For artists, students, kids, and even just everyday doodlers, colored pencils are an essential desktop item. Having spent seven years of my life studying the pencil as an object and selling it to eager customers in my pencil specialty shop, I can attest to the fact that picking favorites is a highly subjective thing — and one with a lot of criteria to consider. Every user’s needs are different depending on the type of work they’re doing with their pencils. Is point retention important? Do they need to be extra fadeproof or lightfast? Is color density a concern? Let me first explain that colored pencils are all essentially made of the same two things, in varying qualities and ratios: raw pigment and a binder that is either wax or oil. Apart from that, the difference comes in the quality of the wood, construction of the pencil itself, and whether it’s permanent or water soluble.
My relationship with the pencil started with a set of Caran d’Ache colored pencils in a beautiful tin decorated with wildflower illustrations that my mother brought back from a trip to Italy in the ’90s. As a child who had only ever known Crayola, I was mesmerized by the nuanced color palette, the silkiness of pencils, and the smell of the cedar when I sharpened them. They were my most prized possession, which I used with such prudence that I’m still left with the stubs of those very pencils 25 years later.
Of course, I have my own opinions as an expert with a special nostalgia for the subject, but I also asked a selection of experienced colored-pencil users in my network to shed some light and share their favorites. The result is a robust selection of excellent options and a couple of clear front-runners.
Best colored pencils for beginners
A conversation about colored pencils should always include the illustrious Prismacolor. “They’re great for blending, are supersmooth to draw with, and I particularly love how saturated the pigments are,” says illustrator Steph Stilwell. They were first made in 1938 by Eagle Pencil Company, though the rights to the name and product have changed hands many times since.
Because of this, the formula isn’t exactly the same as it used to be, but they continue to be a favorite and are the entry point into the world of nice colored pencils for many. Artist Brianne Garcia puts it poetically: “They can create soft, delicate notes for layering or bold, saturated swaths of color and can be as opaque as you’d like. Buttery smooth to use, it feels like they glide over the surface of most papers. They are probably my longest-standing relationship in life.”
Best water-soluble colored pencils
For more versatility, there’s a whole category of colored pencil that’s made with a water-soluble binder to enable the user to take a paintbrush to them, like watercolor paint. Caran d’Ache actually invented this type of pencil back in 1931 and continues to lead the way in quality and innovation. They’re especially popular with illustrators like Jerry Ma, who claims them as his absolute favorite. “I love how soft they are and how rich the colors are, and they’re able to retain that richness after applying water to them,” he says. “They were the perfect training wheels for me to learn how to watercolor.”
As I’ve heard from many — and know from personal experience — Supracolors also have great point retention, making them an excellent choice for those who are heavy-handed, like illustrator Meredith Miotke, who’s most accustomed to working with ink and says, “They have this great kind of crisp feel on the paper while still being smooth. I also like how they interact with the other media I’m usually messing with in my sketchbook.”
Best (less expensive) water-soluble colored pencils
Garcia describes these as a “bit of a moodier cousin to Prismacolor,” our beginner pick, which is a testament to their richness, playfulness, and versatility. Albrecht Dürer pencils get their name from the German Renaissance painter and are made by Germany’s oldest pencil-maker — one known for keeping its manufacturing practices and formulas traditional and precise. Architect Craig Moller calls them his all-time favorites and says they’ve been “a mainstay for the best part of 35 years — reliable, durable with an extensive range of colors, and water soluble to boot.” It’s worth noting that Albrecht Dürers have a slightly larger girth than the average pencil.
Best oil-based colored pencils
The benefit of oil-based colored pencils is that they can be both extremely pigmented and hold a firm, sharp point as they don’t contain wax, which lends itself to a softer pencil. Vanessa America owns the charming Tiny Arts Supply in Ridgewood, Queens, and gives Faber-Castell’s flagship colored pencil a rave review. “They’re high quality, precise, and available in tons of colors as singles,” she says. “They outline exceptionally and layer well.” In addition, there’s a star system printed on the pencil that indicates its lightfast level or how fadeproof it is. The consensus among many of the experts I spoke to is that Polychromos is the best, most affordable artist-grade, oil-based option.
Best fancy colored pencils
The crème de la crème of colored pencils — the most pigmented, most lightfast, most expensive are Caran d’Ache Luminance, which artist and author Samantha Dion Baker describes as “the most smooth, creamy, pigmented, and versatile colored pencils I have used.” These are ideal for those who want the most dense-possible color that won’t fade over time. Illustrator and educator Ambar Del Moral says, “The richness of Caran d’Ache pigments ensures long-lasting vibrancy in illustrations without any wax-bloom issues.” (As insurance, she uses a spray fixative.) The richness of Luminance pencils is unparalleled, though they are softer and often messier than less deluxe options.
Best stylish colored pencils
Recommended by architect Louise Harpman, the Fabriano pencils are for those who value the form and function of a design-y pencil that can also act as a watercolor. She says, “The new kids on the block for me are Fabriano watercolor pencils. The magic of ‘Just add water’ is mesmerizing.” Plus the unique triangular shape not only looks stylish but makes them extra ergonomic and easy to hold for hands of all sizes.
Best everyday colored pencils
Not all pencil users are artists with hyperspecific requirements. Rosanna Kvernmo, who owns the L.A. stationery shop Shorthand, says, “My favorite colored pencils are from the Japanese brand Kitaboshi. I use them for writing letters or making cards (I am not a fine artist!), and I love that the colors are so vibrant, the pencils sharpen really easily, and the price is super-reasonable!” Kitaboshi is a highly innovative, family-owned, Tokyo-based brand that recycles the sawdust from the manufacturing process into new products. Its products are becoming more prominent in the U.S. and are of excellent value for money. For the recreational user who just likes to have a few colors on hand for note-taking and doodling, these do the trick.
Best portable colored pencils
Pencil sets with a wide selection of colors can be bulky, but for convenience and portability, designer Nikki Chasin, who travels with her drawing supplies, has just the thing. “For efficiency’s sake, I love a two-tone colored pencil,” she says. “These duos from Prang are sturdy and affordable, great to throw in your bag for the moment that inspiration hits.” You get 36 colors for the space of 18 — a win for an on-the-go creative.
Best colored pencils for kids
The problem with many kids’ pencils is that their slim diameter makes them uncomfortable, the quality doesn’t stand up to intense use, and their cores break easily, causing the leads to fall out when sharpening. America of Tiny Arts Supply recommends these chunky pencils because they have “cool features a lot of other pencils lack,” she says. “They’re super-pigmented, large (for small hands), hexagon, break resistant, available in singles.” They’re marketed for kids but are beloved by adults alike. America also agrees that they hold up to their claim of being “unbreakable.”
Best minimalist colored pencils
Famously, artist and author Adam JK’s text-based work is decidedly pencil-y in aesthetic. “My favorite writing tool is always going to be whatever is easily on hand,” he says. “In general, I love a classic office supply. The double-ended red-and-blue Koh-I-Noor Magnum pencil makes sure I have two options at all times. It toes the line between fun and function.” Although these types of pencils were designed over 100 years ago for clerical and accounting work, they are just right for a minimalist doodler.
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