The Tombow Irojiten Color Dictionary colored pencils sets have always been a curiosity to me. The pencils are sold in sets of 30 pencils ($40.50 per set, $1.35 per pencil), grouped into sets of ten colors per “book”. There are three sets of 30 pencils available so in order to have the full range of colors all three sets would need to be purchased. No color is duplicated from set to set.
(There is also a 36-color set ($59.50, $1.65 per pencil) that contains a selection of 28 colors from the original Color Dictionary sets plus eight additional colors. )
The name Irojiten means “Color Dictionary”. Iro means “color” and Jiten means “dictionary”. Pretty clever.
While I love the packaging and aesthetic of the Irotijen sets, I could never rationalize buying another set of colored pencils. Then curiosity got the best of me and I finally caved. The packaging alone is a thing of beauty. I don’t usually like excessive packaging but Tombow did this beautifully. Each set of 10 pencils comes in a paperboard box that opens like a book and is held closed with an elastic band. Then all three boxes slide into a slipcase that keeps everything organized and contained and ready for your bookshelf or desktop. For as lovely as the packaging is, all the boxes are uncoated paperboard so its recyclable (just snip off the elastics) if you are a “store all your pencils in a cup” person like me.
I only purchased the first set which contains volumes 1, 2, and 3 — Pale I, Vivid I, Deep I. If I end up being madly in love with these pencils, I can purchase the others but I decided to err on the side of frugality.
Pricewise, this set of Irojiten seemed most comparable to a Prismacolor or Polychromos sets with a similar number of pencils. Both Prismacolor ($o.85-0.88 per pencil in set, $1.39 individually) and Polychromos (about $1.24 per pencil in set, $2.65 individually) pencils come is sets of 24 or 36, and work out to be only slightly cheaper than the Irojiten sets per pencil (according to my quick peek at the Blick web site).
The pencils come pre-sharpened but the ends are pretty blunt. The advantage of having pre-sharpened pencils is you can just jump right in and start using them. I did find that after I did my first swatches, I really wanted to sharpen these.
The color swatches above were organized by set: Vol. 1 Pale Tone 1, Vol. 2 Vivid Tone 1 and Vol. 3 Deep Tone 1. My first experience with the pencils felt a bit harder than the colored pencils I usually lean towards. The colors were well-pigmented but felt like they required more effort to get the color onto the paper.
Once I did these color swatches, I realized that my brain doesn’t work like this — organized by saturation level. I tend to sort my colored pencils into warm colors and cool colors and like having all my yellows (or blues or purples) out and available at the same time. So, as much as I appreciate the aesthetics of the packaging, I am not inclined to keep the pencils in the boxes. My pencils ALWAYS end up living in cups and jars because they are quick and easy to access.
I sharpened the Irojtien pencils with my Dahle 133 Pencil Tabletop Manual Sharpener ($19.99) dialed to a medium-sharp point. I also wanted to see if sharpening the pencils might also help with the hardness. Sometimes, c0l0red pencils can feel a bit dry if they’ve been sharpened for a long time (I think the oil or wax dries out a bit) so I thought sharpening them would be worth a try. Also, since the pencils seemed harder, a sharper point would be easier to accomplish.
The Irojiten pencils did sharpen very well but did not feel any softer after being sharpened. This would make these pencils good for detail work and small drawings. I also re-swatched the colors, organized by hue. What I think is most notable about the set is that there is really only one red pencil. The Crimson (D-1) felt more like a warm brown than a red to me. There also seemed to be a surprising number of green colors (6 or 7, depending on whether you think Ice Green P-6 is more green or more blue).
My last round of tests was to verify if the Irojiten pencils were really harder than my beloved Prismacolors. The short answer is yes. It did not require as much pressure to apply a rich layer of the Prismacolor pencils. I know a lot of people have issues with the Prismacolors for being too soft, breaking easily, uncentered cores, etc. they pay dividends in sheer pigment load and range of colors available for the price.
My final impression of the Irojiten colored pencils is that it is a lovely set with pencils that are harder than other pencils. If you have a heavy hand or are looking for a colored pencil set for detail work, the Irojiten is a good option. If you are looking for colored pencils that are creamy and have a dense pigment load, then I recommend trying Prismacolors instead. The packaging is not as cool but if you’re like me, your colored pencils will end up in a cup anyway so the packaging doesn’t really matter.