Time for another art supply comparison post, this time on water-soluble pastels and crayons! As with my coloured pencil comparison, I’m only testing products that are marketed as ‘Artist Grade’. The crayons/pastels I’ll be testing in this post are:
The Neocolor 2s and the Artbars are both wax-based crayons, whereas the Aqua Stics are oil-based pastels. Because of these differences, you could almost argue that they don’t belong in the same comparison/review, but I personally think they are similar enough that comparing them could be helpful for those who aren’t sure what they should buy, especially since (from what I’ve observed in online artist forums) they seem to be the three most popular water-soluble crayons/pastels used by artists.
For my tests, I chose three primary colours, three tertiary colours and black and white, all of varying lightfastness ratings (see end of post for more info). As I did with the coloured pencils, I’ve created gradated swatches with the colours, as well as using them for common pastel/crayon techniques, such as blended gradients, layering, mixing, crosshatching, rubbing and sgraffito, adding water to each technique to test the products’ water solubility. I also tested the colour concentration by drawing a consistently-sized dot of colour and washing it out into a large square. The paper I have used is Eraldo di Paolo 225gsm Field Pad paper.
Here is my original test chart (click image for a larger version):
The Neocolor 2s are the hardest, followed closely by the Artbar; the Aqua Stics are quite soft in contrast, no doubt due to their oil-based nature (that being said, they don’t feel like real oil pastels; their texture is somewhere between an oil pastel and a soft wax crayon). In spite of this, I actually found that the Neocolor 2s blended the easiest and most smoothly when laid one on top of the other, but finger/heat blending was slightly easier with the Aqua Stics, creating some nice transition effects. The Neocolor 2s, being harder, kept a point better, meaning they are probably the best for smaller details. Even when applying light pressure, I found that the Aqua Stics wore down quite quickly since they were so soft.
One thing about the Artbars that I do like above the other brands is their triangular barrel shape. Not only does this stop them rolling off the table (I’m forever running over pastels with my chair wheels because they’ve fallen off my desk), but it also gives you the opportunity to make a wider range of marks, from triangle stamping to long thin lines to wider strokes of colour. To me, it seemed that you needed to use more pressure to lay colour down, so they do wear down a bit faster. Also, they smell nice (I’m not weird, they just have a nice, arty smell… Don’t judge me!). That being said, I found them the most difficult to work with in terms of layering and blending. When layering one on top of another, the top colour sometimes lifted off patches of the under layer, resulting in sometimes blotchy coverage; a similar thing happened when blending two layered colours by heating and rubbing.
All three products responded well to being washed, though Neocolor 2 dissolved a little more cleanly than the other two. All three tended to leave slightly visible lines after being washed, similar to many watercolour pencils (in some cases scrubbing at them more with a brush would erase them, but not always). I also found that they all worked well with the sgraffito technique (layering a dark colour on a light colour, then scratching to reveal the light colour) and produced decent effects.
Colour Range and Vibrance
As far as colour range goes, the Caran d’Ache Neocolors are way out at the head of the field, with 126 colours to choose from. These do include some metallics, which will work quite well for fantasy pieces. With a range so large, there are some colours that are very close in hue, but it means that pretty much any colour you could want or need is at your fingertips and ready to go (this could be a good or bad thing, depending on if you’re the sort of person who prefers to mix their own colours or gets confused by a large selection).
Next is the Derwent Artbar with a range of 72 colours (this seems to be Derwent’s magic number as far as full ranges go). Derwent have done something interesting with the packaging of their Artbars by arranging them into four groups; Brights, Pales, Earths and Darks. This might be useful if you want to work with a limited palette; you can just stick to the colours from one section. One of the Artbars is a ‘mixing bar’, sort of like the Colourless Blender in the Prismacolor Pencils range; quite handy for mixing layers without having to smudge them with your finger.
Though the Cretacolor Aqua Stics originally came in 80 colours, I have been told by a company rep on the Cretacolor Facebook page that the range has been cut back to 40 colours (you can still find some of the cut colours in open stock, but they are few and far between). Still, even with a significantly shorter range, there is a good balance of colours, so it should still be possible to mix pretty much anything you want.
All three products offer brilliant, vivid colours, as well as more muted tones. I found that, when washed, they all seemed to have about the same colour concentration; Neocolor 2 was slightly in front, while Artbar was slightly behind, but the difference was negligible.
Based on their blending capabilities and their lightfastness ratings (end of post), I felt that the Neocolor 2 were the best here (though this could be personal preference), followed by Aqua Stic and then Artbar. They are all worth playing with, though, as long as you keep in mind the lightfast ratings for each colour. I had the misfortune to get dud sticks in both my Aqua Stic and Artbar sets (one of my Artbars has what appears to be a vein of sawdust running through it, while some of my Aqua Stics were cracked all down the centre and had a weird greasy and squishy texture; it was like trying to draw with a stick of playdough). I know that all art suppliers are going to have dodgy products slip through the quality checking process occasionally, but it did annoy me, since in both cases, the one affected was one of my favourite or most-used colours.
It’s hard to give a solid comparison here, since I had trouble finding any one supplier who sold all three of these in open stock. Cretacolor Aqua Stics don’t appear to be available anywhere in Australia in open stock (I spent ages looking but came up empty; if you know of somewhere who sells them, feel free to comment, as I would love to get the full range), but you can get them from the large American online art supply stores for about $1.34, which, even taking into account currency exchange rates, is far cheaper than the other two. A Derwent Artbar will cost you about $2.20 from a local online art store, while a single Caran d’Ache Neocolor 2 will set you back about $2.40. It’s usually cheaper to buy things like pastels and pencils in sets (this is not always the case, you need to do the math before buying), with the exception of the full 126 range of Neocolor 2s; with just 42 colours more than the 84 set, you will pay almost double the amount. The only reason I got a full set was because they were on sale and I had a coupon. Unless you find yourself in the same situation, you’re better off getting a smaller set and then buying extra colours you want individually. The other products’ set prices follow a more logical increase as the size grows.
Similar to my coloured pencils post, I’ve made two identical charts with these three products to test their lightfastness; again, one will be stuck in my front window for a few months, while the other will be kept in a dark drawer. In terms of advertised lightfastness, both the Neocolor 2s and the Aqua Stics are pretty good. Both also use the ASTM scale where LF1 is the best, LF2 is still good, down to LF5, which is fugitive. Of the 126 Neocolor 2s, 114 colours receive ratings of LF1 or LF2. All of the Aqua Stic colours in my 40 tin are considered lightfast, with 18 being LF1 and the other 22 being LF2. I do like that the Aqua Stics display their lightfast rating on the actual crayons; the other two products don’t. I think art supply manufacturers should make a point of printing the lightfastness information of their products either on the packaging or on the product itself (eg. on the barrel or wrapper). This would make it easier for artists to see at a glance what colours are safe to use for work that will be displayed instead of having to hunt around for a lightfast rating chart. For my tests, I have used colours with a variety of lightfastness ratings from each brand.
The Derwent Artbars (which go by the Blue Wool scale from 1-8, with anything over 6 being lightfast) really fall down here. Of the 72 colours, 49 receive ratings of 6 or above, meaning that a full third of the range is not lightfast. This means you need to be really careful when using Artbars for a work you intend to display; I did a drawing/painting with them when I first got them, and was later disappointed to find that most of my favourite colours I used are fugitive.
I’ll leave the charts in their respective places for a month, then scan them and report back in a month with my findings.
Update: 1 month
Both charts have now been in their respective positions for a month, so it’s time to see how well the pigments have held up. The chart that was kept in a drawer is on the left, and the chart that was stuck to a sunny window is on the right:
As expected, the Derwent Artbar has been far more harshly affected by the sunlight, with the purple fading several shades in just a month. It seems that the Primary Blue was also affected, as seen from the blended yellow and blue squares, especially where it was washed; likewise for the red and blue crosshatch test, which has lightened noticeably where the water was applied. Nearly all of the single colour gradated swatches have faded a little, though this does not really show up in the scans.
The Caran d’Ache Neocolor 2s also showed shifts in some colours; most noticeably in the yellow and blue squares, which surprisingly faded even more than the same test in the Artbars; I think the Neocolor 2 blue I used was rated LF3, though strangely it actually seems to have darkened in the individual colour swatch. Fading on the red and blue crosshatch test was also pronounced, with almost all blue fading out of the washed/rubbed areas. The purple and white swatch also seems to have had a slight change in hue, with the purple losing some of it’s ‘blueness’ and shifting more towards a red violet.
I was surprised to see that the Cretacolor Aqua Stics fared better than the Neocolor 2s, exhibiting the least amount of fading. The colours have lightened slightly where washed, both in individual and mixed colour watches, but they have lightened substantially less than the other brands; the only test where fading was really noticeable was the red and blue crosshatch test.
Update: 3 months
Here are the charts again after three months (left one kept in shadow, right one taped in a sunny window):
Once again, the Derwent Artbar continues to out-fade the other two brands. This is especially noticeable with the purple swatches, which have faded almost out of existence; the orange and green swatches have not fared much better. The layered blue and yellow swatch also shows further signs of degradation.
Most of the Neocolor 2s have not changed that much from the 1 month scan, apart from the blue and the orange; the orange has faded substantially, and both swatches where blue was blended with another colour (layered with yellow and crosshatched with red) show significant further fading. There was also some slight fading of the red in the gradated yellow to red swatch, but this is only really visible when flicking between the scans on the screen.
The Aqua Stics are still doing the best out of the three; however, though they showed no real signs of fading at one month, they have faded a little at the three month mark (still far less than the other two). The purple shows the most fading, with the red just behind. Less noticeable are the yellow and green, whose fading is only really visible when viewing both on screen. The black swatch has also faded (very) slightly.
Surprisingly, I have also noticed some fading on the test sheet that was kept in shadow; barely visible to the naked eye but noticeable when flicking between scans of the two on my screen, the Caran d’Ache blue has faded slightly, as seen from the plain blue swatch and the blue and yellow layered and blended swatch.
Update: 6 months
The charts have now been in place for six months, concluding this test. Here they are below:
Within the Derwent Artbar range, all colours tested on the swatch sheet other than black have experienced fading to various degrees; previously this was only noticeable in scans, but now it is quite obvious to the naked eye. Almost none of the pigment from the purple Artbar remains, while the blue and orange have also faded noticeably. The red has not really changed since the last check, but the yellow seems to have lost some of its intensity.
Neocolor 2 did better overall, though the blue faded badly both on its own and in the mixed green swatches. The other primary colours all remained true, however the orange continued to fade; in the wash, it fared as poorly as Derwent’s orange Artbar. Purple faded a little, but this is barely discernible to the naked eye. The green crayon overlaid on orange faded, but oddly enough, the green crayon on its own did not.
The Aqua Stics did the best out of the three products tested, but at the 6 month mark, they too have now suffered some noticeable fading (the frequent heatwaves of 30+ degree days over the last few months probably didn’t help). Red, blue and purple have now faded more severely, as has the green, albeit less substantially.
The Neocolor 2 blue on the sheet that was kept in shadow has also faded a lot more since the 3 month scan, both on its own and in the mixed green swatches; last time it was visible only by flicking between the scans, but now it is obvious even in person.
The tests go to show that even in brands/ranges that are generally regarded as lightfast, you really do need to check the ratings of individual colours, and that some colours will fade even when they are not exposed to direct sunlight.
Note: This post was originally posted at my writing blog. However I have moved it to this one just for the sake of keeping my art and writing stuff organised separately.