In the US, there are three major colored pencil brands that vie for the “most popular” spot in the professional/high-quality colored pencil category. They are colloquially known as the Ps: Prismacolors, Pablos and Polychromos.
First up are Prismacolors which are currently called Prismacolor Premiers. These beloved pencils have been passed around to so many companies that it’s a miracle they are still around. Eagle, Eagle/Turquoise, Berol, Sanford, Premier made in Mexico and now Premier made in China are just some of the versions I’ve discovered. I’ve tried to find out more about the history of Prismacolors but I have nothing but speculation and conjecture. At least, they are still available at present.
For collectors (and users) of vintage pencils, it’s pretty easy to find older versions of Prismacolors and they usually work pretty well. The older Prismacolors are not too expensive and it’s possible to find a box at a garage sale or other secondhand market. There is still a chance to get a pencil with a shattered core but the investment is pretty minimal and, with some searching, full boxes, sets and loose lots are available.
The performance between the modern and older pencils is fairly consistent with some of the slightly older models outperform.
Despite repeatedly being shuttled around from home to home, Prismas still offer something other pencils just don’t have — a soft, creaminess that is a result of their wax-based cores plus a massive array of colors. Their price point, whether purchased in sets or open stock (that’s the official term for selling the pencils individually like you’ll see at art supply stores) is probably the lowest of the three Ps in the US.
But Prismacolors aren’t all sunshine and roses. Because of their super soft cores and continuing efforts to cost-cut, it’s likely to find uncentered or shattered cores. Prismas also aren’t the most lightfast of the Ps. Aesthetically, unlike the other two Ps, Prismas have unfinished ends which clearly show that they are the least expensive of the three brands.
Surprisingly, I haven’t had too many breakage issues with open stock pencils. I have not purchased Prismas in a set in ages but that seems to be where I hear folks have had the most issues with breakage and shattered cores. Though having just one or two pencils with a shattered core, when you consider the creaminess and the overall cost per box, doesn’t seem like that big a deal. I’ve yet to find another readily-available pencil to equal the texture of Prismas.
I don’t recommend over sharpening them. Since the cores are soft, they perform best with a shorter, rounder point. If you do need a finer point for details, you might want to consider adding some Prismacolor Veritihins to your pencil stash or a few from the other brands.
A box of 36 Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils is listing for about $30 on Amazon ($0.83 per pencil).
Faber-Castell Polychromos are the next P to consider. These pencils are probably the most popular in the UK and Europe but are also widely available in the US. Most good quality art supply stores usually carry them in sets and often in open stock. Polychromos are harder than Prismas and use an oil-based binder. Polychromos can be layered on top of each other much more easily than Prismas without “blooming” (a hazy, white film that can develop on wax-based colored pencils when layered repeatedly).
Because they are harder, Poloychromos hold their point better but I find them dry, for lack of a better word. It’s easier to find out the lightfastness for Polychromos as the lightfastness rating is marked on each pencil with a star rating. The Polychromos pencils have a much nicer paint finish than Prismas and have a dipped end.
A Metal Tin of 36 Polychromos Colored Pencils is listing on Amazon for about $69 right now (about $1.75 each).
The Caran d’Ache Pablos are the last of the three Ps. These pencils are probably the least common in the US. Their watercolor cousins, the Caran d’Ache Supracolors are much more readily available in the US than the Pablos.
Like the Polychromos, the Pablos feature dipped ends. The Pablos are the only hex-shaped of the three, where the Prismas and Polys are round. Pablos also include a lightfastness rating on the pencil using a star rating system. Three stars is their highest rating. Pencils with one star are fugitive (meaning exposure to sunlight will cause them to fade).
Pablos are, like the Polychromos, oil-based. They are harder than Prismas but have better point-retention. As a Caran d’Ache product, the Pablos are the most expensive of the three but not that much more than Polychromos.
A Caran d’Ache Pablo Pencil Set of 40 is currently listed on Amazon for about $64 (about $1.60 each which is actually less expensive right now).
Caran d’Ache also makes the Surpacolor II Soft water soluble colored pencil. Water soluble pencils can be moved with water like watercolor. The advantage is that you can add water and change the visual quality of the pencil lines. This can also be a disadvantage if you didn’t want your lines to move or be affected by other water-based media like brush pens, ink, etc.
Supracolor pencils are also hex-shaped with finished end caps. A lot of people use Supracolors like regular colored pencils. The colors are lovely, though they also seem a bit dry to me, and the advantage of having instant access to watercolors in a pencil is also really nice — in some circumstances. The nice feature of other colored pencils is that they don’t move when hit with water so they can make great tools for layering with other media.
Caran d’Ache makes two other grades of colored pencils: Luminance 6901 and Museum Aquarelle. Luminance is a permanent color wax/oil-based pencil and Museum Aquarelles are water-soluble permanent color pencils. These lines of pencils are slightly wider though the leads are the same width as Pablos and Supracolors (3.8mm). My biggest complaint with the Luminance pencils is that the bodies of the pencils are natural wood and only the cap ends indicate the colors. For daily use, it can make choosing colors a little more challenging. I like my colored pencils to be painted to match the core from top to bottom.
For pencils, these are very expensive (open stock can cost up to $5/pencil). Compared to what I spend on fountain pens and ink, though, it’s pretty reasonable.
The last brand I want to mention is the Derwent Inktense. These are pencil “weirdos” — they are water soluble but once they’ve been wet, they dry like a permanent ink. These pencils are great if you want to be able to wet your inks but then draw over them with other pencils, watercolor, brush pens or fountain pens. I would not recommend these are you first set of pencils or your only set. Derwent makes other pencil grades that are more similar to the Ps : the Artist, Coloursoft (said to be comparable to Prismacolors though I don’t agree), Lightfast, Pro Color, and Studio. Suffice to say that there are probably too many variations in the Derwent colored pencil line to dissect appropriately.
Yes, there are other brands of colored pencils on the market and there has been a push in the market by the new brand Arteza and others. I acknowledge that these brands have gotten some good press for being inexpensive however, there’s been an equal amount of reviews suggesting that, like all things in life, you get what you pay for. I’m not saying that there are not good deals to be had but skimping on pencils is never a good idea.
I decided to do a small comparison of the brands I’ve mentioned above (except the Inktense). Above is a comparison of four black pencils to show the darkness and how well they cover. The prismas appear the richest in color but when layered a few times, they all look pretty similar.
In the images above, I tested similar deep blue shades (prussian blue, violet, indigo, etc) on two different papers. If you look at the writing, the Polychromos and Pablos look finer lines with the Supracolor coming a close second. The Luminance and Prismas appear to be the softest.
In my efforts to layer color and show any possible blooming, all five pencil brands look similar with these dark colors.
I stand by my feeling that, for most people who may be doodling, coloring, journaling, etc, Prismacolors are probably the best value. The pencils are still good quality with lots of pigment. If you want slightly fancier pencils, with painted ends or prefer hex-shaped pencils, my next recommendation is Pablos. If money is not an issue, Luminance and Museum Aquarelles are pretty amazing quality but I prefer to just buy a few of my favorite hues in these pricey pencils. Finally, adding a small set of the Inktense pencils can expand the range of multi-media you can use.
Like Tina, I can’t stop buying colored pencils. She has gone on a hunt for vintage colored pencil sets which I love but I also hoard some rare/discontinued pencil varieties. The Design colored pencils were from Eberhard Faber who was known in the late 20th century for Design Markers. They were used for “marker renderings” before ProCreate was am option. Along with the alcohol-based markers, these black dyed wood pencils were a design favorite. Today, they are difficult to find. The cores are very comparable to Prismacolors but because the pencils are all black except the color caps, I never used mine as much as the Prismacolors. But don’t get me wrong, I’ll use them and hoard them to my dying day.
My other rare/discontinued colored pencil jewels are the Pantone Universe collection. These pencils are soft hex pencils with a glossy paint to match the core and a classic, Pantone-style white label with the PMS number emblazoned on the end. On the flip side of each pencil is a descriptive name as well. I only found a box of 12 of these. They are soft and highly pigmented and are probably my favorite pencil. If only I had a set of 60 or more… I’d be one happy pencil collector.
If you are unsure which pencil would be best suited to your needs, I recommend finding an art supply store where you can buy a couple colors in open stock. Tina’s red/yellow/blue experiments might be a great way to start without having to take out a second mortgage on your house just for pencils. Or purchase the smallest possible sets (12 or 24 pencil sets are a great place to start) and then build additional colors into your set when you decide which one you like best.
Don’t forget to check out Tina’s favorite colored pencils too.
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