Choosing and Organizing Colored Pencils

Update: Since writing this post I have a new favorite brand of colored pencil. I love the Faber-Castell Polychromos. They are less prone to breaking, are oil based so have no wax bloom, have great texture, are easily blended, and can be used in combination with Prismacolor (so I can still use my Black Grape and Grayed Lavender). If you get the 24 set you will need to supplement it with the Fuchsia and Violet pencils.

More is not better. You will not be happiest with the big 150 pencil set. With this many pencils, you spend most of your time searching for the right green out of twenty, or trying to put it back in the right place. research on choice also shows that you are also less satisfied with your choice, wondering if you picked the right one (Greifeneder et al 2009). If you have about 24 pencils, you grab what works and start drawing. You can mix the colors you need by combining pencils with soft strokes.

Picking Pencils

A good pencil buying strategy is to get a box of about 24 colors. I like Prismacolor Premier (soft pencils, rich color, but they get dull fast) or Verathin (harder pencils, not as intense color, but they hold a sharp point). Supplement this basic set with Process Red (the real primary magenta), Black Grape, Grayed Lavender, and a dull tan, light gray, and a dull olive-green pencil.

Prismacolor Black Grape and Grayed Lavender are the base of my shadows. When I begin to fill out a drawing, I start with the shadows using Black Grape for most colored areas and Grayed Lavender for the yellow area that will be in shadow. I can enrich these shadows with complementary colors before adding the local color.

blk grp gry lvdr pencils

If you are not able to get Prismacolor pencils in your area, There are some potential substitutes. Special thanks to Sarah Arnold for this research. See her comparison tests here.

  • Black Grape: violet brown from Caran d’ache Luminance comes quite close although it is a bit lighter
  • Grayed Lavender: violet grey from Caran d’ache Luminance is OK but much grayer.


Throw away the box. Bundle your cool colors, warm colors, browns and neutrals, and greens separately with elastic bands to make it easier to grab the color you want. This is a lot easier than putting increasingly short pencils back into their original box.

Important extras

blended purple 2Colorless blender This pencil has wax but no pigment. Use it to burnish the surface of the paper, filling in all the little white flecks from divots in the paper. This creates a smooth look. Once the paper is burnished, it will be difficult to add layers from other pencils. If you choose to blend with this tool, it should be the last step in your drawing.

clr pencil drawing tools


 Embossing tool This is a metal stylus with rounded points, one large and one small. It is used to create grooves in the paper that are too deep to be marked by colored pencils, and for making thin pale lines against a dark background. If you want the lines to be colored, first add the line color, then emboss, then add darker colors over the embossed lines. My favorite embossing tool is the Kemper Double Ball Stylus-Small (DBSS) but you can also make your own tool from a fine tiped ball point pen that has run compleatly dry.

embossed lines

Odorless Mineral Spirits Another way to fill these holes, blend pencil strokes, and brighten colors is to dissolve your pencil with odorless mineral spirits (OMS). This is an petrolium based thinner from which the harmful volatile compounds have been removed. Apply OMS over closely spaced and even pencil. It will not merge widely spaced lines. OMS may make unexpected and hard to remove blotches if applied heavily. For convenient use in the field, fill a waterbursh with OMS and use a cotton swab, paper stomp or cotton ball to help spread the thinner and color. Once the paper is thoroughly dry, you can add more pencil on top of the blended area as the paper still retains its texture. OMS can be used in combination with a colorless blender.