Holbein Colored Pencils Review

Colored pencil artists in North America have been patiently awaiting the availability of Japanese-based art supply brand Holbein’s colored pencils. Up until recently the only way artists here could purchase the product was through online retailers like Amazon and in some cases people were getting imitation products. The issue was that the line of pencils previous didn’t conform to the ACMI safety standards  so they weren’t able to be purchased here. That has since been remedied much to the delight of artists in this part of the world.

The buzz around these pencils has been huge in the community. To be honest, I haven’t seen anything like it in a while, since probably Derwent Lightfast. When I posted that I had purchased a set on Instagram I was flooded with comments about how much I was going to love them which both excited me and filled me with a healthy amount of skepticism. The price alone on these pencils felt like a small investment even at the sale price I purchased them at so, I was eager to see if they lived up to the hype.   

Disclaimer:
The opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own and I have not been paid to give a favourable review. I, like many of you, rely on the reviews and feedback of people I respect and trust and there is no value to me to provide a review that is misleading or coerced. Please do however feel free to try this product for yourself and form your own opinions, as every artist will have slightly different preferences.

PRODUCT FEATURES: (Sampled from description on deltaart.ca)

  • Available in 150 colors
  • Soft oil-based colored pencil
  • Excellent light resistance (we’ll address this later) 
  • 3.8 mm lead, 7.8mm diameter pencil is easy to hold and thus the hand drawing is not so exhaustive
  • Able to draw on watercolor, gouache, and acrylic color It can be used together with watercolor or acrylic color, for it fixes well to any kind of paper
  • Able to paint like watercolor painting with Meltz (Meltz is a water-based blending thinner by Holbein)

PACKAGING

Metal tins seem to be the standard for premium colored pencils so this part of the packaging design wasn’t a surprise to me. The cover features the product name in both Japanese and English, a sample landscape drawing created with the pencils and and indicator that this is the Set of 12 Design tone set. These pencils are available in sets of 150, 100, 50, 36, 24, and three different sets of 12 which include the Designer Tone, Pastel and Basic color groupings. They also are available open stock. I spent a healthy amount of time, trying to decide which set I was going to purchase. Ultimately I went for the Design tone set of 12 because of the balanced selection of colors and also because the price of just a set of 12 is around $64 CAD. I purchased these on sale, but honestly that’s still a bit much for me on a product I have never tried with a few rumoured questionable claims and features.

I noticed a little detail I haven’t seen on other tins where it prompts you to push on the top corners to lift the lid of the tin. While helpful, you can still open this hinged tin the traditional way without much trouble. The inside of the lid lists 50 colors in English and Japanese that are available in the 36, 24 and 12 sets range. The dot indicates which color is available in what set. Interestingly some of the colours available in the different 12 sets are not available in the 24 or 36 sets. This is both slightly annoying and also brilliant marketing wise on their end because it means you either have to buy multiple sets to get the colours you want or splurge on the even larger sets. The backside of the tin doesn’t have any graphics on it and the pencils are sitting on corrugated white paper in the tray. I like this from a recycling perspective but it feels unconsidered from a presentation perspective compared to other similarly priced brands.

The pencils themselves feel very well constructed and premium. They actually at a glance are very reminiscent of Faber-Castell Polychromos in their design aesthetic. All of the copy is in gold foil lettering which includes the product name, company logo, manufacturing country, color name, color number, a star rating and a gold band. The full length of the barrel is also fully color dipped.

Color accuracy vs the color barrel is actually fairly decent on this set, however, I would say the barrel color tends to lean a bit more on the darker side that the actual color. I will say though that it’s still one of the closer matches that I have seen in a brand. I can’t speak to the full color range unfortunately, but this set passed the test for me on that factor. Making an initial swatch I could instantly feel the creaminess of these pencils and it didn’t require much effort to lay down a thick amount of pigment. 

LIGHTFAST RATINGS

So this is where things start to get a little dicey. While there are lightfast ratings present on the pencils themselves, there is no indicator on the packaging as to what those star ratings mean. Other brands who use a similar 3-star system usually have some sort of legend on the tin somewhere or a leaflet insert that explains more. Neither of those things are present here. I have an issue with this for two reasons. For one, if you were brand new to colored pencil and chose for this set to be your first, the star rating would mean nothing to you. Also, what does one star mean vs three?  I know from years of experience that certain colours like pinks and purples always tend to be rated lower, but a novice would likely not know that. As you’ve heard me mention before on as I explain in my blog post Does Lightfast Really Matter?, this is an important feature to be aware of in any colored pencil, especially one like this that comes with such a hefty price tag. 

Thinking this was just an unfortunate design misstep I went to the Holbein website, where their colored pencils aren’t even listed as one of their products. Once again, trying to give the benefit of the doubt, I ventured to their section where they provide color charts for their products. Once again, nothing. Is someone just super behind on their website updates? I was under the impression this isn’t a brand new product. Given the professional appearance of the company otherwise, I find this a bit puzzling. That said, you shouldn’t have to do this much digging to get that answer. Considering the backside of the tin is completely blank, I feel like this was a missed opportunity to use that area for more marketing information and at the very least an indicator of the lightfast system they are using.

As a graphic designer for many years I know that every surface is an opportunity for more messaging to the consumer and given that other companies have no issue doing this even at lower price points, it’s unfortunate that this opportunity was not taken. In that sense, why even put the ratings on there at all if you aren’t going to explain them somewhere? Also, and more importantly, somewhere that’s easy to find. I haven’t seen the large sets available to see if the information exists there instead, but honestly you shouldn’t have to purchase those to get this basic information.

As of right now the only lightfast testing and ratings I am aware of are available are through the CPSA‘s independent testing which is only available to members. In their findings only roughly 58% of the 150 colors they tested were considered to be of acceptable lightfastness. Normally I take into consideration both what the company has provided and the CPSA as an average to determine whether I use a certain color or not for a piece I might sell. Because the company isn’t providing much though, I think I would hold off on using these for anything but work to be sold as prints only until more concrete information is made available.


SHARPENING AND BREAKAGE

These pencils sharpen quite well in a conventional sharpener however, I will say that the softness of the cores does mean that they are very susceptible to breakage. I only had one pencil lead break in the course of my test drawing though, and otherwise I felt like the leads were pretty sturdy.

PERFORMANCE

Artwork image ©Barb Sotiropoulos

INITIAL FEEL

As I mentioned earlier these pencils have a beautifully creamy feel. I chose to use a Strathmore Bristol Plate Surface paper with these pencils given that they had a very smooth feel. I thought that this would be the perfect combination and they literally just glide across the paper with ease. There’s very little work required for getting a lot of color lay down. There seemed to be a little pencil dust but nothing unmanageable and the drawing didn’t seem to smudge easily.

Artwork image ©Barb Sotiropoulos

DETAILS & BLENDING

Fine or small details can be a bit of a challenge. The softness of these pencils don’t allow for as crisp of a line as I personally prefer. Blending was great though, and used mostly a burnishing technique for most of the blending on the bird of paradise flower. The pencils seemed to layer well over top of one another easily.

Artwork image ©Barb Sotiropoulos

ADVANCED BLENDING & DETAILS

I wanted to see how these pencils performed with a slow build up technique as well so for the background I focused on that while also testing out the opacity of the white. I have yet to find a white pencil that I like more than Derwent Drawing Chinese white, with Caran D’ache Luminance and Prismacolor Premier’s offerings come in at a close second. Normally I find the white pencil in a set of 12 pencils kind of useless, but this wasn’t too bad in terms of opacity. That said, I wasn’t blown away either.

Artwork image ©Barb Sotiropoulos

FINAL RESULT

Overall I really loved the feel of these pencils. Performance wise on that part they were great. It felt effortless to use them and I was happy with the way that they blended into each other really well. Their white pencil won’t be replacing my favourites any time soon, but I see some potential there if they would be wiling to tweak the formula slightly. The colour saturation and vibrancy is great and I love that these pencils have a pastel collection even so I do question what the lightfastness on those pencils would be.

PROS & CONS OVERVIEW

As with any product, there is always room for some improvement so let’s look at a quick recap:

Although I did really love the feel of these pencils, I’m not sure at this point that I could highly recommend them the way others have. If you have a bunch of money you don’t know what to do with and you want to spend it on these, you certainly could. However, if you are an artist planning to sell your work you are better off investing in Caran D’Ache Luminance, Derwent Lightfast or Faber-Castell Polychromos for the money. I think these pencils have A LOT of potential and I would love to see them as a viable contender and option for professional artists with some improved and more publicly available lightfast rating information.

PROS
– available in 150 colours
– variety of sets and sizes available
– premium feeling
– smooth buttery feel
– nice range of colours available
– great blending
– available in open stock

CONS
– questionable lightfast ratings with currently little to no public information to back it up
– sets of 12 colours aren’t all available in the 24 or 36 size sets – have to buy bigger more expensive sets
– extremely pricey for the features and lack of lightfast information
– no information or existence of this product on the Holbein website as of the original posting of this review
– minimal effort and information given on the tin packaging

For more information on Holbein you can visit their website at: https://www.holbeinartistmaterials.com/

For more Information on these pencils check with your local art store.

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