As simple as they seem, colored pencils are a foundational part of any art kit.
Their intuitive design has made them a favorite family art supply, but colored pencils also come in artist-quality varieties that are as far removed from basic pencils as sports cars are to go carts. These performance colored pencils allow artists a fine degree of control over texture and detail, creating endless possibilities for sophisticated drawings.
Like watercolors, colored pencils can be blended and layered together to develop complex hues. They also require few supplies, are low maintenance, and have no risk of stains or spills. This makes them ideal for both traveling artists and beginners: a pencil set, sketchbook, sharpener, and eraser are all you need for most colored pencil techniques. Keep reading to see what to look for in a colored pencil, our top colored pencil recommendations, tips on how to use colored pencils, and detailed test results for opacity, erasability, solubility, and more.
If you want one set of colored pencils that will work for almost any project, go with Prismacolor Premier Color Pencils. They come in a set of 72 vivid colors with extremely soft wax cores that apply smoothly and can easily achieve full coverage. We especially love them for blending and burnishing. In testing, we found that layers of color almost melted together with very little effort. Because they are so soft, Prismacolor Premiers lose their points quickly and may leave crumbs on the paper. Their wax binders also make them vulnerable to wax bloom, a gradual oxidation process where wax rises to the surface of a drawing, leaving a pale film. However, this is possible with all wax-based pencils, and using fixative or dabbing gently with a cloth are simple fixes. Prismacolor Premiers are highly opaque and suitable for colored paper as well as other papers like coloring books and sketchbooks.
- Why Buy Good Colored Pencils?
- Colored Pencil Recommendations
- Colored Pencil Accessories
- How To Use Colored Pencils
- Test Results
- How We Approach Research & Testing
High-quality colored pencils are worth the investment for a simple reason: they allow you to appreciate the full range of what colored pencils can do. Colored pencils come in student, scholastic, and artist grade, which have increasingly high ratios of pigment to filler. If you’ve ever used colored pencils and found them frustrating and dull, you were probably using student-grade pencils. Artist-grade pencils are not only more vivid, but have improved blending, layering, and coverage. Better pencils make it easier to get an image from your mind to paper, and they’re just more fun to play with.
Colored pencil art often involves layering multiple hues to develop specific colors and add shading. To help those colors look more cohesive or portray very smooth surfaces, artists may burnish their work. Burnishing is layering with heavy pressure until no paper shows through. Any pencil can be used to burnish, but tools like colorless blender pencils are common favorites. Soft pencils are usually easier to blend than harder pencils.
Colored pencils are harder to erase than their graphite cousins, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t use erasing techniques. Some colored pencils are specifically made to be erasable. Others will erase to some degree but may not disappear completely. If you plan to use erasers to lighten specific areas or often want to remove stray lines, it’s worth looking for colored pencils that erase well.
Colored pencils should deliver rich color. This lets you produce a variety of tones by using different amounts of pressure. Pencils made with more pigment are typically more vibrant, as are softer pencils. Many pigments will fade over time as they are exposed to light, so it's best to use lightfast colored pencils for important projects.
Pieces drawn with wax-based pencils may suffer from wax bloom, which obscures the color. Wipe the wax gently away to restore drawings. You can also spray finished pieces with fixative to greatly reduce the chance that they will develop wax bloom.
Artists often use toned, or colored, paper to set the mood of a piece or help develop shadows and highlights. Some colored pencils work well on traditional white paper but seem to recede into toned paper. This is because they are not sufficiently opaque to prevent the colored background from showing through. Highly opaque pencils may also cover outlines in sketches or coloring books.
Opacity should also be taken into consideration when blending. Layering hues with a less opaque, but still highly pigmented, pencil will give you a more nuanced depth of color.
Like graphite pencils, colored pencils can be hard or soft. Soft colored pencils are more opaque and good for laying down coverage. Using soft colored pencils feels closer to painting, but they lose their points quickly and may leave crumbs behind. Hard colored pencils feel more like the pencils you’re used to for writing, work well for details, and need sharpening less often, but they deposit less color on the paper.
All wooden pencils are susceptible to broken leads, but the relatively soft cores of colored pencils render them especially vulnerable. Pencils made with high-quality wood that is securely bound to the pencil cores are less likely to break from being dropped or sharpened. Harder pencils are less likely to suffer from broken tips due to the strength of their cores.
Some colored pencil marks will dissolve when they contact liquid media like watercolors and inks. This is called solubility. More soluble leads may feather or show through other media layered on top of them. On the other hand, soluble pencils help artists blend colors and achieve beautiful painterly effects. Watercolor pencils are made specifically to be used this way. Colored pencils aren’t typically water soluble, but artists sometimes dissolve them with other solvents like odorless mineral spirits1 to blend colors smoothly.
Wax-based colored pencils are more likely to show through liquid media, although not because they dissolve or bleed pigment. In fact, it’s the opposite—wax repels water! If you want to be able to ink over your colored pencil sketches, check our solubility tests for low showthrough. If you want to paint in watercolor and keep your colored pencil lines, wax is likely what you should be looking for.
It’s best to choose pencils that come in a wide range of colors. Paints allow you to mix colors fairly easily, but blending colored pencils is harder and takes more time. There are also some colors, like vibrant purple, which are difficult to blend from pencil. Choosing pencils that come in many different hues helps you achieve the right color more easily.
It’s easier in the long run to choose pencils that are available individually as well as in sets. This lets you replace colors as you use them up, rather than buying entirely new sets to replace your favorite hues. When getting started, however, we recommend picking a set. Sets include a variety of color choices so you can experiment freely, and they generally offer a lower price per pencil.
Fine art colored pencil drawings use many layers to develop realistic images with incredible depth, dimension, and lifelike colors. The best colored pencils for fine art are highly pigmented and come in a large range of hues.
Faber-Castell Polychromos are the pencils to use if you’re drawing a piece for display. Their richly pigmented cores are oil based, which means that they’ll never suffer from wax bloom. More impressively, they are lightfast. Asterisks next to each color’s name indicate how lightfast that specific color is so that you can easily see how each pencil will perform over time. These artist-quality pencils lay down a smooth layer of color at the slightest touch, but their strong points can also handle heavy pressure for greater intensity. Use these pencils for firm, confident strokes. In addition, Polychromos pencils are color-matched with other Faber-Castell products. This lets you easily combine colored pencil with other media, such as markers and brush pens from the Faber-Castell PITT line. Polychromos pencils come in 120 individual colors as well as sets of 12, 24, and 36 to help you achieve precisely the right hue.
Polychromos pencils are often recommended by professional artists who cite their durability. Although Polychromos pencils are a bit more expensive than our top all-around colored pencil, you’ll get more than enough use out of each pencil to make up for it. If you’re planning to use your pencils all the way down to the end, pick Polychromos (and maybe pick up a pencil extender too)!
Artists’ everyday carry gear often includes a simple sketching kit to allow them to draw during their downtime and capture fleeting moments on paper. They also often begin more finished pieces with loose sketches in light-colored pencil. Colored sketching pencils don’t need to come in as many shades as other colored pencils for artists, but those they do have should be versatile as well as hard enough to minimize smudging in a closed sketchbook.
These pencils are designed for editors, but they’re surprisingly good for sketching also. Uni Vermilion and Prussian Blue Pencils are double sided, so you can carry two colors without taking up any extra space. They have firm cores that don’t smudge very much but are soft enough to easily lay down smooth lines. The vermillion side is a slightly orange red that works well for underdrawing, while the darker Prussian blue side is ideal for overdrawing and adding emphasis. This pair of colors would also work well for capturing warm light and cool shadows, a combination often found when drawing in sunlight.
These two-sided pencils are available in hexagonal or round bodies to suit your preferences and either an even distribution of the two colors or a 7:3 ratio of vermillion to Prussian blue for those who use the red side more often. They also come in single-color erasable versions.
Toned paper, or paper colored in neutral hues, offers several advantages. It encourages artists to be as deliberate with their highlights as they are with their shadows, improving understanding of lighting. It can also give a drawing a unified look or set a certain mood. If you plan to use toned paper, look for pencils with high opacity. This will allow you to develop vivid images on darker surfaces.
Our favorite colored pencils for toned paper are the Uni Arterase. They are highly opaque and stand out boldly from dark paper. They are also an absolute joy to use, with cores that are simultaneously firm and gloriously smooth. Their strong tips sharpen to precise points and readily produce different color values depending on the amount of pressure used. They blend together well. As a bonus, Uni Arterase colored pencils erase astonishingly well. If you use erasers to add highlights, remove initial sketches, or just tidy up mistakes, these are the pencils for you. They come in sets of 12 and 24 as well as singly and in a 36-color bundle.
Many people start coloring with whatever tools they have on hand, but ordinary colored pencils are inconsistent and poorly pigmented. Higher-quality colored pencils let you use layering and blending to fill the intricate patterns of adult coloring books with more beautiful and subtle hues. Their vivid colors can be a revelation - not to mention, their smoothness makes coloring even more relaxing. Read our guide to Adult Coloring Supplies for more recommendations.
Uni designed their No.888 Color Pencils specifically for coloring books. They come in a set of 36 that includes several rich hues of red, brown, and green. This allows colorists to depict natural motifs like plants and animals with great detail and variety. They also layer well, so you can build up more colors than are represented in the set. Uni No.888 colored pencils are pleasantly soft and allow for smooth gradations between colors.
Water-soluble pencils combine the best features of painting and drawing. When dry, they have the precision and control of standard colored pencils. Once wet, their marks disperse like watercolor paint. Artists can even dip their pencil tips in water to produce extra-bold lines or use wet brushes to grab pigment to paint with. Typical drawing paper warps when wet, so it’s best to pair watercolor pencils with heavier paper. To learn more, check out our guide on how to use watercolor pencils.
Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer Watercolor Pencils come in 120 vivid colors. These pencils blend and layer well, and have slightly harder cores, so reach for these if you enjoy control when working at a smaller scale. Water makes these pencils even more vivid and almost completely washes away underlying pencil lines, creating a product similar to traditional watercolor. Draw in wet areas for bold, dark lines. Once dry, the watercolor washes become permanent. This allows artists to safely layer multiple colors and media over previously activated pencil marks.
Faber-Castell watercolor pencils are lightfast and treated to prevent lead breakage. They come individually and in sets of 6, 12, 24, 36, 60, and 120. Consider pairing them with a water brush for no-fuss painting.
These Swiss watercolor pencils are lightfast to prevent your art from fading over time. Each pencil bears a series of asterisks to show where it falls on the Standard Blue Wool Scale so that you can choose colors that are as lightfast as you need. Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle Pencils come in 76 individual colors. Because they are slightly wider than most other pencils, they don’t fit in every sharpener. We have found that the Kum No. 410 Magnesium Pencil Sharpener works well.
If you’re interested in toned paper, the Stillman & Birn Mixed Trio Nova Sketchbook contains an assortment of brown, grey and black sheets. The paper’s mild tooth holds color well, and the variety of tones will let you pick the best background for each sketch. Global Art Kona Drawing Pads are another good option. Filled with grey paper, they’re lightweight and ideal to take outside.
Check out our sketchbook guide for more ideas.
If you’re used to drawing with graphite pencils, you might already be familiar with some of these techniques. Try all of these methods with light pressure first.
Back and Forth Stroke
Make one continuous stroke back and forth like a very quick zig-zag. This is the simplest method for covering an area.
Tiny overlapping loop-de-loops give a smooth, soft texture.
Hatching and Cross-Hatching
Hatch with parallel lines (straight or curving around your shape) or turn hatching into cross-hatching with another layer of lines on top.
Cover an area with tiny dots. Pack them closely or space them out to control intensity of color. We think stippling with multiple hues looks cool.
Exercises to gain confidence and control
Practice gradients, flicks, waves and circles to get used to your new pencils.
If you’re drawing with a limited range of colors, be sure it includes dark, light, warm and cool. Layering warm and cool pencils will give you a neutral hue. Neutrals are a necessary part of the balance of any composition—don’t neglect them.
“Analogous” and “complementary” are simplified terms. Here’s a quick glimpse of the science behind layering pencils:
- When white light shines onto a pigment, the pigment reflects colored light that hits your eye and absorbs all other colors of light. For example, the mark made by a green pencil reflects green light and absorbs all other wavelengths.
- White pigment reflects almost all light, while black pigment absorbs almost all light.
- When you layer non-opaque pigments, you add their absorptive properties together. When layering pigments that reflect similar wavelengths, your result is a vivid color. When layering pigments that would normally reflect very different wavelengths, that mixture absorbs a wider spectrum, reflecting less light, and you end up with a result that looks like black.
Shadows are always tinted the complementary color of the light that cast them. This isn’t an art rule, just a rule of the laws of physics. Here’s a tip for drawing in nature: yellow-orange sunlight casts cool blue shadows (but keep an eye out for any other light reflecting into those blue shadows, like warm light bouncing off the ground).
Use gentle pressure for more control over your results, and to preserve the tooth of the paper, which allows you to add more pigment later. When blending one color into another, gradually decrease your pressure to fade edges and blend smoothly. Frequently switch back and forth between the colors you're blending and layer lightly again and again to build color intensity and even coverage.
The opacity of your pencils’ cores will affect how your layers build. Less opaque pencils will end up with greater depth of color, as new layers show through more to the ones below.
Combining different brands and types of colored pencils can benefit a drawing. Hard pencils will be better for details, soft pencils will be better for coverage, and you might want to include a color only made by one brand. But don’t switch between hard and soft pencils accidentally—if you get used to one range of pressure, it won’t have the same effect with a different lead hardness.
As we mentioned earlier in this guide, burnishing is achieved simply by layering with heavy pressure until no paper shows through. It compresses the fibers of your paper, making it harder to add additional pigment, and the end product is shiny and smooth.
You can burnish a drawing with any colored pencil, but most will affect the hues of your careful blending and layering. The all-purpose option is a colorless blender pencil (not included in sets). A colorless blender saves overuse of your other pencils, creates the brightest burnished colors, smooths out gradients, and preserves complex mixes of color. You can also use white or a light tint, like cream, pale pink, or blue. If this washes out your drawing, you can layer your original colors on top in a two-step burnishing process.
- Smooth out your lines.The eye is drawn to sudden changes. Double-check that none of your lines are wavering, jagged, broken, or unfinished, and give them a touch-up if they are.
- Create confident edges. Make sure your areas of color touch, either blending into each other or with firm divisions. Don’t leave any gaps.
- Fill with color. Use layering or burnishing techniques to make sure color fills aren’t patchy.
- A still life of your favorite objects. Collect one or two of your most beloved possessions—it’s fun to draw things that you love.
- Observational sketches. Go outside and draw what you see! Sunlight provides a great opportunity to practice color temperature, and making quick drawings means you can quickly improve.
- An existing drawing or painting you’re fond of. Keep an eye out for dark, light, and color temperature. Search the Internet and find a challenge to undertake.
We tested all of our colored pencil lines to help you choose the best option for your use. Since each colored pencil line can contain dozens of colors, we chose to compare similar hues from each line rather than test every pencil color. We separated our tests into two tables: general properties and solubility. These traits will affect your options while drawing.
All tests except opacity were performed with representative reds from each pencil line.
- Swatch: We shaded each swatch from soft to hard pressure to show the full range of shading available.
- Erasing: We erased the center of each swatch with a Sakura Foam Eraser.
- Smudging: We rubbed half swatches with a finger to see how much color would smudge.
- Opacity: We swatched white pencils on black paper to see how opaque the pencils were. If a line did not include white, we used the lightest available substitute.
- Crumbling: We made a partial swatch with hard pressure and photographed the crumbs left on the paper. Crumbs won’t affect your drawing if gently brushed away, but they do indicate a pencil will get used up more quickly and have a shorter lifespan.
All tests were performed with representative reds from each pencil line.
- Swatch: We shaded each swatch from soft to hard pressure to show the full range of shading available.
- Water: We drew over the swatches with a water brush.
- Odorless Mineral Spirits (OMS): We drew over the swatches with odorless mineral spirits.
- Ink: We drew over the swatches with a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen and Copic Multiliner SP Pen.
Our writers draw on their personal expertise, consult our in-house subject matter experts, and do extensive research to make our guides as accurate and comprehensive as possible. We then test every finding that makes it through the research stage. Only the techniques and tools whose performance we personally confirm make it into our guides as recommendations.
Colored pencils are easy to get started with yet full of potential. Whether you prefer sketching on the go, drawing detailed portraits, or coloring for stress relief, these versatile and high-quality tools deserve a place in your art kit.
|Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle||76||N/A||Soft||$$$$|
|Caran d'Ache Sketcher||1||N/A||Medium||$$$|
|Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer Watercolor Pencils||120|| 6, 12, 24, 36,|
|Pilot FriXion Colored Pencils for Adults||24||12, 24||Medium||$$$|
|Prismacolor Col-Erase||25||12, 24||Hard||$|
|Prismacolor Verithin||41||24, 36||Hard||$|
|Tombow Irojiten||90||30, 36||Medium||$|
|Uni Arterase||36||12, 24, 36||Medium||$$$|
|Uni Pericia||36||12, 24, 36||Soft||$$$|
|Uni Vermilion and Prussian Blue||2||N/A||Medium||$|
- 1Artists use odorless mineral spirits as a milder substitute for turpentine. Despite the name, they do give off fumes. Only use them in a well-ventilated room.
- 2Set sizes listed are limited to sets carried by JetPens.