The best coloured pencils for artists are highly pigmented, with bright colours and high coverage. They will also have the ability to layer and blend.
First find a summary of the best kinds of pencils, then discover what makes for a great quality artist grade pencil, then find the brand review.
Best coloured pencils: summary
Best coloured pencils for professional artists
Faber-Castell Polychromos: Buy here
Our top professional artist pick is the Faber-Castell Polychromos.
They are a premium product made for professional artists. These pencils have tips that are resistant to breakage and a creamy consistency suited for a variety of techniques such as blending and burnishing.
The range of colours is extensive, plus they have excellent lightfast ratings favourable to professional artists as this prevents artworks from fading over time.
Best coloured pencils for blending technique
Prismacolor Premier Soft Core: Buy here
The Prismacolor Premier Soft Core pencils are possibly the most popular on the list. They are soft and wax based, meaning that colour blends quickly onto the paper. All pencils on this list are great for blending, however.
Best coloured pencils for beginners
Bruynzeel Design Colour Pencils: Buy here
For beginners, the most affordable pencil that is great quality is the Bruynzeel Design Colour Pencils. They are made in the Netherlands and owned by parent company Royal Talens.
They are half the price (or more) than some of the premium ranges. The pencils are wax based, beautifully soft, highly pigmented and lend themselves to a variety of techniques. The only drawback is the limited colour range. But of course you can buy colours from other brands and use them together to fill in any gaps. However, buying a set with limited colours could be beneficial for beginners as it forces them to learn how to mix colours on the paper, by layering and blending. For example, layering blue over yellow to make green, instead of using a specific premixed (multiple pigment) green shade.
Wax based pencils are also more suited to total beginners, as they are easier to erase and blend with.
Best affordable coloured pencils
Bruynzeel Design Colour pencils: Buy here
Again, the winner here is the Bruynzeel Design Colour pencils. They are the most affordable pencils on this list, whilst maintaining their artist grade status by using lightfast, quality pigments and having a smooth texture.
Best coloured pencil set
Prismacolor Premier Softcore Set of 150: Buy it here
The best set that gives the greatest variety of colour choice is the Prismacolor 150 box. Sanford manufactures the largest range of coloured pencils of any range. The colours are rich and highly saturated and the pencils have a buttery texture.
Best oil based coloured pencil
Faber-Castell Polychromos: Buy here
The best coloured pencil made with oil binder is the Polychromos pencil. Made from quality oil binder and lightfast pigments, Faber-Castell provides a large range of colours to choose from. The pencils are sturdy, last a long time and feel wonderful to use.
Best wax based coloured pencil
Prismacolor Premier Softcore Set of 150: Buy it here
The best coloured pencil made with a wax binder is the Prismacolor Premier Soft Core pencils. These pencils have thick cores perfect for layering and a choice of 150 colours.
Best coloured pencils for realistic drawing
Faber-Castell Polychromos: Buy here
For realism, choose a pencil with a small and sturdy tip that retains its sharp point for longer, enabling you to render sharp clear details without having to sharpen too often. The best pencil for detail work is probably the Faber-Castell Polychromos, although it would be close.
All pencils on this list are great for realistic drawing. The softness and high pigmentation of the artist grade pencils make them able to build colour layers and blend realistic gradients. But the varieties of pencil I would steer clear of are the ones with the thicker tips like the Caran d’Ache Pastel Pencils.
What are artist grade coloured pencils?
The best coloured pencils for artists have a high pigment content. Colouring pencils made for artists are simply pigment in a binder, which usually contains wax and sometimes oil, then encased in wood. The higher the pigment content, the more clear and saturated the colours will be.
A high level of permanence is an important characteristic, fugitive pigments will fade over time. Quality manufacturers will only select lightfast pigments that are archival quality. This means you can frame and hang your colour pencils drawings without having to worry about colours changing over the years. The lightfast attributes of art materials is something to be aware of if you plan on selling your work.
Artist grade coloured pencils can vary in softness. Soft colours will glide onto the paper, creating thicker layers that can appear more painterly and even emulate the properties of pastel.
Artists coloured pencils are great for a variety of techniques, like blending and burnishing. The ultra soft pencils will require more regular sharpening and will wear down more quickly, meaning you will have to repurchase more often. Hard and medium soft pencils will retain their sharp point for longer, giving you crisp, sharp lines. More rigid pencils are great for techniques like hatching and stippling.
What’s the difference between wax based and oil based coloured pencils?
This brand review covers wax and oil based pencils, I’m leaving watercolour pencils for a separate review, so keep your eyes peeled for that.
It’s important to note that wax and oil pencils do have many similarities and behave in much the same way. The differences between the two types aren’t too dramatic, but there are some noticeable differences that are worth mentioning. Use the same techniques with wax pencils and oil pencils. These two types of pencils can be used together in the same artworks too.
Take a look at the different characteristics of oil and wax pencils, then check out the different brands and colours available to see which takes your fancy.
Wax pencils: characteristics
- Use wax as the main binding agent in the pencil lead
- More widely available, more brands manufacture coloured pencils with wax base
- Same level of pigmentation as oil, although this can vary between brands
- Softer on average, which means colours will mix quicker, burnishing techniques can be applied quicker, pencils will wear down quicker and need sharpening and replacing more regularly
- When applied thickly to paper, they can have the appearance of pastel
- Slightly less control of drawing colour layers compared to oil
- Cheaper on average
- ‘Buttery’ texture
- Can be more messy
- More prone to breakage—apply lighter pressure
- Don’t maintain sharp points as well as oil pencils
- Easier to erase
- Better for beginners due to price point
- Susceptible to ‘wax bloom’ where drawings become overly waxy and cloudy in appearance. This can be easily removed with a damp cloth
Oil pencils: characteristics
- Oil is the main binder used in oil pencils, but some brands may contain wax and other additives too
- Less widely available, fewer brands manufacture them
- Considered a more premium product aimed at professionals (but that shouldn’t put beginners off!)
- Prices are on average higher
- Leads are slightly harder than wax pencils, giving superior colour control—it takes longer to mix colours
- Because the nibs are breakage resistant, you can apply more pressure, creating burnishing techniques with ease
- Leads retain their sharp point for longer, allowing the artist to create sharp, clean details
- Great ability to layer and are versatile—use a range of techniques and mediums with oil pencils
- Bloom can still occur with oil based pencil, especially in humid environments, although it is less likely to happen. Wipe away with a damp cloth if this occurs
- An oil pencil will last longer than a wax pencil
- Use with solvent or pencil blender, fixative and multiple layers to emulate the appearance of oil paint
- Beautifully lightfast and transparent
Best coloured pencils: Brand review
The review is loosely ordered from the more expensive premium brands, to the cheaper beginner and budget friendly brands.
Faber-Castell Polychromos coloured pencils
Attributes: Oil based, exceptional quality, large choice of colours, resistant to breakage, retain sharp point for longer, expensive
Faber-Castell Polychromos are a type of oil pencil. They are brilliant for layering and creating vivid artworks. Because they are made from oil, they can be thinned with solvent just like regular oils can.
This type of pencil is pretty versatile. By creating multiple layers of colour the finished drawing can even emulate a painting, due to the richness of the colours.
Polychromos are slightly harder to erase than pure wax pencils. It’s still possible to erase Polychromos with ease, just draw with light pressure to make erasing easier. Or get yourself a Tombow sand eraser—this eraser is hard and contains silica which gives it a texture similar to sandpaper, it will even remove ink and paint from a surface.
These pencils have a medium-soft hardness, which for oil pencils is softer than average. This is perfect for a variety of techniques, such as blending and burnishing, but they also offer brilliant control and the ability to create clean, fine detail. The nibs are harder and more resistant to breaking.
They are one of the most expensive type pencils on the list but they are a premium product and widely used by professional artists. The pencils don’t smudge on application, and they just feel wonderfully luxurious to use.
The colours are labelled on the pencil itself, so you know which pigment you are using. If you have any experience painting then you will be familiar with the colour names.
The Polychromos colour range is fantastic—they make 120 colours with varieties of tones and hues, so you won’t need to worry about shades you may need being missed out. These pencils are unusual, as it’s rare to find pencils that are mostly oil based.
Sanford Prismacolor Premier Soft Core coloured pencils
Attributes: wax based, popular brand, premium quality, soft lead
These are perhaps the most popular pencils used by professional artists. The pencils feel buttery and smooth and glide across the paper. Prismacolor pencils are wax based and are slightly softer than Polychromos oil pencils, this means they are fantastic for techniques like blending, but will need sharpening more often. They are also highly pigmented so the finished artwork will appear vivid with clean colour blends.
To achieve a pastel-like effect, get some pastel paper for thicker applications of colour.
Caran d’Ache Luminance
Attributes: oil based, archival quality, professional pencils, bright colours, expensive, small colour range
These oil and wax based pencils have a silky smooth texture, with intensely vivid colours that are lightfast. The contents of the binder is mostly oil, with a small amount of wax that is resistant to blooming.
The pencils are designed for use by professionals who want to create archival quality artworks to sell or send to galleries.
These pencils, just like Prismacolor and Polychromos are premium quality. The colours are intense, but there are fewer earthy tones to choose from compared to Prismacolor and Polychromos. There are only 76 colours in this range, compared to 150 of Prismacolor.
The great thing about these pencils is that they are more resistant to wax bloom than other pencils. They are made with a cedarwood casing. Cedarwood is considered to be the best type of wood for pencil sharpening.
The Luminance pencils are made to have a medium level of softness and offer great blendability. Because of the high pigmentation and strong colour application, their colours can offer more opacity compared to other ranges. This is especially useful for creating highlights with a white or pale coloured pencil.
The colours provide smooth blending but don’t break as easily as Prismacolors.
Caran d’Ache Pastel Pencils
Attributes: wax based, soft, large core, give pastel effects, luxury packaging, not as good for smaller details
These wax based pencils produce fantastic colour and behave like dry pastels.
If you want to achieve more pastel-like effects, these are great as they have a large core. They are far less messy than regular pastels as they are encased in wood. Use with pastel mat for thick, painterly effects.
The large core means you quickly layer large amounts of colour on the paper. These are great for drawing at a larger scale but may fall short when trying to render smaller details. If you want to sharpen the large lead, consider running it over a sandpaper block to reach a fine point.
Like all of Caran d’Ache products, these pencils are premium quality and come at a higher price. Everything about these pencils feels a joy—even the box they are packaged in.
Faber Castell PITT Pastel Pencil
Attributes: wax based, less prone to breakage, good variety of earth tones
Faber Castell are famed for their oil based Polychromos range, so their PITT pencils are their answer to wax based pastel pencils.
They are completely oil free and offer some of the best characteristics of both pastel and pencil. The leads are compact so are not prone to breakage and highly pigmented.
Just like the Faber-Castell Polychromos range, they have a brilliant variety of earth and muted colours. There are 61 colours of PITT Pastel Pencils available, but they do offer a good range of hues and tones.
Derwent Lightfast Pencils
Attributes: oil based, lightfast, medium softness, rich chroma, expensive
The most expensive pencil in the Derwent range, these oil pencils have been designed to be 100% lightfast, so they won’t fade for 100 years when kept in museum conditions and when using archival quality paper.
There are 100 colours in the range with a good choice and they retail at £3.20/$3.35 each, so they are on the premium end of the colour pencil spectrum.
The colours are opaque and vibrant, with a brilliant coverage. Whilst they contain mostly oil binder, they have been made with a small amount of wax. Use this pencil with oil and pencil mediums to create interesting effects.
Caran d'Ache Pablo Coloured Pencils
Attributes: wax based, medium hard, large colour range
With 120 colours available as singles and sets this is one of the widest colour ranges available to pencil artists. The colour tones and hues are sophisticated and can be used to create elegant, muted pieces. This range offers the best characteristics of oil and wax pencils. They are much cheaper than their Luminance pencils (around two thirds of the price).
They have a good permanence level and are an excellent choice for realist artists due to the layering ability. The covering power is good and the texture is velvety.
Where the Luminance pencil has a higher oil content, the Pablo contains more wax. The reason for the hardness of this wax pencil is due to the fact that it contains other binders and powders, such as gum and clay.
Like the Luminance pencil, the Pablo is also unlikely to produce a wax bloom due to the other powders and binders used in the mix.
Koh-i-Noor Polycolor Pencils
Attributes: for beginners or those on a budget, highly pigmented, high permanence, more prone to breakage, less colour choice
These pencils are relatively inexpensive compared to other brands. A set of 24 will set you back around £28, compared to Polychromos which are almost double that price.
The pencils are oil and wax based and could be compared to the Prismacolor range. The leads contain a mixture of binders and additives to bring out the bright colours of the pigments. Nibs measure 3.8mm, the same as Polychromos pencils.
Pigments are strong and vibrant, so heavy pressure isn’t required to build up layers of colour. It’s important to note that applying heavy pressure isn’t advised, as the pencils are on the fragile side and more prone to breakage compared to other brands. If you’re looking for a pencil that has a strong tip that allows for techniques like burnishing, go for the Polychromos.
The covering power isn’t as strong as premium range pencils such as Caran D’ache Luminance or Prismacolors.
For beginners, or those on a budget this would be a good range to start with, as their set of twelve pencils is just under £15. Compared to other pencil ranges, it’s not a lot to spend to get a good introduction to the artist grade coloured pencil medium.
The lightfast rating of the pencils range from excellent to very good, so this brand values the longevity of artists’ work. However, if permanence is something you are concerned about, Caran D’ache and Polychromos would outperform the Koh-i-Noor Polycolors.
The largest set you can buy is a 72 set, so not as large as the more premium ranges, but they produce more colours than 72 when bought individually.
Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor Pencils
Attributes: thick core, oil based, medium hard, less expensive than other oil pencils
These pencils are on the harder end of the spectrum but they are much more affordable than other oil pencils.
Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor pencils make a brilliant array of colours, suitable for just about any subject, be it landscape or portrait. The largest set they make is a 105 piece with a good variety of shades and two blending pencils.
Their tips are more prone to breaking than the Polychromos pencil and they are also much harder. They feel smooth to draw with, just not as creamy as Polychromos. For techniques like hatching, stippling and detail work, these would be a good choice.
The cores of these pencils are thicker than average, at 4mm. But the pencil itself is slim, giving optimum control.
Bruynzeel Design Colour pencils
Attributes: wax based, soft, budget friendly, nicely packaged
These pencils have smooth leads and offer concentrated applications of colour. They are encased in cedar wood, like Caran d’Ache pencils which makes them easy to sharpen.
The pencils have excellent lightfastness, however they have a fairly small colour range. The leads are average size, at 3.7mm. So they are great for drawing detail.
The pencils themselves aren’t labelled with colour names, but sets come with colour charts, so you can be sure the colour you choose is the right one.
Like with other wax pencils, you don’t need to apply much pressure to release colour. The colour range is limited, as the largest set you can get is a 24 piece. But they would be a great option for beginners due to the cheaper price point. At only £1.50 per pencil, they may be the cheapest artist quality pencil on the list
Derwent Artists Colored Pencils
Attributes: Wax based, soft, not as lightfast as other brands
The colours are more fugitive compared to other brands and compared to their own Lightfast range. If you want to sell your work or you don’t want colours to face over time, look to get a different set.
They can be blended with solvent or Pencil Blender, but use solvent sparingly for the best results.
There are 120 colours available, which is quite a large range compared to other brands of pencils. As they are brilliant for layering and blending, expect to make a variety of tonal shifts in your drawings.
Overall the quality is good, but as the lightfast ratings are low, I wouldn’t advise using them for much more than practice and personal work. A set of 12 pencils would set you back less than £25, so they’re not the cheapest on the list either.
Best coloured pencils: Pin it!
Art tutorials: Further reading
Discover the best watercolour paint brands and the differences between each in this comprehensive guide.
There are two primary approaches to painting in oil: the direct and indirect approach.
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