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There’s something about getting a big new box of colored pencils that’s unlike anything else. I feel like I’m opening up a treasure chest, and have such an excited feeling when I first gaze at the many colors, like a whole spectrum of possibilities has opened up before me.
Somehow I don’t get the same feeling looking at a color wheel or Pantone code input fields in a painting program, but maybe that’s just me.
And when the colored pencils are really good, with bold, true colors not just in the box but on the page as well, I can see those possibilities realized in front of me, and I get even more excited and inspired.
On the other hand, when poor quality colored pencils just tease me with their bright colors, that look rather pale, uneven or disappointing on the page, or with their lack of flow, I feel like I’ve been betrayed somehow.
Yes, one could argue that perhaps I spend too much time with colored pencils, but it always comes down to the same thing with me. If a set of colored pencils, or any other artist’s tool, inspires me, supports my process and enables my flow, and allows me to realize what my artistic vision sees, I love and use it. If not, well, there’s a bottom drawer where I keep such traitors imprisoned, unloved, unused, gathering dust…
So let’s look at the very best colored pencils for artists in 2021. Sometimes I think I’ve tried every single brand and pencil out there, and I’m happy to pass my experiences along and help you find the best colored pencils for you.
I want a few basic things from the best colored pencils:
When the pencils’ colors are pale or uneven, they don’t flow onto the paper well, I can’t find the color I want or the pencil breaks or seems to fight me, these problems can keep me from really getting into the flow.
But when it all comes together, it’s a great feeling, and I can get totally lost in that kind of expressive bliss of productivity which is the best part of being an artist.
I’m going to list several different brands and sets of colored artist pencils below, with a very brief comment on each of them, and with Amazon links so that you can easily order the set you want and make sure you get the best price as well.
These are all wonderful colored pencil sets, pencils that work great, with beautiful colors that look just as beautiful on the page, and I’m sure any one of them would serve you, or any artist, well. Of course I myself seem to need many different sets and as many different colors and gradations as possible, but as we’ve already established I may be a wee bit odd about my pencils…
Generally there are two types of colored pencils available: soft-core, or soft lead, and hard-core or hard lead pencils (not really lead, but usually wax for soft-core pencils and oil for hard-core).
Soft-core colored pencils are the most popular and widely available, and offer not just really vivid colors, but the most options in terms of color mixing, burnishing, fading and bleeding and lots of other techniques. They can also be good for detail work – especially the wonderful Caran d’Ache Supracolor and Faber-Castell Polychromos, but that’s really a job for the hard-core lot.
Hard-core pencils, on the other hand, don’t really offer the same kind of strikingly flowing, vivid and saturated colors, but they will offer much better precision and control for any kind of fine detail work. And the best of them should still offer great color on the page and a smooth and even flow.
Artists who use colored pencils a lot generally like to have at least one good set of soft and one good set of hard colored pencils.
So here are my recommendations for the best colored pencil sets on the market. We’ll start with the top hard-core sets I know and then move onto the best soft-core sets, but every set here comes with my enthusiastic recommendation, and even the least expensive of them are extremely high quality, work great and are a joy to use.
A great hard lead colored pencil for detailed drawing and fine line work, long lasting and durable, the Prismacolor Verithin colored pencils are surprisingly inexpensive considering their high quality.
With a beautiful and useful selection of colors and great color transfer – better than some hard (or even soft!) pencils that cost a lot more – Prismacolor Verithin colored pencils are definitely good enough for even professional or fine artists and the most critical work, and offer really great control and accuracy for the most minute details and complex images. One of the best values on the market today!
Artists who use the Koh-I-Noor Polycolor colored pencils may swear that they are actually soft-core, since they have such a great, smooth and even flow and the colors pop so vividly on the page, but these are in fact oil-based hard-core colored pencils, with the ability to render the most detailed and complex images easily and with great control.
Given their great color saturation, though, the Polycolors offer a kind of best-of-both-worlds advantage, and some artists I know use these premium quality professional pencils almost exclusively. But still they are at their heart (or at least at their core) hard pencils for details, fine lines and extremely precise control, and they are among the very best available.
Some of the finest colored pencils made today, the Koh-I-Noor Polycolor colored pencils are highly recommended to any artist on any level.
Now we’re getting to the big guns! The Caran D’Ache Pablo hard colored pencils are of such superbly high quality, offering a wide and perfectly varied range of stunningly beautiful and useful colors, supreme control and predictable flow, long life and a great feeling in the hand, that it is no wonder they are the real choice for the most discerning commercial and fine artists all over the world.
The Pablo colored pencils for artists are hard-core, and while they do have quite nice flow and saturation, they are undoubtedly the best pencils I’ve used for minute detail, fine lines and complex images. Expensive, yes, but I guarantee that once you try the Caran D’Ache Pablo colored pencils you will never go back.
Prismacolor makes some of the best soft-core colored pencils I’ve ever used, with vibrant colors that flow perfectly and effortlessly onto the page, with such predictable, such even flow and such energy that I can’t believe that they’re so inexpensive. The way these bright and beautiful colors make my ideas come to life is incredible. And for a soft pencil they last an amazingly long time.
A great choice of colors, which are rich and true and really hold up over time, pencils which feel good to use and soft core leads that are strong enough to not break and to allow a wide range of techniques and expressivity. You may want some harder pencils for more fine lines and detailed work, but for bold, colorful creative joy the Prismacolor Premier colored pencils are hard to beat.
The Faber-Castell Polychromos has long been one of my favorite colored pencil sets, and one of the sets I use most often.
These are soft core pencils, so they have that characteristic boldness and even flow you get from the best soft colored pencils, and yet somehow they are also great for fine lines, hatching and textures and even minute detail. This really allows me to stay in my zone all throughout a session, without the interruptions of finding and opening different sets of pencils for different kinds of work.
The Faber Castell Polychromos pencils still have some of the most rich, brilliant colors I’ve seen, offer unsurpassed versatility and quality, and are among the most valuable and frequently used of all my artist tools. My highest recommendation!
Widely considered to be among the very finest art supply houses in the world, Caran d’Ache certainly makes some of the finest colored pencils available today, and the Supracolors sets are among the finest I’ve ever used.
These soft core pencils are water soluble, smearable and mixable, and so allow me to go beyond the basic process of drawing with pencils into new and varied techniques with mixing colors, shading and layering, lightening and flowing.
The Caran D’ache Supracolor pencils are equally great for basic work, with soft leads which allow broad, bold strokes but still handle fine work, textures and detail with ease. The leads are strong, too, meaning I don’t have to worry about applying pressure, and also that these Caran D’ache colored artist pencils last a long time. A superb colored pencil for any artist, and a real value even at their fairly substantial price.
While the Derkwent Inktense may not be my first choice for day-to-day work, these incredible pencils have a kind of intensity of color on the page that I don’t see on any other colored pencil on the market.
For bold, vivid and powerful expression, the Inktense pencils are pretty much unmatched, and even if an artist has their favorite set, or sets, of colored pencils they will probably still have a set of Derkwents in their drawer.
And the colors are not just bold and intense, but beautiful, smooth and consistent, and transfer strikingly well to not just paper but lots of different surfaces. They are water soluble and quick drying, which makes for lots of possibilities in techniques and color creation, and the colors are really long lasting, sun and fade resistant.
The Derkwent Inktense colored pencils may have a somewhat dorky name, but they also provide really great flow of vivid colors, extreme control and precision, strong leads that resist blunting or breaking, and real durability and long life.
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I have to say that the least expensive pencils on this buyer’s guide to the best colored pencils for artists in 2021 are still not that cheap, and the most expensive colored pencils here are, well, pretty spendy. But when you use even the most affordable recommendations here, like the Prismacolor, you will know they are worth it, and your art will flow. And if you step up, even to the rarified levels of Caran D’Ache, you will immediately know that these superb, professional pencils are actually better, and again totally worth it.
I could say something about how we as artists deserve the best tools, and certainly the best colored pencils on the market are a wonderful gift to give ourselves, but I think it really comes down to the art itself. Yes, you deserve the best, and so do I, but the real winner here is our artwork – which becomes better, more flowing and natural, more highly developed and fully realized and, ultimately, far more successful.
If this sounds like a lot to expect from a lowly colored art pencil, it’s always been my experience that this is what the best and most successful artist tools of any type can do for an artist and their work – and all of these marvelous colored pencils are great examples of this. Try any one of these sets and I’m sure you, and your art, will absolutely love them!