Choosing the right pencil for you can be a difficult and sometimes overwhelming task. With so many brands and lines within those brands, it can seem impossible to choose. Add to that the vast range in price points and varying opinions amongst artists using the medium, it’s all a recipe for major confusion. Finding the right set of pencils for you is important but it doesn’t have to be complicated. I have a few tips that will help you narrow down the competition and spend more time creating your art!
Note: I’ve included links to reviews I’ve done on specific pencil lines throughout this post if you want to read more about them or you can go to my Product Reviews category.
WHERE TO START
A great exercise when you are first starting with colored pencil is to look at artists whose work you admire and find out what pencils and paper they are currently using. Paper and pencil paring is very important and has a lot to do with the results you will get in addition to the techniques you are using. You can learn more about why the paper is important in my blog article Choosing the Right Paper Type.
Start with three artists and see if there are any similarities in what they use. If they aren’t open about the materials that they use you could try privately messaging them and asking or on social media looking to see what hashtags they may have used in their description. Often artists will tag the companies whose products they use there.
Once you’ve determined what products they are using make some notes for yourself on what it is about their work that you like from a technical perspective. Do they use a lot of bright colours? Do they get an insane amount of detail in a pet portrait? Maybe it’s their blending techniques that look almost flawless. If you for example are drawn to the bright colours in their work, you may immediately rule out Pencils lines like Derwent Drawing or to some extent even Derwent Lightfast. These brands don’t typically have a lot of bright colours in those pencils lines. If you’re wanting to draw a lot of portraits, landscapes or animals, however, these are great considerations.
ARE THEY LIGHTFAST?
If you’ve never heard this term before you are probably wondering what it is and why it matters. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered on that too. For more expanded reading you can check out my blog post on that topic in my post Does Lightfast Really Matter? For now, though the short version is that lightfastness refers to the longevity of the colour of a medium when it is exposed to UV light over time.
This may not seem like an important thing now while you’re just beginning but if you ever plan to sell the originals of your work it’s extremely important. If you’re just getting in on the ground floor with a relatively economically priced product like say, Faber-Castell Goldfaber, you may not be too worried about it. While they don’t have specific lightfast ratings available for this product, you could also upgrade later to say the Faber-Castell Polychromos line that does.
ARE OPEN STOCK PENCILS AVAILABLE
It can be really tempting to buy a set of 100 or more pencils for a bargain price from your local art store chain. For many hobbyists, this is not a problem because they aren’t typically going to go through the pencils very quickly. Thinking longer-term though and when you are ready to upgrade to a better set, this is very important. You may have decided for example that you have fallen in love with Holbein Artists’ Coloured Pencils, only to find out your local store does not carry the pencils in open stock and ordering them online is expensive where you live. If you are working on a commission project for a client and unexpectedly run out of a certain colour, this is a big problem.
Open stock brands allow you to test drive pencils with low financial commitment and also buy certain colours you like individually. I love Derwent Drawing Chinese White as a stand-alone pencil. I tend to buy a lot of it because I love its superior opaque qualities. It wouldn’t be practical or affordable for me if I had to buy a full set of Drawing pencils every time I need to replace that one.
FIND WHERE THEY ARE AVAILABLE
Once you’ve decided on a set you’d like to start with, it’s time to find a place to purchase them. I’m a big advocate of supporting your local art supply store whenever possible, but I also understand that sometimes online stores will have more economical pricing. It’s up to you where you want to spend your money, but don’t feel like you need to make a large investment to get started in this medium.
If the artist you admire uses Caran D’Ache Pablo pencils you may not want to foot the price tag for the full set of pencils. I would suggest opting for a few pencils or even a set of twelve to start with. You may think that a set of twelve is too limiting but it is more than sufficient to get you started and get a feel for the pencils. Using a limited palette also challenges you to really learn colour theory. Don’t let this scare you because it will only benefit you down the line in your progression as an artist and with the medium.
If you’ve been with me for a while you know that taking time to experiment is the number one piece of advice I give to artists when it comes to this medium. I can’t stress enough how important it is to do this when you are trying to find what works for you. You may start with your favourite artist’s product pairing and realize it doesn’t work with the techniques that you like to use to render. There’s nothing wrong with this and it’s definitely not a waste of time.
While it’s important to note that using the product alone will not make your work instantaneously better it can make it easier to achieve certain results. Your skill level, the techniques you are using and the time you invest in getting better will all affect this. Your preferences will also likely change over time. The product pairing I started with is not what I typically use today. What I discovered with years of experimentation, however, is that I like to use certain pencils and paper together for specific subject matter. This will not be true for every artist, but because I tend to draw a wide range of subject matter and sometimes in different styles, I pick the pairing with the attributes that best suit that piece.
CHART YOUR COLOURS
One of the things that’s most helpful for me when I get a new set of pencils is to fill out a colour chart. This allows me to test drive the pencils beforehand and see how they feel, if the colour on the pencil barrel is accurate and if any of the colours feel different compared to others. Believe it or not, in some brands there can be a difference in texture and opacity with certain colours. The charts also help me find the colour I need quickly especially when I’m just getting to know a set. Making them can be very time-consuming so to save you some time, I’ve created printable colour charts for 10 popular lines of colored pencils and 5 watercolour pencils. The charts are available as single charts or in 5-packs if you need more than one. You can view the available charts HERE.
John Middick and I sat down to discuss everything you need to know about choosing a set of coloured pencils from the beginner stage all the way to advanced. We also have a new segment called the Art Fact Minute where we discuss the difference between pencils that are marketed as wax or oil-based. There’s a lot packed into that episode that expands on what I’ve shared with you here so be sure to have a listen below.
What’s your favourite brand of coloured pencil? Share with me in the comments below!
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