Let's talk about the most colorful member of the pencil family– colored pencils! We've all used them, but I bet there's a lot about colored pencils that we still don't know. We already covered the basics of what you can use them for in this handy guide: A Guide to the Non-Graphite, so our journey into the nitty-gritty starts here!
First, let's review some key colored pencil terminology:
Artist (or Professional) Grade – high quality; high concentration of pigment, achieving rich and vibrant color; lightfast to varying degrees, depending on particular pigment
Student (or Scholastic) Grade* - lower quality; lower concentration of pigment; not made to achieve lightfastness
Fugitive - prone to fading when exposed to light; colors that tend to “run away and hide”
Lightfast - resists fading when exposed to light; different pigments have different lightfastness levels, often indicated on the barrel. (Source: Faber-Castell FAQ); see the Colored Pencil Society of America’s page on lightfastness here.
Permanent - waterproof, doesn’t require a fixative
Water-soluble - allows pigment to dissolve when in contact with water
*I’m categorizing scholastic and student grade together, though some consider them separately. I’ve read that scholastic grade is intended for young children or complete beginners and student grade is the next step up, but I’ve also read the exact opposite. So, I’m treating them as one big category of lower-than-artist-grade quality for the more casual user.
The makeup of a colored pencil is different from that of a graphite pencil. It’s all in the name– colored pencils contain pigment, which lends them their color. No graphite here!
A colored pencil’s core is made up of pigment, additives, and binding agents– there are oil-based and wax-based binders. Water-soluble colored pencils, or watercolor pencils, contain binders that allow the pigment to dissolve in water, allowing you to paint with them. (Source: Caran d’Ache FAQ - What makes a pencil or pastel water-soluble?)
Fun fact: All oil- and wax-based colored pencils contain a mix of oils and waxes, despite their different labels– even water-soluble colored pencils contain wax!
Find our breakdown on water-soluble pencils here: Guide to Water-Soluble Pencils
General consensus is that oil/wax-based colored pencils run firmer than water-soluble colored pencils, but there is still variation in hardness across brands. Water-soluble colored pencils lean on the softer side and also drag a bit because of the drier formula, while oil/wax-based colored pencils feel smoother. This doesn’t indicate a difference in quality, just a difference in formula.
I should mention that the existence of the term oil-based likely came about due to translation issues, and that it might be more helpful to consider oil- and wax-based in the same category. (Source: Creative Art Materials - Oil vs. Wax)
Student grade color pencils are ideal for beginners or kids who need a basic coloring set, plain and simple. The Crayola and Prang sets are the ones I remember from my childhood–fairly cheap and do their job without any extra fanfare.
I tested nearly all of our student grade sets and ended up with some interesting results! I was most impressed by Faber-Castell’s Grip EcoPencils, which give you a lot of bang for your buck– they’re very smooth and offer nice, punchy color for a student grade set. Caran d'Ache's Swisscolors performed great, besides slight inconsistent performance across colors; actually, some of the colors were pigmented enough they looked artist grade. Viarco’s Coloradd colored pencils were a tad dry and scratchy, but still a really decent student grade set.
Artist grade colored pencils offer both high quality pigment and a high concentration of it, resulting in rich, vibrant color; better blending ability than student grade; and smoother application onto paper. They're also made with lightfastness in mind and retain their color better over time. Every pigment has different lightfast capabilities, though, so some colors are less lightfast than others. Pro-tip: This is also why choosing acid-free or archival paper as your drawing surface is important, if you’re concerned with preserving your work.
In my testing, the Tombow Irojiten felt firmer than both the Faber-Castell Polychromos and Caran d'Ache Supracolors, which felt similar to each other in softness and looked equal in terms of pigment load. A note about the Tombow 1500, included in the student/artist grade comparison chart: This is listed as an artist grade colored pencil, but no official lightfast ratings are available to support that label. That being said, it performs really well and is very smooth and highly pigmented. It also comes at basically a discount price for an artist grade set, so there's that!
With all that said, everyone has different preferences and who knows what’ll end up feeling right for you. Different situations call for different colored pencil sets! But, if you need a nudge in the right direction, here are my lightning round answers for best colored pencil sets.
Artists: Caran d’Ache Supracolors & Faber-Castell Polychromos
Children (& the young at heart): Faber-Castell Grip EcoPencil Set & Koh-I-Noor Tri-Tone Colored Pencil Set
Travelers: Tombow Mini Color Set & Caran d’Ache Bicolors
Gifts: Blackwing Colors & Tombow Irojiten