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.

20 thoughts on “Choosing and Organizing Colored Pencils

  1. Socheat says:

    Hi, Jack! After reading your ebook, in color pencil mixing. I have problem finding grey lavender and black grape while I have bought set of 32 verithin n 48 soft core. I didn’t find these two color.

  2. Kerstin says:

    Dear John,

    thanks for all your inspirational stuff.

    i have just sorted my bunch of polychromos. Guess what´s missing. Yeah: Fuchsia.
    And now i found myself looking for a solution for the shadows. Did you find a solution for the black grape and grayed lavender in the polychromos variation? Thanks for that.

    Lots of greetings


  3. Adrienne says:

    Hello John,
    I am going to be investing in the Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils, I am having a hard time deciding on whether to get the 24 or 36 set. It’s not necessarily finances I’m concerned about, as a beginner in Nature Journaling I want the best pencils. I just want to make sure I have the best color options I need for journaling. Which set would you recommend? If I get the 24 would I just need the Violet and Fuchsia as supplemental or is there other colors you recommend I get along with the 24 set? I do not own any other colored pencils such as Prismacolor. Thank you so much, I have really enjoyed your website and video series on how to draw flowers and leaves!

    • Hi there, I think that the 24 set with the additions you mention would be great. I have not used the 36 set. There is nothing wrong with having more colors, I think price is your major problem here. The Polychromos are really great pencils. I think you will love them.

  4. Sarah says:

    Dear John, wow thank you for your fast reply! I will definitly try the Violet grey. I know, it’s difficult to judge the color online. Since I have never seen a Prismacolor pencil in real life; how would you describe the black grape colour. To me it looks like a very dark red wine colour or prune colour. Maybe it could be built up by two Pencils?

    Thank you so much for all your work. I have your new book and it is amazing! It is my favourite book – not only of all drawing books, but of all books that I know.

    • Sarah, Send me your address by eamil and I will look into sending you the Prismacolor pencils. You could test them and share your findings with the rest of the online community. I am delighted that you love the new book. Thank you!

  5. Sarah says:

    Thank you, John. I find the information on the shadow pencils “black grape” and “greyed lavender” very helpful. My problem is that I live in Switzerland where the brand Prismacolor is not available. We do have Polychromos though and also the Swiss brand Caran d’ache. (From Caran d’ache I own some soft leaded “Luminance” and some hard leaded “Prismalos”. I can recommend theses pencil lines as well.)

    Do you know any substitutes for the Prismalo black grape and greyed lavender? I would be very happy to try the two colours with shadow areas! Sarah

  6. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for these informative insights! I enjoy reading the exchanges in the comments on your blog posts, too. Mr. Laws, thank you for sharing so much of your work with us. I am re-watching your lecture on keeping a nature journal (from a California workshop, I think?) and am so thankful for the chance to watch and see your insights into journaling and the natural world. From the other side of the world (Japan), Jennifer

  7. Glenn T. says:

    Right now I only use black and white in the Faber Castell Polychromos line but they are excellent for toned paper and the black is a good alternative to pencil if you require something that is smudge proof. The colour line that I do use from FC is their Albrecht Durer watercolour pencils which produce rich, saturated colour.

    I’m new to your website but have been enjoying the videos and blogs, thank you for sharing so much so freely. I have been learning a lot.

    • Using FC Polychromos as a substitute for graphite- I like this idea. I really like this idea. I am going to play with that because I fight the smudge all the time.
      Thanks for the tip Glenn!

      • Glenn T. says:

        You’re welcome :).

        Smudging can be a real issue with location sketching as well as the softening that can happen over time to notes written in graphite. I’ve taken sketches done in PolyC black and rubbed them without hardly any smudging, yet they still erase easily.

        Surprisingly enough, watercolour lays nicely on top of this oil based black without any beading or surface issues.

        Be interested to hear how this works out for you in your work.

  8. wax bloom can be removed by the thinner; my current favorite CP brand is Koh-i-Noor tritone pencils: especially good for landscape drawings – i use about a dozen or so from a 24 pack.
    seems like faber castell polychromos is the most popular brand among CP botanical artists, since the pencils are oil-based there is no bloom problem.

  9. Judy T. says:

    Unfortunately, prismacolor pencils have two disadvantages: they have poor manufacture (I have found many off-center cores, making sharpening a problem) and drawings done with them are more subject to “bloom” (wax rising to the surface causing discoloration). They are also very slick. But I totally agree you can do a lot with a few colors. Sets often have colors that botanical artists, for example, will never use, so buying your pencils open stock (individually) is often a better choice than a set.

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