Coloured Pencil Comparisons
Which Coloured Pencil range should I buy?
by Karen M Berisford
Original article written: 16th July 2015
Last updated: July 2019
Added: White pencils trialled on Black paper
If you asked 10 Coloured pencil Artists which Coloured pencil they recommended, there would be many different answers. The truth is, because each Artist works on different paper/supports using various techniques, one pencil range could never fit every single need and is the reason for so many brands out there, great for those who like to work with different brands and even better for those Artists that like collecting them, however it can be overwhelming for those who are new to Coloured pencils and need some guidance, all those pencil brands on offer can be very daunting. I trialled these pencils for my own purposes initially but thought I would share my findings as it may help other CP Artists out there who are looking to buy their very first pencil range or for those looking to expand their pencil cases. I personally believe that an Artist adapts to their product more than the product adapting to us (more on this at the bottom of the page) but this is not an article that will tell you which brand you should buy or which is the best pencil range, that is for you to decide, however I hope this article gives you some good pointers of each brand before spending a lot of money on pencils that may not be suited to your style.
All Coloured pencils are either Wax based or Oil based (there is also water based for watercolour pencils but these are not included in this article) All Wax and Oil based pencils are made up of different formulas using pigments and binding agents which creates the variation in colour, capabilities, hardness and softness.
The 12 pencil brands included in this exercise are Caran Dache Luminance, Derwent Coloursoft, Van Gogh, Derwent Lightfast, Faber Castell Polychromos, Derwent Procolour, Berol Karisma*, Prismacolor Premier, Prismacolor Verithin, Derwent Drawing, Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor and a non branded range. I use most of these pencils to some extent in my own work (except Prismas & Lyra), but the 2 pencil ranges that I use exclusively are the Caran Dache Luminance and Derwent Lightfast so this exercise has been achieved by trialling a small collection of colours from other pencil brands bought purely for this test over those I use regularly and already have in my studio.
The 'tests' shown on this page pick out the 6 most important factors that a pencil range can offer me in my own work and they need to be able to:
*Berol Karisma - These pencils were made in the UK by the company Berol (who also used to make the Prismacolors too!) which offered a European version of the Prismacolor Premier pencils, sadly due to falling sales they were discontinued in 2005 but sets, bundles and even single stock of these pencils still turn up on the online auction sites from time to time, so thought I would include them here anyway. Read our comprehensive article about these pencils HERE
The comparison charts shown below were created on a Mid grey paper called 'Ursus' , and this exercise was purposely done on a 220gsm weight. I usually work on a 300gsm but the results allow me to show the importance of paper weights too which can be found at the bottom of this page.
Results of the 6 tests
Black & White Test
I always advise in my Workshops that it is a good idea to sample the black and white pencils before you splash out and buy a whole boxful, this can offer an insight into how strong the pigments in the range will be and may save you a lot of mistakes and more importantly, cash.
RESULTS: I found the brightest white to be the Karismacolor (sadly discontinued) closely followed by the Caran Dache Aquarelle and then the Coloursoft and the weakest white was both the Prismacolor Verithin and the cheap, non brand range (understandable) I no longer have the Karisma white to be able to include this in my findings sadly but for the black pencils, I found 3 brands matching in strength which are the Derwent Lightfast, Royal Talens Van Gogh & Caran Dache Luminance pencils to be the darkest - the weakest black was the Coloursoft. Lyra Polycolor have 2 blacks in their collection and the 'Black' is much darker than the 'Black Hard' - there is more binder in the 'Black hard' pencil core which gives a finer point due to the hardness but this tends to compromise the strength of the pigment. The Coloursoft Black was poor in comparison to the strength of the white and I don't actually use this pencil at all preferring the Luminance black instead. I also found that the Prismacolor Premier, Derwent Lightfast, Van Gogh, Procolour, Karisma and Luminance black are all matt blacks (no wax bloom) but the others give out a shiny finish, however further layers of these matt blacks will produce a shiny finish too (wax bloom). The non brand black was rather a strong tone but its white was the weakest - both this brand and the Verithin pencils are quite weak in pigment. The Premier, Procolour & Polychromos white have strong pigments, but the Luminance white is marginally brighter than both these. The Van Gogh White is not as strong a pigment as it's black counterpart and the Derwent Lightfast white is as strong a pigment as the Caran Dache Luminance.
Hard V's Soft
The images below were created with newly sharpened points, I then drew a line by pressing heavily onto the paper. There was little difference between them all really but I did find that the Verithin pencils broke constantly and the Lyra & Coloursoft pencils had a tendency to crumble at the beginning, not unexpected from the Coloursoft pencil as its name denotes a certain caution, but the Lyra pencil surprised me as it is Oil based and these tend to be harder 'leads', the Derwent Lightfast was also somewhat crumbly as an Oil based pencil too.
RESULTS: I found the Polychromos & Procolour to be the hardest (with little to distinguish between the 2) and the Prismacolor Premier being the softest followed by Coloursoft & Van Gogh. The surprise was the Derwent Procolour, as it is wax based, I would have expected it to be softer, however the Derwent Lightfast which is Oil based and usually harder, is actually softer which creates thicker lines - Derwent challenging the norms it seems and why not! As the Polychromos, Procolour and Verithin pencils have hard cores, they are ideal for creating fine lines and whiskers/hair whilst the Coloursoft & Premier pencils are particularly good for tonal backgrounds. The importance of using the correct pencil sharpener for your pencil brand can play a huge part in avoiding breakages and an article is currently in the making on this subject.
10 Layer Test - Mixed Layering
Layering plays a major role in my work and I was very interested to see how all the pencils would compare. I need to ensure my pencils allow me to produce at least 10 layers and this was tested by using a 'mixed' layering technique which involves layering light colours over darker colours and vice versa to see how well they continue to cover. These layers help me to create the realism in my work and is what I have based the findings on stated here.
RESULTS: The Luminance pencils easily allows for mixed multiple layering (10+ layers) with the white continuing to show strength over darker colours, I have easily applied over 15 layers too with these pencils. Surprisingly, the non brand pencils allowed multiple layering too offering over 10 layers however the pigment in the white pencil isn't very strong. The Derwent Lightfast pencils are confusing as I have found that Oil based pencils don't allow me to layer extensively but these did however drawing using these pencils will require organisation as they can only layer light to dark and do not intermix. The Verithin and Procolour are not ideal for overlaying as they only really allowed up to 4 layers and the Prismacolor Premier would only layer light to dark, refusing to intermix (see below) - the stage that follows these layers are where the pencils will then start to blend losing their hard edges which could give a 'muddy' appearance and become more a tonal blend than definitive strokes. Click on the images below to see how all the pencils fared.
Intermixing - Alternating Tones
'Intermixing' (a term created purely for this exercise) tests the strength of darker colours and the white pencil when used consecutively together (without the use of a fixative) For this test I applied 2 white lines (top) and then applied darker colours over them, I followed this up with the white pencil (bottom) over the top of these colours to see how well the white can overlay darker colours.
RESULTS: The strongest white is the Coloursoft which is able to eliminate nearly all trace of colour which shows that even when a darker colour is placed over the top, the white pencil can play a huge part in lightening tones. The Luminance pencils are just as good and lighter layers can continue to be effective over darker colours, the Lyra Polycolor had very good results especially showing how strong the white is over the black! The Polychromos range proved rather impressive too but the Prismacolor Verithin lacked strength and the Prismacolor Premier white failed to overlay any colour very well as did the Van Gogh pencils, although you can see how strong the pigments of both pencils are. The Derwent Lightfast pencil has strong pigments and although darker colours apply easily over the white, the white does not layer well over darker colours however you can see some shift in the black pigment as the white pencil has dragged out this pigment across the page somewhat, I have not seen this before. This may be a negative to some and a bonus to others. Lastly, as expected, the non brand lacked the strength of the white but this has already been mentioned in the black & white test.
Why does this information matter? My Coloured pencil Art was originally applied light to dark with very little to no room for deviation or mistakes and this took some serious thought process and planning - with the introduction of higher quality pigments in Coloured pencils and stronger whites, I can now alternate and this is perfect for applying highlights in very dark areas for greater effect and in the long run, my work has become even more detailed.
Additional technique - Fixative between layers
Fixative is one of my best friends and although the brand I use (Loxley) is not sold as a re-workable spray, I find using it between layers helps additional layering, aiding vibrancy without changing the colour in any way. I occasionally use it between layers if necessary but not regularly. The examples below show the 'fixed' colour tone (marked) which has been treated with 2 separate 'fixative and fur' layers and the unmarked side shows line application without the use of fixative.
RESULTS: The Luminance and the Non branded pencils came out the best for this technique. Most of the other brands, particularly if they are Oil based) are not affected by the fixative or caused blending rather than aiding further definition so using fixative with some pencil brands is an unnecessary technique. The worst outcome was the Van Gogh pencils which caused a blotchy effect over the fixative.
Pencils that can create smooth backgrounds and perfect transitions for skin tones are very important in my work. As a Coloured pencil purist, I do not use blending products (except a blender pencil) simply because I have no idea how these products may affect the drawing in later years, it is also because I like the challenge of blending too.
RESULTS: As expected the Derwent Coloursoft pencils blended the best due to its soft core, closely followed by the Karisma pencils. The Derwent Lightfast pencil appears to have shattered expectations again as an Oil based pencil, as it blends smoothly and little pressure is needed to apply and blend, more like a wax based pencil. I was very surprised with this outcome (Well done Derwent!) The Luminance pencils, Lyra Polycolor and Prismacolor Premier do not blend as smoothly but a BLENDER pencil can be used to improve this somewhat (results will depend on the amount of layers and heaviness of the application) - The 'Non brand' range are limited in their blendability but allows for some and due to the hardness of the Verithin, Procolour and Polychromos pencils, I found these blended the least. Finally the Van Gogh pencils let me down with their blending abilities as I thought these would act the same as the Premier Prismacolour, sadly they don't, when an Oil based pencil (Derwent Lightfast) blends far better than a Wax based pencil (Van Gogh) I have to question if it's time to splash out on Derwent's latest pencil range (My poor bank balance!!)
How white are the whites?
A great way of testing the strength of the pigments in a pencil is to trial the white pencil on black paper. Below I have trialled 12 different pencil brands and found varying degrees of brightness between them, the brightest was the Karismacolor closely followed by the Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle and the worst was the cheapest brand (understandably) WH Smith which is a UK store brand followed by the Rembrandt Polycolor. Sadly the Karismacolor range was discontinued in 2005 but its twin sister is the Prismacolor Premier which isn't quite as bright.
The lightfast ratings and costings
Different pencil brands have different lightfast ratings, explanations of the star symbols can be found below this chart and I apologise it's rather complicated. If you wish to find out more about the lightfastness of these brands, available additional pages can be accessed via links found at the top of this page - simply click on the pencil brand in black which will take you directly to the dedicated page - all other brands will have their own page at some point and will show up as a link when these are available.
pp = per pencil
Blue Wool rating = 1 (poorest lightfast grade) - 8 (highest lightfast grade)
**Star Rating = 1* Poor - 3* Best (highest lightfast grade)
**FC Star Rating = 1* Good lightfastness, 2* Very good lightfastness 3* Maximum lightfastness
***LF rating - LF1 100% Lightfast - LF2 80% Lightfast (Best Grade of all pencils)
***Numerical rating (I, II, III, V, IV) = 1 Highest lightfast grade - IV poorest quality lightfast grade
The MAKING A MARK website provides an in depth overview of Lightfastness in Coloured pencils which explains both the ATSM rating and the Blue Wool rating should you wish to find out more. Making a Mark is owned and created by the Artist, Katherine Tyrrell and well worth bookmarking.
The 'Non brand' pencils revealed...
What are these 'Non brand' pencils I speak of??
Find out HERE
These pencils, I only use in my Workshops, but highly recommend them for those just starting out who wish to try Coloured pencils as a medium before spending money on a professional range. They have a great range of strong colours and well worth £10.00! Find out lots more by clicking on the picture.
The importance of paper weights
There are many weights of paper that are used in Art, different mediums require different weights of paper. The weight of paper that I used for the examples shown on this page was 220gsm (gsm = grams per square meter) this is a weight that I previously used before my 'layering' technique required a heavier weight paper, and now I use a 300gsm which allows me to apply over 10 layers without it creating any indents as you can see on the images below. The weight you should use depends on your technique so always trial out different paper weights before deciding on your preferred one.
Adapting to Coloured pencils
Whichever pencil brand we choose, our artistic style may change over the years which may be affected by the pencil range(s) we use but as the years go by, we progress and the more we do, the more we improve.
As an example here are a couple of Boxer dog portraits, one created in 2012 and the other in 2015, I originally worked with the Derwent Coloursoft & Berol Karisma range, both of which are very soft, wax pencils but I then decided to change to using the new Caran Dache Luminance pencils which were a little firmer and the range offered lots of neutral colours which are ideal for a Pet portrait artist and it is partly this reason that I was able to progress more easily to achieve better realism in my work.
Progression in Art is an important part of the work we produce as it becomes a challenge to improve each drawing/painting we do and should we all reach the top of our game, feeling we could progress no further, there is always that possibility that it becomes boring and maybe a chore especially if you are creating Art for a living. For me, I would have to move on to another medium and because I have always had a passion for Coloured pencils, I do not wish to reach this stage and so take a break from pencils for a few weeks and move on to Acrylics which keeps it exciting. I find that by ignoring the 'well executed' parts of my work to concentrate on the 'requires improvement' sections ensures I continue to feel challenged thus thoroughly enjoying each and every drawing I undertake.
Thanks for reading! I do hope that this article has been of some help to you - please feel free to request a specific Art related article if you wish, if I can help I will.
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