Not all colored pencils are equal!
Depending on budget, personal style, how heavy your hand is and what sort of art you create, you may have to experiment before you find your favorites.
Scholastic or Children's Colored Pencil brands:
I've tried many children's brands. Do not expect lightfastness ratings on any scholastic pencils. Treat them as if they're not lightfast, or make your own lightfastness test by taping samples into a bright sunny window. Check it every month and look at which colors fade the fastest.
Crayola, Loew-Cornell and Faber-Castell Red Line are the best quality children's pencils. If you are using RoseArt, Sargent Art or a house brand children's colored pencil, you may be frustrated by faint colors even with repeated heavy application. Hard leads, faint color, crooked leads and splintery wood characterize cheap children's colored pencils.
Scholastic Watercolor Pencils don't have this problem. They're no more lightfast than scholastic watercolors, but are softer with more color. Watercolor pencils have gum arabic in the core to make it soluble,so this makes them softer and gives better laydown. Underpainting can improve the brilliance of your drawings -- wash over the underlayer and color it again to get a brighter application.
Student grade colored pencils
These are better quality than children's colored pencils. Colors are often synthetic hues created to simulate expensive mineral pigments. They are usually not lightfast-rated, but cores will be softer and pigment saturation stronger. Some good student grade colored pencils are Prismacolor Scholar (48 colors) , the Canadian brand Laurentien, which is as good as an artist grade pencil in my personal experience (60 colors), Faber-Castell Art Grip (36?), and Sanford Col-Erase (24 colors).
Sanford Col-Erase have exactly the hardness of a standard No. 2 pencil and are just as erasable. If you use them for your first sketch, the colors exactly match Prismacolor Premier, Verithin, Premier Lightfast or Art Stix, which makes them a perfect accessory for Prismacolor users and handy with any other artist brand. Don't use the pink eraser that comes on them, it will stain your art. Erase with a white stick eraser, white vinyl eraser or kneaded eraser and it'll come up completely. Col-Erase have clay-based leads and a "graphite" feeling in the hand.
There may be disputes over whether some brands are Student or Artist grade. My listings are from Dick Blick and my experience.
I would list brand and add a warning like "Do not expose this art to direct sunlight or display in direct sunlight" to artwork created with any brand that doesn't give lightfast ratings.
Artist Grade Colored Pencils
Every one of the Artist grade colored pencils I've used is excellent. All but one give lightfast ratings that fall in the top three grades for lightfastness: Excellent, Good and Lightfast for all colors in the set. Best of all, though there are differences in hardness and binder composition, every artist colored pencil brand blends with all the others and has proprietary colors. Thus, buying a second big set can double your color range.
Artist grade colored pencils come in four types: wax-based, clay-based, oil-based and watersoluble/watercolor. The core material (lead) always has some wax, but each of these four types has a different feel, softness and opacity. Wax-based colored pencils are the most common.
Prismacolor varieties: Prismacolor Premier is the same as old Prismacolor, now has 132 colors and comes in collectible tin sets with slightly oversize tins with "wings" on the styrene trays to fill the space. Tops leave too much room and the pencils rattle to the bottom if it's turned on its side. Prismacolor Art Stix are Prismacolor core material formed into 1/4" square sticks about 3" long, 48 matching colors available. Prismacolors are super soft, translucent, blend easily, have a colorless blender (no pigment, same core material, a "clear" pencil) for blending and burnishing. No lightfastness ratings available except for the 24 specific colors in the old Prismacolor Lightfast set, which all have high ratings. New Prismacolor Premier Lightfast pencils in the 12, 24 and 48 color sets with the Aztec mask design do have lightfastness listed for all 48 colors in Excellent, Good and Lightfast ratings.
Prismacolors need pampering. The Lightfast ones have different, artist pigment colors but the same softness and texture. All are subject to internal breakage, where the lead breaks off in the sharpener over and over again till the artist's face turns red and the pencils start getting snapped in frustration. Keep Prismacolor tins flat and never jostle the pencils. The best storage for Prismacolor Premier and Premier Lightfast is in an elastic-bands pencil case where they are never banged to crack the core. Always sharpen with a sharp blade.
Prismacolor created a Prismacolor Colored Pencil Sharpener designed to reduce internal breakage. It works, but only while the blade is sharp and new. Replace when there's too much friction trying to turn it. Or replace the blade by cracking a cheap pencil sharpener, removing the little screw, taking out the old blade and screwing the replacement in firmly. Global, Tran and other manufacturers make pencil cases with elastic bands to hold the pencils vertical in the carrier and a soft lining. Prismacolors need this more than any other brand.
Prismacolor Verithin have strong pigment saturation and a hard lead that holds a sharp point. They are good for detailing and for textured applications, drawing tonal layers. They are a little too hard for the smudgy burnished look unless they're all you have, in which case they are a bargain. Art Stix don't break and are compact.
Soft, translucent Prismacolors get used up fast, the way soft graphite pencils do. I recommend a pencil extender from Koh-I-Noor or Cretacolor to get the most use even out of short stubs, and buying replacements will be more frequent than other brands -- but they are also addictive and were my first good set. Prismacolor is the brand most widely available in the USA and possibly in some other countries. If these are your favorites, they have the advantage of easy availability, good quality and a wide range. Prismacolor Premier, Premier Lightfast, Art Stix and Verithins are all wax-based. Liftfastness rating per color is available for Prismacolor Premier Lightfast on the tin. Best of all, many eBay sellers have them at discount prices!
Derwent is the brand with the widest distribution in the UK and British Commonwealth. Derwent Studio used to be known as Rexel Cumberland. Derwent makes three artist grade brands. Derwent Artist colored pencils are available in 120 colors. Derwent Studio is less expensive, has the same colors in a 72 color range and the same core material in a thinner strip.
Both Derwent Artist and Derwent Studio have the hardest leads of the artist grade pencils besides Verithin, with a "dry" feeling very much like Col-Erase. They almost feel like moderately soft graphite pencils, about a 2B or so, and hold very fine points. They excel for "textured" colored pencil drawing where the ground or paper is part of the composition. The Derwent color range includes many interesting muted colors, light colors and neutrals as well as brights. Colors like Mist are wonderful in landscapes and subtle eye colors in portraits. Derwent Studio/Artist are clay-based colored pencils, accounting for the "dry" feeling and may pick up easier with a kneaded eraser than wax-based colored pencils. Lightfastness ratings per color can be found on the Derwent website and on booklets in the set.
Derwent Coloursoft is Derwent's answer to complaints about hardness, they are one degree softer than Prismacolor Premier. If Prismacolors are about 7B, Coloursoft are 8B. Coloursoft has the same color range as Derwent Artist, but the binder is different, more like wax-based soft colored pencils. Derwent now produces two colorless pencils, a hard Burnisher and a soft Blender, probably pigment-free versions of Studio and Coloursoft. Derwent also invented several other specialized colored pencils, all worth trying for their special properties.
Derwent Graphitints are watersoluble graphite pencils with "a hint" of color. Used dry, they're 8B graphite pencils with a little color. Monochrome brown and blue colors are especially good dry. Washed, the graphite remains to darken and mute the colors but they are a lot brighter than dry. These give an eerie effect to any artwork done with them. All 24 colors are muted, the lighter colors still have that graphite undertone except white.
Derwent Inktense are watersoluble once. The 24 color range is very strong, once wetted they function like ink. These dry to a waterproof layer that won't move under other wet applications and so are great for glazing effects, but they are also excellent soft bright colored pencils used dry. No other watercolor pencil becomes a waterproof permanent layer, so they are useful for underlayers to glazes and for underpainting if you don't know whether you want watercolor effects over them. The 24 set includes 23 colors and a graphite Outliner that is much less soluble than standard graphite pencils, useful under watercolor.
Derwent Drawing Pencils began with six earth tone sketching pencils. Soft and opaque, the white Derwent Drawing Pencil is the strongest white pencil for dark surfaces that I've ever tried. The 24 color range now includes soft blues, greens, grays and violets as well as red earths, earth yellows and browns. No bright yellow in the set, but these blend well with Coloursoft. They are also the softest colored pencils I've ever used. A good set to buy if you like soft opaque colored pencils and need more soft natural colors. Great for animals and nature. They blend well. Colors are unique.
Faber-Castell Polychromos come in 120 colors. They're softer than Derwent Artist, blend really well, not as soft as Prismacolor but a respectable 4B or 5B when compared to graphite pencils. Soft enough to blend easily, the mostly unique colors have another advantage in the large set's tin. They fall neatly into three 40-color ranges in movable trays with elastic cord lifters: a floral-brights spectrum range from yellow to purples, then blues and greens with a few select browns for landscapes, and the third tray, browns, grays and black includes most of what I'd use in portraits. Using that set, I can shuffle the loose trays and put the tray that fits my subject on top and the next-needed tray in the lid or under it. This is convenient when I don't want to spread out.
Lightfastness listings for all colors are printed on the inside lid of the tin. Faber-Castell Polychromos are also part of a matching-color Polychromos System that includes Albrecht Durer Watercolor Pencils, hard pastels and soft pastels. If the extreme softness of Colourfast or Prismacolor puts you off or if you started with this set, they'd serve for all the techniques I have ever used. They are just hard enough to stably hold a fine point and just soft enough for all the blending techniques to work easily. Polychromos are versatile. The colors don't match either Prismacolor or Derwent and the large set would triple range for anyone using multiple large sets. The big set comes with an art instruction CD that goes into pastel and watercolor pencil techniques as well.
Koh-I-Noor Progresso Woodless Colored Pencils seems to be the 24 color low price leader for artist grade colored pencils. Even in stores I find it for $15 or so, and online it's under $10 for the 24 color full range set. Hardness is comparable to Polychromos, about 4B or 5B on the graphite softness scale, so they blend easily and mix well to create more colors. The 24 colors in the set are well chosen and the packaging is permanent and sturdy even if it's not a metal tin. It functions better than a poorly fitting metal tin. Two heavy plastic trays each hold 12 pencils in almost a snap-grip, within a cardboard sleeve. This makes the 24 color set as compact as a 12 color set but a little thicker.
The pencils are an inch shorter than most colored pencils, solid core material covered with a sturdy lacquer that protects so well against breakage that I've only ever broken one pencil. I stepped on it while it balanced on something hard, dropping doesn't break them. These pencils wear down very slowly because they're pure core material. It's easy to get a broader surface to do blunt burnishing or create tonal layers by wearing it down on one side of the point, it can cover a lot of area before needing any sharpening. Extremely inexpensive and convenient, they can serve the function of Art Stix for filling in large areas or be used by themselves. A good starter set for artists who want to try artist grade pencils without spending a lot, a good outdoor set, and a workhorse for filling in when more expensive pencils wear down faster.
Lyra Rembrandt are oil based colored pencils. They are very soft, closer to Prismacolor than the others, and have a unique slippery feel on the substrate that makes blending easy. They are translucent as most colored pencils, but lean toward transparency. It's easy to do a shimmering layered look. The feel of oil-based colored pencils takes a little getting used to, but it's a joy to work with once you accept it that the pencil isn't skidding over a greasy spot on the paper and is supposed to feel that way. If you're used to clay or wax based colored pencils, a test page or two helps to get used to them and regain control of line and tone. If you start with these, almost anything else is going to feel like it's dragging on the page till you're used to it.
They also list their lightfastness ratings per cover inside the tin. Lyra Rembrandt and other oil-based colored pencils are particularly good for use on untreated wood, while any colored pencils can be used to draw on unfinished wood, oil based colored pencils shine for letting the natural grain of the wood show through the color and maybe even giving the wood a little protection in a crafts project. They would be in a class by themselves except that like wax, clay-based and watercolor pencils, they do blend well with all the rest! Almost all the Lyra Rembrandt colors are unique and thus expand the range when using multiple brands in an artwork. Lyra Rembrandt Aquarell are their brand of watercolor pencils and probably follow other companies in matching colors with a different binder.
Blick Studio Artist Colored Pencils are available only at Dick Blick stores and online or mail order catalogs, in a range of 72 colors. They come in tins with a styrene tray that have fruit still life cover art, presharpened as all brands but Prismacolor seem to, and are billed as "compare to Prismacolors." They are not quite as soft but they are wax-based and reasonably soft, have good laydown and pigment saturation, do have lightfastness ratings and hold a sharp point. Their hardness is middling like Polychromos or Koh-I-Noor Progresso Woodless. Wax-based, they blend well with all other artist grade colored pencils. To my happy surprise, they include some colors that were discontinued by Prismacolor years ago and hold their own as a set I use frequently. Replacements are very inexpensive from Blick. Blick Studio Artist colored pencils aren't quite as subject to internal breakage as Prismacolor.
Design Bruynzeel and Design Bruynzeel Aquarel are from the Netherlands, they are excellent quality but I haven't personally tested them yet. They fall in the artist grade category by the description of nearly every colored pencil book I've read and almost all projects in those books call for at least one or two Bruynzeel colors. The range is short, only 45 colors, and when I get this set I'll update the Guide. Until then, I'd just mention they come with good reports from authors like Gary Greene and Bet Borgeson, who use them often.
Caran d'Ache Pablo and their watercolor equivalent, Caran d'Ache Supracolor Soft, are the highest price artist grade colored pencils this author's seen. Artists who've tried these pencils swear by them as great quality, but reports are inconsistent. One person says they're softer than Prismacolors, another that they're much harder than Prismacolor and one reported them harder than Crayola which I know by use to be harder than Verithin. So the expensive mystery brand is something either you've tried or not. I bought a 12 color set after a friend sent a handful of used pencils to try them.
Update: Caran d'Ache Pablo and Caran d'Ache Supracolor Soft are both extremely soft, third after Derwent Coloursoft and Prismacolor Premier/Premier Lightfast/Art Stix. They have a smooth buttery laydown. Being oil-based, they do not need fixative. Like many other artist grade colored pencils, the proprietary formula gives them a unique feel in the hand. Many artists swear by them and now I know why, they are sweet! Pigment-rich and easily blended, they nonetheless sharpen to a strong firm point. The white covers very well on black paper and the colors mix great. In a sample handful of pencils a friend sent me, I didn't have a blue but was able to mix a bright violet and a blue-green to make a clean bright warm blue for sea and sky -- so the color mixing is unusually flexible with these. Well worth the price, even if they are the most expensive brand available in the USA.
Design Spectracolor is a discontinued brand of artist grade colored pencils that was close to Prismacolor in softness, very strong pigment concentration, a little more opaque and colors ranged from brilliant to very good neutrals in a 72 color range. I'm still annoyed with myself that I didn't get the big 72 color set in the 1980s, and pick up enough spares to keep it current. But even if I had, they wouldn't have lasted indefinitely. I still occasionally see Design Spectracolor turn up on eBay either in mixed lots of colored pencils or in sets. Snap it up if you see it, they're great and a little less prone to internal breakage than Prismacolor.
Update: Fantasia Premium Artist Colour Pencils are another UK brand. I'm not sure what the maximum range is in the UK, but I was able to get a 36 color set and tried them today. The leads are very hard, actually harder than Derwent Studio, comparable to Prismacolor Verithins except they share the "dry" feel of Derwent Studio. They hold a fine point and shade easily for textured colored pencil drawing, like Col-Erase or Derwent Studio/Artist. Very adaptable for "drawing" looking colored pencil art where shading over plain paper gets blended visually rather than physically (sometimes the soft colored pencils layers literally mix). A good value. Strong, pigment rich, a bit stronger than Verithins for quantity of pigment -- and if you're looking for a hard colored pencil because your techniques work better with hard graphite than soft, this may be your pencil of choice. It's the extreme hard end of the artist grade colored pencil range.
Fantasia Premium Artist Colour Pencils are packaged in a sturdy hinged tin that is not oversize in any dimension -- no wings, no extra space around the pencils and when snapped shut, it can be turned on end without the pencils rolling. Pencils are hexagonal, color enameled with color of lead, tips are black-dipped with "Premium" stamped in gold. Color numbers are on the barrels but color names are not listed, so they need to be referenced by number. Numbers go up past 56, so possibly there's a 60 color range or higher available.
I've deleted the listings for watercolor pencil brands and will post them in another Guide, since I keep running over the 20,000 character limit!
This ends my guide to colored pencil brands and types. I'll do another Guide later on colored pencil techniques as there are many, and the particular colored pencils you find best suited to your use and your hand are the ones you should get. Try different brands as you find them on eBay or on sale and test them for yourself, each one is different but each type also has its own special uses. I started with Prismacolors, and even though they get used up as fast as cotton candy, are subject to internal breakage and need to be protected like painted Easter eggs to be usable to the last stub, they're still one of my favorites.
Accessories: To get the most out of your colored pencils, a good case is essential if they came in a cardboard easel box or a tin that lets them rattle around and bang into each other. I prefer the Global Classic leather pencil case that comes in sizes to hold 24, 48, 72, 96 and 120 pencils -- the case does not include pencils, what you buy with that is the case. Prismacolor Art Stix fit three to a loop in that case and so the 48 color set takes an area comparable to a 24 color set. Tran makes a similar case in nylon, the Tran Deluxe and also a different style of case where removable elastic loop holders velcro into triangular vertical holders. There is also a nylon-covered easel case from 24 to 120 pencils size that's about a third of the price and folds flat, available from Art Supply Warehouse, and that has the advantage that when it's folded out flat I can see all the pencils at once instead of flipping to different "pages."
A good pencil sharpener is essential. I use the General's Little Red All-Art with a wide hole for any oversize colored pencils like Derwent Artist, sketch pencils and the like, an Alvin Brass Bullet simply because I like that one, and a Prismacolor Colored Pencil Sharpener. Any two-hole metal artist sharpener is fine for multiple types of colored pencils. The wide hole is a better choice for softer-lead pencils that may get internal breakage, but the Prismacolor Colored Pencil Sharpener has by its engineering the gentlest hold on the pencils and is least likely to break the point, as long as the blade is fresh. Change the blade whenever the friction starts to make it difficult to turn the pencil in the sharpener. Some artists swear by an electric pencil sharpener, but I wonder how you sharpen the blades on those when they get dull -- the old ones in schools tore up pencils badly, so if it starts eating pencils, go back to a new hand sharpener.
Last, both Koh-I-Noor and Cretacolor make pencil extenders. Cretacolor's is marbled white plastic wider at the end with a graceful spoon handle shape, Koh-I-Noor's is hexagonal black plastic. Both are about four inches long with a metal gripper and sliding ring at the working end to hold a pencil stub. You can use stubs so short there's only 1/4" of barrel left and still manage to sharpen them with those extenders, so they save money for a long time by making short stubs usable again. I have several and so do most of the serious colored pencil artists I know.
Colored pencil is a clean, moderately inexpensive and portable medium that has attained fine art status thanks to the tireless efforts of artists like Gary Greene, Bernard Poulin and Bet Borgeson. You can do a lot with them, and what I happily found out is that it's not pointless to invest in multiple sets or brands. They work together like different brands of pastels or watercolors do, but they seem cheapest in large sets that extend your range. Some sellers here on eBay get access to wholesale lots of Prismacolor sets in particular and they're a great bargain either at Buy-It-Now price or by grabbing an auction.