A Guide to the Best Colored Pencils

Smooth, Waxy, Soft, Hard, Crisp, or Blendable

polychromos pencils

Finding the best colored pencils is a matter of personal preference and the task at hand. Some pencils are soft, laying down thicker opaque layers and more painterly; others are hard and better for detailed drawing. Some are more suited to different weights of paper, some to how the artist prefers to draw, in single or multiple layers, with light or heavy pressure. The variety is a bit daunting, so here is a guide to the best known and available brands, describing their characteristics. 

Wax, Oil, or Water-Based?

Different manufacturers use different binders to bring the pigments into a useable form, and each binder has an effect on the pencil's use. Wax-based pencils are softer than water or oil-based ones, so they provide better coverage on the paper and the color is quite intense. However, they also break easily and wear out more quickly, and if you layer on the color too heavily, you may develop wax bloom, a coat of powdered layer that affects the intensity.

Oil-based pigments (generally vegetable oils) are generally harder than wax-based ones, so they last longer and are less likely to break. You do need to apply more pigment to get the intensity you'd get from a wax-based pencil. Finally, water-based pencils are less stable, but you can use them wet or dry, which allows better control over texture.

Soft or Hard, Student or Professional?

Choose a soft pencil if you want a broader opaque stroke and creamy colors; harder ones are better for detailing but not for covering large areas.

Often manufacturers will make two grades of pencils, one for students, one for professionals. There is a significant difference in price--the student grade pencils are always less expensive--but in general, with the student-grade versions, you get a lower pigment to binder ratio, and you have to use more of it to get the same color intensity.

If you're looking for a reliable colored pencil that will work for any project, look no further than the Faber-Castell Polychromos, a longstanding favorite of art school students and professionals. Costing around $40 for a set of 12 pencils, these might seem like a big investment, but they are an excellent value. These pencils are soft enough to layer beautifully, without crumbling, the pigments are lush and smooth, and the casting strong and dependable.  More »

Another artist-grade classic, the Prismacolor pencils are easy to layer and blend, beautifully pigmented, and have a smooth finish that doesn't feel dry or scratchy. Some Prismacolor hues have questionable lightfastness and they may fade over time, but for a beginner artist or student, these pencils are an excellent value.  More »

Derwent Studio is a cousin of the Derwent Artist range, offering a finer, harder pencil that delivers a crisper line and more precise handling than the softer Artist pencils. These are a favorite with many artists who prefer the drier, waxier feel of the Derwent as well as their more robust handling. More »

These water-soluble pencils may not have the waterproof security that a waxy colored pencil does, but in terms of laying down lots of gorgeous colors, handling beautifully, blending, and of course, working well with water, you can't find a better tool than Faber-Castell's Albrecht Dürer pencils.  More »

The Caran d'Ache Luminance colored pencils have some of the highest lightfastness ratings, which means that their brilliant color won't fade as easily over time as other brands. These pencils have a waxy formulation that tends to feel a bit crumbly and scratchy on the paper but allows them to be layered almost like an oil pastel. Many artists use these in combination with another brand of colored pencil, using the less waxy pencil for the under-layers of drawing and then using the Carna d'Ache for the final layers to add a splash of brilliant color. More »

If your budding artist has graduated from Crayola, allow your child to take coloring to the next level with the Imaginesty colored pencil set. These pencils are easy to use, non-toxic, and wallet-friendly, costing around $20 for a set of 48 pencils.  More »

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For Vibrancy: Staedtler Ergosoft Triangular Colored Pencils

Staedtler's pencils are similar in quality to the best of Prismacolor and Faber-Castell. They are vibrant and durable, and the quality of the lead is excellent—but the price is generally about a third higher.