Colored Pencil Pandemonium: What Determines the Price and Quality of Colored Pencils?

Colored pencils have become wildly popular in recent years. Artists have rediscovered their creative potential with better quality, more permanence, and more variety available. Many non-artists have discovered the benefits and joy of coloring books for adults leading to the rising sales of colored pencils.

But what determines the quality and price difference in colored pencils? It is not the range of colors in packs of 12, 24, 36 or more pencils. It is the amount of pigment used in the mixture that ultimately becomes the “lead” in the pencil. This is known as “pigment load”. This term is used in all paints as well as colored pencils and is the factor that drives cost more than any other.

Another big factor is the lightfastness of the color, or permanence of the color. It took many years of testing, but in the late 1970’s lightfastness standards were written for oils, acrylics, alkyds, and watercolors. The organization responsible for this testing is the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). These standards led to ratings of I and II (today there are V) with I being the colors not likely to fade over time. This gives artists the option of selecting materials that have gone through rigorous testing for lightfastness. In the 1990’s, this same testing began for colored pencils and by 2003, ASTM D6901 was created — the standards for lightfastness for colored pencils. Also marked I and II are those pencils made in compliance with the highest standards of ASTM D6901. In fact, one brand is the Caran D’Ache Luminance 6901.

So, the cost is driven by pigment load, quality and type of binder (the stuff that holds the pigment together inside the casing), and the casing itself. Better quality pencils have cedar wood casings and professional pencils like the Luminance 6901 have somewhat heftier casings, thicker and more substantial, and some artists believe a nicer feel when grasped. Cheaper pencils use molded wood fiber and sometimes mysterious materials which do not sharpen well.

For the most part, binders are secret formulas that companies protect, especially in the professional grade pencils. Binders not only hold the pigment together, but play a big role in how the pigment goes down on the surface and how well colors layer and blend. The combinations of wax, resin, oils, and/or gums varies and watercolor pencils, for example, contain gum arabic as a binder because it’s water-soluble.

Colored pencils with a primarily wax binder can be very soft and care must be taken when laying down the color in order to avoid a burnished surface. Also, some wax pencils leave a wax “bloom” where white specks of paper show through the color. Resin binders are more common in less expensive or student grade pencils making them harder. Combined with less pigment, very inexpensive pencils can be frustrating to use breaking easily and not putting down the lower pigment levels very well.

There is actually a good variety of colored pencils at your local, independent art supply store. Some dealers will even let you try before you buy. I would recommend trying before you buy if at all possible so you can see the difference in performance of the different pencils.

Good quality paper, covered in another of my articles, also plays a role in how well the colors apply, layer, and blend.

One final note. There is an organization called the Colored Pencil Society of America. It’s a great website to learn more about colored pencils, compete in their shows, and to see some incredible colored pencil art.

See them at cpsa.org.

While you’re surfing, find more information on art supplies at rfasupplies.com