Let’s get technical about Color Pencils

Drake in prograss
Drake, the dragon in progress

I am often asked what the medium is that I use to create my art work. The answer of course is: Color Pencil.

Color Pencil Art has come a long way in the last several years. Adults all over the world have been discovering the fun and the meditative effects of drawing. Pencils are highly portable and low-mess.

But which pencils should you choose if you’re newly delving into this medium? Like most things, it depends. If you want your artwork to last, you will be investing a little more than if you’re just doodling. Overall, pencils are inexpensive when compared to other art media such as oil paint.

Personally, as a professional artist, my go-to pencils are Faber-Castell Polychromos every time. They are oil-based pencils, as opposed to the well-known brand Prismacolor, which is wax-based. The Polys are generally awarded a good lightfastness rating which is important to me, but may not matter to everyone.

Here are some pros and cons of either type of pencil: the oil-based pencils are a little harder. If you’re trying to draw a fine line, the wax-based pencil will get “wider” quickly as you’re making progress across the paper. Oil-based tips, being harder, hold the point longer. This is why I ALWAYS use Faber-Castell Polys for pupils of eyes and other fine line work.

The strong point of wax-based pencils like Prismas on the other hand is saturation. Because of their softness, wax-based pencils deposit more pigment on the page (hence the fast dulling of points). So if you’re looking for strong, vivid color, wax may be your best option. They are also highly soluble, which makes them great candidates for blending with solvents, such as mineral oil. You can blend oil-based pencils with solvents, too, but they’re just not quite as quick to dissolve.

A world of caution about Prismacolor brand pencils. In recent years, the quality of these pencils has declined. I recently received an order where several of the brand new pencils were split along the outside. I have also heard from quite a few fellow color pencil artists, that Prismas are notorious for breaking and not being firmly encased in the wood. You can remedy this by carefully “melting” them in the microwave to make them adhere to the wood from the inside, but I’m really not a fan of having to repair my tools before I go to work. I’ve also noticed that, when I sharpen them, they are often not very well centered, which you can tell because of the irregular way the wood line moves up and down around the lead, whereas the Polys “shave” at a level that’s even all the way around the lead.

Still, there are many Prismacolor fans out there. If you’re just starting out, I recommend buying a few colors open stock (Blick Art ist a good online source for this) and playing with them. You may, like me, end up buying a set of both.

Seabrook Roses sm
Seabrook Roses

To see amazing examples of color pencil art and more reviews of different types of pencils, you can find youtube videos (Lachri Fine Art is excellent) as well as Facebook pages of color pencil art groups. I own several excellent books by color pencil living legend Alyona Nickelsen, which belong in the library of anyone seriously exploring this medium.

The web sites of manufacturers like Faber-Castell and Prismacolor, as well as Derwent and the top-of-the-line brand Caran D’Ache are worth visiting. There you will find information about color-fastness ratings; to my knowledge, the highest, most consistent being that of the more expensive Caran D’Ache pencils, which I also use.

I hope this helps those of you who are in the process of discovering the many wonderful aspects of color pencil art. One more word of advice: don’t get stuck just reading about it, start drawing!