Pencil Review: Moleskine Naturally Smart Watercolor Pencils

Review by Tina Koyama

As it may have been for many stationery addicts, the Moleskine notebook was my gateway drug. Way back (and I mean way back, like before Facebook, blogs, maybe even the whole Internet), I’d occasionally find Moleskine journals in nicer stationery stores and fondle them lovingly, imagining the possibilities. When I began sketching, one of the first sketchbooks I bought was a Moleskine (the kind with the weird manila-envelope paper). Eventually as the paper quality declined and so many other notebooks came onto the market, I stopped buying them. But every now and then I’ll pass a spinner rack of the huge variety of notebooks they produce, and on some level, the name Moleskine still gives me a small tingle from the memory of that stationery high.

It’s no wonder, then, that when I discovered that Moleskine had come out with sets of colored and graphite pencils, I felt that tingle again. (This post will cover the colored pencils; stay tuned for the review of the graphite drawing pencils.)

Before I get to the details of the Naturally Smart Palette Watercolor Pencils, I thought I’d point out a few things that are common to both pencil sets, which are part of the Moleskine Art Collection. Designed in Italy, both sets of cedar pencils are manufactured in Vietnam. With paper wrappers, they come in black (of course) tins with a small Moleskine logo printed near the bottom of the lids.

A detail that amuses me is the one that appears on the inside of each lid: The familiar “In case of loss, please return to__” and “As a reward: $___” suggestion.

Both pencil sets feature a matte black barrel with sparks of narrow stripes, text and M logo in glossy black. But the more distinctive physical feature is that the barrels are square with semi-gloss end caps (the colored pencil caps indicate the core color; the graphite caps are silver). In my vast collection of colored pencils and growing collection of drawing pencils, these are the only ones with a square barrel. At first I wondered if the square shape would hinder drawing, but I forgot about it immediately, so it wasn’t a problem at all.

My initial thought was that these colored pencils are slightly over-designed (perhaps to justify the price), but the more I looked at them, the more I liked them. They fit beautifully with the rest of Moleskine’s design esthetic – mostly matte black, touches of color, squared off and tidy.

OK, onto the colored pencils, which are, in fact, water-soluble.

As mentioned earlier, the end cap colors indicate the core colors. A color number is stamped on one side of the end cap. For the name of the color, however, you have to tilt that side of the pencil toward the light so that you can see the glossy black text. And those color names? “Breathe Green,” “Plunge Blue,” “Rave Purple,” “Pulse Red.” A bit over the top, though not as bad as the copy on the mandatory brochure (on the reverse side of the usual Chatwin legend): “Hold your breath as you explore plunging blue depths, or capture the fleeting reflection of dazzling pure white.” (Whew – I’m sweating.)

I give Moleskine bonus brownie points for printing the pencil text for lefties!

The color range is typical of a set of 12, although the two greens are too similar to be useful. Relatively dry in application, they feel like average novelty colored pencils (which is disappointing after that blush-producing copy). Activating the swatches with a waterbrush takes quite a bit of scrubbing, and the washed colors are not as rich as I want them to be. That said, the hues are true to their dry state, which is often not the case with water-soluble colored pencils. (Swatches done in a Canson XL mixed media sketchbook.)

I also tested them in a couple of other ways that I like to use watercolor pencils. First, I smeared water on the page with a waterbrush; then I ran a pencil through it. In the second test, I “licked” the pencil tip with a waterbrush and applied the color to the paper with the brush like traditional watercolors. In both cases, if there’s plenty of pigment, the color will show as rich and vibrant. These are somewhat lacking.

Given the test results, I didn’t have high expectations for performance in a sketch. Again, I find the pencils to be very average in vibrancy and ability to blend and activate with water. (Sketch done in a Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook.)

Final Impressions

I mentioned earlier that Moleskine watercolor pencils fit the brand’s esthetic perfectly. Unfortunately, similar to the notebooks with engaging concepts and designs but inferior paper, these pencils look and feel better than they perform. They really are no worse than most novelty watercolor pencils, but at $24.95 for 12 pencils, they are not novelty priced.

tina-koyamaTina Koyama is an urban sketcher in Seattle. Her blog is Fueled by Clouds & Coffee, and you can follow her on Instagram as Miatagrrl.

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