Guide to the Different Types of Colored Pencils

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Colored PencilsThere are so many different types of colored pencils on the market today.  To a beginner, it can be confusing.  You don’t know what brand or kind to get.  You ask for recommendations from your artist friends and get ten different answers.  What exactly is the difference between all these pencils, and why do some cost so much more than others?   As someone who uses primarily colored pencils in their art, I feel like this is a good topic to cover. This article will attempt to answer these questions and provide a simple guide for the different types of pencils that are out there today.


Definition of Colored Pencils

First, we start with the definition.  What is a colored pencil anyway?  According to Wikipedia, a colored pencil is an art medium that consists of a narrow pigmented core that is encased in a wooden shaft. However, there are “woodless” pencils, meaning they lack a wooden shaft on the outside.  Instead, the entire pencil is core, covered in a thin lacquer coating.  They can be sharpened just like regular pencils.  Colored pencil cores are made from an oil or wax based medium that has pigment, binding agents, and additives.

The Colored Pencil Society of America (CPSA) further defines a colored pencil as having other characteristics.  Per their guidelines, the pencils must come in a solid dry form.  The media applied to the surface must not be able to be brushed off, such as with pastels. And last, the media must dry completely on the surface.  This is opposed to oil pastels which never really dry.

According to this definition, a lot of pencils are excluded.  Pastel pencils, colored graphite, and even watercolor pencils do not meet the definition since they do not have a wax- or oil-based binder.  However, the CPSA does accept water-soluble pencils in their shows.

Colored pencils have many names depending on which country they are being used in. They are called colored pencil in the United States.  In Great Britain it is spelled coloured pencil.  They are known as crayons or pencil-crayons in Canada.


Quality Grades

Colored pencils vary in quality.  Different concentrations of pigment, durability, and softness of the core are all indicators of quality of a particular brand. The two main categories of colored pencil quality are artist grade and scholastic or student grade.  Some online art stores will differentiate between scholastic and student grade.  Many companies manufacture both artist and student grade pencils, creating different product lines targeted for different consumers. For a comprehensive list of colored pencil brands sorted by quality, please visit Blick Art Supply’s website.

Artist Grade

The artist grade pencils typically contain higher concentrations of high quality pigments.  The artist grade pencils all come with a lightfastness rating – that is, the pigment’s resistance to UV rays that can cause fading of the pigment.  The core is much more durable and the consistency of the manufacture of the pencils is higher.  Their softer cores with higher pigment concentration results in more vibrant colors that blend and layer well on the paper. Their colors will lay down smooth on the paper and provide better coverage with minimal effort.  They also have a much broader range of colors in their pencil sets, and are often sold individually.  Artist grade pencils are usually only found in art supply stores or online. These pencils are ideal for intermediate and professional artists.  They are priced much higher than the student grade pencils, but you are paying for quality and consistency. Examples of popular artist-quality pencils are Caran d’Ache, Derwent Coloursoft, Faber-Castell Polychromos, and Prismacolor.

Student/Scholastic Grade

In contrast, student grade colored pencils typically have more binders and less pigment in their core than artist grade pencils.  This results in less intense colors.  Their hard core means they are very difficult or impossible to blend and layer on the paper surface. The white space of the  paper will almost always show through, as the pencil cannot completely cover the surface. The artist must press very hard to get the color to apply to the paper. The lightfastness rating is rarely included with these pencils. Student grade pencils have a much more limited range of colors in their sets as compared to artist grade. These kind of colored pencils are ideal for grade school students and coloring book enthusiasts. They are the pencils that are commonly found in grocery stores, department stores, and craft stores. They are the least expensive type of colored pencil.  Examples of well-known student grade colored pencils are Crayola, Prang and Sargent.


Wax-Based, Oil-Based, and Watercolor Pencils

In addition to differences in quality, colored pencils also can come with different binders. Oil and wax pencils can both be used together, although some brands play more nicely together than others. Watercolor pencils can be used on their own or to provide what is known as an under-painting for the wax or oil based pencils.

Wax-Based Pencils

Even though some people consider wax and oil based pencils are the same, they actually are slightly different.  Wax-based pencils are the most prevalent and readily accessible.  They include almost all colored pencil brands, and can be found in artist and student grades. For the purpose of this section, I will only discuss the artist grade pencils.  This includes the popular Prismacolor brand.

Wax-based pencils have a softer core than oil-based pencils.  They have what is described as a “buttery” texture that lends itself really well for blending and layering.  They burnish easily, which means they use the binder to cover the entire paper thoroughly without leaving white spots where the paper shows through.  However, due to their softer cores, wax-based pencils often break more easily than oil-based or watercolor pencils.  This is usually foxed by gently heating the pencil to melt the wax core back together. Also due to their softer cores is the fact that they do not maintain a sharp point for as long, and wear down faster.

However, wax-based pencils are prone to something known as “wax-bloom”.  This is a thin waxy film that forms over the surface of the drawing, and can make the drawing look hazy.  It is usually easily wiped away, and will often disappear on its own.

Wax and oil based pencils also have different blending techniques.  Using a colorless blender or another lighter colored pencil to burnish with are both techniques that work well with these types of pencils.  Solvents do not work as well, but some can be used.

Oil-Based Pencils

Oil-based pencils are not as common as wax-based ones.  They are only available as premium pencils, and are more expensive. The number of brands is very limited.  At the time of writing, only about 4 brands exist. The most well-known oil-based pencil is Faber-Castell Polychromos.  Also included in this category are Koh-I-Noor Polycolor and Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor.

Oil-based pencils have a harder core than wax-based pencils.  They break less easily and maintain a shaper point for longer.  They do layer and blend well, but they never have that buttery consistency that is the hallmark of wax-based pencils.  Solvents and blending with another pencil are both great burnishing techniques. Common solvents include odorless mineral spirits and turpenoid.

Watercolor Pencils

Warercolor pencils, also known as aquarelle pencils or water-soluble pencils, are so named because they have a water-soluble binder in their core.  This means that you can use water as a solvent to blend the pencil on the paper surface.  They can be used either dry or wet. Their cores are hard compared to the other two types of pencils.  This means when they are used dry, they do not cover the paper as completely, and they do not layer or burnish well.  However, when using a light application and then going over it with water, it blends the pencil marks and spreads the pigment, creating a watercolor-like effect.  Many colored pencil artists use this as a base, called “under-painting”, and then draw on top of it using oil or wax based pencils.  These pencils also come in both artist and student grades.


Pastel Pencils

Although pastel pencils are not “technically” colored pencils, many do consider them to be, and even use them in conjunction with traditional wax-based pencils.  Pastel pencils are made of a narrow pigmented core encased in a wooden shaft, just like other colored pencils. However, they are not considered to be colored pencils due to the fact that they do not have a wax or oil based binder in their core. Instead, the core binder is usually made from gum arabic or methylcellulose.  They are also available in artist and student grades.  Artist grade pencils have more pigment and less binder which makes the core softer and produces more vibrant colors.  Student grade pencils have more binder and less pigment, which makes the core harder but the colors are less vibrant.

They are used when a pastel artist wants to achieve more detail and have more control, and they are also less messy than traditional pastel sticks.  The disadvantage is that pastel smears very easily, and must be fixed to the paper to prevent it from coming off of the paper. Pastel pencils also do not blend together as well as regular colored pencils.  However, since they are more opaque, they can cover the surface faster and more easily than wax based pencils.


Tinted Graphite

Since it was mentioned above, I would be doing a disservice without briefly discussing colored graphite.  As with pastel pencils, tinted graphite is not considered to be a colored pencil because its binder is not oil or wax.  Usually the binder is clay or gum.  They are not very common, and only a few companies make them.  The colors are usually dull earth tones.  Graphite pencils of any kind do not work well with colored pencils.  They are best used on their own.


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