UPDATED: January 26, 2022
There are oil, wax, and water based pencils, lightfast and non-lightfast pencils, and you want to find out which are the best coloured pencils to use and why. As an artist starting in the coloured pencil medium, you may be confused by the range of coloured pencils available. You have a limited budget, yet you want to learn with the best available tools.
This post will provide a quick introduction to using oil, and wax-based coloured pencils, which will be followed by examples of a green capsicum drawn with different types of pencils.
Then this post will look at colour wheels and see if there are differences between the colours of wax-based and oil-based coloured pencils, and if there are differences between the lightfast and non-lightfast wax-based and oil-based colours. Examples of when to use different pencils are provided.
Finally, a drawing created using results of the post is provided.
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A. Quick introduction to using coloured pencils
Research before you buy
After I conducted my art and craft supplies audit, I found I had many coloured pencils in my stash. My blog post ‘11 reasons why you might have more of one thing found after an art and craft supplies audit’ explains why I had gathered so many.
You need to know your pencils
I worked with my stash of coloured pencils for a while doing coloured pencils art courses. These courses generally specified which coloured pencil to use and where to use them in the exercise drawings.
However, after I did my own coloured pencil drawings without instruction, I found it difficult to identify which pencil to use, when – and why. As such, I had to get to know my pencils so I could use them in my drawings.
I had bought artist quality pencils which are amongst the most expensive on the market. However, as well as needing to know the colours and performance of the pencils, I also needed to organise them so I could use them efficiently and not have any wastage.
For example, I did not want to have to separate my pencils so I would only use the lightfast pencils, and place my non-lightfast ones away never to be seen again.
Therefore, I organised my pencils by making swatches and colour wheels. Now by looking at the swatches and colour wheels, I can efficiently use the pencils for any drawing purpose I need. There is no reason to not use any pencil type, and all types of pencils can be used efficiently.
Let’s explore coloured pencils.
Many types of coloured pencils available
There is a large range of coloured pencil brands available in student and artist quality, and at varying prices.
This post will cover the four artist sets that I purchased and organised. These are Prismacolor Premier (150 set), Faber Castell Polychromos (120 set), Caran d’Ache Pablo (120 set) and Caran d’Ache Luminance (76). These brands are also available in open stock should you want to buy single pencils.
Secret coloured pencil recipes
We don’t know the ingredients that are mixed with pigments to make a pencil either wax-based or oil-based. Each coloured pencil brand manufacturer uses their own secret recipes and ingredients. But it is possible that coloured pencils have a mix of both oil and wax binders in their core.
Is there a difference between the pencil types?
Artists speak about wax-based and oil-based coloured pencils and their differences.
Yet coloured pencils are not marketed by manufacturers as wax-based or oil-based. However, artists know that there is a difference between the pencils, and this that they each feel different when used.
B. Using wax-based and oil-based coloured pencils – examples
To demonstrate the differences between the pencils, let’s look at some drawings that I completed in an online course, “Coloured Pencil Textures” with Kate Clarke.
In this exercise, I drew a green capsicum.
Please note that I drew all examples of the green capsicum in slightly different colours. It helped me as an absolute learner to understand coloured pencils. It also helped me understand how colours affect each other.
I drew my first green capsicum example with the wax-based Prismacolor Premier colour pencils.
The Prismacolor Premier colour pencils have strong colour saturation and are one of the most pleasurable pencils to use.
Prismacolor Premier pencils are creamy and soft to use. They blend well with other Prismacolor Premier pencils, the Prismacolor Blending Pencil and the Caran d’Ache blending stick.
Prismacolor Premier Performance issue
In the past, however, Prismacolor Premier pencils have had performance issues with their timber casing. This has been reported by other users on the internet. I can speak from experience that it’s inconvenient to lose a whole pencil in one sharpening attempt, yet Prismacolor Premier pencils still have the creamiest cores. They are a pleasure to draw with.
Nevertheless, an alternative to using the Prismacolor Premier pencils is to use the limited palette of 48 Prismacolor Art Stix. The Prismacolor Artstix are blocks of coloured core without any timber casing, therefore, they don’t provide the same detail as a coloured pencil.
But they are great for laying colour on a sheet of paper.
Caran d’Ache Luminance
In the second example, I drew a green capsicum with the 76 set of the lightfast range of wax-based Caran d’Ache Luminance coloured pencils. (This range was expanded to 100 with an additional 24 colours in 2020. To see the whole range of 100 here.)
These pencils deliver similar properties to Prismacolor Premier pencils.
Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils are soft, creamy, blendable and have vibrant colours. However, their colours do appear more muted than Prismacolor Premier pencils.
I did not draw a green capsicum with the Prismacolor Verithin, but it is worth mentioning this range of pencils.
These pencils are wax-based. Yet they probably are the hardest coloured pencil core on the market.
They are rock-hard and sharpen to a very sharp point. A rock-hard wax-based pencil seems to go against the general assumption that all wax-based pencils are soft.
I use the Prismacolor Verithin for very fine detail on coloured pencil drawings. They are great for drawing crisp lines – particularly lines that have been drawn with a softer wax-based pencil.
Oil-based coloured pencils
The next pencils I tried were the Faber-Castell Polychromos oil-based pencils. They are also a pleasure to use. They put down colour evenly and quickly.
The Polychromos coloured pencils provide more control compared to the Prismacolor Premier. They have a harder core.
If you compare the Polychomos green capsicum to the Prismacolor Premier green capsicum drawing, you will notice that there is more detail provided in the Polychromos drawing. This is because it is difficult to blend colours to look like a smooth surface with a harder oil-based pencil. It is much easier to blend colours with a softer wax-based pencil.
Caran d’Ache Pablo
Next up – I drew a green capsicum with one of my favourite pencils – Caran d’Ache Pablo. These are oil-based coloured pencils which are harder than the Faber-Castell Polychromos.
The Pablo colour range is wide and contains a wonderful range of greens.
The Pablo pencil range complements the water-based Caran d’Ache Supracolor II coloured pencil range. Both have the same colours and when used together, the final drawing is one with depth and texture.
Caran d’Ache Supracolor II coloured pencils are diverse. They can be used both wet and dry.
While the Caran d’Ache Pablo is a harder pencil than the Faber Castell Polychromos, the surface of the green capsicum above appears smooth.
This was difficult to draw. However, I had learnt from my experience of drawing the Polychromos capsicum. In the Pablo example, I drew many light layers to obtain the skin’s smooth appearance.
In carrying out this exercise, I found that the wax-based pencils blended well with a wax-core blending pencil.
For blending oil-based pencils, some artists use baby oil or paraffin oil (purchased from the supermarket or chemist). However, I don’t like to use paraffin oil on my drawings as it takes many hours to dry and seems to leave a residual mark. There is also a question about whether oil is an archival product.
My preference is to use mineral solvents (Zest-it) and Langridge’s Odourless Mineral Spirits for both the wax-based and oil-based pencils.
In conducting the ‘green capsicum’ exercise, I found that both types of coloured pencils apply to paper easily, and the final drawings are vibrant.
C. Is there a difference in wax-based pencils and oil-based pencil colours?
We have compared the performance of the oil-based and wax-based coloured pencils. Now, let’s look at the colour wheels below and explore if there is a difference between the colours of these pencils.
Separate by lightfast and non-lightfastness
In order to organise the 829 coloured pencils found after my art and craft supplies audit, I separated my wax-based pencils and oil-based pencils. I then further separated them into light-fast and non-lightfast groups.
Colour wheels completed for each pencil type by lightfastness
Next, I drew the separated pencils onto separate colour wheels. I completed five colour wheels. These were oil-based, wax-based, lightfast and non-lightfast colour wheels.
Please note while more colours are available in a coloured pencil set, only 4 pencils of each colour could be used to complete a colour wheel.
The purpose of completing the colour wheels was so I could easily see the colours of the pencils.
A snapshot of how this was done is provided now.
Completing and Comparing Colour wheels
A colour wheel was completed for each of the types of coloured pencils I had. I completed a colour wheel each for:
- lightfast wax-based [Caran d’Ache Luminance lightfast (all lightfast coloured pencils)];
- lightfast oil-based (Caran d’Ache Pablo/Faber-Castell Polychromos);
- lightfast wax-based Prismacolor;
- non-lightfast oil-based; and
- non-lightfast wax-based Prismacolor.
Lightfast Coloured Pencils
The Prismacolor Premier lightfast pencils didn’t quite complete the full colour wheel template of indigo blues which show as a blank in the above colour wheel.
Is there a difference between the lightfast wax-based coloured pencils and oil-based coloured pencils?
By comparing the three lightfast colour wheels above, we can see there is a difference between the lightfast wax-based and oil-based coloured pencils.
The oil-based pencils appear more vibrant compared to the wax-based pencils. Oil-based pencils have the best yellows-greens and the darkest blues.
The oil-based pencils appear to have the best reds.
The wax-based pencils appear to have the best range of green-blue.
Non-lightfast coloured pencils
Is there a difference between the non-lightfast wax-based coloured pencils and oil-based coloured pencils?
By comparing the two non-lightfast colour wheels above, both the oil-based and wax-based pencils have strong violets and blues.
However, it appears that the oil-based pencils have better reds and orange-yellows than the wax-based pencil. The oil-based pencil also has a stronger blue green.
D. Take a closer look at the colours
Comparison of the coloured pencils above are based on visually looking at the colour wheels provided above. The colour wheels are limited in their scope as it is a selection of available colours used to filled the colour wheel. Only four of each colour family could be included in a colour wheel.
Please note that colours presented in digital copies may appear different to the actual colours of the colour wheels.
The colours of the colour wheel shown above were created with four pencils from each colour family. This limited how many colours were available in each colour pencil set.
E. Easily know which coloured pencil to use in a drawing
The colour wheels above show a selection of the colours of each coloured pencil type. You can therefore see which pencils are best for an art project.
Here are some examples of how you would use different coloured pencils.
How to draw a pink lily?
By comparing the colour wheels above, drawing a violet pink lily would be best done with the non-lightfast pencils – oil or wax. The final image should be used for prints rather than sold.
However, a lightfast drawing could be done with Caran d’Ache Luminance wax-based coloured pencils, or Prismacolor Premier.
It’s also possible to draw a lightfast picture of a violet pink lily in oil-based pencils. This would be done by mixing reds, blues and white to obtain violet and pink.
How to draw a landscape?
Another example is how to draw a landscape.
In looking at the colour wheel examples above, lightfast oil-based pencils provide a wide range of greens and blues.
Reds and browns are strong in lightfast oil-based or wax-based pencils.
Therefore, a landscape would be drawn in lightfast oil-based pencils, or a mix of lightfast oil-based and wax-based pencils.
Don’t be limited to one or the other
However – wax-based and oil-based pencils can be used together.
This is the same for lightfast and non-lightfast pencils. They are all complementary and their use depends on the project being completed.
While water-based coloured pencils are not discussed in this examination, they complement both wax-based and oil-based pencils.
For example, water-based coloured pencils can be used as underdrawings, which are then overdrawn with either an oil-based or wax-based pencil.
Know how the drawing will be used before you pick up a pencil
When you plan your drawing, you know what your requirements are. You know if the drawing is for long-term hanging, or if is it intended for printing purposes.
As such, your requirements determine which type of pencil you will use. You will use lightfast pencils for long-term hanging, selling or for archival purposes. You would use non-lightfast pencils for digital images and printing (but just be careful of how pigment colours present in digital images).
As well, the level of detail in the drawing determines whether you will use a wax-based or oil-based pencil, or whether you will use another technique to illustrate the detail.
Interactive colour charts
To help you find the right pencil for your project, I created some interactive colour charts for these coloured pencils. Use these charts to help you find the right lightfast or non-lightfast colour.
- Caran d’Ache Luminance interactive colour chart;
- Prismacolor Premier interactive colour chart;
- Faber Castell Polychromos interactive colour chart;
- Caran d’Ache Pablo interactive colour chart, and
- Derwent Lightfast interactive colour chart.
Coloured pencil drawing example
This post has shown you the differences between coloured pencil types, lightfast and non-lightfast coloured pencils. It has demonstrated when and why to use a particular type of coloured pencil, and this is illustrated in an example below.
The picture below is used in digital prints and was drawn with wax-based Prismacolor Premier non-lightfast coloured pencils.
The colour of the drawing is strong in blue, violet and pink. I chose the non-lightfast wax-based Prismacolor pencils as according to the colour wheel, they have the best range of these colours.
The drawing uses a 3 analogous colour relationship using blue, blue-violet and violet, and their complements.
F. Now you know which coloured pencil to use
You now have learnt how to understand coloured pencils, their type and lightfastness. As such, you know your pencils – when to use them, and why to use them in your projects.
You know which pencils to use in what situation, thereby using all the coloured pencils available in any sets or single pencils you may buy. This is efficient and will save you money in the long-term.
Do you like this post? Save it to your “which are the best coloured pencils” board on Pinterest.
This post was originally published in 2019, updated on 18 November 2019, 11 June 2020, and 3 August 2021. It was last updated on 26th January 2022.