With the multitude of coloured pencil brands to choose from, it’s understandable that the beginner artist might face some confusion when trying to decide which one is best for them. This can depend on several factors, from colour range and texture of the pencils to the artist’s chosen drawing style and subject matter; some pencils work well with some techniques but not with others. As a certified* Art Supply Addict, I’ve accumulated a rather large collection of art goodies including paints and pastels, and especially pencils.
Disclaimer: I am only a beginner/intermediate artist, and I know these aren’t what anyone would call in-depth scientific tests, so I’m not trying to claim I’m an expert or that all your pencil questions will be answered; I’m just some random geek on the Internet who likes playing with coloured things. This is just a way to quickly compare the different colours, textures and lightfast ratings of various pencils to help me (and hopefully other artists) decide which pencils would be best to buy and use.
For the purposes of these tests, I’m only focusing on those that are marketed as ‘Artist Grade’. Some of these have already been reviewed on this blog and they have links to their reviews. Others are still on my to-review list. I’ve also acquired (and got rid of) some pencil sets since I originally posted this on my writing blog (back in 2013 some time). I hope one day to do an updated version if this comparison including more brands and a larger selection of colours from each brand. For now, the ranges I’ll be testing include:
- Derwent Artists
- Derwent Coloursoft
- Derwent Inktense (water-soluble)
- Derwent Watercolour (water-soluble)
- Derwent Drawing
- Derwent Graphitint (water-soluble)
- Sanford Prismacolor Premier
- Faber-Castell Polychromos
- Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer (water-soluble)
- Caran d’Ache Luminance
The Graphitint range technically shouldn’t be included since it is graphite, not coloured pencil, but I thought I might as well throw it in to make up an even ten. If** I get more types of pencils to test, I’ll add information on those to this post.
From most ranges, I’ve chosen three primary colours and one earth colour, though in some of the more limited ranges, some of the primary colours have been substituted for secondary colours. I have also tried to choose pencils of various lightfastness from each brand as rated by the manufacturer to see how their claims stack up (most pencils have their rating listed either on the pencils themselves or on the manufacturer’s website). Eventually I hope to do more comprehensive tests and reviews on the full range of each type of pencil, but for now I wanted to find the quickest way to compare as many pencils as possible. For each single colour, I’ve done a variegated gradated swatch (for water-soluble pencils, I’ve washed the bottom half of the swatch and also included a dot of ‘paint’ produced by the washes). Then, I’ve done swatches using common coloured pencil techniques, including blended gradients, blending by layering and blending by crosshatching and smudging, again washing half of the water-soluble swatches. Because white pencils are usually a necessity in blending, I’ve scribbled white over the bottom left corner of the crosshatch swatches to show its coverage. All the pencils I tested are wax-based except for the Faber-Castell ranges, which are oil-based, and the Derwent Graphitint, which are graphite-based.
Here is my original test chart (click the image for a larger version):
I’ve broken my comparison up into categories, each of which will include discussion on how all the pencils I tested stacked up. First up is:
This section will probably be a bit of a monster, so bear with me. By far, the softest pencil range I tested was the Prismacolors, though the CDA Luminance weren’t far behind. Both of these produced smooth, even coverage and were easy to layer; Luminance felt just a bit creamier and seemed to blend slightly more smoothly. Mixing colours produced bright and clean secondary hues. Both of these ranges are fairly opaque, but I was particularly impressed with the Prismacolor white, which gave excellent coverage even over a dark colour swatch. In general the Luminance pencils were better, but as they’re far more expensive than any other pencils, the Prismacolor are a reasonably priced substitute.
Coming a close second were the Derwent Coloursoft and Drawing pencils, with the Drawing range slightly ahead. Though not quite as soft as the Luminance and Prismacolors, these are still in the “soft” category. Both of them gave fairly opaque coverage (Drawing is particularly nice to use on tinted paper), and both produced creamy colour laydown, though the Coloursoft felt slightly drier. The Derwent was also able to be blended by smudging, while the Coloursoft wasn’t (at least, very little).
Next were the Graphitints, which I would rank as medium-soft. Being graphite, they feel quite smooth to draw with, though slightly dry, and they are very easy to blend, especially by smudging. These lean more towards the transparent end of the scale, as laying white over a dark swatch made little difference. Using these pencils alone or mixing them produces subtle, muted colours, but adding water makes the colours more vibrant, producing hues almost as bright as typical watercolour pencils in some cases. Some colours dissolved easier than others, but all colours can be washed when they are dry and reworked.
Both the Faber-Castell ranges, the Polychromos and the Albrecht Durer, felt more or less the same; medium-softness, slightly harder than the Graphitint yet somehow smoother, with no scratchiness while drawing. Both of these blended quite smoothly and layered well, mixing to create vivid secondary colours (Polychromos were slightly better, but the difference is negligible). The opacity of these pencils was nowhere near that of the softer pencils, but was still decent. Of the water-soluble pencils I have tested, I was most impressed by the Albrecht Durer. They dissolved the most smoothly with water and the colour seemed the most vibrant and intense, even in relatively light applications. Close behind these was the Inktense range, a harder (but still medium-soft) pencil that gave fine coverage but felt a bit dry to use. Though these blended quite well, they are among the more transparent types of pencil; the white made little difference to the colour swatch. The Inktense pencils seemed to take a bit more ‘scrubbing’ with the brush to dissolve the pigment fully, but they were able to produce vibrant colours which, like the Albrecht Durer, dry permanent when washed.
I found the Derwent Watercolour pencils to be very hard and waxy, scratchy and slightly more difficult to layer, but I should note that most of the ones I tested were the old Watercolour pencils with the grey barrels. A few years ago Derwent reformulated these pencils and the new ones – with the blue barrels – are softer. I only have one of the new formula (a black pencil) so I couldn’t test it as thoroughly as I did the other ranges, but I would rank the softness of the new formula closer to the Albrecht Durer pencils. Of the water-soluble pencils I tested, the Derwent Watercolour ones had the weakest pigment concentration when washed; not a big difference, but enough to be noticeable. Even dry, they seemed fairly transparent in relation to the other types of pencils. Like the Graphitint, the colour can be rewetted and worked again.
The hardest pencils were the Derwent Artists; I found these a little dry (yet somehow not too scratchy), but because of their hardness and ability to hold a fine point, they’d be good for fine details. To me, these were the most difficult to mix and layer (attempting to smudge with my finger produced no real results), so if you like mixing colours by laying down thick layers of colour (as I do), these might not be for you. They worked best for me when I applied lots of light layers. Opacity was average; the white pencil made very little difference to the colour swatch. It’s probably more useful for burnishing other layers than trying to lighten them.
Colour Range and Vibrance
The Prismacolor comes out on top with a range of 150 colours. Tied for equal second are the Faber-Castell Polychromos and Albrecht Durer ranges (Faber-Castell also uses a colour matching system, meaning that all the colours are the same across their pencil, pastel and marker ranges) and the Derwent Artist range, each with 120 colours. Caran d’Ache Luminance come in next, with 76 colours in their range. Derwent Coloursoft, Watercolour and Inktense all have 72 colours. At the lower end of the scale are the more specialised ranges from Derwent – Drawing and Graphitint – each with 24 colours. In general, most ranges had plenty of vibrant colours (I think my favourites in this regard were both the Faber-Castell sets), though I felt that the Derwent Artists were slightly less vivid than others; perhaps this was an effect of the harder leads. The Derwent Drawing range is more earthy, suited especially for portraits, animal drawings and landscapes, while the Graphitint range is also quite muted, which makes them good for eerie, mysterious effects.
In general I thought the quality of most pencils was fairly good and consistent; the colour lay-down was smooth and even, I rarely (if at all) experienced core breakage and the design of the pencils is aesthetically pleasing, with most having barrels completely painted so you can see at a glance what colour you need. I did have one pencil in each of my Derwent Drawing and Graphitint sets where the pigments had seemingly not combined properly, resulting in scratchy core abnormalities, but Derwent sent replacements as soon as I contacted them and the new pencils were fine, so I can’t fault them for their customer service. The Prismacolors, on the other hand, have given me a lot of grief. About half of the pencils I tested before making my chart had a lot of breakage, even though I carefully sharpened them with a new hand-held sharpener; several pencils are now only half their original length, and a few of them broke and had to be resharpened so many times they are now only an inch or two long. Also, though none of my set had this problem, users on WetCanvas have been complaining about warped barrels and cores not properly centred within the wooden casing, which can make sharpening them even more problematic. Sanford recently shifted production of the Prismacolors from the USA to Mexico, and it is the Mexican-made ones that seem to have the most issues, though the breakage has always been common to the pencils because of their soft lead (you can tell the difference between USA and Mexican-made by looking at the barrels; they are stamped with their place of manufacture, and the ones made in Mexico have a solid block around the colour number). Hopefully at some point, Sanford will take note of their customers’ complaints and put more effort into their quality control again.
Caran d’Ache are one of the finest art supply brands, so it’s no surprise that the Luminance Pencils are the most expensive at nearly $4 each – almost double the cost of the other pencils. At just over $2.00, the Derwent Drawing, Inktense and Coloursoft are next, with the Prismacolors, FC Polychromos and Albrecht Durer and the Derwent Watercolour, Graphitint and Artist ranges the cheapest at or just below the $2.00 point. It usually works out substantially cheaper to buy a set as opposed to buying pencils individually, though since you may end up with many colours you don’t use, some artists prefer to just buy their selected favourite/most used colours in open stock.
I’ve made another identical test sheet to the one above, which I have stuck in my lounge room window*** to perform my own lightfastness test. In a month or two I’ll scan it and report back with my findings on how it fared against the other copy, which will be stored in a dark drawer away from sunlight. But for now I have managed to get colour charts with lightfast ratings for each of the various brands, some of which use different standards of measurement; the ASTM scale ranges from LF1 to LF3, with 1 being the best, 2 being good and 3 being fugitive, while the Blue Wool scale ranges from 1 to 8, with anything 6 and above being considered lightfast.
The best lightfastness ratings can be found in the CDA Luminance set; all pencils in the range are rated LF1 or LF2, with 61 of them being the highest rating of LF1. The small Derwent Drawing range is also excellent, with all 24 colours being rated 8 except one, which is a 7. The next best are the Faber-Castell Polychromos and Albrecht Durer ranges, having 118 and 112 out of 120 colours being either LF1 or LF2. Of 132 Prismacolor pencils, only 74 of them are at or above LF2 (there are 150 colours in the range but at the time of writing, I’ve been unable to locate ratings for the recently introduced/re-released colours). The remaining Derwent ranges varied quite a bit; Coloursoft lists 54 of 72 colours being 6 or above, while the Inktense range has 42 of 72 colours at an acceptable level of lightfastness, followed closely by the Watercolour range with 37 of 72 colours at 6 and above. The Graphitint didn’t fare so well in this area, with only 14 of 24 colours being at or above 6. Coming in last are the Derwent Artist pencils, with a decidedly unimpressive 41 of 120 colours being 6 or above.
Update: 1 month
Now that the charts have been in their respective positions for a month, I thought I’d see how they were faring. Here are the two charts side-by-side, with the chart kept in a drawer on the left and the chart stuck to a window in sunlight on the right:
As you can see, the most noticeable difference is with the Graphitint pencils. In only a month, they have faded completely to grey. I will also note that I was checking on these charts during the month, and the Graphitint had already changed drastically within the first week, losing around half of their colour saturation. I was expecting them to fade, but I was shocked by how quickly it happened. Though some of the Graphitint pencils I used in this test were listed as being under 6 on the lightfastness rating scale, even the colours that were rated higher have faded. If you are going to draw with Graphitint, I would suggest scanning the artwork right away and relying on your digital copy.
As for the other coloured pencils; at this stage the Faber-Castell Polychromos, Sanford Prismacolor, Caran d’Ache Luminance and Derwent Coloursoft and Drawing have remained unchanged. As I expected, the Derwent Watercolour and Inktense lines are also showing signs of fading (more noticeable in the washed sections than in the dry). Oddly enough, the Derwent Watercolour and Inktense whites on the sunlight chart seem to have undergone some sort of reaction and have actually become more vivid/opaque than on the chart kept in darkness. The Derwent Artist colours have faded very slightly; it is noticeable in person, but it doesn’t really show up that well in the scan.
Another big surprise for me was the Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer pencils. These are meant to be among the more lightfast coloured pencils, and the colours I picked are ranked at least two or three stars. However, though the dry pencil has maintained its integrity, the washed areas have faded dramatically in some places. Like the Derwent Watercolour white, the Albrecht Durer white also appears to have become brighter.
Update: 3 months
After another two months (three months total, now) of being in their places, here is what the two charts look like (the chart from the dark drawer on the left and the chart from the sunny window on the right):
Surprisingly, given all I have heard about Prismacolors being particularly prone to fading, there has been no change in these pencils. Likewise, the Caran d’Ache Luminance and the Derwent Drawing swatches have stayed true.
The Graphitint appeared to have faded even more; they’d already lost their colour but now even the graphite itself is growing fainter (I’d already written these off as a lost cause but I’m still documenting them for the sake of completeness). The Derwent Watercolour and Inktense colours have faded noticeably now, especially the reds and blues; same with the Coloursoft and Artist, though it is less obvious with these ranges.
The Faber-Castell Polychromos have also begun to show signs of fading. The difference is almost imperceptible (almost, but not quite) when looking between the two charts in person, but flicking between the two on a computer monitor does show fading (the red has been hit the worst but all swatches have faded at least a little. The Albrecht-Durer continues to disappoint, with the swatches now showing significant fading not just in the washed areas, but in some of the dry patches as well (most notably, the red and yellow). These results show that you can’t just take a company’s claims of lightfastness at face value.
Update: 6 months
The charts have now been in their respective positions for a total of six months, bringing this test to its conclusion. Let’s have a look at the results:
No real change with the Graphitint pencils; they pretty much did all their fading within the first couple of months. The three dry Derwent lines (Artists, Coloursoft and Drawing) all show little to no further degradation since the 3 month scan; same goes for the Prismacolor and Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils.
The Derwent Watercolour pencils have faded a little more, though not really noticeably unless you compare the scans. The difference is noticeable with the Derwent Inktense, though, which, though still quite colourful, have lost more of their intensity.
The Faber-Castell Polychromos did alright with some of their colours, but the red and the yellow appear to have suffered badly, which stands out mainly in the yellow-red and yellow-blue mixed swatches. The water-soluble Albrecht-Durer pencils faded still more than the Polychromos; some of the washed areas have now faded almost entirely, while the dried areas have deteriorated further since the 3 month scan.
So, that concludes my light-fastness testing for various watercolour pencil brands. It bears repeating that it is not enough to simply accept a manufacturer’s light-fastness rating as gospel; you must ensure that you test all colours you intend to use in work that will be displayed, otherwise you run the risk of having your wonderful drawings fade within a few short years (or even months).
What about other artists? Have you had similar or different findings with these or other brands of pencils, or are there any questions you have that I haven’t answered here? If so, feel free to let me know in the comments.
*Truth. My Dad printed me out a certificate and everything.
**When. It’s rare for me to go more than a few months without buying at least one more set of pencils.
***This test was carried out with the charts in a north-facing window in my Melbourne (ie. southern hemisphere) home over the spring and early summer of 2012-2013, when the UV rays are starting to become stronger. Though a proper piece of work wouldn’t be displayed in direct sunlight, such a test is still a relatively fast and easy indicator of how certain pigments will fare over the years in normal display conditions.