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Pencil paradise: top 10 review of the best colored pencils

Colored pencils. I LOVE them. But that love comes with a dilemma. There are so many different brands and type of pencils available. So how to determine what you'll spend your pocket money on? Over the years I had already tested many different brands and - like a proper nerd - decided to dive into all these pencils systematically one more time. This way, I was extra well prepared for the new Colorful Pencil Portraits course I just launched! The English edition of that course will follow soon, but let's focus on the pencils first. I made a top 10 of brands that I personally recommend and I'll finally answer the question: 'Which colored pencil is my favourite'?

Okay, let me start with a small disclaimer. What you end up buying also depends on your personal preference and your budget. Wax-based pencils, for instance, are often a bit softer than oil-based pencils. And cheaper pencils from the 'hobby / fun for kids' category I haven't really tested, because they often have less pigment and quality. The pencils from this blog therefore fall more into the 'student' and 'artist' category in terms of quality.

My advice in this blog is divided into 3 categories:

1. Nice pencils at a nice price

2. Great score in the middle

3. My personal favourites!

I haven't mentioned prices in this blog because they can change quite a bit. However, I did add links where the pencils can be bought in the Netherlands. I personally prefer to buy from smaller retailers, but a tip: around holiday time, shops like Amazon and often have hobby items on sale quite a bit.

Nienke-nerd, so how did you approach this test?

Step 1: al-ways swatch. Why? You get a good first impression of a pencil set right away! Just like on a date you want to see someone in real life and not just on their Tinder photo ;-) In case of a pencil you wanna know: how's the colour output, is the tip nice and creamy or more firm, does the pencil break easily, etc? Since I had a smaller set of some pencils, I ended up testing the most common colours (yellow, orange, red, purple, green, blue, etc) side by side for comparison.

Step 2: blending! Once you have mastered the technique, you can blend colours with almost any pencil. But beautiful and easy blending? That certainly isn't the case with every brand. So I tested this with 3 different colour combinations.

Step 3: layering. In other words: how many layers can you put on top of each other? With some pencils you get a slippery top layer much quicker with no room for extra layering. With other pencils you can keep adding layer upon layer.

Step 4: black paper. Finally, I tested how the pencils performed on black paper. This is where you really see which colours still stand the test and which colours fade away. Spoiler alert: Posca, Holbein and Luminance convincingly won this test.

After this (almost science-based experiment ;-), I've written down my opinion about each pencil brand. So grab a cup of tea, finally here's my top 10!

Category 1: Nice pencils at a nice price

Bruynzeel Design Colour (wax based)

Fun fact: years ago I bought this set as my first 'serious' pencil set when I wanted to start drawing as a hobby again. Little did I know...over 10 years later, I was giving demonstrations on behalf of Bruynzeel and Sakura at the Creative World fair in Frankfurt!

I find the Bruynzeel Design pencils great for beginners or colouring fans with a slightly smaller budget, who'd like to go for something better than hobby quality. The packaging also definitely scores points for me: a sturdy box with drawers where each pencil lays in its own compartment. I love it! Because the pencils have a fairly hard point, you can easily draw details with them.

+ Affordable, nice packaging, doesn't break easily

- Not the best layering and blending, no open stock availability

Bruynzeel Design 48 set, also available in sets of 12 and 24

Winsor & Newton studio collection (wax-based)

One of those brands I always recommend when people ask for good quality, but don't want to go for too expensive pencils. I personally like these better than Bruynzeel pencils, because they are slightly softer and blend better. You can find a longer blog I wrote about these pencils here.

+ Beautiful colours, excellent blending

- Pencils cannot be replaced separately

Winsor & Newton Studio Collection, available in several sets.

Arteza Expert (wax based)

Arteza is a brand that I think is only available through Amazon in the Netherlands, but in recent years I see the brand popping up more and more often amongst illustrators on YouTube. These are affordable art supplies with great 'student grade' quality.

The pencils are a bit softer than those from Winsor & Newton, which I like for colouring and blending. Any drawbacks? Some pencil tips tend to break easily. Even with my favorite sharpener, I had tips that kept on breaking. Furthermore: in the smallest set available (48 pencils) I miss some lighter / softer colours, which you do find in the largest set of 120 pencils.

So do you also like nice creamy pencils? Then this is a nice affordable set to gift yourself. Personally I'm also curious about the Arrtx brand, I hear similar stories about them in terms of quality and affordability.

+ Medium-soft pencils, good colour transfer

- Penciltips tend to break faster

Arteza colored pencil expert 48 set, also available in sets of 72 and 120

Category 2: Great score in the middle

Prismacolor Premier (wax based) This is a tricky one in this Dutch blog. Indeed, Prismacolor pencils are an absolute favourite for many illustrators, as a more affordable alternative to Faber Castell Polychromos. But in the Netherlands (where I'm based), Prismacolor pencils are still not available at an affordable price. For comparison: on a 48 set costs 110 euros, on USA-based the same set will cost you around 50 dollars. That's more than half the price! But if we order from the USA, there are shipping costs, VAT, as well as sometimes extra import costs involved.

I did test a set of 12, and yes, I totally get why everyone is raving about this. Everything about this pencil is delicious. The colour output is top notch, layering and blending is easy. I do read online though that these pencils suffer from tips breaking more often, but I haven't experienced it so far.

Fun fact? After this blog appeared, someone was kind enough to let a friend from America bring a set. So I was able to buy the set at an affordable price after all! So if you come across these pencils somewhere abroad for a good price or someone can bring 'em for you? Go for it!

+ Great pencils for colouring, blending and layering

- Pencils seem to break faster, high price in the Netherlands

Prismacolor Premier colored pencils, available in a variety of sets

Tombow Irojiten (wax based) I previously wrote an extensive blog about these beautiful sets from Tombow. The pencils have quite a hard tip for wax-based pencils, making this a great pencil if you like detailed work or want to sharpen your pencil less often.

The Tombow Irojiten definitely get a high score for me with their beautiful packaging and original colour choice (from pretty pastels to muted winter colours to neon). Recently, they also added open stock availability. Perfect for trying individual colours or adding out of the ordinary colours to your existing pencil collection! I would've loved to give Tombow a spot in my favourites, but due to the lighter colour output, the Irojiten pencils unfortunately don't make the cut for me.

+ Very nice sets in terms of packaging, original colour choices, solid tip

+ Lighter colour output

Tombow Irojiten sets, also available open stock

Derwent Lightfast (oil based)

This is an addition in the category: it really is a matter of personal taste. Previously, I tried some individual Derwent Procolour and Coloursoft pencils. For this blog, I borrowed the 72 Derwent Lightfast set from colleague Anne from Gouden Lijntjes.

She is very happy with the set and I know more illustrators who are big fans of the Derwent Lightfast pencil. But somehow these aren't completely my cup of tea.

They are definitely good, solid, oil-based pencils of a very professional quality with a high lightfastness rating. But personally I don't like them as much as, for example, the Polychromos pencils (which are also cheaper). Online, I read somewhere that these Derwent pencils have a "...slightly viscous colour release" and I thought: that's it! It does indeed feel a bit viscous, a bit stringy (for lack of a better word) how they flow onto the paper. Fun fact: I recently received a set of the Derwent Chromaflow pencils. These are a bit softer and creamier and I really enjoyed my first impression of them! So it's definitely not about the brand, but about the specific features of a pencil that might make you fall in love with it. So maybe you will feel very differently once you've tried the Lightfast ones and find that these are the pencils for you!

+ Solid oil-based professional pencils with a high lightfastness rating

- Personal taste: less smooth drawing flow, I prefer the softer Derwent Chromaflow

Derwent Lightfast potloden, available open stock and in sets

Holbein Artists’ Colored Pencils (oil based)

Oh la la, Holbein pencils. Oh so nice, but unfortunately the come with a price tag. These are the most expensive pencils I personally own (3.95 each). Having said that, you do get lovely creamy oil-based pencils with great pigments and lightfastness. Especially on black paper, this is one of the best scoring brands. Holbein pencils are just a touch softer than the Polychromos to work with. If I didn't already have the full set of Polychromos, I might save up for the Holbein collection. For now, I'll stick with their set of pastel colours. Want to know more? I wrote a blog about the pastel set.

+ High-quality pencils, beautiful colours

- The price might hurt your bank account

Holbein colored pencils, available open stock and in sets

Category 3: my personal favorites

Faber Castell Polychromos (oil based) The Polychromos pencils have been one of my favourites for a few years now. There is a reason I put the full set of 120 colours on my birthday list 2,5 years ago! I wrote a more detailed blog about it, but here's the short summary for quick readers:

They are just lovely pencils. Firm enough to draw details with, but also soft enough to blend and layer nicely. The colour output is top notch and the colour of the pencil matches the colour that appears on paper. Which is great when you don't want to check your swatches every time you look for a colour! On each pencil you will find the degree of lightfastness and the pencils are also available open stock. So solely plus points so far. Another plus: with many pencils you often have residue, small grains that come off the pencil when colouring. This does't happen as much with the Polychromos, so you can work much 'cleaner'. Open stock, the pencils cost around €1.95. That is a lot cheaper than Holbein or Luminance.

The only disadvantage I could think of was the fact that I sometimes miss the really light shades with Polychromos. I solved that by buying the Holbein Pastel set ;), but if Faber-Castell would expand their colour range with more soft shades like greytones and pastels, I would be really happy.

+ On every level very nice, beautiful, professional pencils

- I would like a few more light shades in the color range

Faber-Castell Polychromos, available open stock and in several sets

Posca (wax & oil mix)

Posca pencils? Yes indeed! This brand, known for their paint markers, has had pencils and thin wax pastels on the market for a while now. They are still unknown to many people, which is a real shame. I got some from Posca to try out and immediately bought the full set of 36 colours myself. The pencils are a mix of wax & oil and slide into the direction of the soft Luminance pencils (which are next) in terms of hardness/softness. Amazing colour output, nice and creamy tips, easy blending and layering. I am FAN!

Any drawbacks? Well, the largest set has 'only' 36 colours. Do you necessarily need more colours? Theoretically no, you can also mix colours together. But that takes more time and I always get so happy like a kid in a candystore when I see a set with lots of different colours.

By the way, the pencils also suppose to work well on other surfaces like wood, glass, etc. (I haven't tested this yet, because: paperlover). Also handy: the colour numbers are the same as on the Posca markers, so you can easily combine them!

+ Lovely pencils, great for combining with other materials

- Only 36 colours available

Posca Pencils, available open stock and in a few sets

Caran d’Ache Luminance (wax based)

The softest pencils I own and as far as I am concerned - a league of their own! Luminance almost fall in between pencils and pastels. They are colored pencils though, but the more layers and pressure you give, the more these pencils blend and blend.

The pencils also work well over other materials, such as on gouache and watercolour. Last year, I gifted myself their 100-colour set and wow, what a nice collection. From soft pastel colours to pretty skin colours to full bright colours. These pencils also have a high lightfastness rating, so most colours retain their colour when exposed to light for long periods of time.

Buying these pencils will hurt a bit financially (sold separately +/- €3.75), but for me an absolute treat to work with! They are also available open stock, so I highly recommend to treat yourself with a few individual colours. Disclaimer: the author of this blog cannot be held responsible for possible collecting frenzy ;)

+ Unique, soft, professional pencils with lightfast colours

- Not cheap, a real investment

Caran d’Ache Luminance, available open stock and in a sets

Extra tip: Pilot Color Eno A last honourable mention for my favourite mechanical pencils. In colour, erasable and refillable. I have the Pilot Color Eno in all available colours and use them to sketch with. That way you don't get that grey undercoat of graphite with your drawings. But if you do have them in all colours, you can certainly use them to make full illustrations too!

Pilot Color Eno, refills sold separately

Are those fancy pencils gathering dust in your drawers? Join an online course!

Sounds familiar? When you buy such a nice set of pencils and really intend to draw more often. But after a few enthusiastic weeks, they remain in the drawer just too often. Trust me: been there, done that.

Nowadays I no longer have that problem: drawing people in particular has really become my new addiction/passion/obsession.

That's why I've created a new online course all about making colourful portraits...with coloured pencils! In the Colorful Pencil Portraits course, you will learn different techniques so you can discover your own style. You think you can't draw people? I'm going to teach you! More than 100 people are already participating. Will you also join and learn how to draw colourful portraits like these?

PS Buying new pencils?

Most of the links in this blog are affiliates of my favourite independent webshops, such as and Do you shop at Be Creatieve Shop? Use the code 'NienkeVletter' to get 5% discount at checkout!

If you're buying new art supplies, you help me a lot by ordering through the links or with the code. It will cost you nothing extra and I will earn a small percentage of the sales. This allows me to buy new materials to test and share my knowledge with you! Another way to support me is by following me on Instagram or share this blog with your creative friends. Thank you!

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