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What are the Best Colored Pencils for Artists?

Your Guide to Choosing The Best Colored Pencils

The popularity of colored pencils among artists has grown staggeringly in recent years. This is really not all that great a surprise when you consider what an adaptable and “no fuss” medium it happens to be. Since the 1960s when David Hockney did a portraiture series using colored pencils, the medium has steadily gained momentum with students, drawing masters and even professional artists who previously have worked in other media, such as oil and watercolor. The appeal of colored pencils is that strong!
Photo of Colored Pencils by Getty Images | How to Choose the Best Colored Pencils for Artists | Artists Network
Photo by Getty Images
In this article, you will find information on professional colored pencils and how to choose the best colored pencils for you. But first, you’ll want to know the basic characteristics and make-up of this versatile medium.

What Are They?

Colored pencils are made with pigment, clay, a filler of some sort and are bound together with gum or oil. They are then submerged in wax, which gives them that smooth, almost silky feel you experience when you drag a colored pencil tip across a piece of paper.
Discover the best colored pencils for artists. Petals by Gary Greene colored pencil, 32 x 40.
Petals by Gary Greene colored pencil, 32 x 40.
This medium comes in various colors, shapes, sizes and lightfast properties. Some are water-soluble, which allows you to dissolve the colored marks you make on paper with water, turning them into colorful washes. They are the choice for many draftsmen because they deliver the precision marks of a pencil but are available in an array of colors. Colored pencils are soft enough so you can shade with them, but they can also be sharpened to give you a high level of control when drawing lines.

First Steps

The most exciting part of exploring colored pencils is, well, exploring them! So go to your favorite art store and stay awhile, spending quality time scribbling, drawing and doodling with their selection of demonstration colored pencils. Alternatively, you can buy one or two pencils from each brand you are considering and try them out in your studio. Ideally, your colored pencil will have strong, rich and lightfast color. The line you draw should come out uniformly and vividly. You should not feel any grittiness or inconsistency in texture as you use the pencil. Colored pencils are somewhat reversible. The water-soluble brands most of all. The waxier colored pencil pigments are often less erasable, as they adhere more strongly to the surface of the paper.
Discover the best colored pencils for artists. Broken Rules by Ann Kullberg, colored pencil.
Broken Rules by Ann Kullberg, colored pencil.
**Colored Pencil Tip: Colored pencils are a lot like watercolors when it comes to building up color. When you are using them on white paper, the marks you will see are transparent or semitransparent. That means you can put down color on top of color, building up various hues and tones.

Things to Consider

Gauge

Most colored pencils have a core of 3/8 inches in diameter. This is ideal for a high level of detail in drawing. Some colored pencils can be found with a larger core: 5/32 inches. This gives you a broader point and heavier lines. Usually, you will want to use very thin pencils to shade so that you do not apply too many dense layers of colored pencil, which will make your surface greasy and coated so that you cannot work on it further.
Leaning Figure by Dan Gheno | What are the Best Colored Pencils for Artists?
Leaning Figure by Dan Gheno, 1997, colored pencil, 24 x 18.

One or Many

As with most other art media, colored pencils can be bought singly or in a set. Purchasing individual pencils means you get precisely what you want, but a set will give you a spectrum of complementary colors to reach for.

Shape

Like most other pencils, colored pencils can be found in round wooden shafts or hexagonal ones. Pick up your pencil before you buy it and see what feels most comfortable in your hand.

Qualities and Brands

Discover the best colored pencils for artists. Hidden Treasures by Arlene Steinberg, 2003, colored pencil, 8 x 12.
Hidden Treasures by Arlene Steinberg,
2003, colored pencil, 8 x 12.
There are many colored pencil types and brands out there. Two broad divisions are wax-based and oil-based. Wax-based pencils are generally more affordable. In terms of drawing qualities, they are considered more difficult to erase, layer and blend than oil-based pencils. The two, however, can be used together. A third type of colored pencil to consider is the water-soluble colored pencil. These pencils can do just about anything watercolor paints can do, but the advantage is that the color is applied dry, so you have more control. You can also wet the tip of the pencil and apply colored pencil with the physical qualities of watercolor.
Discover the best colored pencils for artists. Desert Rose by Alyona Nickelsen, 2006, colored pencil, 10½ x 8.
Desert Rose by Alyona Nickelsen,
2006, colored pencil, 10½ x 8.
In terms of colored pencil brands, there are Prismacolor, Faber Castell, Caron D’Ache, Lyra, Bruynzeel, Coloursoft from Derwent just to name a few! There is no one brand better than the rest. Instead, try the lot of them to see what they can give you and so you will have an understanding of the looks each can achieve. For example, Coloursoft pencils, part of the Derwent line, are bright and vibrant with a creamy, blendable laydown. Prismacolor colored pencils are popular and have been around for close to 50 years. They offer a wide range of colors (150+) and have a high wax content, so you can really cover the page if you want to. They are highly blendable and burnish well, making them ideal for when you are drawing shiny objects or surfaces. Because of the waxy build-up they leave, you can go back into them with a needle or knife tip, incising details like leaf veins or hair. **Colored Pencil Tip: High wax content in colored pencils can mean getting “wax bloom,” which is when pigment and wax separate on the surface of your drawing. The resulting image looks blurred. The fix for this is to spray your drawing with fixative after you are done. That will keep colored pencil marks in their place!

Artist Preferences

Discover the best colored pencils for artists. Delectable Temptations by Arlene Steinberg, 2005, colored pencil, 5 x 7.
Delectable Temptations by Arlene Steinberg, 2005, colored pencil, 5 x 7.
“I find the colored lines, whether created by chalk, grease or wax-based pencils, more exciting — I like the greater variety of line ‘depth’ that you can get with a colored media.” “Colored pencils for more delicate drawings.” “I prefer Prismacolor because the lead is wax and very soft bodied for blending.” **Colored Pencil Tip: Avoid using colors that are not lightfast, unless you are okay with the color fading over time. Violets, pinks, and reds tend to fade, but many colored pencil formulas — even in this area of the color wheel — are now made to be lightfast. Experiment with them first to see how they work for you. And keep the work out of direct sunlight if you can!

Even More About Colored Pencils

Want to start working with colored pencils? Watch this preview trailer of Mark Menendez’s Colored Pencil Techniques: Color, Value Form. In this excerpt, he demonstrates how to paint water lilies. You’ll learn how to apply layers of color to reflect the blue sky in the green pad. Then, stream the full-length instruction to start enhancing your colored pencil skills today. And enjoy this demo on colored pencil portraits with Lee Hammond. It will give you such an eye-opening approach to all the gorgeous skin tones you can create with colored pencil.
  Can’t get enough of colored pencil? Enter your email here and get your very own free ebook on Colored Pencil Techniques. You will also start to receive our Artists Network enewsletter filled with art inspirations and more! [fw-capture-inline campaign=”RCLP-confirmation-colored-pencils” thanks=”Thanks for downloading!” interest=”Art” offer=”/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/ColoredPencil_Freemium.pdf”]

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7 comments on “What are the Best Colored Pencils for Artists?

  1. Pingback: Best Colored Pencil Reviews [January 2018] Homethods.com

  2. Cressyberta says:

    The equipment should be perfect & qualitative to do some special in the art. I always provide all the things properly so that my daughter is eligible to express his feelings accurately in the drawing sheet. She is joined in Euro Art Studio & doing awesome things according to her age. After reading your post I get some extra knowledge about this & am thankful to you for sharing such types of information for all, which will make their future bright

  3. L-Space_Traveler says:

    How about a recommendation for pencil sharpeners? Sadly, I am afraid to use my new, good pencils because I have yet to find a sharpener that works without destroying them.

    • Courtney Jordan says:

      I’ve seen handheld sharpeners, old school hand crank sharpeners, and electronic sharpeners in artists’ studios. Others do it by hand, carefully, with a razor. I think it all depends on what kind of marks you want and how much manually effort you want to go through.

    • mekel3 says:

      I’ve tried numerous sharpeners for different types of pencils. I’ve found so far that beyond using an exact knife to sharpen that this inexpensive dual sharpener had been the best I’ve used for prismacolor pencils. You have to use a light touch and gently turn the pencil without inserting it all the way in and every time I end up with an even sharp point.

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