Pencils: Holbein Artists’ Coloured Pencils (review)

I’d been wanting to try the Japanese Holbein Artists’ coloured pencils for several years, but I’d never seen them available anywhere in Australia, and the sets on eBay were quite expensive once you added postage and currency conversion. On my last trip to the art supply shop before we were put in lockdown, I saw a bundle that included an A4 sketchbook, a pencil case and a set of 12 Holbein coloured pencils. I didn’t really want the book or the pencil case but the set was still cheaper than anything I’d seen on eBay, so I figured I’d get some anyway (and I can always put the book and pencil case to good use).

The full range includes 150 colours, with a nice focus on reds, violets and blues and quite a few pastel colours. I’ve seen boxes and tins online in ranges of 50, 36, 24 and 12 colours, with three varieties of 12 colour tins: Basic, Design and Pastel. Aside from Basic and Design both containing Black and White pencils, the colours in each tin are unique, so if you bought all three, you’d have 34 colours. The tin in my bundle was the Basic set; I’ve included my colour chart for it below.

It’s hard to give a price per single pencil as I haven’t seen individual Holbein pencils for sale anywhere. Jackson’s in the UK seems to have the smaller sets on preorder, with the 12 colour sets priced at $53AUD (which is slightly more than I paid for the pencils, pencil case and sketchbook bundle here in Australia). This adds an extra frustration to the difficulty in finding these pencils, as even if you can get a tin of them, you most likely won’t be able to replace a particular colour if you use it up faster than the others.

As you would expect from an artist grade pencil, the pigment concentration in these pencils is high, allowing you to lay down a solid and vibrant layer of colour without having to jam the pencil tip into the paper. Texture-wise, they feel somewhere in between Caran d’Ache Luminance and Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils; quite firm, but still smooth and silky. This makes it easy to build up quite a few layers as long as you’re using a decent quality paper. Unfortunately the White pencil isn’t as opaque as I’d like it to be; while a Caran d’Ache or Prismacolor Premier white pencil can be used to add in highlights if you’ve accidentally coloured an area, the Holbein White only lightens it ever so slightly and blends it.

Lightfastness information is difficult to find for these pencils; I’ve been unable to find colour charts online, aside from those drawn by other artists. Even Holbein’s own website doesn’t appear to have a colour chart (not just for their pencils but for all their products). This isn’t much of an issue for their other ranges as their watercolour and gouache tubes usually have lightfastness ratings listed for each colour on various retailers’ sites, but the only source of lightfastness info I’ve been able to find for the pencils is on the pencils themselves and the pamphlet inside the tin. Out of the full 150 colours, there are 72 *** colours, 60 ** colours, 12 * colours and 6 “luminous” (fluoro) colours that are not rated. This puts them on par with the Derwent Artists or Coloursoft ranges, which do have some lightfast colours but also contain a significant number of fugitive ones.

Here’s the drawing I did with my Holbein Artists’ coloured pencils.

I’d love to be able to recommend these pencils to all coloured pencil artists, but unless you live in or near Japan or America, they’re probably going to be difficult to find (and expensive if you can find them). If you can get your hands on them, though, their firm but smooth texture and high pigment concentration make them a joy to work with, but beware of the fugitive colours in the range.

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