A new set of freshly sharpened colored pencils is a great addition to an artist’s tool kit. Colored pencils come in a range of vivid colors and a variety of types, including wax-based, oil-based, and water-soluble.
This guide shares the key features to consider when shopping for the best colored pencils to fulfill your artistic needs. Keep reading to discover the kind of pencil set that will help you create your next artistic masterpiece.
- BEST OVERALL: Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils, 150 Pack
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Crayola Colored Pencils, 50 Count
- BEST FOR PROFESSIONALS: Castle Art Supplies 72 Colored Pencils Set
- ADULT COLORING BOOKS PICK: US Art Supply 50 Piece Artist Colored Pencil Set
- BEST WITH CASE: Moore – Premium Art Color Pencils, 48 Pieces
- BEST BULK: Arteza Professional Watercolor Pencils, Set of 120
- BEST 12-PACK: Faber Castell F110012 Polychromos Colour Pencils, 12
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Colored Pencils
Beyond the actual colors, there are many factors to consider when shopping for colored pencils. Here are some of the top considerations to help you shop for colored pencils.
Colored pencils come in three different types: wax-based, oil-based, and water-soluble. Here are the main differences between each type.
- Wax-based colored pencils contain pigment that is held together with a wax binder. They provide full coverage and an intense color. Wax-based pencils are the softest type of colored pencil, which makes them easier to blend and layer than other types. The softness also makes them more likely to break than other types of pencils, so they may not last as long as the other types. Wax-based colored pencils can sometimes create wax bloom on artwork, which is a white, hazy glaze that occurs when the wax binder rises through the pigment and settles on the surface of the paper.
- Oil-based colored pencils are resistant to water. They consist of a vegetable-based oil binder that holds together the pigment. Oil-based pencils require more pressure to get the same level of color intensity as wax-based colored pencils and do not blend or layer as easily as wax-based pencils. Wax-based colored pencils are harder, which helps the pencils last longer.
- Water-soluble colored pencils are often referred to as watercolor pencils. They contain a gum arabic binder that is activated by water, so the pigment can blend with water. They can be used with water to create a watercolor effect or without water for regular drawings.
The type of colored pencil that’s best for your needs depends on your intended use and techniques. Among the different applications, there are basic and advanced techniques. Whichever method you choose, try not to press too hard or you could damage your paper. Here are some of the most common colored pencil applications, organized by level of difficulty.
- Back-and-forth is a basic application which literally means moving the pencil back and forth continuously to cover the desired area.
- Hatching involves drawing vertical, horizontal, or angled parallel lines and picking up the pencil before drawing each line.
- Cross-hatching is a similar technique to hatching. It requires intersecting lines as opposed to parallel lines. Use this method for creating shading and texture.
- Burnishing is a more advanced technique that can be used to achieve a smooth, waxy finish. This involves using the back-and-forth method to apply thin layers of color until the paper has a glossy finish.
- Scraping is a technique that requires using an X-Acto knife to remove certain parts of the artwork and create highly textured areas on top of shiny paper.
- Blending color involves using any of the techniques above and then putting a dab of rubbing alcohol or oil on a cotton swab to smear and blend the pigment in the drawing.
Colored pencils are separated into two categories based on quality and skill level: student-grade or artist-grade. Student-grade colored pencils contain more binder and less pigment. This means they require more work to achieve the same color intensity as professional-grade colored pencils. While they can wear out more quickly, artist-grade pencils are usually a more affordable option.
Artist-grade (also referred to as professional-grade) colored pencils have a higher pigment to binder ratio. They also are easier to blend, more durable, and more resistant to fading. Professional-grade colored pencils are available in a broader range of colors.
Soft vs. Hard
When choosing colored pencils, pay attention to whether the consistency is classified as soft or hard. The ideal consistency depends on your skill level and individual drawing preferences.
Soft colored pencils are usually preferred by professional artists because they blend well and lay down color easily. The texture of soft pencils can range from smooth and creamy to grainy. Keep in mind that soft colored pencils require more frequent sharpening and can be more susceptible to breakage.
Student-grade colored pencils tend to fall on the harder side. Hard colored pencils are well-suited for smaller, more intricate drawings since they can be sharpened to a fine, pointy tip. However, it is more difficult to apply color and blend when using hard colored pencils.
Color Quality and Range
Color quality depends on the amount of pigment and binders in the colored pencils. Professional-grade colored pencils tend to have higher color quality because they contain higher concentrations of pigment. Most colored pencils come in a wide variety of color ranges, which is helpful because they don’t mix as easily as paint to form other hues.
Some large sets have more than 100 different colors. While the large packs offer variety, some of the shades can be very similar. A novice artist may want to start with a 24 pack of pencils; the nuances in color may not be as important to a beginner. When buying colored pencils in sets, a color chart can help you keep track of all the color options.
Lightfastness is the ability to resist fading and discoloration, which is important for making your artwork last. Most manufacturers used the ASTM International standard to rate the lightfastness from one to five, but others use their own proprietary rating scales. Lower numbers mean the color is more lightfast.
Most artist-grade colored pencils offer sufficient fade resistance. It’s important to evaluate each brand and pencil individually since lightfastness can vary. Certain colors like pink and purple are not as lightfast as other colors, regardless of the brand used.
Colored pencils do not require many accessories. Some basic tools to consider when using colored pencils include cases, sharpeners, and erasers. Sometimes accessories are included with colored pencil sets, although they also can be purchased separately.
Pencil cases offer a convenient way to transport and protect your colored pencils. They come in different varieties including metal tins, canvas cases, and more. Some pencil cases have special features like dividers to keep your colored pencils separated. Other types of cases are stackable, which is useful for storing multiple colored pencils in one area.
Choosing a quality pencil sharpener will help keep your colored pencils in good working condition. You can select an electric or manual version. Electric pencil sharpeners are quicker than manual sharpeners, but they are often more expensive. Manual sharpeners allow you to adjust how much you’d like to shave off of the tip, which gives greater control in some drawing techniques.
Erasers are helpful if you want to lighten, blend, or erase your drawings. Kneaded erasers are a good choice for lightening your artwork, lifting smudges, or removing debris from your drawings. Plastic or vinyl erasers are best for blending. Electric erasers also allow you to blend colors, but they are most effective for actual erasing. You also can use an eraser pencil, which is an eraser inside a wooden case that’s in the shape of a pencil. Eraser pencils are best for erasing tiny mistakes and can be sharpened with a regular pencil sharpener. Artist tape is another method that can be used to lift the color off the page after pressing tape on the part of the drawing that needs to be fixed.
Our Top Picks
There’s something gratifying about buying a new set of colored pencils. There are plenty of options regardless of your art goals. Here are some of the best colored pencils to help you start creating your next artistic masterpiece.
Enjoy an array of vibrant colors with this 150-pack of colored pencils. These artist-grade colored pencils contain a soft and creamy core that is ideal for blending, shading, and layering. The lightfast pigments provide high-intensity color that is resistant to fading, and the smooth tips provide even color. These colored pencils contain thick cores that are resistant to cracks and chips, which makes them able to handle a range of pressure. They come sharpened so you can start using them right out of the box.
Crayola’s affordable colored pencil set for beginners includes 50 vibrant colored pencils in light and dark shades. The fine-point tip makes them a good choice for detailed coloring and drawing. These colored pencils are sharpened and provide long-lasting bold color with smooth laydown that helps artists execute a variety of techniques, including shading, blending, and layering.
This artist-grade colored pencil set features 72 soft colored pencils. Easily lay down vivid color and practice blending and layering techniques using these highly pigmented colored pencils that contain rich, velvety cores. The high-quality cores are surrounded by durable basswood and a smooth coating to help prevent breaks. These colored pencils are named, numbered, and color-coded in a tin box, so you can easily access and store your colored pencils.
This set of 50 sharpened wax-based pencils features high-quality pigments while offering smooth coloring. The hexagonal shape allows for an easy grip, which is helpful when coloring for hours. The colored pencil barrels are painted to match the core color, which makes it easy to organize them and select the colors you want to use.
This colored pencil set includes 48 sharpened colored pencils and a canvas carrying case that makes it easier to organize, protect, and travel with your colored pencils. These colored pencils can blend, burnish, shade, and layer color, so you can use them to try out different techniques in your artwork. Additional accessories include an alloy metal pencil sharpener and firm paintbrush for blending and activating the watercolor look.
While these artist-quality watercolor pencils allow you to create watercolor effects with a dab of water, they also can be used dry for regular drawings. Select from 120 sharpened, highly pigmented colored pencils and try out blending, layering, and mixing techniques. These colored pencils have break-resistant cores and lightfast pigments that are resistant to fading. This multipack of colored pencils comes with a tin pencil case to organize your colored pencils or take them with you wherever you go. Each colored pencil is labeled by name, color, and lightfastness rating.
Faber Castell’s 12-pack of oil-based colored pencils offer high-quality pigments in vivid colors and maximum lightfastness. These soft colored pencils are used for easy blending, which allows you to create highlights, transitions, and layering. A great choice for professional and aspiring artists, these colored pencils contain thick cores that are break-resistant, water-resistant, and smudge-proof.
FAQs About the Best Colored Pencils
Now that you’ve read about some of the important factors to help choose the best colored pencils, you may still have some questions. Below are a few of the most common questions asked about using colored pencils.
Q. What are colored pencils made of?
Colored pencils are made of a wood casing with a wax-based, oil-based, or water-soluble binder and a pigment that creates the color.
Q. What is lightfastness?
Lightfastness measures a colored pencil’s resistance to ultraviolet rays, which impacts the amount of fading over time. Higher lightfastness means less fading and is usually the lowest number.
Q. What’s the best kind of paper to use with colored pencils?
The best type of paper for colored pencils varies by preference, drawing style, and skill level. Paper is available as single sheets or full sketch pads, and the texture can range from smooth to heavyweight. High-quality acid-free paper will help preserve your artwork and prevent it from turning yellow over time.