colors.

You’re Crafty

You’re making greeting cards, scrapbooking, or doing other crafty things. Color permanence doesn’t concern you.

Color selection, ease of use, and price do.

Prismacolors are probably your best choice. There are over 150 colors. They lay down like a dream, and blend beautifully. You can get them almost anywhere in the United States, and in most cases they’re a good value.

Are Prismacolors Right for You - You're Crafty

They’re also artist-grade, which means pigment quality is high. That means you’ll get a lot more color per pencil than you’d get if you purchased student-grade pencils.

You’re New to Colored Pencils

You think you’ll enjoy colored pencils, but you don’t know. You’re not interested—right now—in making art for sale. You just want to draw.

You also don’t want to spend an arm-and-a-leg on something you may not enjoy.

But you want to try the medium with the best quality tools you can find.

Prismacolor is the answer. They offer students and beginning artists the best combination of quality and value around. Yes there are better pencils, but they’re more expensive.

Are Prismacolors Right for You - You're New to Colored Pencils

And there are cheaper pencils, but they’re lower quality. Even if you get them at a bargain basement price, you may soon find they don’t put much color on the paper or are a struggle to use for other reasons.

Prismacolor is, in my opinion, the only way to go if this describes you.

You Make Fine Art, but Sell Reproductions, Not Originals

The fact of the matter is, you often keep your originals yourself because you like them so much, or you give them to family members or friends. What you sell are reproductions.

Most reproductions are made with lightfast inks, so the lightfastness of the pencils does not matter. At. All.

Use every pencil in the set, lightfast and not-so-lightfast. Get top-notch photographs or scans of the finished pieces, and sell reproductions to your heart’s content!

Then give the original pieces to whomever you like, or hang them on your own walls.

Just make sure to advise friends and family to frame those works of art under UV resistant glass and never, never, NEVER hang the art in direct sunlight.

By the way, the same applies if you make art mostly to teach others.

So Are Prismacolors Right for You?

Prismacolor pencils are perfect for uses like those described above, as well as many others I didn’t touch upon.

In other words, if you don’t care to sell your originals, it doesn’t really matter whether they fade away with time or not. It seems a shame to me to put that kind of time into something that will fade whether you sell it or not, but it’s really up to you, the artist.

Are Prismacolors right for you? You’re the only one who can make that decision. Consider your type of art, your budget, and all the other options, then go forth boldly and make something beautiful!

5 Colored Pencil Questions

Today’s colored pencil questions concern blending, color matching, and Prismacolor alternatives.

5 Colored Pencil Questions

Following are today’s questions.

Remember that if you have a question, you can always email it to me. I try to answer every email I get personally. Your question could be the inspiration for a blog post!

Answers to 5 Colored Pencil Questions

I’m not sure which pencils are blend-able, and don’t want to keep buying pencils that don’t achieve this. Help!

Most colored pencils are blendable, even if all you can do is layer them.

But the better the pencil, the more likely it is to be blend-able in ways other than by layering.

Most pencils can be blended with solvents such as odorless mineral spirits or turpentine. Different brands—and sometimes different colors—may react differently, so you need to test them on scrap paper first.

Most pencils can also be blended by burnishing.  You can use either a colored pencil or a colorless blender (a colored pencil without color) to burnish, and most of the pencils I’ve used can be burnished. It’s just takes more effort with some brands than others.

Is there a solution blender available that doesn’t have fumes? I’m asthmatic and very sensitive to odors.

Fumes and odors are not always the same thing. All odors are detectable by your nose. You can smell them.

But there are fumes that are odorless. So you can have an odorless solvent, and still have fumes. That’s why it’s so important to use any solvent with caution. Be smart!

Odorless mineral spirits and similar solvents are free from odors. Some are natural solvents, and some are not.

I’m not asthmatic or sensitive to odors, so can’t advise you from personal experience. So I suggest is you speak with other artists who are sensitive to odors and see what they recommend. Lisa Clough of Lachri Fine Art is one such artist, and I know from listening to her live streams, that many in her audience also use odorless solvents.

You might also contact Lisa and John at Sharpened Artist Podcast. They’re always looking for topics for their weekly podcast about all things colored pencil. If they haven’t already talked about solvents, you may provide the topic for the next podcast!

Beyond that, consult your doctor or healthcare provider.

I am tired of the Prismacolor Premier because of their fragility and high waxy content. Just too many problems to justify the expense. How are Derwent, Faber Castell in this regard?

If you want pencils that aren’t waxy, you may want to take a look at oil-based pencils. There aren’t as many brands to choose from, but there are three that I recommend. Faber-Castell Polychromos, Lyra Rembrandt, and Koh-I-Nor Polycolor. I do use Faber-Castell Polychromos, and have a set of Koh-I-Nor Progresso, and believe other Koh-I-Nor products are also high quality.

As for the two brands you named specifically:

Faber-Castell Polychromos

Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils are oil-based. They do contain a limited amount of wax, but the primary binder is oil. Usually vegetable oil. You will have no problems (or very few) with wax bloom or wax build up with these pencils.

I’m very happy with the Polychromos, and find myself reaching for them more than the Prismacolor pencils. They don’t have quite as many earth tones as I’d like (brown is my favorite color,) but most of the blues and greens are perfect for animals and landscapes.

They can be pricey unless you buy them from Dick Blick or some other online supplier, but the price is well worth it, in my opinion.

Derwent

Derwent are wax-based, but not as waxy as Prismacolor pencils. I’ve heard very good reports about the Derwent Coloursoft and Procolour pencils, as well as the Artists line of colored pencils.

At the moment, the only Derwent’s I use are the watercolor pencils, so they may not be of any help to you.

However, they draw very well dry, so they’re good for traditional drawing methods. I’m very pleased with the set I have, which is only 12 colors. They’re well-made and feel solid in my hand. I’ve used them dry, and with water, and have been very happy with them.

They’re reasonably priced, too. I paid a little under $20 for a set of 12 at Hobby Lobby. Use the 40% off coupon, and they’re a great value.

My recommendation? If you can find any of these (or other pencils) in open stock in stores, buy a few and try them. What works for me and my methods may not work for you and your methods. So try as many as you can.

I have just started using pencils after years with oils. I like dramatic pictures so I’m using black paper. Once I’ve put in a starter coat of white for flower petals I’m getting resistance to later coats. I’m using Caran D’ache supracolour.

I can’t speak about Caran d’Ache Supracolour pencils, since I’ve never used them.

But the problem sounds more like a paper problem. If the paper is too smooth or slick, it will not take very many layers of color before you start to experience the type of resistance described in the question.

So the first thing I’d suggest is to try a different paper. I like Canson Mi-Teintes for colored pencil, but make sure to use the back. It’s the smoothest and behaves best with colored pencil unless you want a lot of texture.

Second, I’d ordinarily suggest that you use a harder pencil like Caran d’Ache Pablo or Prismacolor Verithin for the white under drawing. But Supracolour are a watercolor pencil, so they are going to be harder than other pencils.

In addition, you won’t want to layer Supracolour (or any watercolor pencil) over a traditional colored pencil, because it may not stick.

There are a couple of other things you might try.

Draw the Black Background

Since you’re using a watercolor pencil, paint the background with a combination of black and other dark colors. You’ll get a black background that’s richer than plain black paper.

Canson Mi-Teintes and Stonehenge papers both stand up well to limited amounts of water.

You might also try painting the white under drawing with white watercolor pencil. That will preserve the tooth, and that may solve your problem.

So the only other thing I can suggest is to try a very light coat of a workable fixative made for colored pencils over the under drawing, then try layering color over that. This, however, is a last resort.

I am a brand new color pencil person and have been working with Darrel Tank’s online classes. He does not offer much as regards color pencils and uses Prismacolor Col-erase. Is there a good tool for matching between brands?

Many manufacturers offer color charts for their colored pencil lines. You should be able to match colors with reasonable accuracy by comparing color charts.

Beyond that, my best suggestion is to find a store that carries open stock and physically compare the colors.

Conclusion

I hope my answers to these colored pencil questions have helped you. Or at least pointed you in the right direction.

Of course, the real answer to most questions about colored pencils (or any art medium,) is experimentation. Even if the experiments don’t work, the answers are much more likely to “stick” in your mind if you try for yourself.

At least that’s the way it works for me.

Want to learn more?

I also recently answered four reader questions in an EmptyEasel post.

Readers wanted to know whether or not they could use White Out or correction tape on colored pencil pieces, suggestions on the best illustration board, information on white specks left after spraying with fixative, and how to draw like an expert.

Drawing on Colored Papers to Finish Faster

Looking for an easy way to complete colored pencil work faster? Have you considered drawing on colored papers?

If not, you should.

Drawing on Colored Papers to Finish Faster

One of the most frequent complaints about colored pencil as a medium is the amount of time needed to finish a piece. If the drawing is very large or if you work in a representational style, you can easily spend weeks on a single project.

Maybe even months.

Blending with rubbing alcohol or turpentine are two ways to create layers of vibrant, saturated color quickly, but there’s an even more basic method you might want to consider.

Drawing on Colored Papers to Reduce Drawing Time

Using a colored support is a great way to jump start your next colored pencil project. If you choose a color that provides a base color or a base complementary color to most of the drawing, you won’t need to draw that base as you would if you were to do the same drawing on white paper.

Art papers and museum quality mat boards are available in an array of colors from pastel tints to bright primaries.

An artist with an adventurous streak could spend a year doing the same drawing over and over on different colors and never use the same color twice.

Those two factors alone give you an idea of how  much time you can save by drawing on colored paper. Let’s take a look at a few more.

Drawing on colored papers is a great way to set a mood from the start.

Let’s say you want to depict a landscape on a rainy day. You love the light of a gray day and those deeply saturated colors make you itch to draw them.

If you work on white paper, you’ll use a lot of grays and spend a lot of time creating the atmosphere of your subject on a gray day.

Choose light gray or light gray-green paper, on the other hand, and more than half the work is done before you put pencil to paper. Gray paper provides an excellent base for a gray sky or misty air with very little work. Gray-green paper is a good base for the greens in a landscape. Either way, you can skip most of the grays in your pencil box and focus on the subject.

Add a little texture to make color even more time saving.

If you choose a surface with a bit of texture as I did for West of Bazaar below, you can save even more time and still get great results by letting the tooth do some of the work for you. Especially if you’re drawing a rainy landscape or other subject with a soft focus look.

The same scene drawn on white paper, blue paper, or even a brighter paper, would produce different results, and create different moods.

August Morning in Kansas (below) was drawn on sanded art paper. Most sanded art papers are some shade of tan, though Uart now makes a dark gray version, as well.

The tooth of the paper and the color perfectly suited my idea for the hazy, hot August morning I wanted to draw. I could have gotten much the same results with a cream, gray or white paper, but it would have taken more time and effort.

Drawing on Colored Papers - August Morning in Kansas

August Morning in Kansas was my contribution to Ann Kullberg’s DRAW Landscapes book*. The book includes a step-by-step tutorial on this piece.

Colored paper can provide a base color or middle values.

This drawing of Blizzard Babe was drawn on light gray mat board. The gray color provided an ideal foundation for this light gray filly and her black gear.

It also worked very well with the blue accents, and was a good foil for the flesh tones.

But the real time saver came in painting the blanket. Or rather, what I didn’t have to paint. Most of the work necessary involved adding highlights and reflected light, and the blue trim. Everything else? That’s the color of the mat board!

For Buckles & Belts in Colored Pencil, I chose light brown mat board with a neutral tint. The color provided a natural highlight color for the horse. It was also a great base color for all of the other colors in the horse’s coat.

I had to draw the facial marking and accent the eye and buckles, but did very little with the background. A light glaze of light blue to create the cool tint of a distant sky and it was done.

Since I painted this piece using the umber under drawing method, beginning with a surface that was already close to the middle values allowed me to concentrate on the shadows and darker middle values. A considerable time-saver for a complex subject like this.

Drawing on Colored Papers Buckles & Belts

Colored papers improve sketching speed by providing a second (or third color) for limited palette sketches or studies.

I’ve been drawing outside a lot.

Or looking through a window to draw something outside.

Many of my sketching happens while in the car, when I don’t have all of my pencils. Most of the time, I grab a handful of pencils when I leave the house and do limited-palette sketches and studies.

But even with just one or two pencils, I can make a realistic sketch in much less time by working on colored paper.

This drawing, for example. I used one brown pencil on Fawn Stonehenge paper to create this tree study in 30 minutes or less. I could have added a white pencil to draw highlights and made the drawing even more three-dimensional.

Drawing on Colored Papers is A Great Time Saver

No matter how you work or what you prefer to draw, drawing on colored papers can save you a ton of time and help you finish each piece faster. And you know what that means.

You can finish more pieces!

And isn’t that a goal to which we all aspire?

*Affiliate Link

Do Fading Colors Still Fade Under Non-Fading Colors

When it comes to colored pencils, do fading colors still fade under non-fading colors?

A reader recently asked if fading colors would fade if used under non-fading colors. Since I sometimes wonder that myself—it’s such a shame not to be able to use all those lovely colors that are also fading—the question struck a chord.

That kind of information may be available online, but I couldn’t find it, so I decided to find out for myself.

Do Fading Colors Still Fade Under Non-Fading Colors

I’m already in the middle of a couple of color swatch tests. One of them just happens to include testing a background which I drew with fading and non-fading colors. Both tests are being conducted in my usual manner: making color swatches and exposing them to unfiltered sunlight for an extended period of time.

Read An Easy Way to Test Colored Pencil Lightfastness.

Color Swatch Test

One of the tests is a basic personal test of some of my favorite Prismacolor colors that rate poorly according to Prismacolor. I wanted to find out if they really were as fugitive as they’re reported to be. It’s a straight forward test of color swatches and won’t help us much in answering today’s question.

I made the swatches, then covered half of the page with opaque paper and put it in south-facing window.

The first test began January 5, 2018, and is scheduled for review March 30.

March 30, 2018 Update: Of the seven colors on this test, three are visibly faded. Orange is the most faded. Light Cerulean Blue and Limepeel are clearly faded, but not as much as the orange.

Sky Blue Light faded, as well, but it’s not as obvious as the others. Perhaps because it’s such a light color to begin with.

The other colors—True Blue, Non Photo Blue, and Canary Yellow—show very little fading.

I’m particularly disappointed in the Limepeel. That used to be one of my favorite greens!

It’s been twelve weeks since this test began and I could have considered it finished. But I decided to continue for another few weeks. Just to see what happens.

Partially Finished Painting

The second test is a bokeh background I drew last year before pulling some of those favorite colors out of my toolbox. I mixed fading and non-fading colors to draw the background. This test will help us find an answer to the reader’s question.

Colors used on this painting are listed below, along with their lightfast rating.

Color Rating Color Rating
Dark Brown I Cream II
Dark Green I Indigo Blue II
Goldenrod I Jasmine II
Sepia I Olive Green II
Sienna Brown I Pumpkin Orange II
Marine Green III Sand II
Limepeel V Pumpkin Orange II

Only two colors are suspect (much to my surprise!). Marine Green and Limepeel. Since both are sandwiched between more lightfast colors, this will be a good test, and should provide some insight into the reader’s question.

Do Fading Colors Still Fade Under Non-Fading Colors - Bokeh Test

This test began January 25, 2018. The first review (4 weeks) was March 22, 2018, and I saw no visible fading. That was very encouraging!

2018.04.19—Checked the drawing. Again, I saw no clear evidence of fading. Hopes are starting to rise. Maybe I can finish this one after all.

Do Fading Colors Still Fade Under Non-Fading Colors–The Tests

Good as those tests might be, I decided it was best to create new tests designed for this purpose. The tests were conducted on Bristol Vellum. I tested three colors of each of the primaries, and used Prismacolor Soft Core pencils because they’re among the most popular pencils (and they’re what I had available.)

Prismacolor rates their colors by five categories as follows:

I – Excellent

II – Very Good

III – Good

IV – Fair

V – Poor

Last year, I removed all the colors with a III rating or lower because that was easier than keeping all the colors together and trying remember which were fading and which weren’t. But I still have some of those fugitive colors.

For the purposes of these tests, I selected a I, III, and V from each of the three primary color categories. In one test, I layered the two lower rated colors first, then layered the top-rated color over them. For the second test, the top-rated color was beneath the other two.

Each color was put on the paper with medium pressure or higher. I was more interested in getting a good amount of color on the paper than with beautiful layering.

Color Testing – Greens

Limepeel is rated at V by Prismacolor. That’s a poor rating and means the color fades fairly quickly. The top bar below is Limepeel.

The second color is Spring Green, which is rated III (good) by Prismacolor.

I shaded both colors onto the sample paper.

Then I shaded a block of Dark Green (rated I – excellent) over both.

Do Fading Colors Still Fade Under Non-Fading Colors - Green Color Test 1

For the second phase, I shaded a bar of Dark Green onto the paper, then layered Limepeel (left) and Spring Green over the Dark Green with heavier pressure. Not quite burnishing, but pretty close.

Do Fading Colors Still Fade Under Non-Fading Colors - Green Color Test 2

Color Testing – Blues

I did the same thing with three shades of blue. I chose Powder Blue (I), Non-Photo Blue (III), and Ultramarine Blue (V).

First, the fading colors under the non-fading color.

Do Fading Colors Still Fade Under Non-Fading Colors - Blue Color Test 1

Then the fading colors over the non-fading color.

Do Fading Colors Still Fade Under Non-Fading Colors - Blue Color Test 2

Color Testing – Reds

And finally, the red colors; Crimson Lake (I), Pale Vermilion (III), and Poppy Red (V).

Fading colors under non-fading color.

Do Fading Colors Still Fade Under Non-Fading Colors - Red Color Test 1

Fading colors over non-fading color.

Do Fading Colors Still Fade Under Non-Fading Colors - Red Color Test 2

All three were put into the test window, which faces south and gets full sun all day. It will continue to get full sun until the trees leaf out, so the test samples should be properly exposed.

The test began on March 1.

March 29, 2018 Update: I examined the color test and the good news is that I saw no visible fading. The bad news is that we’ve had a lot of cloudy weather this March, so the results are inconclusive. I put the samples back into the window, and will give them another four weeks!

April 28, 2018 Update: I examined the color test and could see no visible fading after eight weeks. We did have some cloudy weather, but more sunshine than the first four weeks.

Conclusion

I seriously hope for positive results, especially from that bokeh background test.

But whatever happens, I will update this post each time I check the tests, including images for comparison. So stay tuned!

Choosing Colors for Outdoor Drawing

I’ve been developing  the habit of drawing outside for a couple of years, now. It began with the first Colored Pencil Plain Air Drawing Autumn Challenge in 2016. I talked about a lot of things related to plein air drawing back then, but there is one topic I neglected: Choosing colors for outdoor drawing.

That’s the subject of this week’s reader question.

Hi Carrie,

I like to work in the field sketching, [and] primarily do landscapes but also may do street scenes. I especially like travel sketching. Can you recommend which colors would be helpful to a minimum travel kit? I own so many colored pencils it is daunting to pick which colors to take without overloading.

Thanks,

Stephanie Reitmajer

Stephanie has asked an interesting question, and one most of us don’t think about all that often.

Choosing Colors for Outdoor Drawing

Choosing colors for outdoor drawing can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. As with most things about colored pencils and art, there is no “right way.”

But I can offer the following basic suggestions to get you started.

Choosing Colors for Outdoor Drawing

Try to plan for every conceivable possibility and you’ll soon be frustrating yourself needlessly. It would be better—and easier—to pack all your pencils, and be done with it!

Understanding what you’re most likely to see and what you’re most likely to draw, then planning for those things makes the process infinitely simpler.

The key to choosing colors for outdoor drawing is knowing what you’re most likely to draw

There’s a rule of thumb among writers (fiction and nonfiction) that the key to success is knowing who you’re writing for. When you know who is most likely to read your work, you can write for those people.

Believe it or not, the same rule of thumb applies to this question, and here’s how.

Stephanie mentioned the types of subjects she prefers drawing. Landscapes and street scenes.

Those are two broad categories that can cover a lot of territory, but knowing those categories helps Stephanie—and you and me—decide which colors to take on road trips and drawing outings.

How?

Colors like greens, blues, and earth tones appear in some form in most landscapes.

The range of colors may be broader for street scenes, but the same basic colors might apply.

So the first step in choosing colors for outdoor drawing is knowing yourself well enough to know what types of subjects you’re most likely to draw.

Understand your subject well enough to know what colors are mostly likely to appear in those subjects.

Next, understand those subjects well enough to know what basic colors are most common in those subjects.

Landscapes are relatively easy. Greens, blues, and earth tones. You can narrow those selections even further by knowing in advance what types of landscapes you’ll be seeing on the next trip.

I favor the Flint Hills as a subject, and in the spring, it usually looks like this.

Choosing Colors for Outdoor Drawing - Flint Hills Spring

In the Fall—and sometimes late summer—it looks more like this.

Choosing Colors for Outdoor Drawing - Flint Hills Fall

I would choose different colors in the spring than in the fall.

When choosing colors for outdoor drawing, focus on color families

Next, look at color families, not individual colors.

Red, blue, and yellow are the primary color families. With them, you can make every other color.

For a little more refinement, add the secondary color families of green, purple, and orange.

When it comes time to travel, choose the color families you use most often, and the colors that best suit your most likely subjects.

TIP: Sort your pencils by color families and store them in individual containers for ease of use. I use a lure box for my pencils. Each “well” contains a different color family.

Want just the bare bones colors? Try this selection method.

Two of each of the primary and secondary colors are all you really need. One cool yellow and one warm yellow, and so on. It doesn’t matter all that much which two colors you choose, just as long as you have a cool and warm from each color family.

Or you could try selecting one light value, one medium value, and one dark value from each of the color families.

Black and white are optional colors, especially if you plan to draw on colored paper. You may also want to include a few cool and warm grays.

TIP: Some brands of pencils offer special sets designed for specific subjects. Portrait sets or landscape sets, for example. These are ideal for traveling and drawing outside. If you’re not happy with the selection of colors that come in the set, save the tin or box they come in, and fill it with your own choices!

Choosing Colors for Drawing Specific Subjects

So you now have the basics. Want a little more information than that? Here are colors I’d consider for specific subjects.

Choose “earthy” colors for landscape drawing

I do a lot of landscape drawing,  and although I often take all my pencils, I sometimes want to travel light. Especially for short trips.

When I want to travel light, the best colors are “earthy” colors. The earthy blues and greens made by Faber-Castell, are ideal for landscape work. Derwent Drawing  pencils also have great colors for landscape artists.

Similar colors from any brand are most likely to work for landscape drawing.

I also suggest at least two browns one light and one dark (or one warm and one cool.) Browns are ideal for an umber under drawing or for layering with greens to keep the greens from going too bright. They’re also vital if you don’t have any earthy greens in your collection.

Following are my color selections. The colors listed below are the colors I reach for most often when drawing landscapes. Your preferences may differ.

Faber-Castell (any of their lines)

The following earth tones make a good selection of base colors.

Burnt Ochre
Cream
Indian Red
Ivory
Light Chrome Yellow
Light Yellow Ochre

Add these blues and greens to your outdoor colors.

Chrome Oxide Green
Chromium Green Opaque
Earth Green
Earth Green Yellowish
Green Gold
Juniper Green
Light Cobalt Turquoise
Light Phthalo Blue
Light Ultramarine
May Green
Olive Green Yellowish
Sky Blue

Prismacolor Premier

Burnt Ochre, Chartreuse, Chocolate, Dark Brown or Dark Umber, Dark Green, Goldenrod, Jade Green, Lemon Yellow, Light Umber, Mineral Orange, Sepia, Sienna Brown, Terra Cotta, Yellow Chartreuse. Any of the French Greys are excellent additions to an outdoor drawing palette.

Koh-I-Nor Progresso

Brown, Dark Blue, Dark Green, Hooker’s Green, Light Green, Light Ochre,  Sap Green, and Sky Blue. Light Grey is also a good color to have along.

I probably wouldn’t take all of these pencils unless I was planning a long trip. In that case, I’d pack everything.

The season also plays a role. For winter scenes, take fewer greens. For autumn, more bright colors and earth tones.

And of course adjust your palette appropriately for wooded scenes, seascapes, and so on.

Earth tones, a few blues, greens, reds, and yellows provide a good color base for drawing most kinds of animals

My landscape palette is heavy on greens, with a lot of earth tones.

For drawing animals, I reverse that balance so there are more earth tones. Those colors include all the browns from the lightest cream or ivory to the darkest brown.

Colors I’d add are colors like Prismacolor’s Black Grape, Black Cherry, Indigo Blue, Pumpkin Orange, or Mineral Orange or similar colors.

If you’re going to be drawing horses, cattle, or most wildlife, those colors (added to the lists above) provide all the colors you’re likely to need.

If birds, butterflies, or other such creatures are your subjects, you’ll need to add brighter blues, greens, yellow, and reds to your palette.

When choosing colors for street scenes, add a few brighter colors

This subject category is a little outside my area of expertise. However, if I were thinking about trying a street scene, I’d start with the list above. In many cases, the street scenes reflect the landscape around them.

In the southwest, streets are more likely to be earthy, warm colors, while streets in the Pacific Northwest will reflect more cool blues, greens, and grays.

There are also artificial things like street signs and vehicles to consider, so add brighter colors to your palette.

My Best Suggestion for Choosing Colors for Outdoor Drawing

A lot more could be said on color selection. After all, I haven’t said anything about still life, or floral drawing.

The best advice I can give you is to look at all of your pencils. If you have a relatively new set, which pencils are the shortest?

Those are the colors you use most often in the studio.

Chances are, they’re the colors you’re most likely to use while drawing outside.