Most of us had at least one set of coloured pencils as a child, usually some cheap Crayolas or Faber-Castells or other sets you can get for a few dollars in the newsagent. If we were really lucky, however, we had a set of Derwent pencils (mainly because this was the only ‘good’ brand available in most local stores). My tin of 24 Artists pencils was my pride and joy and I went through several sets during my school years. Once I grew up and got a job, I started lusting after the full 120 range of Artists pencils, and eventually managed to find a second-hand box on eBay.
The full 120 range is only available in the wooden box, though you can buy all individual colours in open stock; otherwise, like most of Derwent’s ranges, you can buy sets of 12, 24, 36 or 72 in the standard metal tins. Derwent pencils usually have a distinctively coloured barrel so you can tell their different ranges apart. Artists pencils have a nice dark green finish, with the tip coloured to represent the colour of the lead.
Here are my colour charts for the 120 colours.
Since my school day use of the Derwent Artists pencils, I’ve acquired a number of other brands to play with, so I finally feel I can give a reasonably informed review and comparison. Derwent Artists pencils are wax-based, but even though their packaging claims they are soft, they actually have one of the hardest leads among coloured pencil brands. They’re almost as hard as the now-discontinued Signature pencils, though luckily they don’t have that same horrid scratchy feeling. Still, even with a firm lead, they still feel pretty smooth to draw with, though they also feel a little ‘dry’. There’s a huge range of colours in the range; everything from pale blues and yellows to bright greens and reds to muted earths and darks is at your disposal. The colour concentration is good – at least on a level with most other artist grade pencils, though they aren’t quite as opaque as softer pencils, as I mentioned in my coloured pencils comparison post. This is especially noticeable when putting the white pencil over other colours. In most other brands, a white pencil can be used to make beautiful soft highlights, but the Derwent Artists white almost acted more as a burnisher, making very little difference to the colours it was applied on.
While softer pencils lend themselves to being built up in many layers, I feel like the Artists pencils suit a more ‘sketchy’ style, using fewer layers but letting the texture of the paper show through. You can of course use more pressure to get a more solid layer, but this creates a hard, waxy surface and makes it pretty much impossible to put another layer down on top of it. The paper you use also plays a huge role in how many layers you can get down, and if you use a good quality paper, you can still get enough layers of Artist pencil down to create rich colour mixtures and smooth blends, but it felt a little more challenging than when I did similar things with, say, my Prismacolors or my Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils. Some artists might choose to do the first few layers in Derwent Artists and then switch to a softer pencil to build up further layers, in a similar fashion to how soft pastellists often use harder pastels to block in areas of colour before laying in softer pastels over the top.
Derwent’s Studio line apparently uses the same formula for the lead, but those are the thinner, hexagonal-barrelled pencils, whereas Artists have a thicker, round barrel and a wide (4mm) lead. Oddly enough, though the colours are the same (with Studio being limited to 72 colours), there is a discrepancy with the company’s lightfastness ratings for the pencils across the two brands, with Studio colours often rating lower than Artists colours. I’m not sure if this is an error in the labelling or if there are actually differences in the formulas.
Even though Artists are supposedly more lightfast than Studio, the Artists range’s lightfastness ratings are nothing to write home about. Anything 6 or higher on the Blue Wool Scale (out of 8) is considered to be lightfast. Only 49 of the Artists pencils rate at least 6 on the scale, meaning that nearly two thirds of the range is fugitive. Among the yellows, reds, blues and greens, there are very few colours that are lightfast. This is a huge problem if you display or sell your work, as it greatly limits what colours you can use.
Another factor most artists consider when buying coloured pencils is breakage. Any pencil can suffer from internal breakage (when the coloured core gets cracked or shattered and the pencil constantly breaks and needs resharpening) if it is handled poorly, but some brands are more prone to it than others. So far I haven’t come across any issues with the Derwent Artists pencils in this regard. My Spectrum Blue pencil was dropped several times and even run over by my desk chair’s wheels* and hasn’t broken once, so it seems these are a fairly sturdy pencil.
Here’s a drawing I did with the Derwent Artists pencils (though I have the 120 colour box, I only used the 24 colour tin for this picture). It’s based on a photo from Wet Canvas’s Reference Image Library, uploaded by “Signchick”.
Overall, the lightfastness issues mean it’s probably better to buy Artists pencils open stock rather than in a set (so you can make sure to choose colours that aren’t fugitive), but if you want a pencil at the firmer end of the spectrum, Artists are a decent choice. The harder texture may not appeal to everyone and may even be off-putting to some, but they do have their uses. They are about mid-range in terms of quality and mid-high range in terms of price (this varies depending on where you live), so try a few single colours with your next order and see if they suit your drawing style. Personally, I prefer a softer pencil, so I will probably use the Coloursofts or Faber-Castell’s Polychromos pencils more.
*Obviously these are not ideal things to do to your art supplies; I was having a really clumsy day. Please don’t think I am advocating for the torture and abuse of coloured pencils.