I want to learn the techniques used in color pencil art and want to know what are the best colored pencils for fine art.
This post begins Q&A month, and I couldn’t think of a better question to begin with, so thank you to the reader who ask this question.
It doesn’t matter what style you work in, what drawing method you use, or what level of artist you are, you want the best tools available. That begins with colored pencils.
But there are a lot of different types and brands of colored pencils out there. How do you decide which one (or ones) are the best for fine art?
There is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer for this question, since much depends on the methods you use and the type of art you want to draw. Your favorite paper also makes a difference, since pencils perform differently on different types of paper.
Much also depends on where in the world you are. Different brands are available in different parts of the world. What’s easy to find here in the US may not be available at all in Europe or Down Under.
But we can begin the discussion with a few basics that apply across the board.
Basic Tips for Choosing Colored Pencils
Buy open stock. Sets are great for getting started if you already know what type of pencil you want to use.
But if you’re not sure which brand to buy, get three or four pencils from a variety of manufacturers. Test them. See which you like best, then consider buying a set.
Buy the best pencils you can afford. It’s better to buy a few high-quality pencils and learn to use them well, than to buy a lot of lower quality pencils. It’s much easier to make an informed decision about the medium when you test it at its best.
Read Do I Need a Full Set of Colored Pencils.
Sample different brands. The best way to find the best pencils for you is using different pencils on your favorite papers. (Another great reason to buy a few pencils in open stock.)
When looking for recommendations from other artists, look for artists who are producing the type of art you want to draw. Study their methods and the tools they use. If they offer product reviews, watch or read those. The honest opinions of people who have used or are using a pencil you want to try is always a good place to start.
And that brings me to the point of this post.
The Best Colored Pencils for Fine Art
This article is not meant to be an in-depth review of every brand of pencil on the market. There are just too many pencils to make that possible in a single post.
So I’m going to briefly review the pencils that work well for my methods and the papers I use. Your experiences may be different, but I hope this list gives you a place to begin looking for the best colored pencils for your art.
The list is alphabetical, not in order of preference.
Faber-Castell Polychromos are an excellent pencil for most methods of drawing. They sharpen well, lay down color very nicely, and produce exquisite detail. Artists who use them include Lisa Clough and Wendy Layne.
Polychromos pencils are oil-based with a harder pigment core than most wax-based pencils, so they handle differently than wax-based pencils. In my experience, I feel more resistance between pencil and paper. But I can do more coloring with them than with Prismacolor, even on rougher papers like Canson Mi-Teintes or sanded art papers.
The two brands work well together, though. I suggest putting down Polychromos pencils for the initial layers, then coming back with Prismacolor for detail work.
The initial cost is higher per pencil for Polychromos than Prismacolor. But you get higher quality, more lightfast colors, and pencils that go further than the softer Prismacolor pencils.
The range of earth tones is also a treat for an artist like me, who prefers drawing horses and landscapes.
Prismacolor Premier & Verithin
I still use Prismacolor Premier and Verithin pencils for a lot of work. They’re what I learned with, and I love the way they glide onto Stonehenge paper.
Both pencils are wax-based. Prismacolor Premier (aka Soft Core), is a softer pencil with a thicker pigment core. You can lay down rich color more easily with these than with the Verithin pencils, but you will also find yourself sharpening more often. Prismacolor Soft Core also fill up paper tooth more quickly.
The Verithin pencils have a smaller pigment core that holds a point much longer and is ideal for first color layers and drawing details. It’s not impossible to get deep, rich color with them, but it is quite a bit more difficult. The biggest drawback to Verithin pencils is the color selection. There are only thirty-six colors, and not all of them are lightfast.
Both lay down color very well, and you can get a high degree of detail on a variety of papers, but quality issues can make buying them a risk. Purchase open stock in person, and check each pencil for centered pigment cores, and straightness.
Read Four Ways to Know You’re Buying High Quality Colored Pencils on EmptyEasel.
Artists who use Prismacolor include myself, Morgan Davidson, and Cecile Baird.
A Few Words of Caution
When I first began using colored pencils, Prismacolor pencils were state-of-the-art. But the company has changed hands several times and is no longer an industry standard, in my opinion.
I do still recommend Prismacolor pencils, but with caveats. If you get a good batch of pencils, they are a delight to use. Otherwise, be prepared for the inconveniences of broken pigment cores, split wood casings, and possible grit. My experiences have been mostly positive, but I do still have a large number of older Prismas in my collection.
Prismacolor pencils are not all lightfast, so if you’re concerned about producing artwork that will last a long time without fading, you need to be selective in the colors you buy. I no longer use colors rated III, IV, or V. That’s roughly half the colors in a full set, so it’s best to buy open stock and buy only colors rated I or II.
Crafters can be comfortable using all the colors without worry.
For all you fine artists, chose colors with discretion, or advise art buyers to use conservation glazing.
Colored Pencils On My Wish List
The following pencils are not pencils with which I have a lot of personal experience, but they are on my wish list. The reasons vary from simple curiosity to favorable reviews from artists whose work I admire and whose opinions I respect.
Again, the list is in alphabetical order, not necessarily the order in which I rate each brand.
Caran d’Ache Luminance wax-based colored pencils. Very expensive, but also more opaque than most other colored pencils, so you can draw light over dark more easily. It’s still best to start with light colors and layer darker colors over them, but you have a bit more flexibility with Luminance.
Caran d’Ache Pablo Pencils are to Luminance what Verithin pencils are to Prismacolor Soft Core. I like the combination of hard and soft with Prismacolor products, so why not try the same with Caran d’Ache?
Derwent Drawing Colored Pencils are colored pencils that come in muted tones. They’re perfect for animal and landscape art, but if you like bright, vibrant colors, you’ll have to find a second line of pencils. These pencils are wax-based, but they’re also thicker than most other colored pencils, so they don’t have the problems with breakage that you encounter with a lot of other wax-based pencils. Unfortunately, there are only 24 colors currently available, but if you love drawing animals or landscapes, it’s worth your money to add these to your pencil selection.
Derwent Lightfast Colored Pencils. I started purchasing these a few colors at a time in preparation for a project that has yet to “get off the ground.” I have used the colors I have for sketching and they’re wonderful to draw with. They layer so beautifully that I would like to have a full set. All the colors are lightfast.
Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor Oil-Based Colored Pencils are on my Wish List for the very simple reason that I once had a Lyra Rembrandt Splendor Blender and loved it.
The Best Colored Pencils for Fine Art in My Opinion
There you have it. My recommendations as to the best colored pencils for fine art. As I said, it’s nowhere near an exhaustive list. But hopefully it gives you a place to begin your own search for the ideal colored pencil.
Before you buy any pencil, do a little research. Look for honest and open reviews either on the product pages where you normally buy art supplies, or video reviews.
Then make your selections based on that information.
Want to know what I’d buy if I were just starting out? Dream Colored Pencil Shopping List.
Hi Carrie have you tried the gorgeous Derwent Coloursoft pencils at all? I am an Abassador for Derwent and this is my favourite brand of coloured pencils. I use them in my galllery ehibiting artworks which can often look like a painting because of the luscious blended texture I can create wth them. They are so much fun to use and very widely available all around the world. I like the way that I can build layer upon layer and burnish really well with them. They are not as crayon like as other pencil brands that can also burnish well. They are great for creating all kinds of subject matter that require a rich application of colour such as roses and flowers of all types, glossy apples, shimmering grapes and shiny cars to name a few. What do you think of these beautiful pencils Carrie?
I haven’t tried these pencils, though they are a pencil I have some interest in trying.
The Derwent line I’m more interested in is their new pencil. I think it’s called the Pro Color.
I am very much in favor of Derwent as a company. They seem to be very interested in working with artists to provide the best tools available. That’s a major plus in my book. I just haven’t yet had the opportunity to try their products.
You don’t get inktense in US?
I can get Inktense pencils here in the US, but I’ve never used them. Since they’re an ink-based pencil (ink in a pencil form), they aren’t high on my list of drawing tools. I’ve heard very good things about them, and have seen fabulous art being made with them, but I have yet to try them.
The pencil is a tool the other depends of the artist that’s my thinking.God bless you Carrie,
You are correct. A pencil is a tool, and so is tracing paper. What you do with each is method.
You’re also correct in thinking that how an artist chooses to draw, what tools or methods they use, are totally up to them and are a personal matter. There really is no wrong way to make art unless you’re directly copying the paintings or drawings of someone else and passing them off as your own.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
I am a beginner and know very little. Your articles are great. Easy to read and very informative. Thank you.
You’re welcome, Jim.
HI Carrie. i’m a colored pencil artist who had trouble with the Prismacolors. But you are right : when they behave, they are lovely to work with.
i use several brands. The Polychromos are my favorite.
But you mention wanting to try Luminance. May i recommend that you move their white to the tippy top of your wish list. The others, i go to mainly for the colors, but the less transparent white is perfect for how i use the pencils. These days, it’s my go-to white. i prefer it even to Polychromos.
There’s another good brand called Fantasia Premium Artist. I brought my first at Meijer in Michigan.
It was a 24ct small set but I spent a whole day mixing and coming up with new combos due the great way these blend! Now I’m upgrading to the 36ct.
Leads did not break easily.
For metallic colors I like Faber Castel Polychromos they lay metallic colors the best.
DO NOT buy these cheap sets made in China/Japan! And these wholesale junk pencils!
Different logos, “brands” different designed pencils…same junk.
Might as well buy student grade pencils in the kids art section or in a department store.
I brought Wanshui and Hero.
I got duped into buying some due to high color counts and low price. I even brought the watercolor pencils! $30.00 each.
On dark paper the neon and metallic had no show after go over and over. Also there’s an oil scent. The saturation is lousy and blending..what blending?
Thank you for reading and for your comment, Shannon.
I’d never heard of this brand of pencil before, so I did a little research. It turns out, the company is only about 20 years old and their colored pencils are much newer to the market. All the reviews I looked at indicated they were a good pencil for beginners and artists new to colored pencils, but reviews varied from five stars to one. That’s pretty typical.
The company is located in Indonesia, so these are an Asian product. Dick Blick does carry them in a variety of packages, including a “class pack” containing 24 pencils in each of twelve colors. If nothing else, that tells me the grade level of these pencils is probably scholastic, even though they’re not rated as to grade level.
The company website doesn’t contain much information, so most of what I learned I had to dig for from other sites. The primary information of concern to me is lightfast ratings. I found that information nowhere, so if there was a lightfast chart in the tin, let me know, Shannon.
The pencils are also available through Amazon, Wal-Mart, and other similar locations, as well as Meijer. That’s not as helpful, since Prismacolor is also available in many of the same places and that is a recognized artist-grade pencil.
I guess my take on this product is that they’re probably good for some artists, but may not be suitable for artists who are producing artwork they want to market as an original. For craft work, coloring books, and artwork you want to sell as reproductions, they may be perfectly suitable.
The most interesting thing to me is that the Fantasia pencils (all of them, not just the colored pencils) are apparently encased in Pulai tree wood, not the more typical cedar. I did learn that from the company website. The company pays farmers to raise these trees to maturity (about 30 years,) turning a tree that’s otherwise a “junk” tree into a cash crop.
Thank you again for your comment, Shannon. I have connections to Meijer, having been raised in Central Michigan. I’m always interested in news from “up north!”